Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

5s, Not 10s

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | October 20, 2020

amanda squats at the starting strength seminar in denver

You don’t know it yet, but I do. You need to do your 5s 3 days per week, then eat and sleep enough to recover. And that’s all you need from the weight room. For most of you, getting bigger is why you're here. How do I get bigger? The fastest way for a novice to get bigger is to get your squat from 135x5 to 405x5, your bench from 95x5 to 250x5, and your deadlift from 185x5 to 495x5. That's right – 5s, not 10s. 

I know what your next question is, so let's get it out of the way. What about cardio? What about health and fitness? FML, you guys still exist? This is the deal: there is a time and place for conditioning. Sure. Obviously. The problem is you. I’m pointing at you, yes, you! You can’t even squat 225lbs to depth, you’re 6 foot 3 and 185lbs, doing a million exercises for 10 reps with a 14-kilo kettlebell because a “trainer” told you to. And 99% of the gym population wants the same thing: abs, beach muscles, and enough strength and cardiovascular fitness to play some kind of weekend warrior sport. Problem is, they’re often piss-poor weak and skinny-fat. If you care about health, you need to add some armor and bulletproof your joints. (The other 1%? People like me, who train solely for strength and don’t care about other shit. Mr. “99 Problems and the Squat is One”.)

For the rest of you, here’s the secret: get big and strong and then get fit and stay strong. Easy, right? You can then alternate between the two goals throughout the rest of your life. You don’t have to choose one camp forever. Approach the year and your events like real athletes do, creating well-timed training cycles. One combo that works is to do strength cycles in the off-season and then fitness cycles in season. Remember, you don’t actually need to train fitness all year round: that only requires 4–12 weeks max. Last I checked there were 52 weeks in a year, so we have 40–48 weeks to play with. 

Another part of me knows why some people ask about cardio and fitness, when all I tell them to do is eat, lift, sleep, repeat. They want it all straight away – strength and cardio – but that’s not how the body best responds to training. I usually answer this question with another question: why do you want to do cardio? Is it for your sport? Or is it because you’re scared to lose your abs or get “fat” (or “fluffy”, as I like to call it). If body composition is your goal but you don’t have muscle underneath, then “getting lean” will strip you down to a pile of bones.

Weight-loss, losing fat, or getting “ripped” is fundamentally a math problem. You need to burn more calories than you consume in order to lose weight and/or fat. In simple English, you would have to eat less. But as a Starting Strength coach I’m qualified to teach you to get strong, not lean. My sole mission statement is to get you stronger. I honestly don’t care about your aesthetic abs or biceps: I care about your performance. That said, funnily enough, someone who benches 3 plates for reps normally has a good chest. A dude who deadlifts 5 plates for reps normally has a good back and forearms. A dude that squats 4 plates for reps usually has a good butt and set of legs. And you better believe that a guy who can do a chin-up with half his bodyweight in plates dangling between his nuts is going to have some pythons for biceps.

Another little secret about cardio: it spikes appetite, so if you add in lots of hard, arduous cardio to try and achieve weight-loss, it won’t work. You can’t outrun a bad diet. As my friend Bob Santana once said to me, “everybody wants to have abs, but nobody wants to starve!” The fork is the best means of improving body composition, not the treadmill or the buckets of sweat you produced in your last session. 

And are health and fitness the same things anyway? What is “fitness”? Fit for what? The best definition I’ve ever heard is as follows: “Fitness is the ability to do a task. Health is the optimal interplay of the organs.” Run a sub-2-hour marathon, climb Mount Everest, win the CrossFit games, perform 50 strict pull ups, be match-fit for basketball, win 200 BJJ competitions, bench 700 pounds, clean and jerk 500 pounds, complete 10,000 swings with a 50 pound kettlebell in 6 weeks – all are tasks. When it comes to health, you want all your vital organs to be doing what they do, and to do their jobs well. You want your brain, heart, lungs, stomach, small and large intestines, liver, kidneys and so on to function as well as can be. 

So being fit compared to being healthy are two very different goals. What I can tell you is that in 99% of cases, doing strength training will improve a person’s health, because they’re not yet even at a low baseline of strength. 

Okay, okay, I hear you saying, I get it. I know I need to get strong. But why 5s? Why not … 8s? 

How about Hell No! 

We have known for a long time that when your muscles are tested for contractile strength, they get a little fuzzy after 5 reps. It’s no coincidence, then, that we believe 5s work best for strength. It’s also obvious visually to anyone who has ever coached: the last 2 reps of a set of 5 are usually the worst, as fatigue sets in and mental focus dwindles. 5 is a good place to stop. Making someone do an extra 3 reps past this point simply results in 3 examples of sub-par technique. Not to mention, if you’re going to be able to accomplish 8 reps at all, you’ll need to take the weight down. Meaning your barbell is now lighter. Now, do light weights make you stronger or do heavy weights make you stronger? This is not a trick question.

Let me put it another way: don’t think in terms of 3x8 reps, think 8 sets of 3. It’s the same total reps, but what you can handle for 3 will be far heavier than what you can handle for 8. So what do you think a guy doing 8 triples for bench or press will be lifting? A far heavier load, right?

Yes, I know 8s have their place for assistance work, and maybe if you’re a late intermediate, but most people aren’t that guy. Most of my clients are novices or intermediates, and this is especially important for them. They need to do more heavy 5s, 3s, 2s and even singles. I know it sounds boring, but there are other ways to add in variety besides rep schemes. There are, for instance, countless press variations you can use, including press starts, press lock outs, strict press, seated press, off-pins seated, and tempo (4010). So before you start hankering to do 8s, ask yourself: have you got really strong at all these press variations, thereby improving your press? If you just came off an SSLP, then … it’s unlikely.

The same is true for the bench, squat and deadlift. The programming will look a little different for the latter two, but the general idea is the same. Once you’re out of the true novice linear progression, you need a secret-sauce blend of volume and intensity to drive progress. But 8s are not what KFC ordered. They said you need a spicy bargain bucket of more finger-lickin’ good 5s and below. 

Sometimes when I have this discussion with people, they will follow up with this: “Well, I got specifically told by this trainer at the gym to do 3x10, and he’s in shape and knows what he’s talking about. He’s always busy.” Yeah, he knows how to talk bullshit and translate your lack of knowledge about how training actually works into you buying a block of sessions with him. That’s what he’s doing. He’s just giving you the old “try before you buy” to reel you in.

The main reason these trainers say 10 reps is that they don’t know what they are doing. They know you want to lift something, but they don’t know how to coach form or cue reps. They don’t understand the fundamentals of why we lift weights. They certainly don’t know much about the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle. The reason these Personal Trainers want you to do multiple exercises per muscle group is that the intensity is so low you need to perform tons of sets and reps to get any perception of stress from it. As you do more and more reps, you start to feel a build-up of fatigue, and this makes you believe that the exercise is starting to work.

But gains and muscle fatigue are not the same thing. When doing strength training you don’t feel any one particular muscle group fatigue. I don’t feel my chest work when I’m doing a 300 pound bench, and I don’t feel my quads when I squat 500 for 5 – it’s just a systemic all-over feeling of the weight being heavy in your hands or heavy on your back.

Novices don’t always get this distinction. Funny story: I was teaching a client recently who was doing pretty decent, relatively heavy barbell rows, and I said they look good. He got this disconcerted look on his face and said, “But I don’t feel these in my lats …” I flinched. But I had a little trick up my sleeve: I said, “After your next set, walk straight over to the pull-up bar and do 5 chin-ups.” Bear in mind that this guy could do 5 strict chin-ups easy when fresh. So he did his heavy set of rows, and then walked over to the the bar and started the chin-up, then let out a grunt and had to abort the attempt on his very first rep. The takeaway here? Strength isn’t a pinpoint burn like a typical “pump” set, but you better believe that heavy rows do work your lats, as my client quickly realized. 

Now, rep ranges are important. They dictate what type of stress we are putting on our muscles and central nervous system. Remember, 1 rep is for pure strength, 10 is for hypertrophy (muscle building) and 20 reps and beyond is for endurance (and also madness). This description of the rep continuum has been around forever. But even if you’re aiming for hypertrophy, the bog-standard “3x10” advice won’t work. If you can do the set reasonably comfortably, it’s unlikely to make your muscles much bigger. In a true hypertrophy set, by rep 10 you are close to form failure. In other words, if someone put a gun to your head and said do another rep, you could only eke out 1 to 3 more reps, if that, before you failed.

That’s why this rep scheme is not for the weak novice lifter, or for the general public when they start their weight-room journey. Doing a hypertrophy-rep scheme for every single lift is not even how a bodybuilder would train. (Plus, did you know that some bodybuilders take steroids!?! Being enhanced changes the game: on gear you can get great results, build muscle and get stronger despite your programming.)

If you want to see a true hypertrophy set, check out Dorian Yates, “the Shadow,” and a 6-time Mr. Olympia champion. He did a genuinely minimalist program, seeking failure for every session. If you watch his training footage on YouTube – which he described as “blood and guts” – you will see that taking reps to failure while keeping incredibly strict technique on all lifts is not for the faint-hearted, or the novice, weak or detrained lifter. Dorian actually changed the game in terms of how people looked at building muscle. Astonishingly, his sessions were 45 minutes long and he only did 4 sessions a week, even at his peak. It’s a testament to his efficiency, and also shows that building muscle is a intensity project, not a volume one.

Dorian said he would remember precisely what weights he lifted during a session then go straight home and log them in his note book. Sound familiar? Before coming to the gym for his next session, he would refer to his log book and aim to go up in weight. Even back in the nineties, Dorian realized what many people who lift for hypertrophy don’t even know now: you need to lift increasingly heavy weights to make your muscles bigger. 

For natural lifters, heavy 5s are actually the best way to build muscle and, of course, strength. Fives are the best of both worlds; they’re the middle ground, not 10s. Again, the fastest way for a novice to get bigger is to get your squat from 135x5 to 405x5, your bench from 95x5 to 250x5, and your deadlift from 185x5 to 495x5. If you’re a novice lifter, the biggest gap in your hypertrophy armor is strength. If you suck at 5 reps, chances are you’re going to be far worse at 10. And this is coming from someone who squatted 230kg for 1, 195kg for 10 and 160kg for 20 all in the same training cycle – won’t be attempting that madness any time soon. Unfortunately, 10 reps is still a common rep scheme prescribed to unwitting newbies. Many people think it’s what they “should” be doing – and that notion needs to be squashed into extinction yesterday. Well, at least by the end of this article.

Remember, if you haven’t been getting results – meaning your body looks the same and you’re not getting bigger, faster, or stronger – but you’re still doing the same routine and expecting a different outcome, well, that’s the definition of madness. It’s not just about being on board with the idea of strength or about wanting to do it, it’s simply the logical choice. It’s like a business investment. You wouldn’t step over hundred-dollar bills to pick up nickels. So why would you approach the weight room like this?

It baffles me why so many people are still so unwilling to train heavy. I don’t care if 5-rep sets are against your religion, I care about results and what works. My father’s religion is to never take supermarket produce from the front of the shelf but reach all the way to the back. We all have our quirks. But strength training is unbiased. It always tells the truth. Strength is a direct measure of how hard your body is working, one more precise than any heart-rate monitor, app or Fitbit could ever be. It communicates in a clear, binary format: you make the rep or you miss it – that simple. Strength training gives you concise information about your health and fitness, and it will also help you build an athletic natural physique the right way. If you want, it will even help you improve your sets of 10 and beyond. But that’s after you’ve spent some quality time getting strong by just doing 5s. 

So if you didn’t get the message, let me write on the wall for you again: do your 5s, get big and strong. Let’s grow 5 reps at a time.

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