Candito 6 Week Program Review

I started powerlifting back in 2008-ish, so I’ve been at this for some time. When I first started, the concept of training programs was rather beyond me, I generally just turned up and lifted until I couldn’t lift any more. I think I may have got as far as a bench/squat/DL split across 3 days a week, but it definitely wasn’t too structured!

Inevitably, after a year or two, beginner gains slowed, and I realised I’d have to pick out a program to continue progressing. Fortunately, I have a slightly obsessive streak, and had already absorbed a vast array of videos, articles and more on powerlifting, giving me a decent overview of next steps. I went with 5/3/1, the Jim Wendler program that is near ubiquitous in the strength-training scene. It’s a solid program, splitting training over 4 days a week (squat, bench, DL and press), progressing up over 3 weeks, then either pausing for a deload or adjusting and restarting.

This worked pretty well for a good while, and, due to more focus on work and other factors in my life, I didn’t really touch my overall routine for quite a while (nearly 7 years, in fact). I made pretty good progress, eventually reaching a 177.5kg squat, 217.5kg deadlift and 137.5kg bench press around 2017-18. However, progress started to stall, and I found myself resetting and adjusting, trying different accessories or supplemental lifts to try and mix things up – I gave most of the major variants of 5/3/1 a go at some point or other! Eventually, whilst I wasn’t disliking training, I found it becoming more chore than joy. I was bouncing from injury to injury, consistent progress evaporated, and I was getting thoroughly frustrated.

Fast forward to 2019. I quit a very stressful startup job, and decided to work for myself for a while. With that increased time flexibility, I decided it was time to pick a new program. I’d been following Jonnie Candito on YouTube for some time, and gained a lot of respect for his mix of epic strength, down-to-earth tips and knowledge, and quirky off-the-wall style. He’s been programming his own lifting for years, and a while back decided to offer his programs for others to use. I decided to give the Candito 6 week program, his all-round intermediate/advanced powerlifting routine, a go.

The program

The program itself is a 6 week routine, as the name suggests, and is much more focused on powerlifting rather than the more general strength aims of 5/3/1. The first two weeks are focused on hypertrophy, with high reps and lower weights, training 5 days a week. Then follow two weeks of decreasing reps and sets, and increasing weights, with 4 training days each, ramping up to week 5, which tests each main lift with a max-effort set for reps. Based on that, you either adjust your theoretical max and restart, deload, or test your true max lifts out in week 6.

Bench days have more programmed accessories, training your choice of horizontal and vertical push/pull alongside the bench sets, with sets/rep ranges roughly following those of the main lifts. Weights aren't programmed here, so you're free to adjust to your taste or how you're feeling on a particular day. On both upper and lower body days there is room for two more accessory lifts, generally isolation movements for particular muscles, although you can go with power/dynamic movements like power cleans/box jumps on lower body days should you prefer.

Thoughts and review

I've now run this through 2019 and 2020 (although 8+ months of 2020/21 were locked down, so it’s not quite as long as it seems). I'm not quite sure how many cycles I've run of this program – 8-10 or so. It was a huge change from 5/3/1 when I started – the intensity of different weeks gave much more interest in lifting. 5 days a week is pretty brutal, both in terms of volume and recovery, and also just time commitment. Balancing work and training is an ongoing challenge!

Bench volume in the first two weeks really caught me out. Multiple sets of 8-10 reps three times a week felt exhausting, coming from a program where I’d barely touched more than 5 reps in years. It definitely left me feeling super fatigued for the first few cycles! Squat was also another surprise. Based on others’ reviews of the program, I was braced for the week two squat sessions – two sessions of 10RM at 80+% of my 1RM, followed by up to ten backoff sets with 1 minute pauses! True to form, this was brutal, but I’ve actually come to like it in a masochistic sort of way. It’s a good test of mental toughness, but extremely satisfying to complete. Week 1 caught me completely off guard though – the first session is 4 sets of 6 reps at 80%, and even now, I find myself being taken out by this every cycle.

In terms of results, the biggest gains have been in squat and deadlift. Deadlift has been iffy for me for years – I struggled with knee problems for a long time, and kept getting mental blocks lifting close to my maximum. I’ve tried sumo a number of times, but never stuck it long enough to get in the groove. Starting Candito, and knowing that Jonnie himself lifts sumo, I decided to switch fully, and although it took a few months to get the rhythm down, it now feels so much better than conventional. In fact, despite the UK locking down for COVID from March to around July 2020, I managed to hit all time 1RMs for squat and deadlift in the same week, around three months after restarting training – the first PRs I'd had in 3-4 years! Unfortunately, despite having everything dialed in right, and even finally making the leap to squat shoes, lockdown came back into force before I could complete another training cycle.

Bench was a different matter. I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with bench press. I’ve never felt like I properly dialed in programming for it, and have struggled with shoulder issues for years. Training alone also means spotting is an issue, so I tended in the past to barely go to depth, and even now I tend to leave capacity ‘in the tank’, never quite going to my limits for safety reasons. My current bench PR was set in a gym where the benches had safety rests – a feature I really wish would become universal. I've had some near misses with failing heavy weights on bench, and it's frankly terrifying, and I've stepped in to help others in similar situations. Squat and Deadlift have fairly safe failure modes – safety rests on squat and just putting the bar down on deadlift have always meant I've felt fine pushing my limits, but maxing out on bench feels like playing with fire.

As mentioned earlier, the Candito program tends towards high rep sets at the start, which I found hard work, but I didn't find translated to increased maxes. This is a common complaint about this program – indeed, Jonnie himself had a poor bench press (at least compared to his ridiculous squat/deadlift) for a long time, suggesting he possibly didn't have his bench programming dialed in at this point. I added various supplemental lifts in – trying heavy singles, heavy weighted dips and close-grip bench at different points. These helped a bit, but really made bench days drag – the extra sets and volume made the workouts really long – and there wasn't a huge improvement to offset the additional time commitment.

Conclusions and Current thoughts

Lockdowns have recently eased again here in the UK, and I'm back training, which is a sweet relief after months cooped up in a tiny 1 bed flat on my own. Over the lockdown period, I had a good chance to review my training, and figure out what was and wasn’t working. Overall, I really like the Candito 6 week program – it has a nice rhythm, and the progression seems to be working well for me. The bench programming is the principle weakness, so I sought out alternatives. A common solution is to rip out the bench programming entirely and replace it with another program, which is what I’m trialing currently. Jonnie Candito has released a dedicated 6 week advanced bench program, and I’m running a mashup of the two courtesy of LiftVault, and so far I’m enjoying the results. However, it’s still early days, and I’d like to give it a few more cycles before I can truly say whether it’s an improvement over the base program. Here's to future lifting progress!