January 12, 2014

How Counting Down Can Make Your Numbers Go Up! (5, 4, 3, 2, 1)

What’s On The Menu Tonight?

Strength is a skill that is best developed, like any skill, through stress and repetition. Ideally one must expose the neuromuscular system to the highest levels of tension, as frequently as possible without overworking the body’s ability to recover from the workload. Factors like the size of the muscles involved will also greatly influence how much weight can be lifted, therefore linking one’s size, to one’s strength levels, and vice versa. And while you can make improvements in strength, or size, without seeing an improvement in the other, progress in most cases won’t be optimal and is why focus should be on improving in both areas as much as possible. The exception being for those who have to perform at a certain bodyweight in that gaining as much strength as possible without gaining weight is ideal.

Typically when the goal is to gain strength, the reps are recommended to remain below 5, as anything over 5 could lead to metabolic fatigue, therefore decreasing performance on the remaining sets (definitely not something you want to have happen when relying on the nervous system). To make up for the lack of work being done, more sets are generally added. The ‘sweet spot’ for total reps usually falls around 25, no matter how you slice it (8 sets of 3, 6 sets of 4, 5 sets of 5, 12 sets of 2). While most examples suggest performing the same amount of reps per set (be it 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 for each set), there’s no rule that says you won’t be successful by performing reps on both ends, or even throughout the entire 1-5 spectrum (there’s no real rules at all, really, but you know what I mean).

Show Me Something Different

If you’re like me (in that you love to train, and are a student of the iron game, always looking for new and effective ways to get results), then you probably get bored with traditional set and rep schemes pretty quickly. It’s not to say that traditional approaches in which you aim for the same amount of reps, each and every set, isn’t effective, because it is (very effective, actually). And if all you care about is results, than sticking with the basics, making minor customizations along the way is more than suffice.

But, if part of the reason for getting off your ass and making it to the gym for a scheduled workout, irrespective of uncontrollable conditions like weather, is because of the love and excitement a workout brings to your life, then finding new, effective, and even unconventional ways to train, is sure to make you want to get in there even more.

Read Between The Lines

While there’s no limit to what you can do when it comes to programming, there certainly are recommended guidelines that you’d be wise to adhere to, to get the desired result. In regards to strength development, as long as you remain within the 1-5 rep range, you’re good to go. But the amount of weight you can lift for 1 rep in most cases will be dramatically different than the amount of weight you can lift 5 times. The greater the difference is between those weights, the more fast twitch dominant, and built for strength, you likely are, but that’s another story.

If you were to focus primarily on lifting your 1 rep max, or close to it, for as many sets as you can (to make up for the severe lack in volume), it’s likely that you’d end up frying your nervous system in no time. On top of that, the risk for injury is elevated each and every time you attempt to lift at, or as close to, your momentary maximum, especially as fatigue sets in.

On the flip side, if you were aiming for more volume at the expense of lifting as heavy as you could, you may be missing out on the benefits of lifting near maximum weights. Remember, strength is a specific skill, and the only way to develop this craft, is to practice lifting heavy ass weights! Part of getting better at that skill is a result of the greater levels of motor unit activation that comes from lifting really heavy weights.

This creates quite the paradox, doesn’t it? To get stronger, and eventually lift heavier weights than is currently possible, heavy weights need to be lifted now. But what is really heavy now, doesn’t allow for an optimal amount of repetitions to be performed (at least not in a safe manner), and therefore the skill that is developed through stress and repetition, which contributes to being able to lift more weight, is compromised. If only we could have the best of both worlds!

Are You Starting To Get It?

The goal of any program is to accomplish the desired result, in which the results are permanently sustainable (given that one follows through on what is needed to at least maintain what was accomplished), in as short an amount of time as possible (at least that would be the goal of any efficient program). By addressing the reps on both ends, as well as throughout, the 1-5 rep spectrum, you can effectively expose the neuromuscular system to high enough levels of intramuscular tension (accomplished by lifting on the lower end of the spectrum – 1 rep), while providing enough volume to perfect the skill that is strength development (accomplished by lifting on the higher end of the spectrum – 5 reps). Furthermore, if you sequence things effectively, you can use the sets performed on the higher end of the spectrum to prepare you for the sets on the lower end of the spectrum, or create a hypertrophic effect by performing a greater total of reps than would otherwise be possible with a given weight.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1... LIFTOFF!!!!

Set 1: 5 reps
Set 2: 4 reps
Set 3: 3 reps
Set 4: 2 reps
Set 5: 1 rep

The set and rep scheme above can be performed in a couple of noteworthy ways, depending on the specificity of the goal. The two strength qualities that would be best developed using a set and rep scheme like the 5/4/3/2/1 system, would be relative strength, and absolute strength. The difference being one who is wanting to gain strength without putting on weight, and one who is trying to gain strength and hoping to put on muscle with the hopes of it assisting with that.

If the goal is to refrain from putting on muscle, and focus solely on gaining strength, then increasing the weight as you ramp up from set to set, while providing your nervous system with the rest necessary to repeat highly intensive efforts, is your best bet.

If the goal is to stimulate a hypertrophic effect, secondarily to gaining strength, then performing all sets with the same amount of weight, but with a dramatic decrease in rest between sets, is your best bet. Basically you would be performing one giant rest-pause set, and performing 15 reps with your 5 or 6 rep max.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – Strength, Hold The Size, Please

When strength is the lone goal, minor incremental increases to the weight lifted, with a proportionate decrease in repetitions performed, is a very effective way to prepare the mind and body for the work ahead. Starting with a relatively heavy weight, but not so heavy that you can’t perform a few solid perfect reps, not only helps to prepare the body physically by directing tension to the involved muscle groups, but also builds confidence as you get to adapt to the gradually heavier loads. When training solely for strength rest periods should be long enough to allow for neural recovery, and mental preparation, but not so long that you ‘get cold’. Generally anywhere between 2-3 minutes will suffice. If you fail to rest long enough, metabolic fatigue could negatively affect the following sets, as well as result in unwanted muscle gain, so err on the side of caution and opt for more rest than less.

5, 4, 3, 2, 1 – Strength, And A Side Order Of Size With That, Please And Thank You

When strength is the primary goal, and building muscle is secondary, either because you want to look strong and not just be strong, or you hope that increasing the size of your muscles will positively affect your strength levels, then it isn’t as necessary to work your way up to a 1 rep max, but to rather have your 1 rep max work its way down to you.

For example, when one is training for strength, and working their way up to a max set, rest is given to minimize neural and metabolic fatigue, so that the most amount of weight can be lifted as possible, and a true 1 rep max is accurately depicted. But when one is also looking to put on muscle, as long as the weight is heavy enough to begin with, as it will be if you’re initially only getting 5 reps total, by minimizing rest periods, fatigue becomes the equalizer if you will, and what you were initially performing 5 reps with, will become your momentary 1 rep max.

That’s A Lot, Can I Get That To Go?

Here are couple templates of the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

Strength, No Size

Set 1: 5 reps, w/ 5 rep max, 2 min rest
Set 2: 4 reps, /w 2-3%, or 5 lbs. more (whatever’s more practical), 2 ¼ min rest
Set 3: 3 reps, /w 2-3%, or 5 lbs. more (whatever’s more practical), 2 ½ min rest
Set 4: 2 reps, /w 2-3%, or 5 lbs. more (whatever’s more practical), 2 ¾ min rest
Set 5: 1 rep, /w 2-3%, or 5 lbs. more (whatever’s more practical), 3 min rest

Add a small percentage (2-3%), or 5 more lbs. to the starting weight the next time around.

Strength AND Size

Set 1: 5 reps, w/ a bit less than 5 rep max, 10-20 seconds rest (if you start to heavy, and reach failure on the very first set, the whole thing is shot)
Set 2: 4 reps, same weight, 10-20 seconds rest
Set 3: 3 reps, same weight, 10-20 seconds rest
Set 4: 2 reps, same weight, 10-20 seconds rest
Set 5: 1 rep, same weight, 10-20 seconds rest

Two or three rounds can be performed in this manner, just make sure to adjust the weights accordingly. A drop off of 5-10% per set is acceptable.

You Want Both Eh, You Greedy Bastard

With a little creativity, and adherence to principles in regards to strength development (those being that volume and intensity are inversely proportionate, when one goes up, the other goes down), you can mash up the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 with size, with the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 without size, and put together a 5-8 week program just for the hell of it.

In this case you would perform the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 with size for 2 sets, for 2 consecutive workouts (per bodypart). If you can get through two workouts in one week, then you’ll get things done in 5 weeks, but if you only train each bodypart once a week, than it’ll take you 8 weeks to get things done. The progression for a program like this would be to reduce the amount of reps per set, and increase the total number of sets along with the weight. For example:

Workouts 1 and 2: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 X 2 sets (15 total reps per set)
Workouts 3 and 4: 4, 3, 2, 1 X 3 sets (10 total reps per set)
Workouts 5 and 6: 3, 2, 1 X 4 sets (6 total reps per set)
Workout 7: 2, 1 X 5 sets (3 total reps per set)
Workout 8: 5-6 sets of 1

Thanks You, Come Again!

Because training is a combination of artistry and creativity, mixed with science, the options are literally endless when it comes to program design. Generally, for simplicity, set and rep schemes look more like a grade 6 timetable chart, than anything else, which becomes very noticeable by directing your attention to the top left, and moving diagonally across towards the bottom right (3 x 3, 4, x, 4, 5 x 5, 6 x 6, 8 x 8, 10 x 10, etc). More often than not, adjusting the amount of weight to match the timetable best suited to your goals is likely the best way to go. But that can get pretty boring over time. By directing your attention to the ‘x’, or ‘y’, axis, you can find alternative, and still effective, set and rep schemes, none simpler than counting down, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1!

*For the record, I don’t actually rely on children’s math homework to come up with sound training programs, I just happened to notice that many of the programs that are effective for various goals happen to be square roots.

If you have any questions about the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 systems provided here, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

1 comment:

  1. I should try this out instead of 531, because I'm looking to gain some size, not just strength.