Program Review: Deep Water Method, Beginner

I started my year of turning up the volume on my weight training with the notorious program from Jon Anderson called Deep Water (or DEEPWATER). Let me tell you: it delivered. Right from day 1 I started resting by laying down in the gym, sucking down as much oxygen as possible. My AppleWatch informed me that I’ve never burned that many calories in an workout ever after it was over. My legs had DOMS for days.

All of this is to say, Deep Water is not for the quick lunch workout. It has a reputation as a killer and I am here to confirm that reputation.

While Deep Water does ask for one rep maxes (1RM), the beginner program progress isn’t represented in an increase to 1RM. This program is about volume and the lifter’s capacity to keep up with that volume as rest time is reduced. Because of that, I measured my progress not in terms of movement to 1RM, but rather in terms of if I could complete the program as written. Here’s the results:

I lived.

The program also features power cleans in the Intermediate version, but for beginner, it’s just bent over rows that day. There are other movements in the program, but they are not loaded based on 1RM, but rather by feel, so I didn’t count them in my progress. Deep Water is a program that is based on the philosophy of pushing yourself to where your body thinks it has had enough and then going beyond that. So, anything loaded based on feel, to me, is not part of that philosophy and therefore is just assistance work.

Additionally, here’s some other markers I’ve been tracking that I may as well keep up with:

As you can see, aesthetically, Deep Water did some work for me.

* My gym closed under order of the mayor on account of covid-19 before I could do the last two days of the program. While I did not technically finish these lifts because of this, I feel very confident I would have (and I will once my gym re-opens).

What Is Deep Water Method?

Deep Water is touted as more than just a workout program by its creator, Jon Anderson. It is a lifestyle, it’s a philosophy, it’s a state of mind. Jon spends much of his (free) book on Deep Water talking about his past and how that shaped his mindset and the design of the program.

I’ll be honest, when I first read this book it felt a lot like I was getting into Goop, but for gym bros rather than wine moms. There is a level of selling the reader on a lifestyle in order to get them to buy things here. It’s not truly exploitive as a lot lifestyle brands we’re used to see out there, after all Jon provides his book for free and it’s everything you need to get into Deep Water. But the emails piling up in my spam email address I gave him definitely are salespitchy. This isn’t a knock necessarily, Jon has to eat (looking at pictures of him and the diet section of this book, he has to eat a lot) and helping people get in shape is a noble way of putting food on the table. This is just a for your information; know what you’re getting into if you decide to get into Deep Water. And also maybe give him an email address you don’t use regularly.

All that said, already during the first day of the program, I was already using quotes from the book to keep myself going because the base philosophy of the program is a pretty good motivator:

Deep Water is about dragging yourself off of the comfortable beach of life and venturing into deep, dark places, physically, mentally and emotionally, with no regard for the return swim.

So, your mileage may vary in terms of the philosophy of Jon Anderson as expressed through Deep Water. But let’s talk more about the program.

Deep Water comes in three flavors: Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced. Each one is run for 6 weeks. These flavors do NOT correspond to the often used levels of experience lifting of the same names. The Beginner Deep Water is for beginners to the program, no matter how long you’ve been lifting, and so that’s what I ran.

The program asks for a lot of 1RMs: Squat, Deadlift, Push Press, Strict Press, Bench Press, Narrow Bench Press, and Incline Bench for the beginner. These are used to load your working sets for all those lifts by multiplying by .77 to get your 10 rep max. Then multiply that number by .7 for the beginner program. Every rep is run at that load for the whole program. This is a big departure for me from my usual 5/3/1, which usually has each set each day loaded with different weight. For Deep Water, once the bar has the weight on it, you’re done and frankly that’s nice.

So the way the beginner program progresses, instead of loading more on the bar, is by lowering the rest time. This is not typically seen in world of progressive overload, the keystone of muscle and strength building these days. But it is still a type of progressive overload, usually called “increasing density.” Most programs either employ adding more resistance (putting more weight on the bar) or increasing volume (adding more reps/sets). So this was new territory for me.

Rest time in the beginner program starts at the seemingly generous rest time of four minutes in between sets. Once you actually start those squats, you’ll see why I say “seemingly generous.” Every two weeks, for six weeks, you take the rest time down one minute. So, by the final two weeks, you are using half the rest time between sets as you were starting out. This means, at the beginning, workouts can take an hour and a half, easy. So budget your time wisely. But, by the end, I still found myself clocking about an hour per workout.

Each two week block alternates which lifts are focused. Day 1 is squats or deadlifts, day 2 is always clean pulls, day 3 is push press or strict press and day 4 is always all the bench presses. This also divvies up the intensity of the program a bit: days 1 & 3 are insane. 700+ calories burned and an hour and a half from first set to last for me during week 1. Days 2 & 4 felt easy, 500+ calories and only 55+ minutes during week 1.

But, both of those “easy days” each week were still as hard as most every day of programs like Boring But Big: Beefcake Training or Coolcicada’s Push Pull Legs that I did last year. This is a tough, time consuming program. Come unprepared for that at your own risk.

My Lifting Background Up to This Point

I have been program lifting for 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. Then in 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 daily creatine supplement of 5g, D3 5,000 IU vitamin supplement and Fish Oil for Omega-3 1000 mg. I do also supplement about 1/3 of my daily protein from a shake.

Deep Water has an “active rest” day once a week that is basically intense cardio. He recommends hills, swimming or stairs at “medium” intensity for twenty minutes. I followed this advice mostly by putting on a weighted vest (50 lbs) and running up and down the stairs in my condo building (4 stories) for 20–30 minutes. I also continued my base cardio of biking about 2.5 miles four times a week and walking 2–4 miles a day.

Unlike every program I’ve reviewed so far on this blog, this program has a lot of ab work (240 sit-ups, 60–120 back extensions, 6 minutes of planks a week). So, I didn’t do my usual at home routine for abs. Instead, I made sure on the weekends, that Jon has marked as “rest,” I just got in a half an hour of something active. Bike riding, walking, etc. Just making sure I’m not just sitting at the computer waiting for election results to drip in.

Diet

Also unlike a lot of other programs I’ve run to this point, Deep Water has a lot of specific diet advice. The basic philosophy behind diet in Deep Water is laid out as such:

You will consume so much quality food that the idea that you need to cheat will seem ridiculous and difficult. Food will no longer be in control of your life.

This probably comes from Jon’s background, as laid out in the book. He describes himself as a fat kid before he started lifting. He further details how even after he lifting, he still ate a bunch of processed sugar via junk foods and the shame he felt around that. He definitely has issues around food, like a lot of us do, and this informs his diet recommendations.

While I don’t do calorie counting these days, I did figure out how many calories, roughly, Jon wants you to eat on Deep Water based on his sample meal plan: 3600 a day at 200 lbs. Now that is a lot of calories. I started Deep Water at 199 lbs, and over 20% body fat. It was a bad place to be. If I ate 3600 calories a day, I’d gain a lot of weight quickly. If you’re underweight, maybe follow Jon’s sample meals to put on mass, but if you have a good idea what should be going in and out calorie-wise, trust yourself over what the book says.

For me, I probably averaged something like 2,400 calories most days. This was largely by keeping up my diet as it was with one big exception: very limited carbs.

This is because Jon is very anti-carb, so the program is anti-carb and I tried to abide by that. It’s a little bro sciencey, but his theory is that proteins and fats are essential to the human body, but carbs are not. So just don’t have carbs. Jon believes in this so much he implies you can eat as much as you want on his program, as long it follows those rules, and be fine. He kind of loses me there, calories are calories and excess calories, whether fat, protein or carbs, will be stored as fat on the body.

He has other controversial views on diet that kept me from 100% following the program. But cutting carbs did seem like an good way to cut calories from my daily routine that I had gotten myself into, which as I mentioned in my review of last year’s programs, had gotten too calorically dense. I gained weight too fast. I will also say that while Jon talked a bit about how difficult it would be to cut carbs, I actually didn’t feel the “call” of carbs too terribly much. It was easy to remove the tortilla from my burritos and have a taco salad, take the bread away when I had brats and just garnish with kraut and mustard, stuff like that.

That said, I did have occasional cheat meals, once to twice a week at most, when all my friends wanted to get pizza or something and I didn’t want to ruin the vibe. I also had fruit daily; that’s one type of carb that I do see as essential to the human body, even if Jon doesn’t.

So, diet is probably the biggest sin against the program I committed.

Impressions of the Program

Speaking of sins against the program, the other one I committed was changing up the schedule. Instead of going to the gym four days in a row and then active recovery on the fifth before resting on the weekend, I moved the active recovery day to day three, and broke up the days at the gym a bit. This is mostly because I have kind of built my weekly schedule around having Wednesday as my day away from the gym, so why switch it too much?

My final big sin was taking a week off between weeks 2 and 3. This wasn’t planned, but the opportunity to get out of town for a week and work for Bernie Sander’s campaign in an early state fell in my lap and I couldn’t pass it up. The long hours were fulfilling, sometimes physically demanding and worth it, but it did keep me out of the weight room.

With that in mind let’s get one thing out of the way: the squats in this program are insane. This program prides itself on showing you your limits and having you push past them. By week 3, you will know exactly what that means as you do the squats with only three minutes rest. And let’s not even start on two minutes rest. I thought I knew what it was to push myself to my limits, but feeling my legs shake and twitch as I rested in between sets, I realize that I had no idea what that felt like. When I said I wanted an extreme program, this is what I meant and it was cool.

My problem with the program is that nothing else outside of those squats feels like that. And my squat is good. For my body weight, it’s great actually. Symmetric Strength puts it just below “Exceptional,” which is what they consider the best possible results someone can achieve without PEDs. On the flip side, all bench press days felt just crazy easy. My AppleWatch would ask me if I was done working out during rests on bench day, that’s how little it pushed me. This type of imbalance, where the squats make me feel like I am dying while the upper body work doesn’t even register is a complaint I’ve had for a while across multiple programs and it makes me wonder what I’m bringing to the table that is causing this. As such, this might be a me problem more than a problem with the program.

Also, it’s important to note that this is the “beginner” version of the program. In many ways, this is just a set-up to get you ready for the rest of the Deep Water. Intermediate does not have this emphasis on less and less rest time, it’s a lot more about heavier weights in less sets, with the same volume. It also adds some movements and removes some others, moving the emphasis even more to the 10x10 rep/set format. So, this might just all be building to something that kills you in a million ways and just starts with squats for the beginner verison.

Let’s get on to my favorite thing about what this program did: in seven weeks (including one where I never got to the gym) it did what a year of powerbuilding did not: it worked my aesthetics hard. I lost ten pounds doing this program, brought my body fat down by 4% all while maintaining arm size. I lost a little leg size, but I store a lot of fat on my thighs, so this was a good thing. Since some fat is stored on my arms as well, that probably means overall upper body muscle size actually increased. That’s better progress in less than two months than what a year of “powerbuilding” did for me aesthetically.

And I heard about it too. Got compliments on how I’m looking big, but trim, which a relatively new type of compliment for me. And exactly how I want to look, so big marks on aesthetics.

Additionally, I felt this program pushed me really hard without bothering any of my chronic issues. I didn’t feel like my lower back got sore, my biggest issue, like I did during some 5/3/1 templates. But also all my joints felt good, including my left wrist, which is also shit. While week 3 did see some muscle soreness and involuntary muscle twitch, I do think that was more related to taking a week off and just jumping right back in rather than the program itself because I didn’t have those problems in any other week. The program pushes hard, but without wearing you down entirely. At least physically. Mentally, there is something very draining about how demanding this program is that is no doubt purposeful in design, given Jon’s general philosophy of life and training.

Speaking of mental fatigue: working up the gumption to go after those squats is tough. I found the best way to handle it is to go in knowing it will suck. Just accept that you will hate it and your body will beg you to stop and just tell it no. I will say in some ways weeks 1 and 3 felt more difficult than week 5 because the longer rest times let you get in your own head more. On only two minutes of rest in week 5, the brain sort of shuts down and you go on autopilot.

That said, the best feeling in this program is finishing squats and knowing you have two weeks before you have to do that to yourself again.

Conclusion

I could not have asked for a better program to switch from dipping my toes into bodybuilding to just “fuck my shit up, fam.” I can see why multiple people suggested this to me when I asked for a program I cannot out eat and pushes me to my limits.

With that in mind, if you struggle with motivation and/or discipline and getting to the gym, this is not the program for you. This is a program that practically taunts you into quitting. For some, that is great motivation. Being told you can’t do something just drives them to want to do it more. But for others, I can see that being defeating. I’ve long been a proponent of “the best program is the one you keep doing,” so keep in mind that Deep Water is for people that enjoy a challenge at gym.

Overall: Recommended

I feel three things should come from the gym: strength, accomplishment and aesthetics. Deep Water delivers all three. I was looking forward to trying out the intermediate version of the program after a deload week. I think if I was younger, I could probably jump right into the next version, but I’m pushing 40 now and would normally give my body a chance to really absorb what happened to it. But, the covid-19 pandemic shut down my gym for the moment. I’ve already purchased a TRX to get in some workouts at home. With a less than 800 square foot place, a home gym is out of the question, so we’ll try something a little different. I’ve never done any suspension training, so I guess we’ll see if I can find a program that I cannot out eat there too.

Hi. I make movies and lift weights. I write about the latter here.

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