Closing out my year of powerbuilding with a return to (a variation of) the most popular review I’ve written: Boring But Big: Jim Wendler’s Boring But Big: Beefcake Training. (To see the rest of my year of powerbuilding, check out: Coolcicada’s PPL, P.H.A.T. and P.H.U.L.)
Some people may not be keen on calling BBB a powerbuilding program since it lacks isolation exercises and therefore isn’t typical in the body building department. But, BBB does what virtually every other powerbuilding program does: combines some high intensity, low rep work with low intensity, high volume work for a best of both worlds type programming. It’s just all that low intensity work is also barbell work.
Unlike every other powerbuilding program I’ve run this year, Beefcake training does allow for some calculated one rep max testing. So, let’s compare where I am with my 1RMs before this year of powerbuilding and after:
Overhead Press (OHP): 170 lbs → 175 lbs
Back Squat: 430 lbs → 435 lbs
Bench: 275 lbs → 285 lbs
Deadlift: 465 lbs → 445 lbs
Bodyweight: 189 lbs → 199 lbs
Body fat: 16.1% → 20.2%
I expected slow progress here, as I spent a year backing off on building up my 1RMs to do more aesthetic work. As much as powerbuilding goes for a best of both worlds feeling, going from almost exclusively working my 1RMs to having some aesthetic work put in means something had to give. That said, I gained very little for a year’s worth of work, but at least I didn’t lose anything outside of deadlift (but I think that was just a bad day to test it, more below).
On the flip side, did I attain those aesthetic gains? Well, you can tell from my body fat and weight numbers that I did not. It’s fine to go up in weight if bodyfat stays the same, which was my goal. But instead I basically stayed the same strength-wise and got fatter. As much as I enjoyed a lot of these programs, P.H.U.L. and Collcicada’s PPL were both a lot of fun to do in the moment, the results speak for themselves.
Instead of getting the best of both worlds, I got the worst.
But I hit that point a lot more in my year long look back. This review is about BBB Beefcake Training.
What is Boring But Big: Beefcake Training?
Boring But Big is the king of 5/3/1 Templates. It’s the most popular template and it seems to deliver the goods. In my review of it a couple years ago I said I’d recommend it to pretty much everyone. BBB is technically considered a powerbuilding program already, and the Beefcake variant is a modification that keeps the same spirit and, to me, is also a powerbuilding program.
Like vanilla BBB, Beefcake features standard 5/3/1 programming for the main lift of the day (squat, press, deadlift or bench). So, cycles of three weeks where each lift is loaded based on percentage of Training Max (TM). Every day the supplemental work that is the same lift as the main work at five sets of ten reps (the BBB sets). Lastly some assistance work, which is standard isolation(ish) work found in most 5/3/1 templates.
The big change up with Beefcake compared to vanilla BBB is that instead of running those 5x10 supplemental sets at 50% of training max, all lifts are run at what Jim calls First Set Last. That is, whatever you put on the bar for the first set of the main work, you put that back on there for all 5x10 sets. This makes Beefcake way more intense than vanilla BBB. Instead of running at 50% of TM, each week is run at 65%, 75% and 85% of TM based on which week of the cycle it is.
Beefcake has a slight departure from 5/3/1 Forever as well: it is very prescriptive about what assistance work is done. Squat day is dips and chin-ups, press and bench days are abs and deadlift day is yet more dips and some facepulls.
Another small departure from vanilla BBB is the addition of rows. These are supersetted in on press and bench day with the 5x10 supplemental work. Jim is very blah about these rows, he doesn’t tell you how to load them or even what type of rows to do, just that they need to get done. I personally did Pendlay rows (my favorite rows) on press days and dumbell rows on bench day. This was mostly a convenience thing based on how my gym is set up. I loaded the dumbbell rows by feel, just kept increasing the weight until it got too hard to do all 50 reps (70 lbs in each hand by the end). For Pendlay rows, I calculated my training max on them and did them FSL to make overhead day more challenging.
If that seems very simple, it’s because it is. If it seems like you can get that done very quickly, it’s because you can. After regularly doing 80 minute days in the rest of my year of powerbuilding, this felt like I was cheating and taking it easy.
My Lifting Background Up to This Point
I have been program lifting for almost four and a half years. First six months were Stronglifts 5x5, then a year of Greyskull LP (during which I injured my back and spent months in recovery, losing a lot of deadlift and squat progress). I started 5/3/1 in February of 2017, switching to Forever style programing in February of 2018.
2019 I started various powerbuilding programs.
Before all that, I had been on fuckarounditis for two years of varying intensity and absolutely no progression plan in an apartment building gym similar to a hotel level gym. I spent my 20s largely an out of shape obese guy after being an athletic teenager.
Work Outside of the Gym
During this program, I continued to take a creatine supplement of 5g a day. I also attempted to continue taking a daily D3 5,000 IU vitamin supplement and Fish Oil for Omega-3 1000 mg daily. While I got back into both of those more often than I have previously, I still skipped them way too much. The lack of Vitamin D, in my opinion, made me a bit more cranky than normal.
I have eschewd calorie counting for almost a year and a half now. I have a good idea of what goes in and out of me thanks to previously calorie counting though. So, I’m not flying blind, but I’m not bothering plugging numbers into a tracker these days. However, overall, I have been putting on weight. This was mostly the goal: put on muscle, not fat. Unfortunately, much easier planned than executed. 10 pounds in a year may have been a little too much for how much I go to the gym, especially when I’m technically already “overweight” for my height.
Unlike 5/3/1 Forever, Jim has no codified amount of conditioning days for Beefcake. His general guidance in the post on his blog is that you should do enough that it doesn’t cause your lifting to suffer. So, I continued to walk about 2–4 miles a day and biking 2.5 miles four days a week as my light cardio work. Then I added 1–2 days of intense cardio, which is walking about three miles with a 40 lbs weight vest; I upped this 55 pounds during the final three weeks. Because I suffer from asthma, I can’t really do much more demanding cardio than this.
On days not at the gym, I continued my ab focused routine that I’ve been doing for about two years now. This is 15–30 minutes of ab roller, leg raises and push-ups with some stretching as well. This isn’t to get good abs for aesthetics, but a hold over from my physical therapy after I screwed up my back. My chiropractor noticed my core was very weak and was forcing too much work on my back and was probably a big contributing factor to the strain I suffered.
Impressions of the Program
Comparing this to other powerbuilding programs I did this year, I will say this is the easiest of the four. There’s just not a lot of volume here compared to all the other programs I did and there’s a lot of time spent under the barbell at less than maximal loads.
Beefcake doesn’t really say much about which type of 5/3/1 loading to do, I did 5s PRO for main work rather than tradition 5/3/1 set/reps every week. This was to increase volume even more because why the hell not? Do more reps, get stronger. I also prefer 5s PRO to AMAP reps on the final set of the day every time, especially with how heavy my deadlifts and squats are these days.
I did this all for a total of 13 weeks, with one week off for the seventh week protocol. The last cycle I ran as an “anchor,” in 5/3/1 Forever style and put the AMAP sets back at the end of the main work after doing 5s PRO the first two sets of the main work. I will say that anchor cycle was way more intense. AMAP sets, and then going into FSL supplemental work, makes this thing very intense and really wore me down in an unsustainable way. Glad I saved it for just one cycle.
I enjoyed the rows added in on overhead and bench days. Those days tend to feel easier than deadlift and squat days in 5/3/1 and those rows helped even it out a little bit anyway, though not enough to truly smooth out how some days felt harder than others. And doing more rows is good for bodybuilding as guys often forget their back because it’s difficult to see when going for mirror gains.
The most disappointing aspect of this program is the assistance work. No direct biceps work at all and ignores some triceps heads. While rows and chin-ups may use biceps a little bit, they only support those movements. Why so many dips? Dips are fine, but if we’re only doing four exercises in addition to some ab work, why are two of the four dips? The other two movements are chin-ups, which I’ve never enjoyed, and facepulls, which are probably the only exercise here I think is properly employed.
The scheduling on them is weird too. The chins, dips and facepulls are done on squat and deadlift days; the harder days get harder.
So, like 5/3/1 always does, there’s peaks and valleys. Squat days still felt stupid difficult, but bench day felt like I was taking a deload day by comparison. It’s just not very balanced. That can be a good thing, having every day kick your ass can be exhausting. At the same time, I felt like I wasn’t using my trips to the gym as efficiently as during the other power building programs I did this year.
That said, I really enjoyed the tweak to Boring But Big to go with the First Set Last weight on supplement, 5x10 work. In my original review of BBB, I mentioned that it felt too easy and this variation fixes that problem.
And this is still easy enough to do for a long time, as I’ve mentioned already. It was much easier than P.H.U.L. and P.H.A.T. That’s probably actually a good thing. By the end of P.H.U.L. I wrote “I end this program just exhausted and sore.” And at the end of P.H.A.T. I wrote “DOMs in my biceps were there the whole final week, I failed everything about my final week squats and just generally felt like garbage.” Getting to those levels of exhaustion is probably not good for long term training.
Strength wise, I feel like this version of BBB really helped push my strength up because while I had not tested my powerlifting 1RMs before I started Beefcake, I could tell I had regressed slightly just from the way lifts were treating me. Beefcake immediately got me back up to where I was at the beginning of the year and even helped push me to be slightly stronger than I have ever been in my life. As a 5/3/1 Program, and especially as a variation on Boring But Big, Beefcake seems like a king among kings.
A quick note about the low deadlift 1RM: I tried for that three days after setting my all time personal best on my squat and still had some DOMs in my quads. I think that soreness kept me from doing all I could do on deadlifts. My training max on my deadlifts by the final cycle was actually higher than all of 2018, when I was doing nothing but going for strength.
But let’s get into aesthetics: without a single bicep targeted lift in the whole thing, I am not quite sure if I can truly recommend this as a powerbuilding program. Jim has never sold it as being one, so I don’t think I’m saying anything too controversial with that. But having 8 sets of squats a week and not a single biceps exercise is not ideal for anything that should be body building.
There are basically six muscle groups that body building typically targets: biceps, triceps, abs, traps, chest and delts. This program has no direct work for biceps nor traps and one head (of three) of the triceps. When you miss basically half of the muscles needed for aesthetics, it’s just not ideal. Flip side is there is a good work on chest, delts and abs. An easy fix for most of this would be switch out one of the ab workouts (since there are two) to curls and one of the two dips to some skullcrushers.
For my personal aesthetics, while I burned fewer calories per exercise on this program than I did in the others according to my Apple Watch, I still found myself occasionally taking my belt in a notch during this program more than others. But, just looking at pictures, I don’t see it being better for me than other programs I ran. Part of this is just feel I’m sure, I feel like my days at the gym are easy, so it lessens my confidence in my assessment of my looks.
Though my wife has mentioned that my shirts are getting too small in the arms. “Once your armpit hair is coming out of the sleeves, they’re too small” she told me. 10 extra pounds will probably do that no matter if it’s fat or if it’s muscle, but it happened.
Regardless, at 20% body fat, I’m in a bad place aesthetically and this is more a diet problem than a programing problem.
I almost feel like I need two different types of “do I recommend this program” for Beefcake. On one hand, running the BBB sets at FSL weight and adding in the rows are two really great tweaks to vanilla BBB. On the other hand, it’s by far my least favorite of the power building programs I did.
The complete lack of isolation exercises is the hallmark of BBB, and in my opinion its biggest weakness. Especially in a year I wanted to dip my toes in bodybuilding. Basically, give me some curls, Jim. Lifters want to do curls. And add more assistance work, or at least vary it some. This is supposed to be beefcake, so let’s turn into beefcakes.
Overall: Not Recommended
While running BBB sets at FSL weight is a very good switch up to the program, the assistance work is for the birds. 5/3/1 Forever fixed this: do a push, a pull and then a leg or ab exercise for assistance every day, not just leg days. If you homebrew this one, I think you could make a really strong program. But as written, I cannot recommend it.
As for me, I’ve got a deload week ahead of me to recover a bit until I head down my next big adventure. A year of… well, I don’t know what to call it yet. But it will basically be an attempt to out work my diet and grind myself to a pulp. After doing some pretty boy programs, I’m switching over to just pure destroy yourself type training. More on that in my year in review coming out soon.