Linear, Waved AND Concurrent? Review of Brandon Lilly’s “Cube Method”

Scroll down to the bottom to see how it scores in my 7-point ranking system!

INTRODUCTION

Cube Method was Brandon Lilly’s answer to 5/3/1 and Juggernaut, two e-book programs that experienced wild popularity right around 2010. At the time, Lilly was a top-ranked powerlifter and had experienced a substantial amount of popularity as the sport began to take off. He had experience as an equipped lifter, having trained at Westside Barbell, and eventually crossed over into raw lifting, where he hit a best total of 2237 in wraps.

His e-book is consistent with the type of products being sold at the time; it is a compact ‘information product’ that outlines a singular approach to training and fills up the rest of the pages with broad recommendations for exercise selection, technique and equipment. Clocking in at 12,500 words (a little over 20 pages worth of content), the publication uses images, charts and creative formatting to stretch to 73 pages.

Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The audience is paying for a new approach to programming, after all, not a textbook on bio-mechanics. But it’s important to hedge expectations at the start because anyone anticipating a thorough look at programming methodology will be disappointed.

FOUNDATIONAL PRINCIPLES

Lilly spends quite a bit of time in the Cube Method talking about his dissatisfaction with equipped lifting and a desire to get back to his roots and what initially made him strong. In hindsight, it seems like his motivation to write this was in no small part influenced by his departure from Westside Barbell.

Lilly is one of the many high profile lifters who exited Westside Barbell.

I looked back over my training logs … and what I found was that I was actually much stronger raw before I ever moved to Columbus, OH than at any point ever since. My multi ply numbers had gone up, but my physique had become soft, and pudgy, and I was carrying around a lot of size, but none of it was actually new muscle for strength. It was fat for leverage.”

In his bid to get back to his roots, he mandates “keep it simple stupid!”, scoffing the over-reliance on bands, chains and box squats that some popular powerlifting methodologies relied on (such as his former training home, Westside Barbell). He lists specific bad experiences with accommodating resistance (likening them to a smith machine in the way they ground the lift) and directly says he doesn’t want athletes squatting to a box unless they are injured, citing the poor technical transfer from one to the other.

He goes on to outline 3 specific principles that aren’t uncommon in other training texts:

  1. The only Prs that matter are on the platform
  2. Don’t miss weights (which is kind of an extension of point 1)
  3. Treat rep and speed work as important as max work

If you are so arrogant to think that only one rep maxes are the only indicator of strength I’d like to introduce you to a load of strongmen who are currently repping your one rep max for a set of eight.”

The e-book bounces back and forth between the actual program and his vague philosophy on training that primarily focus on effort and simplicity (sections include “Train Like an Alpha, Why I’m Different and Man Up). He calls his book a ‘call to action’, lists the secret to success as understanding that ‘you don’t train hard’, and commends strongmen and bodybuilders as having an immense amount of strength from the hard work and variety of exercises and rep ranges.

I don’t disagree with a lot of this sentiment, although some may find his delivery a bit ‘try hard’.

Many trainees do suffer from an inability to push when it counts or to commit to consistent efforts.

The cultural obsession with non-specific movements and accommodating resistance was an absolute detriment to barbell culture.

And, yes, strongmen are a perfect example of how high reps and sheer work is more vital to strength gains than heavy singles.

My only gripe is that this makes up a few too many pages of an already short e-book that left a lot of programming discussion on the table.

This was a graphic that had to be in the book to accompany the 2 paragraphs on sports nutrition.

SPLIT

Cube follows a 4 day per week split that gives one day each to the main lifts and a 4th ‘bodybuilding day’ that prioritizes odds and ends. You have to get further in the book to see he has some deadlift assistance on squat days and vice versa, so this plays like a blended ‘2 upper 2 lower’ split, which is very common and plenty effective.

WEEK 1 Squat Heavy Bench Expl Deadlift Reps Bodybuilding

WEEK 2 Squat Expl. Bench Reps Deadlift Heavy Bodybuildling

WEEK 3 Squat Reps Bench Heavy Deadlift Expl. Bodybuilding

WEEK 4 Recycle the Wave

You can see that the progression is staggered so each lift runs through the hypertrophy/strength/speed wave on a different timeline. If you are going to run all 3 lifts on this wave, the staggering is a boss move. It prevents two max days from being in the same week and gives plenty of time between heavy squats and deadlifts.

The actual workout follows a typical ‘powerbuilder’ inspired split that is very common in Western training culture. It starts with a main lift (or one of the variations the Lilly recommends), moves on to a few supplementary compound movements and finishes with smaller isolation movements. The book is light on discussion about specific movements and progressions for secondary exercises, so readers will likely follow the example laid out towards the back of the e-book.

PROGRESSION

The progression is the meat and potatoes of the Cube Method. There are 3 thresholds that are rotated through every week, applied to 3 lifts and advanced over 3 weeks each.

HEAVY DAY 1 80% x 2 reps x 5 sets

HEAVY DAY 2 85% x 2 reps x 3 sets

HEAVY DAY 3 90% x 1 rep, 92.5% x 1 rep, 95% x 1 rep

REP DAY 1 70% x 8 reps x 1 set

REP DAY 2 80% x 6 reps x 1 set

REP DAY 3 85% x 2 reps x 1 set

EXPLOSIVE DAY 1 60% x 3 reps x 8 sets

EXPLOSIVE DAY 2 65% x 2 reps x 6 sets

EXPLOSIVE DAY 3 70% x 2 reps x 5 sets

There is a linear feature to each progression but that morphs into a more concurrent periodization feel as each progression is shuffled in with the others. Intensity generally moves up and volume still generally drops over the 10 week program.

HOW IT RANKS

Learning Curve

This score represents how much time has to be invested in order to run the program effectively. Programs that are easier to implement for the layperson will receive a higher score, however that doesn’t always equal ‘better’. Programs with very short learning curves will usually lack in fatigue management, adaptability and sustainability; there is a definite trade off.

The Cube Method has a bit of a lengthy learning curve, but not for the reasons you might expect. More complex programs usually require the lifter to learn how to juggle multiple variables, rate their levels of fatigue, pace long workouts, troubleshoot their training and make judgement calls of the fly. Cube doesn’t necessarily require that and the structure of the progressions can be ran immediately by anyone with a year or so of training experience.

It’s just really damn scattered.

The idea of alternating every week between maximal, rep and speed work isn’t that complicated but it gets a bit more so given that he staggers his wave progression with the main lifts so you never have two heavy lifts in the same week. It makes good sense, but makes the program trickier to follow and I would say he doesn’t do a great job making it intuitive.

He then spends several chapters on philosophy before getting back to program structure where he finally talks about structuring a complete workout. He gives one long list of potential assistance exercises but no real recommendation for how to choose them, how many, what their rep progression should be or potential ways that one might change them and why.

He then adds in an arbitrary rotation of exercises for the main lifts, favoring height variations for benching and deadlifting while keeping regular squatting as the main lift. If there was a more thorough explanation as to the nature of rotating exercises, how to implement them, when you might change them, whether you can stick to the main lift….. anything….. then this would have hit differently. But there isn’t much explanation as to why, it’s just offered up and plugged into the examples, and it seems to fly in the face of his initial mantra of simple training.

So you have a progression template that is relatively straightforward but a bunch of excess moving parts spread throughout the book in a way that is not organized or comprehensive.

1/6: Cube doesn’t get a low score because it’s too difficult to run, it gets a low score because the complexity is unnecessary and a byproduct of poor writing structure.

Appropriateness

This score represents how appropriate the recommendations are for the target audience. Programs that cast a wide net and are effective for a greater number of lifters will receive a higher score, as will programs that service the needs of a niche audience.

The basic template and progression that makes up the Cube Method has an inherent logic to it, but it doesn’t seem warranted for all 3 lifts and it certainly doesn’t seem warranted for non-elite lifters. It is a type of concurrent periodization, since hypertrophy, maximal strength and speed are all prioritized within each week, but the same threshold only gets trained once every three weeks in each lift. That’s a recovery tactic that works extremely well for very advanced lifters or for individual lifts a particular lifter might have trouble recovering from. But for all 3 lifts concurrently? It seems that it was done because the ”Cube” design just looked clean as a cover logo.

Now, certainly there is enough volume and effort in the supplementary lifts to keep things ticking forward for most lifters. But the fact that the main progression seems too spread out AND the fact that the movements arbitrarily rotate based on Brandon Lilly’s preferences makes me question the appropriateness for the average lifter. A more advanced lifter might benefit from the split and be able to fill in the gaps on rotating movements…. but then again this wasn’t written with advanced lifters in mind.

There’s not doubt that this organization, 4 days per week with plenty of assistance work, will lead to some growth for those who do it. The big question I have is what will the lifter learn that they can pay forward into future training sessions or other periodized schemes. I would wager not much.

2/6: The split and progression, which are what you are paying for, don’t address the needs of the target audience and the general programming structure brings up more questions than it answers.

Fatigue Management

One of the biggest obstacles for lifters is learning how to pace hard efforts with adequate recovery. Programs that take special care to balance those two things will receive the highest score, while programs that disregard the need for recovery will be downgraded.

Fatigue management is pretty high in the Cube Method, which is something that is lacking in a lot of popular programs. The thing that makes the hypertrophy/strength/speed wave appropriate for more advanced lifters is that it is easier to recover from. There is considerable time in between similar attempts and each variation in training threshold serves as a type of recovery from the prior week’s training stress.

Deloads aren’t prescribed throughout the 10 week cycle, save for the ‘meet week’ at the end. The 3 week linear wave progression that is stretched over a 9 week period makes this less relevant, but volume being constant across all the supplementary work can lead to over-reaching that might make it hard to meet your numbers by the end.

4/6: The variation of training thresholds and main movements allows greater recovery than more specific programs, but the lack of discussion around deloads might be a problem for some lifters who burn out from the assistance volume.

Specificity

Specificity generally refers to how focused the program is on to a singular competitive goal. More specificity merits a higher score, but that is not always ‘better’. Some programs appeal to lifters who are recreational, have more generic goals or are in an off-season and need variety. Since long-term specific performance requires periods of non-specificity, programs that include off-season and contest-specific modes will receive the highest score.

Cube Method is a ‘powerlifting specific’ program in that it focuses on the big 3 and is organized towards peaking for a meet. The style of programming is consistent with a lot of western, or Americanized, programs that are inspired by bodybuilding culture which are inherently non-specific. The main movements are varied week to week (except for squat) and the bulk of the work is made up of close variations and isolation work. Compound this with the use of speed and rep work in concert with strength-specific work and the specificity score drops a bit.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since hyper-specificity isn’t essential for powerlifting glory. There are a lot of triggers for growth and getting outside of the rigid box of ‘squat/bench/deadlift only’ programs has led to the development of some of the strongest lifts in the history. The loose specificity also makes it more valuable for other lifters, including strongmen, field athletes and recreational lifters who just like to train.

3/6: It’s definitely a powerlifting program, but it’s wide variety of exercises and training thresholds make it a less specific option. This may actually work to the benefit of the lifter.

Adaptability

This scores the program on how well it can be modified to suit the needs of the individual. These types of programs will require longer learning curves, but that is necessary for optimizing performance over the course of a career. Higher adaptability scores are given to programs that give A.) different options and B.) specific recommendations for how and when to implement them. Programs that are fixed in their recommendations or offer a scattershot list of options that will likely confuse the reader get a lower score.

This is a hard one.

On the one hand, there is nothing about the template that would preclude it from being adaptable to the needs of the athlete. Specialty exercises could be prioritized based on need, assistance could be rotated to target weak points, progression time-frames of each lift could be altered to fit the recovery abilities of the lifter and splits could be modified to fit time restraints or personal preferences.

But absolutely none of this gets talked about.

It’s a shame because a little more fleshing out of these scenarios could have led to a behemoth of a book that would have given the lifter a ton of insight into general programming tactics. But 20-some pages of content featured a good 10 that were dedicated to general philosophy and broad diet and technique advice. And a shirted bench press cycle, which probably didn’t interest 99% of readers and wasn’t even remotely thorough enough to help the ones it did.

What will ultimately happen is that the typical reader is going to get a rough handle on the pattern of the main lift, get confused by the rotation of main movements, be baffled by the lack of discussion about structuring the rest of the workout and, ultimately, just copy the example charts in the back. Best of luck!

2/6: The template has potential for variability, just no discussion of how, when or why.

Sustainability

No program can map out the future of a competitive lifter completely, but more complete programs will be sustainable for longer or otherwise address the changes that need to happen in order to progress over subsequent cycles. Programs that feature enough moving parts to be ran successfully for years will receive the highest scores while those that only can be ran in the short-term will be docked.

Cube Method is actually a sustainable program, which is one of the big things it has going for it. I wrote a similar progression in “Base Strength” called M/R/S (max/reps/speed) that used similar thresholds to help train movements that were especially difficult to recover from. Advanced lifters have to generally concern themselves with recoverability from hard efforts, as do lifters who have a specific movement as their ‘kryptonite’.

For me it was the deadlift.

By switching from heavy deadlift workouts with lighter ones week to week, I was able to consistently build off of my numbers each week without over-training. Recovery was optimized and bad workouts were seemingly non-existent. The result was the obliteration of long standing plateaus and the sense that I could keep up this pace of training as long as I pleased.

This approach isn’t necessarily new. The Lilliebridge method involves alternating heavy and light squats and deadlifts each week, so each one is only trained heavy every 14 days. Practical programming talks of a ‘2 steps forward, one step back’ approach that features 2 volume weeks, a recovery week and a maximal week. These are all tactics that allow the lifter to prioritize high effort without having to walk a tightrope of recovery by precisely modulating volume, intensity and effort each workout.

5/6: A very sustainable split that keeps hard efforts far apart and can likely be ran indefinitely without over-reaching. The only downside is the lack of deload discussion or alternate training phases that might give a much needed break from the monotony of accessory volume and exercises.

Gimmick Factor

A gimmick is defined as any unique approach that serves a marketing purpose and does not directly add a benefit to the lifter’s pursuit of strength. This includes arbitrary training splits or assortment exercises, unnecessary complexity or novelty and any convoluted set and rep schemes. A high score here represents a very low gimmick factor.

The split and progression are solid. I like the use of the bodybuilding accessory day, I like the arrangement of main exercises and supplementary work and I like the waving of hypertrophy, strength and speed work. All of this is rooted in principle and experience.

But there is a bit of gimmickry going on.

The big thing that stands out is applying the hypertrophy/strength/speed wave to all 3 lifts concurrently and staggering them. The staggering makes sense if you are going to apply it to all 3, since it prevents two heavy workouts in one week. This is actually a big benefit to the recovery management. But it’s not obvious that this approach should be applied to all 3 at once.

Now, I am cynical so when I see the “Cube” as the representation of these 3 training thresholds taken out over a 3 week progression, I can’t help but wonder how much of the programming prescriptions had to do with what looked good on paper. I mean, this pattern is elegant, if convoluted, and that’s a hard thing to pass up when you’re selling e-books.

As critical as I was of Swede’s “5th Set”, I did have respect for the fact that the split didn’t force itself into a neat package (the progression did, but not the split). The 9 day work week and the insistence of putting either the squat or deadlift on the back burner was a pro move and one that certainly benefited the lifter. This, on the other hand, is a bit blanketed. I like the Cube dynamic for squatting and deadlifting, even for them at the same time. I’m not sure I love it for benching for the lifter this book was targeted for.

Splitting hairs, I know. What builds big benches is a bigger, more well rounded upper body and the volume and exercises recommended here will certainly get you that. But the rotation of special exercises and the insistence of running a complex progression staggered over all 3 lifts seemed like trying to force something to fit because you wanted to make t-shirts with a Cube on it.

3/6: The training recommendations are solid but were obviously influenced by the need for a catchy name and visual symmetry. Unfortunately, it’s to the detriment of the program.

20/46

Cube Method isn’t without sound recommendations, but the thin explanations and overall lack of meaningful content make it hard to justify committing to an e-book centered around an arbitrary arrangement of training. If you are so inclined, you can get it here.

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