5,4,3,2,1: How I increased my strength by 30kg in 2 weeks

After 10 weeks of strict dieting and twice a day training for my holiday I returned to London ready to be more relaxed with my diet and increase my strength. So I put together a simple plan based on a training method I first came across when reading Mauro De Pasquale’s work. Before I embarked on this programme I decided to work backwards. Meaning I set strength goals that I wanted to achieve after one cycle of this routine. I planned to rotate three routines three times each. These three routines were based around the three basic power lifts, bench press, back squat and deadlift. I like to keep strength training simple. At the end of the day it’s about weight on the bar and nothing else. Far too often I’ve seen trainees and even “trainers” trying to walk before they can run over think things and end up with a strength training programme that’s useless. Believe it or not I’ve seen “high level” trainers adding chains and bands to hack squat machines in what I can only imagine is an attempt to be different. The truth of the matter is that simplicity is better when training for maximum strength. So my goals were as follows:

Bench press 140kg

Squat 172kg

Deadlift 210kg

(All 1 repetition maximum)

I felt all of these strength goals were achievable, although I knew I was aiming high for my bench which has always been a weak lift for me. As with all the programmes I write, I set out certain rules for how I would design it:

1)      No more than 5 exercises per workout.

2)      To use a straight set system (no pairings).

3)      To rest as long as needed during the first exercise.

4)      To not go higher than 6 reps on an exercise (unless it was a rehab/prehab movement).

5)      To use a 5 day training frequency.

How to use 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

This system is basically just working up in weight each set. However, unlike unstructured ‘working up’ this has a set structure. You want to be conservative with your weight selection especially in the first few sets. Ideally you will not fail in any of the sets. I’m all for working to momentary muscular failure in the right circumstance. However, you should not be trying to work to failure in maximal strength training. This vital point is what many trainers seem not to understand. Doing 3 forced reps with your client is not “intense” training it means you chose the wrong weight! What you need to remember is that strength training is about weight on the bar, unlike hypertrophy which is about working the muscle. Choosing the right weight comes from experience, let’s look at an example of 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 for deadlift to see an example of loading I used for myself.

Set 1 180kg 5 reps

Set 2 190kg 4 reps

Set 3 200kg for 3 reps

Set 4 210kg for 2 reps

Set 5 220kg for 1 rep

In this case I increased the weight by 10kg each time. There is no set rule as to how you should increase your set to set weights with this method. Some coaches may tell you to take a mathematical approach of 2-3% increases but personally I prefer to use my experience and see how each set feels. Knowing when to push yourself and when to back off in a workout is crucial to strength training. Something that famous strength coach Charles Poliquin wrote has always stuck in my mind. In the interview I’m referring to he was asked about body intelligence and used the example of Mark Spitz the multiple Olympic Gold medal swimmer. Apparently Mark Spitz was notorious for leaving the weight room if he didn’t feel strong that day. His body intelligence led him to unprecedented success in his sport. I’m not suggesting people use awareness of how they are feeling as an excuse to leave workouts early what I’m saying is know when to hit the accelerator and also know when to hit the brakes.

The routine

Here is the frequency of the routine and also each routine in depth.

Bench routine

Squat routine





Bench routine

OrderExerciseSetsRepsRest (sec)
1)Bench press55,4,3,2,1ALAN
2)Incline bench press3690
3)Dumbell fly2 to 3690
4)Seated external rotation31260
5)Lower trap raise31260

Deadlift routine

OrderExerciseSetsRepsRest (sec)
2)Wide grip pull up3690
3)Snatch grip deadlift2 to 3890
4)Single arm dumbbell row31260
5)Lower trap raise31260

Squat routine

OrderExerciseSetsRepsRest (sec)
1)Back squat55,4,3,2,1ALAN
2)Front squat3690
3)Glute-ham raise2 to 3890
4)Dumbbell split squat3860
5)Standing calf raise3860

All the ancillary exercises in each routine are there to compliment the major power lifts. For example, I included the rotator cuff and lower trap movements in the bench routine to counter act all the internal rotation of the upper arm from the pressing movements. Research shows that if you have large discrepancy between opposing muscle groups the body will limit the progression of the stronger muscle group until the opposing muscle group is brought up to par. Since the majority of popular movements involve internal rotation of the upper arm almost everyone could benefit from more external rotation.



After the completing 3 cycles this is where I ended up:

Bench press 130kg

Back squat 172kg

Deadlift 220kg

I was disappointed with the bench press but I knew it was a push to make 140kg from where I started at. What I learned from doing this programme is to make short term goals for any programme I embark upon. Try this routine for yourself, although it’s not groundbreaking it’s certainly effective.

MikeH profile3 300x199 Female fatloss series: Breaking bad eating habits
Mike Hoad MSc Personal Trainer & Co-Founder of Definitive Physique

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