Well, our next stop in the programming review series is Brian Carroll’s 10/20/Life. Over the past few weeks, probably a dozen people have requested a review of this program. As such, I couldn’t fail to deliver.
10/20/Life is the next in what I anticipate to be a long string of American powerlifters trying to cash in on the powerlifting eBook craze. As my programming series indicates, people LOVE programs. People give programming an inappropriate amount of consideration and focus. Now, I am not saying that this book is of low quality or anything like that, but you’re paying $40 for 100 pages of a different spin on the same, traditional American style of powerlifting programming: one time per week frequency, very low volume on the main movements, big time focus on assistance, and a lot of huffing and puffing about how hardcore you have to be if you want to call yourself a real powerlifter. Needless to say, I wasn’t entirely thrilled with my purchase, but, to be fair, I never had any interest in running this type of program in the first place.
Now, this program does separate itself from The Cube Method, 5/3/1, the Lilliebridge Method, and other American powerlifting programs in two distinct ways: the incorporation of RPE and a solid discussion on movement selection to address individual weaknesses. If you want an example of how RPE can be incorporated into these basic, one time per week American programs, as well as a better understanding of how to choose assistance exercises based on where you are weak in your lifts, this is going to be a very interesting book for you.
Let’s take a deeper look at 10/20/Life.
If you’d rather watch than read:
10/20/Life: History, Background, and Contex
10/20/Life has an incredible pedigree as a powerlifting program. First of all, this is apparently the exact way that Brian Carroll himself trains. For those who don’t know, Carroll is a former world record holder in the multiply squat with an 1185@275 effort. To this day, he holds top ten all-time totals in the 220lbs, 242lbs, and 275lbs weight classes in multiply powerlifting. It is worth noting that Carroll’s background is in multiply lifting.
Brian Carroll Squats 1185:
That said, Carroll has been actively coaching powerlifting athletes for many years. As such, this isn’t a program that was developed on a population of one. He has had dozens and dozens of clients run through a similar structure. This has given Carroll ample opportunity to iron out the kinks of his method. As I said, the program is proven to work by real powerlifters.
10/20/Life: The Program
I know a lot of you are probably hoping that I’m going to lay out the program in its entirety, but I don’t feel that would be ethical. As such, I’d like to explain the basic tenets of the program and then give you a sample of how it is organized.
First of all, 10/20/Life stands for the idea that you’re going to break your training into two ten week cycles, for a total of twenty weeks, and you’re going to do this for the rest of your life. Carroll suggests a 10 week off-season, a 10 week contest prep period, and 4-6 weeks of time off from the sport after each meet. He suggests two meets per year. As such, the programming is broken into the aforementioned phases: off-season and pre-contest.
It is worth noting that, although it isn’t shown in the following charts, there is a fourth “pump and fluff” day for the upperbody included in the program. This workout is meant to take 30 minutes or less and it is just a way to get in some extra bodybuilding work for your upperbody.
As you can see, you’re going to be deloading every 3rd week on this program. The workouts are broken down into four exercises: the main competition lift, a close variant (assistance “A”), a general assistance exercise (assistance “B”), and some core/stability work (assistance “C”). Assistance “A” and Assistance “B” are movements that you choose based on personal weaknesses. If you’re weak out of the hole on squats, you might do paused squats for Assistance A and GHRs for Assistance B. If you have a weak bench lockout, you might do board work for Assistance A and dips for Assistance B. You get the picture. Carroll provides an extensive list of movements to choose from for different weaknesses in the book.
The main movements are performed for volume, but you’re working up to a single top set using RPE as your guide. In the off-season, the RPEs are kept extremely low. For example, your top set on the 5×5 weeks is never going to exceed RPE 7 (three reps left in the tank). In other words, intensity and volume are minimized heavily in the off-season. In my opinion, this is to facilitate the fact that most lifters are off-cycle (not using drugs) during the off-season. Carroll makes a reference to indicate this in the book as well.
During the pre-contest phase, you’ll notice that the same basic structure applies. However, instead of using RPEs on the main movements, you use RPEs on the main assistance movements. The RPEs are also much elevated. For the main movements, intensity is vastly increased and programmed via %s of a “clean” contest max (no questions about the lift being good). They gradually increase over the weeks leading you into the meet peak. Nonetheless, the intensity is still relatively low until the final three to four weeks of the precontest cycle where you’re called on to set PRs and hit your planned third attempts for the next meet (with the aid of a reverse-band set-up).
And that’s really all there is to it. In the off-season, volume is up a bit, intensity is reduced, and, in pre-contest, the intensity is slowly tapered up while volume is slowly tapered down.
Because this is a powerlifting program, at the end of each cycle, you’re explicitly lead to a peak for a meet.
As you can see, you’re deloading two weeks out and doing practically nothing on meet week itself. You take your last heavy squat 14 days out, your last heavy bench 12 days out, and your last heavy deadlift 10 days out. From there, you’re mostly doing blood flow work with light assistance movements as you head into the meet.
This is an extended deload period, but, if you think about it, it makes sense for the type of training you’ve been doing. For the lifter who trains each lift once a week, the peak is going to take longer because their body is accustomed to recovering on a weekly schedule as it is. A single week for peaking probably isn’t enough to get an exaggerated supercompensation effect.
Carroll’s plan employs the very basic, highly effective Pendulum periodization. In the off-season, volume is higher and intensity is lower. If you look at how the assistance is structured, the emphasis is shifted towards hypertrophy and work capacity. However, as you transition into the pre-contest phase, you’re decidedly moving into a strength emphasis territory. The RPEs are greatly increased, meaning intensity is up, and assistance volume is cut way down.
Again, this is basic, but brutally effective. As I’ve said in the past, I believe that this style of Pendulum periodization is the single most effective form of periodization for late stage and early advanced athletes. This is going to work extremely well for most people.
Obviously, for novices and early intermediates this entire program is inappropriate. They need something which demands faster progress. This program was designed for more advanced strength athletes. Carroll’s goal is to get you 5-10lbs PRs on each lift at the end of the 20 weeks. Some of you might scoff at that, but 25lbs every six months is 50lbs a year. If you’ve already built your base, consistently getting 50lbs per year for 5-10 years is what separates the good from the great.
That said, you shouldn’t be doing this program as a novice or early intermediate. You’ll make much faster progress on other methodologies. You might consider the PowerliftingToWin Novice Program if you’re a novice or the Texas Method if you’re an intermediate trainee.
The programming on 10/20/Life mirrors the periodization. You can’t say that block programming is employed because, really, you’re deloading every three weeks. To be honest, there isn’t a substantial variation in volume from week to week on this program. There is a substantial difference in the early part of the off-season to the late part of the off-season. And there’s an even more substantial difference between early off-season and late pre-contest. But, along the way, you’re not partaking in huge contrasts to get there. The volume is slowly tapered down week by week and the intensity is slowly tapered up. In many ways, the programming is also a “pendulum” style.
And that’s perfectly appropriate for most. I personally believe true block programming is more effective for early advanced athletes, but many late stage intermediates will probably respond better to this style of programming. Eventually, in my opinion, something akin to block usually becomes necessary in the advanced stages.
10/20/Life rates fairly well on specificity. The vast majority of the meaningful volume that you do is on the main lifts and the main assistance movements which are always close variants of the main lifts. The lifts you choose are always directly related to your weak points which doesn’t necessarily enhance specificity, but it does enhance the training effect.
This is a powerlifting program designed by a powerlifter tested on other powerlifters. Everything about the program is optimized for powerlifting purposes. You’re led towards a peak at the end.
Of course, I’d rather see more volume on the main lifts and main assistance movements, but that has nothing to do with specificity. That is a fatigue management issue.
10/20/Life employs basic progressive overload for the most part. The volume is tapered down throughout the weeks and the intensity is tapered up. Progress is driven via the handling of heavier and heavier weights. You transmute the base you build during the early weeks into gains in the later weeks of the program. This is bread and butter progressive overload.
As I’m sure many of you who are familiar with my other reviews have already predicted, my biggest issue with this program is that it is optimized for “enhanced” powerlifters who partake in the use of PEDs. Why do I say that? Because of the overall frequency and volume employed by the program.
Again, you’re using once per week frequency which just doesn’t appear to be optimal for the natural lifter. You’re doing, at most, two to three top sets per week on the main movement. Most of the time, you’re doing one top set. For your main assistance movements, you’re doing two or three sets. In other words, your total work sets on the main movements and main assistance movements for a given competition lift, in a week, are usually a total of two to six sets. That’s just too low for the natural. Most naturals do more than that, per lift, per workout.
There’s just no need to keep the intensities and volumes as low as 10/20/Life does for the natural lifter. The natural lifter doesn’t experience huge swings in his performance because the natural lifter doesn’t come off cycle.
If you want to decrease intensity in the off-season, that’s fine. But sets of 5 at RPE 6? A single top set of 5 at RPE 6 is probably 75% of 1RM. Hell, sets of 5 at RPE 7 is still probably shy of 80%. I’m not sure why any natural would spend nearly ten full weeks without any meaningful work above 85%.
It just isn’t necessary to drop this low for “recovery” if you’re natural. You can sustain much higher volumes and intensities year round. Now, don’t read this as me saying that periodization isn’t necessary. I’m just saying this level of contrast is unnecessary.
As we’ve pointed out over and over again in other reviews, naturals need more volume and more frequency than these typical once per week programs that seem to be so effective for enhanced, American powerlifters. Naturals just don’t need this much “recovery” built into the program.
I also want to say that deloading every 3rd week is sub-optimal for all populations in my opinion. Other than paranoia or incredibly poor recovery, there is really no need to deload this often. Injury-free lifters can do much more work than this.
One of the stronger points of 10/20/Life is that it actually incorporates RPE (rate of perceived exertion) to determine training weights. That was refreshing to see. I personally predict, now that Carroll has published a book making use of RPEs, you’re going to start seeing a lot of these program writers wise up and include RPEs in their future programming.
As we’ve mentioned before, RPEs are great because they autoregulate your training loads. On a “bad day”, 75% can feel like 90%. On a “good day”, 75% can also feel like 60%. If the program calls for a specific number, you’re probably going to go too heavy on “bad days” further digging yourself into a hole while, on good days, you won’t be allowed to take advantage of your unusually high level of readiness. Both outcomes are sub-optimal. We want to work in our intended intensity range based on how we can perform on that day. RPEs allow us to do this without guess work.
Probably the strongest aspect of 10/20/Life, particularly in terms of individual differences, is that Carroll actually addresses movement selection. He doesn’t just give you a cookie cutter list of exercises to follow. He tells you how to select assistance movements based on your individual weaknesses. This is a huge step in the right direction that most authors should try to emulate. Often times, individualizing movement selection is the difference between good and great gains. This is one of the primary advantages you can receive by working with a powerlifting coach.
That said, 10/20/Life still falls a little short on individual differences because it fails to autoregulate volume. And this failure to autoregulate volume corresponds highly to the biggest weakness of the program: too little volume for many populations. If the volume were autoregulated, we wouldn’t be able to criticize the program for “not being enough volume” for “naturals”. However, because the volume prescription is fixed, this criticism is easily made.
Again, if you’re sick or dieting, you’re going to need less volume than when you’re healthy or gaining weight. If you’re 18, you should be doing more volume than if you’re 50. If your girlfriend broke up with you or your dog died, you’re probably going to fatigue realllly quickly. You won’t need a lot of volume. Without autoregulation of volume, the program is going to be sub-optimal under unusual conditions. Programming must, in my opinion, autoregulate volume to be optimal.
Of all the “cookie cutter” American style programs that I’ve seen, I think this probably the best one. I hate the fact that you deload every three weeks, but the bottom line is that less frequency, less volume, and deloading a lot have proven to be fairly effective for enhanced lifters. I really hope that Carroll’s use of RPE in the traditional style American powerlifting programming catches on. I think many lifters could really benefit from how Carroll sets things up.
For natural lifters, I just can’t recommend these typical American powerlifting programs. Once per week frequency, with a deload every 3rd week, and two or three top sets is nowhere near enough volume for the average natural trainee. They absolutely will not make optimal progress on a program like this.
Furthermore, this program is really oriented towards more advanced lifters anyways. A lot of the people who buy eBooks are not advanced lifters. At the outset, there is a mismatch between the intended audience and the actual audience.
If you’re a natural lifter, I’d recommend you look elsewhere. If you’re an enhanced lifter, I’m pretty confident this program will produce high quality results for you.
The requests have flooded in over the past few days and the next “program” we’re going to take a look at is Jamie Lewis’ “Destroy the Opposition”. Lewis has one of the more, uh, unique approaches to writing and lifting in general. Reviewing his work is going to be challenging, entertaining, and highly informative. If you’re a fan of Lewis, be sure to check back in for that review.
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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 XXIV: Destroy the Opposition by Jamie Lewis
Powerlifting Programs XXV: The Coan/Philippi Deadlift Routine
Powerlifting Programs XXVI: Korte’s 3×3
Powerlifting Programs XXVII: RTS Generalized Intermediate Program