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Last week, I completed The Bridge, an 8 week strength program by Barbell Medicine. Since this program is significantly different than what I've done in the past, and what I've talked about on this blog previously, I wanted to share my thoughts and some results.
Summary This program was more complicated to follow than others I've tried, but given that I was looking for an intermediate instead of novice program, that's not surprising. I improved my actual 1 rep max numbers on all 4 major lifts. I'm planning on continuing my training with another cycle of the program.
I've been lifting for close to 2 years now, with a few years of bodyweight training before that. In the subset of that time that I've been seriously training, I've followed these programs:
- Start Bodyweight
- StrongLifts 5x5
- A few months of a Push-Pull-Leg (PPL) routine I made up, which was a mistake and gave me no progress. Pretend it didn't happen.
- 5/3/1, with the Boring But Big (BBB) accessories
Ignoring the silly PPL, all three of these programs helped me significantly. They also all share something: they're simple to follow. First you determine where to start, which is either dictated by the program or based on current abilities. Then you follow a simple set of rules on how to progress. This simplicity is very appealing.
Start Bodyweight got me to a decent strength level, but I was unhappy with weakness in my back leading to regular pain while sitting at my desk. I switch to StrongLifts when I decided I wanted to do a barbell program with deadlifts, and (as always happens with a novice program) eventually hit a wall.
When I switched to 5/3/1, I immediately saw my estimated 1 rep max (1RM) numbers going up. In fact, they went up significantly. Unfortunately, I found that my actual 1RM numbers were not budging. It seemed that 5/3/1 was giving me an increase in muscular endurance, but not necessarily strength. While the program was fun, easy to follow, and required relatively little time in the gym, I wanted more progress.
NOTE I know there are many variations of 5/3/1 out there, and likely some of them would have served me better. I'm not comparing all potential programs in the world, just the ones I've actually pursued myself.
Overview of The Bridge
Over the past half year or so, I've been regularly exposed—via YouTube videos and articles—to the team behind Barbell Medicine, mainly Drs. Jordan Feigenbaum and Austin Baraki. When I was in the market for a new program, I heard mention of The Bridge program, and downloaded it.
The Bridge is delivered as a PDF. The program itself takes up about 5 pages in this 36 page document. The rest of the material is a bit dry to get through, but immensely useful and informative. I really appreciate the way the authors have given a background on the concepts of stress, training volume, and intensity. If you're at all interested in strength training, give it a read.
The program focuses on the main barbell lifts (squat, overhead press, bench press, deadlift) with accessories (e.g., barbell row, pin squat, paused deadlift). Unlike other programs I'd followed, this program changes from week to week. That makes it more complicated to follow, but not significantly. The real curve ball is the Rate of Perceived Exertion scale, or RPE.
RPE based training
In a program like Strong Lifts, I go into the gym on a Tuesday, and I know that I'm going to try to squat X amount of weight for Y sets of Z reps. Not so with The Bridge. Instead, you'll see something like:
Squats: 5 @ 6 RPE, 5 @ 7 RPE, 5 @ 8 RPE for 3 sets
This means that, after my warmup sets, I need to start with a set of 5 squats at an exertion level of 6. The scale goes up to 10, and each number below 10 indicates how many more reps you could have possibly done. So RPE 6 means "I could have done 4 more reps." Therefore, "5 reps at 6 RPE" means "choose a weight that you can just barely do 9 reps for, then do 5 reps at that weight."
When I first saw this, I was dumbfounded. "How do I guess the magical weight number?" And in fact, that was the most complicated part of this program for all 8 weeks. There are charts in the PDF that help you compare against your 1 rep max. But overall, it was trial and error. There were definitely sets where I lifted more than I should have, and sets where I could have added more weight.
In contrast to a simple numeric guide like Strong Lifts or 5/3/1 delivers, an RPE based scale allows you to easily adjust training intensity to account for both good and bad days in the gym. A few times during this program, I had a bad night's sleep or a bit of a cold, and lifted less weight. A few times, I was feeling great and lifted more than I would have expected. RPE allowed this to happen. By contrast, with both SL and 5/3/1, there were days where the weight felt easy, and other days when it felt crushing.
Ultimately, my conclusion to all of this was: RPE is harder than a number based scale, but gives great results. Just accept the fact that you're going to screw up regularly.
The program is broken up into weeks of different stress level, either low, moderate, or high. The weeks also tend to focus on either high volume or high intensity. For example, both weeks 4 and 7 are considered high stress weeks, but compare the first day's squat programming:
- Week 4: 5 @ RPE 6, 5 @ 7, 5 @ 8 x 4 sets
- Week 7: 1 @ RPE 8, 3 @ 8 x 4 sets
Week 4's day 1 ends up having 30 total reps of squat, whereas week 7 has 13. However, because of how the RPE scale works, you'll end up lifting much heavier weight on week 7. For example, "5 @ RPE 8" means a weight you could have done 7 reps at. "3 @ RPE 8" means you could have done 5. You can lift more weight for 5 reps than you can for 7, and therefore week 7 ends up with a lower volume at higher intensity.
Personally, I really liked the later weeks in the program. None of the other pgorams I'd tried ever got to low volume high intensity. But having read the PDF and its motivations, I understand why we need both the volume and intensity weeks, and appreciate the way the program is designed. In fact, having completed the program, I think I understand the design of the program much better than before.
Unlike previous programs I've done, this program included cardio. I considered this a good kick in the pants to start running and the eliptical again. If you're like me: find a good audio book to listen to, otherwise it will be 30 minutes of hell :)
(Not entirely accidentally, I also signed up for an Audible account around the same time I started this program.)
Time in gym
The earlier weeks in this program have high volume, with lots of sets. I spend a long time in the gym some weeks: 3 days of lifting for about 2 hours each, and 1-2 days doing about 45 minutes of cardio. You can reduce that by having shorter rest periods or supersetting your warmups for the next lift with your previous working sets, or you can answer emails and Slack messages. (Fortunately no one can smell your sweat over email.)
Way back in May of last year, my gym had a "powerlifting competition." I put that in quotes since there were four of us, I was the only one in my weight class (everyone else weighed 20kg more than me), and some of the other competitors half repped their squats. (I'm going to pray that I actually squatted to depth, since there were no videos and I don't trust the judges.) Between that time and starting this program at the end of October, I increased my estimated 1RM numbers significantly, but to my recollection barely, if at all, bested my powerlifting meet numbers with actual weight.
There are some minor confounding factors in these increases due to my addition of chalk to assist with my deadlift, and getting more comfortable with my lifting belt (the competition was the first time I ever used a lifting belt). Nonetheless, I think a good portion of these increases can be attributed to my time on The Bridge:
- Squat: 20% increase
- Overhead press: 16% increase*
- Bench press: 11% increase
- Deadlift: 19% increase
* If you're wondering: no, the powerlifting competition did not include an overhead press. I'm including a number from around the same time.
Definitely keep in mind that I do believe my time on 5/3/1 in the interim helped at the very least with my muscular endurance, and most likely primed me to be able to hit the volume weeks of The Bridge better than I would have been able to in May. I would not expect to make those kinds of increases in just 8 weeks.
This was my first time taking a foray into an intermediate program, intended for lifters who are no longer making linear progressions with novice programs like Strong Lifts. I can finally understand why Mark Rippetoe says you want to be a novice: simple programs with great results are much more fun.
If you've got the time to spend in the gym on higher volume routines, have the patience to figure out the RPE system, want to learn more about strength programming, and are looking for a well designed intermediate program, I recommend checking out The Bridge.
For myself: when it comes to health and fitness, I consider this at least half an experiment with sample size of 1, and therefore I like to try out many different things. I'm going to keep my eyes out for a new routine to try (and if you have recommendations, let me know). But given the great progress this program helped me achieve, I'm going to continue with at least one more cycle of it before moving on to something new.
If you want me to share more experience reports like this in the future, let me know. I can also include the nutrition side of things if people are interested, which has been possibly more volatile for me over the past year than the training itself.
I've added this section to collect additional links to helpful articles that may be relevant to people interested in The Bridge. Expect it to grow over time.