As we move right along in the Powerlifting Program series, our analysis brings us to John Sheaffer’s Greyskull Linear progression program. I’ve purposely waited this long to talk about the Greyskull LP. Why? Well, in my opinion, the Greyskull LP, and the accompanying GreySkull LP book, is the single best general version of linear progression that is currently floating around the internet today. You can pick up a Kindle version off of Amazon and start reading right now.
If you’d rather watch than read:
Greyskull LP Context
John Sheaffer, like many of us, ran himself through the Starting Strength program. As is the experience of so many others, including myself, he found himself displeased and disillusioned with his progress. Now, that isn’t to say he didn’t get a lot stronger, but it is to say that he wasn’t thrilled about the fat gain and demotivating resets that tend to come along with the Starting Strength novice program.
John set out to create a program that would rectify these issues. And he did. Keep in mind that, actually, this program is primarily intended for those of you out there who want to get stronger, but also want to develop a good deal of muscle mass without getting fat. John’s primary audience here is NOT powerlifters. The program definitely caters to the trainee who wants a good mix of hypertrophy and maximal strength.
That said, unlike virtually any other novice program, he offers slightly different versions for those interested in: maximum muscle mass over strength, improving their conditioning for sports, fat loss, weightlifters, and, yes, even powerlifters.
The Greyskull Linear Progression Program
John makes use of what he calls a “base” program. From the “base program”, additional exercises are “layered in” to meet various training objectives.
Here is the base program:
Let’s note a couple of things. For one, the upperbody is trained first each day. I am a fan of this approach. You will almost never have an upperbody workout that is so hard it messes up your squats. Virtually EVERY hard squat workout will mess up your benching or pressing. There is only one set of five deadlifts per week. However, the deadlift is still prioritized at least somewhat because you don’t also have to squat that day unlike so many other LP programs.
Now, as far as the layers go, if, for example, you wanted to add more direct arm work, you would alternate between doing chin-ups on your overhead press days and barbell curls on your bench days. In the book, John provides more “plug-ins” that can help you design your own version of GreySkull based on your goals. This is critical for motivation and, of course, specificity.
Let’s talk about what: “2×5, 1×5+” means. You’re going to do two sets of five and then, on the third set, you’re going to do as many reps as possible (AMRAP). On these AMRAP sets, you’re supposed to stop when you’re sure the next rep will result in either dangerous technique or a failed rep. For powerlifting purposes, I never recommend training to failure. It erodes confidence and leads to bad technical habits. That said, with practice, you’ll be able to stop right when the next rep would be failure. Getting used to reading RPEs will go a long ways towards helping you integrate autoregulation into your training when you’re an intermediate.
This “1×5+” is truly the key to the engine of the program. The AMRAP is what separates GreySkull from less effective linear progression programs. When you stall, like other novice programs, you remove 10% of the weight off the bar. However, unlike the other novice programs, because of the AMRAP, when you reset you still have a chance to set rep PRs even if not weight PRs. This gives you the opportunity to make progress even when you “reset”.
None of the other novice plans we’ve taken a look at offer a competitive plan for the novice interested in competing. GreySkull, however, does! In the six weeks leading up to the meet, the lifter adds another set after their 2×5, 1×5+ where they simply hit one heavy single. This heavy single is progressed linearly.
How To Peak for a Powerlifting Meet on GreySkull LP:
Additionally, the training week before the meet, the novice is instructed not to rep out that final set. This is going to allow for additional recovery and a bit of fatigue dissipation that will result in slightly higher performances at the meet.
The inclusion of a competitive plan is a major advantage of the GreySkull LP for Powerlifting over other programs.
The reality is that, because of the AMRAP set, GreySkull actually IS periodized. Immediately after a stall and a 10% reset, you’re going to hit much higher reps on your AMRAP than you were before the stall. This is of course due to the fact that you can do more reps with lighter weights than heavy weights. However, the additional volume you get from these AMRAP sets, as well as the fact that you’re likely going to be working in the ~10 rep range, biases these reset periods quite a ways towards hypertrophy. Once you get heavier again, the reps will come down hence the periodization.
Now, this isn’t “necessary” for a novice to make progress. We’ve already established that novices can develop strength, technique, and muscle mass simultaneously. However, because you’re still maintaining a linear progress, it doesn’t really hurt anything either. In fact, for those of you who want some additional mass, the resets are a blessing.
One of the strengths of GreySkull is in its simplicity. Unlike Sheiko’s novice routine, it isn’t hard to follow along with what you need to do on any given training day.
As we’ve discussed elsewhere, it just isn’t necessary for novices to be doing drastically different routines every workout. Novices are best served by sticking to the core basics and mastering them to the fullest degree possible.
The one place that the GreySkull LP Method falls short is in specificity. Again, it is never necessary to perform the press and bench press in a 1:1 ratio for powerlifting purposes. This is flat out sub-optimal.
Also, frankly, for a powerlifter, where technique is absolutely paramount and strength is prioritized well above hypertrophy, doing sets of more than six doesn’t make tremendous sense during the novice phase.
EMG studies have shown that motor control vastly deteriorates for novices after about rep six in a given set. At this point, fatigue quickly sets in and most of the reps the novice accumulates after this point are going to be poor technically speaking. For hypertrophy, some of this “slop” is probably necessary; metabolic fatigue is one of the key ingredients of muscle building. For powerlifting however, this just isn’t optimal.
John does offer one solution to rectify this particular issue with the program. For powerlifters, you’re allowed to change the program to 2×3, 1×3+ once you can’t hit the 3×5 minimum anymore. In other words, instead of setting 5 as your minimum reps before a reset, you can use three reps as the minimum instead. This way, when you’re forced to reset, you’re still not likely to go above ~8 reps on your AMRAP. Additionally, the weights will be relatively heavier which is more useful in developing maximal strength and thus more specific to the sport of powerlifting.
The Powerlifting Variant of GreySkull LP:
Again, the versatility of GreySkull is one of the reasons I consider it the best available linear progression program currently available.
With that praise in mind, I do have to say that I do not believe that 2×3, 1×3+ is going to be adequate volume to drive progress for most novices. Most people need more volume than this particularly on the upperbody lifts. I’m sure John agrees. This is why you only switch to 2×3, 1×3+ AFTER you can’t do 2×5, 1×5+ anymore. However, those periods where you are doing 2×5, 1×5+ are still going to lack in terms of specificity. So, while his work around is useful, it isn’t perfect. In terms of fatigue management, we’re somewhat faced with a choice between an inadequate workload and specificity.
John mandates microplates if you’re going to do his program. To be clear, you’re not doing the GreySkull LP if you don’t own microplates.
GreySkull calls for two separate linear progression increments:
That said, the overload here isn’t determined just by weight on the bar. The quality of the adaptive stimulus is also managed by the AMRAP set. Regardless of your working weight, you’re going to get at least one hard set in.
One of the reasons that I consider GreySkull superior to virtually all of the other linear progression programs we’ve looked at is the fact that the program actually introduces autoregulation both in terms of volume and rate of progression.
How does it do that you ask? Let’s start with the rate of progression aspect. If you’re adding 2.5lbs to your bench press, and stuck to doing 3×5, you can only feasibly increase your performance by those 2.5lbs. However, with the AMRAP, you can add as many reps as you are capable of. How much stronger did you get if you added 2.5lbs AND one rep? How about if you added 2.5lbs and TWO reps? Because of the AMRAP, you’re not limited to a fixed progression increment; you can always add however many reps you’re capable of as well.
Additionally, Sheaffer allows you to take “doubled” jumps if your reps start getting too high. So you think 2.5lbs is too slow for the upperbody lifts? No problem. Prove it! If you start getting 10-12+ reps on bench then you’ll add 5lbs per workout until you’re back in that 10 and under range that Sheaffer prefers. In this manner, weight on the bar is regulated after the fact by performance. This is a huge addition because the cold hard truth is that not all novices make progress at the same rate.
Lastly, though it isn’t significantly so, volume is autoregulated to a degree as well. If you’re feeling great that day, you’re going to get more reps on your AMRAP and thus you’ll accumulate more volume. On crappy days, your AMRAP won’t go so well and you’ll get less volume in. Granted, it is only one set, but even this tiny amount of autoregulation can go a very long ways towards addressing individual differences!
I’m a fan of Johnny Pain. When I first finished Starting Strength, disillusioned with my progress in much the same manner Sheaffer was, I paid him for a consult. I changed my training completely around and now I’m on the right track. My training program addresses MY goals and not the goals of “the program”.
As I’ve said elsewhere, I believe that the GreySkull LP is currently the best available option on the market for novices. Whether you’re interested in strength or hypertrophy, the GreySkull book is going to give you the tools to meet your needs.
However, for powerlifting, there are still aspects that need refinement and improvement. In other words, while this program is “better”, verging on “best”, for you powerlifting novices we can do better. There are ways we can keep the autoregulation elements without having to go above six reps, we can increase the bench frequency, and make a few other subtle changes that deliver a more powerlifting-specific novice program.
Nonetheless, overall, I personally endorse the GreySkull LP as a VERY good option for novices.
If there is a beginner program you’d like me to address, speak now or forever hold your peace! Unless I hear about or remember a beginner program I forgot, the next program will be… The PowerliftingToWin Novice Program. Stay tuned. Spread the word if you’re so inclined!
If you enjoy these types of thorough programmatic analysis, I know for a fact you’ll benefit from picking up a copy of Practical Programming for Strength Training. Many of the concepts just touched upon in this article are expounded upon in great length in that text. In my opinion, Practical Programming is a must read for all novices and early intermediates who consider themselves students of the iron game.
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Table of Contents
Powerlifting Programs I: Scientific Principles of Powerlifting Programming
Powerlifting Programs II: Critical Training Variables
Powerlifting Programs III: Training Organization
Powerlifting Programs IV: Starting Strength
Powerlifting Programs V: StrongLifts 5×5
Powerlifting Programs VI: Jason Blaha’s 5×5 Novice Routine
Powerlifting Programs VII: Jonnie Candito’s Linear Program
Powerlifting Programs VIII: Sheiko’s Novice Routine
Powerlifting Programs IX: GreySkull Linear Progression
Powerlifting Programs X: The PowerliftingToWin Novice Program
Powerlifting Programs XI: Madcow’s 5×5
Powerlifting Programs XII: The Texas Method
Powerlifting Programs XIII: 5/3/1 and Beyond 5/3/1
Powerlifting Programs XIV: The Cube Method
Powerlifting Programs XV: The Juggernaut Method
Powerlifting Programs XVI: Westside Barbell Method
Powerlifting Programs XVII: Sheiko Routines
Powerlifting Programs XVIII: Smolov and Smolov Junior
Powerlifting Programs XIX: Paul Carter’s Base Building
Powerlifting Programs XX: The Lilliebridge Method
Powerlifting Programs XXI: Jonnie Candito’s 6 Week Strength Program
Powerlifting Programs XXII: The Bulgarian Method for Powerlifting
Powerlifting Programs XXIII: Brian Carroll’s 10/20/Life
Powerlifting Programs XXV: The Coan/Philippi Deadlift Routine
Powerlifting Programs XXVI: Korte’s 3×3
Powerlifting Programs XXVII: RTS Generalized Intermediate Program