Review of Brian Carroll’s “10/20/Life” – The Most Comprehensive Powerlifting Book

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

INTRODUCTION

Brian Carroll was officially the first person to squat over 1300lbs (1306lbs) and did so after a long battle with low-back injuries and chronic pain. He is a world-class powerlifter, a career coach and a fixture in the general powerlifting community, as is evident by the forward written by industry greats Dave Tate and Steve Goggins.

It’s no surprise that, in putting pen to paper, Brian created something that would get widespread attention and acclaim. It’s not that he’s been around the block or is a successful lifter (there are world record holders I wouldn’t trust to coach Pee Wee Football), it’s that he checks a lot of the boxes needed to establish real authority and he knows he does.

In his own introduction, he offers Dave Tate’s 6 point list of questions to help the layperson determine whether or not a potential coach is actually full of shit.

  1. What is their education
  2. Who are their mentors
  3. Who have they coached
  4. What are their achievements
  5. Have their clients outperformed them
  6. How good are they at what they preach

Brian Carroll’s adherence to these standards shows in the end result. Where I often describe other publications as ‘ebooks’ or ‘programs’, 10/20/Life is very much a book.

The chapters are arranged logically the way any academic syllabus would be. It’s fleshed out with concrete, actionable advice that’s peppered with context and real-world experience. There isn’t the same thinness that other publications suffer from, like you would expect from a hungover college student writing their 20 page mid-term the morning it’s due.

Conversely, there isn’t a flood of esoteric trivia that authors use to add intellectual gravitas to their work, even if it’s at the expense of the reader and their ability to do anything with it. It strikes an appropriate balance that any other ‘straight to PDF’ strength or powerlifting publication will fail to.

FOUNDATIONAL PRINCIPLES

The bread and butter of 10/20/Life are the principles that govern the decision making. As the saying goes, ‘methods are many, principles are few’, which means that all of the new and different tricks work largely for the same reason. Get a handle on those few principles and you will never have to second guess your training decisions.

The foundational principles of 10/20/Life are as follows: different phases, proper warm-up, form, mindset and customized assistance.

I would argue that there are quite a few more that emerge out of this text but these are the big ones to focus on as you read through his programming recommendations.

The need for different phases are one of the big ones, since it is mandatory for long term success to avoid stagnation and injury (and peak properly) but the one principle that is either talked about little or poorly. This book is a periodization textbook in disguise. The different phases are mapped out in a way that is consistent with any other linear or block periodization program you might stumble across and with good reason: it’s how a lot of the best lifters do it.

SPLIT

With the primary principles covered, 10/20/Life begins to make concrete recommendations for training organization. The foundational split is one day each dedicated to squatting, benching and deadlifting with an additional ‘fluff and buff’ day for small isolation movements to add additional volume to the training week. This seems like a small addition that would be optional, but these type of ‘feeder’ workouts are nasty in what they can add to a program. They are in line with GPP workouts that Westside prescribes along with the extremely light, high rep workouts that the Lilliebridges recommend.

The exercises are arranged from big to small; after a thorough warmup, the main movement is done for the prescribed progression, then a close variation, then a machine or dumbbell variation, then the smaller isolation work. Brian gives a few options for structuring training throughout the weak based on available time to train and recovery ability.

Option 1: Sq BP DL Fluff and Buff

Each workout is a full day dedicated to the lift, assistance work and all.

Option 2: Sq and DL BP SqDLassist FandB

Squat and Deadlift are done together on one day with their respective accessories trained together on a separate day. This is kind of a ‘2 upper, 2 lower’ blended approach that might help recovery by spreading the load around. (This is actually how I train)

Option 3: SqBPDL Assist FandB

For those with less time to dedicate to the gym throughout the week, one jumbo workout done with all 3 main lifts, one day of assistance for the main lifts and the fluff and buff on day 3.

PROGRESSION

Off-Season

There are a ton of ways to progress lifts over any one individual training cycle and that often leads to paralysis for the reader. All you need to know is that, for any method of progression to be useful, it has to have a set schedule that continues to progress load/stress over time while also being sustainable. That means recovery management has to take priority.

Brian’s method is a modified linear approach, meaning he starts light for more volume in the off-season and gets heavier over time as he drops the amount of work. That’s periodization 101 and the pattern you will see in just about every lilfting and athletic program. Over the 20 weeks, recovery is managed with the drop in total sets and reps; that allows you to adjust as the work moves from 5s and 4s to singles and doubles.

In the short-term, recovery is managed with the 3-week wave approach. Weight jacks up over the course of 3 working weeks before resetting to the first week with slightly more weight on the bar and repeating.

Week 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

SETS/REPS 5×5 4×4 DL 3×3 5×5 DL 4×4 3×3 DL 1×1

RPE 6 6 6 7 7 7 9

If you see a familiar pattern, it’s because the 3-week wave cycle has been used successfully with a lot of lifters in the past and makes up the back bone of a lot of popular programs. 5/3/1, Juggernaut and, my book, Base Strength all recommend an aggressive jump in load over 3 weeks before dropping back down and repeating. It creates a clear, short-term increase in stress while having a built-in recovery mechanism that makes it sustainable.

The twist here is that Brian aggressively programs deloads by sandwiching them in every 3rd week. That is a move that will guarantee your progression is never hindered by a ‘bad workout’ where accumulated fatigue prevents you from hitting your prescribed numbers. That makes adhering to a pre-planned progression easier; beneficial for the average trainee, yes, but also VITAL for anyone trying to pull off an expertly timed peak going into a meet.

The RPE approach is also a nice move for the off-season 10 week program. When you don’t have a contest immediately on the horizon, adhering to strict percentages can have some pitfalls. Aside from being monotonous, the percentages can pigeon-hole you during a phase where you should be seeing sweeping growth. Having 10 weeks of auto-regulation where you ‘go by feel’ gives you the opportunity to push when you feel it and hold back when you don’t and that is very convenient when volume is high and fatigue accumulates in unpredictable ways.

Pre-Contest

Week

1 70% 3×3

2 75% 3×3

3 DL

4 80% 2×2 85% x 2 (lightened)

5 opener x 2 (lightened)

6 DL

7 opener x 2×1, 2nd by 1, 3rd x 1 (lightened)

8 opener x 2×1, 2nd by 1, 3rd x 1

9 DL

10 Contest week

Having built a wider base with the hypertrophy the off-season volume provided, the next 10 weeks transition to a focused contest peak. Here, we are on an actual deadline so the switch is made to percentage based work and the weight only gets heavier. About half-way through, percentages are ditched for planned openers, 2nd attempts and 3rd attempts and the training revolves around adapting you to those exact loads.

This is the point in any periodized program where neurological changes that are specific to strength are prioritized. Brian puts the neurological stimulation into over-drive by using the “lightened method”. Reverse bands are used on one set at the end of the workout to expose you to the weights you will be handling during the meet.

The nervous system gets stimulated and the result is a performance spike; the weight feels less daunting, so psychology benefits, and the body actually gets conditioned to recruit more motor units and do so faster. This is in-line with old-school contest prep methods like heavy squat walk-outs, power shrugs and bench un-racks which lifters would use in the weeks right before a meet. The benefit is short-term adaptation to super-maximal loads without sacrificing form or recovery.

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.

There is definitely some work that has to be put in to making this system work, but that’s a good thing. It is designed with competitive lifters in mind and high level competitive performance doesn’t happen without being able to juggle a dozen training variables at once. As a crash course in periodization for powerlifting, I have yet to come across anything that hits the right depth of accessibility like this book does.

10/20/Life gets you to practice periodization while skipping the typical, “introduction to Periodization” textbook approach that is often excessive, mind-numbing and difficult to implement in real-terms. Instead of basing each move off of charts and citations, the principles are actually derived from the bottom up and that gives the concepts a ‘handle’ that makes it easier for the user to wield.

The off-season program can be implemented by just about everyone, save for maybe brand new lifters who train solo and lack awareness of their body. The recommendations for assistance exercise and the breakdown of how to target weak points is also easy to implement; in the field of strength sports where such advice is often convoluted, that makes this an invaluable learning resource.

The pre-contest template requires a bit more experience; it’s based around previous competition bests and projected 1st, 2nd and 3rd attempts, so the lifter has to be comfortable predicting their performance without getting over-eager. Again, that requires trial and error but you might as well learn in the context of a tightly knit construct that gives the benefit of removing all the other guess-work.

3/6: Don’t let the low score fool you. The highest scoring programs for ‘learning curve’ are also the ones that are the least sustainable long-term. 10/20/Life requires an attention span and the willingness to learn, but the lessons are vital for future competitors and it’s probably the most complete approach to teaching them.

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 book casts a very wide net in who it is appropriate for. I would advise the newest of the new against jumping in to it, especially those who train solo. Part of that is because some amount of strength has to be developed to really merit the high focus on recovery management, part of it is because the extra moving parts will be a distraction more than anything and increase the likelihood of falling off the wagon.

This is like a solid college text on Algebra that gives some exposure to Calculus; most adults will benefit but you have to at least know how to count first.

For anyone who has been lifting for more than a day, has a minimal amount of strength and is comfortable with the various definitions around powerlifting programming, any time is a good time to start with 10/20/Life. I might recommend running through the off-season split a couple of times before going into the pre-contest, but by the time you are comfortable with the split and more developed physically, the 1 to 1 ratio will add up to 2 to 3 full peaks per year, which is about right for any serious competitor. A full run through of the 20 week cycle will also make any experimentation with different prep-cycles much more intuitive.

6/6:10/20/Life targets lifters who are ready to implement more formal approaches to preparing for competition. It is a much more complete and practical learning tool than other texts, making it second to none.

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.

This is where 10/20/Life really shines. The book emphasizes things like proper warm-ups, building a solid technical foundation and learning how your body responds and listening to it. Add in to that the wave progression and frequent de-loads and the result is an approach that teaches the common pitfalls of training that most lifters don’t learn until progress becomes stagnant or, worse, they become injured.

You simply cannot ascend to ‘elite’ status without understanding the role of fatigue management. It’s no surprise that the topic is so thoroughly covered in a book written by someone who learned these lessons the hard way.

6/6: 10/20/Life is big on even, steady progression with frequent breaks to let your body catch up.

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.

The book is appropriate for a wide variety of lifters and athletes with general strength goals, but it works twice as well as a powerlifting-specific approach. Everything from the split and exercise selection to the method of progression and contest peak is designed to build your one rep max and time it perfectly for a showing on the platform.

Equipment, performance troubleshooting, technique and nutrition are all discussed in a way that is oriented towards competing. The result for the reader is a more specific and practical grasp of contest preparation along with a much more thorough understanding of broad principles of programming.

The absolute highest levels of specificity will be uber-specific programs that schedule the squat, bench, deadlift and very close variants for high frequency. 10/20/Life is not quite that focused, but I think that is an asset that serves the competitor and makes the program more adaptable to non-competitors and athletes in other fields. We can argue about the effectiveness of different levels of specificity for powerlifting (I bias heavily towards lower frequency and more varied assistance, like this method), but the score doesn’t care about that.

5/6: The methods are extremely focused towards powerlifting glory but feature enough varied work that it will benefit non-powerlifters.

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.

10/20/Life strikes a crucial balance between necessary guidelines and potential variability. The weak point index allows for individualized variety where it counts: in the exercise selection that will target individual weaknesses. The options for weekly splits also go a long way to accommodating the day to day schedule of the average lifter.

The template for ordering exercises and the set and rep progression are rigid but that is necessary. Anything less and you have a bunch of hypotheticals that the reader will struggle to put into practice rather than an actual recommendation for programming.

4/6: The program is not infinitely adaptable but that works to it’s benefit. Something has to stay glued to the wall and 10/20/Life fixes the split and progression while giving you leeway in exercise selection. I would actually argue that a 3 or a 4 is a sweet spot for program adaptability; anything more and the reader loses the ability to implement the guidelines in a meaningful way.

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 so that they can be ran successfully for years will receive the highest scores while those that can only be ran in the short-term will be docked.

The fact that this is built off of tried and tested periodization methods means that it is designed for sustainability. The transitioning between different phases addresses two problems that lifters inevitably run in to: the need for variation for the sake of it (to prevent diminished returns) and the need for that variation to be intelligently structured so that it points towards a singular goal.

When you are beginning the off-season phase, weights are lighter, volume is higher and work is more varied. You are gaining mass and work capacity while you round out weak areas but, just as importantly, you are slightly de-training from heavy, high-percentage work. This is variation for the sake of it; if you kept up with the heavy work at the end of your last cycle, you would inevitably peter out and spend most of your year in the pit of stagnation that so many lifters find themselves in. You need something fresh, a novel stimulus, to keep growth. When you jump into the heavier phase, the higher intensities will be a fresh stimulus once again and you will be sensitive to growth.

The directionality of light volume first and heavy overload second is that intelligent structuring we were talking about. You do the most sport specific thing closest to a meet which means you should spend time widening out your base further out. It fits and it fits well.

6/6: The 10 and 20 week time frames represent an ebb and flow of both specificity and workload that allows predictable progress indefinitely.

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.

This is a harder one to peg because everything has to have some marketing angle if it is to wind up on anybody’s radar. But the cardinal sin of ‘gimmicking’ is to wrap your methodologies and principles around the catchy name rather than the other way around.

There really isn’t a gimmick here to speak of. The name, 10/20/Life, is directly derived from how Brian recommends training organization and that is directly inspired by a long list of world-class lifters and his own work in achieving an all-time squat record. In his own words, “none of this is new, it’s just organized and structured”.

In fact, in reading through this I had several moments where I had to stop and bask in the feeling of “I knew I was right!”. I have spent years trying to compile a consensus of best practices from the highest performers in coaching and competing. Of course, not everything will line up tightly all the time, but many of the things I’ve decided represent ‘the good stuff’ in training were outlined as vital principles here. It reinforces the tightly knit world-view I’ve developed over the years and also tells me we are all pulling from the same well.

6/6: No gimmicks, just world-class training wisdom direct from the source.

Total Score 36/42:

Remember, a 42/42 isn’t possible, since a high score in one area will mean a lower in another. On the Bromley scale, a 36 is an A+. Check out Brian Carrol’s “10/20/Life” here.

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