Building Sustained and Undeniable Strength
My breakthrough in strength was unexpected after football in high school and rugby in my college years. I didn’t expect to get much stronger than my prime sporting days in my early twenties.
At the peak of my strength, I hit a maximum squat of 315 lb. for three reps. This was 1.85x my body weight. At age 24 I knew I was pretty strong for my size, but I measured myself mostly by what I looked like. I kept lifting heavy weights with flawed mechanics, enough to repeatedly agitate old sports injuries. I didn’t know what to do after reaching plateaus, so if I couldn’t hit a weight that I had lifted previously I would try it again next time until I either got a muscle or tendon tweaked, or until I just got tired of trying.
My workouts became oscillating cycles of programming, with no measurable progress. I rarely allowed myself to recover. I didn’t really believe in recovery. I thought that if I took a break in my workouts I would get skinny and weak, which actually was true back then. Eventually I realized I was getting nowhere. Although I looked ripped, I was miserable with pain, fatigue, and lack of purpose.
In the spring of 2012 I got busy finding answers to these problems. I’m going to talk here about how progression strength training completely changed my outlook on exercise and solved many of the problems that came from the aimless upkeep of workouts and body building programs.
Progression Strength Training
After years and years of intense physical training on the field and in the gym, my top squat was 315lb. for three reps. After just 36 weeks of progression strength training, though, I squatted 340lb. for 3 sets of 5 reps. How is that possible? I used a 5×5 method described by Mehdi Hadim at Stronglifts.com. It is a powerlifting program specifically geared for gaining strength, and I produced enormous results from it using three key tenets: form, consistency, and progression.
Form: start from zero
I listened to Mehdi, scrapped my old ways, and implemented better habits of technique. I learned to back squat at parallel, knees out, and back straight. I recorded video of myself from the side and back to ensure I was nailing down form. I thought I knew how to squat properly until I actually taped myself and watched. It took several days of practice for me to get myself in the correct positions with a broomstick. I did this at home, barefoot without weights.
You must ingrain form starting with very light or no weights in order to prepare for the immense challenges that will come. It is my belief that the only way to do this is to practice until you can do the movements correctly without thinking. When you are at the peak of your abilities, every ounce of mind strength will be needed just to pack your gym bag and get yourself in front of the loaded bar. At this point, it will be too late to think about each body part and mechanism. You won’t have the mental capacity to overcome your fear under the bar. You must do the hard stuff and master form early so that on your heaviest sets ever, every watt of brain power is spent on telling yourself you can do it. This is absolutely crucial to progress.
Start with the end in mind and commit yourself to mastering form.
Consistency: do what is effective over and over
There are just five powerlifting movements. The Squat, Deadlift, Overhead Press (OHP), Bench Press, and Pendlay Row. Kelly Starrett would define these as “Category One” movements in his book, Becoming a Supple Leopard. It means there is no disconnection of tension throughout the movement. You pick up the weight in a static starting position and do the movement without any tosses or sudden position changes. They are simple exercises and do not require complicated speed and timing.
They are each done for 5×5, meaning five sets of five repetitions. The squat is done every session, and all five exercises are grouped into two sessions:
Day A: Squat, Bench, Row
Day B: Squat, OHP, Deadlift
I used no other exercises in trying to build strength. No accessory lifts, no machines, no pushups or pullups. Just these five. I did utilize mobility techniques and warm ups for almost every session, but there was no need for the bells and whistles.
Three days a week with two days of rest between each week. As the weight becomes intermediate and then advanced, the periods of rest will lengthen and a “week” will be more than seven days long. This is why I use the term “cycle” instead of “week”, because it often took me longer than a seven day stretch to complete three sessions. It took me a while to accept that there’s nothing wrong with that.
Cycle One: A, B, A
Cycle Two: B, A, B
And so forth, until you reach plateaus and move on to the next training program.
I am only giving you my specific experience with the program here. See Stronglifts 5×5 for more details on the program, and scroll to the bottom for a helpful spreadsheet that maps out a plan for you.
Progression: beauty and monstrosity
The weight you lift on each exercise is increased by 5lb. every session. So the squat progression, if started at 45lb. (an unloaded barbell) would look like:
Day 1: 45lb.
Day 2: 50lb.
Day 3: 55lb.
Skip ahead to Week 4
Day 1: 90lb.
Day 2: 95lb.
Day 3: 100lb.
The weight quickly increases. This is the beauty and the monstrosity of progression. I suggest you start at a much lower weight than you normally lift. If you can conquer your ego, start with the bar, a kettle bell, or just your body weight. It is crucial that you lift with only the best form and that you are ready for the immense challenges down the road. Plus you are going to get your ass kicked much sooner if you start too heavy.
This is the progression that I went through:
Start Date 3/19/12
Week 1 Day 1: 95lb.
Week 3 Day 2: 135lb.
Week 8 Day 1: 200lb.
Week 14 Day 1: 285lb.
Week 15 Day 1: 300lb.
I’m not going to lie, things got scary quick. Remember this is at 5×5. I was glad I had prepared myself with decent form at the beginning, so that all I had to deal with was my scared little mind. Start with the end in mind and prepare yourself well for that end.
De-loading: the magic of progression
Each of the five exercises will challenge you at different rates. I started my squat at 95lb. (because I couldn’t get past my ego) and progressed to 315lb. at week 16 before hitting a plateau. This means that I was not able to squat 315lb. for five sets of five reps on my first try. Below are my actual repetitions:
(315lb.) Week 16, Day One: 5, 4, 4, 4, 4
(315lb.) Week 16, Day Two: 5, 5, 4, 5, 4
(315lb.) Week 16, Day Three: 4, 3, 4, 4, 2
My mind crapped out by that third session, and I could not go any further. That was okay. This, too, is the beauty of progression. When you reach a plateau, or a stalling point, in your progression, you “de-load” the weight for that specific exercise.
The standard de-load is 20%. From 315lb. I de-loaded to 285lb. on my next session.
(285 lb.) Week 17 Day One: 5, 5, 5, 5, 5
The next time I hit the same weight would have been at least a couple of weeks later, after some recovery. This is not just physical recovery, but more importantly, mental recovery. At the highest level of training, my mind started to discourage me from doing something that it perceived as dangerous. De-loading helped to reset my reference point, letting me “start over” and feel some confidence with easier sessions.
When I reached that same training weight the second time, it felt easier and more doable. I succeeded in completing all the sets. I surpassed my first plateau, and I knew I was significantly stronger. I continued with the training sessions until I reached my next plateau. This came much sooner than the first one, since I was pushing the envelope now.
I started the 5×5 program on March 19, 2012 with a 95lb. squat. I progressed to a 320lb. squat in 26 weeks and reached three plateaus. At that point I lowered the number of sets to three instead of five. 3×5 is the next step after 5×5 that is suggested by Stronglifts, and it helped to continue my strength improvement. On November 17, 2012 I completed three sets of five reps at 340 lb.
(340 lb.) Week 35, Day Two 11/15/12: 5, 3, 4
(340 lb.) Week 35, Day Three 11/17/12: 5, 5, 5
(342.5 lb.) Week 36, Day One (Date not recorded): 4, 4, 4
Obviously, I already had a low to intermediate level of strength which allowed me to get pretty far before my first plateau. However, this program ingrained form and provided a consistent mechanism through which I reached a higher level of strength. I wasn’t just doing a one-rep max of 320lb. I was doing five sets of five reps at 320lb.
I can’t tell you how far you will go on the 5×5 program. But I do know that it can bring you deep into your potential for strength. Progression strength training will challenge you in a way that other programs won’t. It is an effective starting point for building strength beyond your belief.
Get the 5×5 spreadsheet from Stronglifts.com here. It’s free and this is not an affiliate link. I just want to you try it and find results that you did not think possible. Let me know in the comments section if you have any questions or if you want to share your own results from using 5×5 training!
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