When I first stepped into the gym, it was 5.30am 6 years ago, I was dead tired and just a bit hungover. I had never lifted a weight in my life, my only physical training background was in running track and long distance as a kid, but those times were just distant memories. I had looked into the mirror one day and was absolutely disgusted at what I saw. I weighed 185lbs and probably about 50% of that was fat. I had that skinny fat look going on, too much beer and not enough exercise.
The progress was slow at first since I had no idea what I was doing, how to train, what body parts to focus on, etc. I’m the kind of person who likes learning by trial and error, not by hiring a fitness coach to tell me every move to make. But after a few weeks, I started to lose focus so I turned to Google and started asking questions. It didn’t take long to stumble on a great website called Muscular Development. I posted my newbie questions on the forum and waited for an answer. The response was amazing, I had people new to training and even professional bodybuilder dishing out advice. It was almost overwhelming at first, so much information hitting me at once. Do I train like this, do I train like that, what are my goals, what’s the end game?
I knew I wanted to lose weight, get strong and look good in the process. But I knew that if I went too extreme, I would probably burn out and quit. So I wanted a simple straight up training regime that would give me no excuses NOT to train. Thanks to research and input from the forum members, I started talking to a power lifter. At first, it looked rather crazy. I wasn’t interested in flipping giant tires, pulling semi trucks or lifting giant rocks. But the more he explained and the more I listened, I started to understand that powerlifting provided the foundation for a long future in the gym.
The Powerlifting Plan
For those of you not familiar with powerlifting, the concept is simple. Focus on lifting heavy with lower reps for your main muscle groups. Squats for legs, bench press for chest and deadlifts for back. These heavy compound exercises use free weights and engage pretty much your entire body for the lift.
My power lifter friend proceeded to hook me up with a training regime called the 5×5. It only required 3 days in the gym and each session would only last about 30-40 minutes. I knew this was something I could do so after figuring out the weights to use, I got started.
The first few weeks were hard. Powerlifting is not for the faint of heart. You’re not using machines, you’re not watching TV while you run on the treadmill. You are simply focused on moving the weight with the best form possible and engaging that mind/muscle connection in the process. Using free weights over machines was huge. I learned quickly that machines, while a great asset, should not be the core of your training. The leg press for example forces your body into a set range of motion(ROM) and only engages your quadriceps, nothing else. Squats on the other hand, engage your the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and lower back. The same is true for deadlifts vs seated rows or any machine exercise for the back.
Using free weights gave me the ability train accessory body parts and to get my form locked down, something I would not have learned from a machine which forces you into a set range of motion. It didn’t take long to start seeing changes. As my stomach shrank like a deflated balloon, I started to see my back widen, my legs grow and my chest get thick. This progress was like a drug, I wanted more, I craved the pain and loved the natural high of lifting heavy and hard. The results kept me coming back day after day until my mind/muscle connection was rock solid.
After a few 8 week cycles, I started to tweak my training. I switched out of powerlifting exclusively and did a hypertrophy program for a while. Then went back to powerlifting, then I combined powerlifting with hypertrophy and keep experimenting. But never, not even once, did I leave the free weights behind. They are the core of my training and the reason why today I can deadlift over 400lbs, squat nearly as much and bench almost half my bodyweight.
Six years later, I’m still working the powerlifting program with a few changes I’ve made for myself and my own goals. However the foundation of 5×5 regime stays the same. Lift heavy and hard and push yourself to the limit.
Whether you are a beginner or a gym rat, powerlifting is a great program to start. You’ll see nothing but gains in both size and strength. Shown below is the basic 5×5 (Mon/Wed/Fri) regime that I started in the beginning. Keep in mind the numbers are for me, you have to determine the starting weight and so on. It’s not hard to calculate and after a week or so, you should be locked on.
Monday – Legs/Calves
Squats: 2×15(135,155), 1×10(225), 5×5(315), 1×15(155)
Leg Press: 5×5(630)
Stiff Leg Deadlifts: 1×15(135), 3×10(185)
Standing Calf Raises: 3×30(180)
Seated Calf Raises: 3×30(140)
Wednesday – Chest/Shoulders/Triceps
Bench Press: 2×15(95,135), 1×10(185), 5×5(245), 1×15(135)
Dips: 3 sets to failure
Machine Flys: 3×10(140)
Standing Barbell Press: 2×15(95), 3×8(155)
Skull Crushers: 4×8-10(65-95)
Tricep Pressdowns: 4×10(160)
Friday – Back/Traps/Biceps
Deadlifts: 2×15(155,185), 1×10(275), 5×5(365), 1×15(185)
Bent Rows: 1×15(135), 5×5(195)
Chinups: 3 sets to failure
Barbell Shrugs: 4×10(225)
Standing Barbell Curls: 1×15(85), 4×10(95)
It’s important, especially when you are starting out to keep a training log. For example, print your schedule for Monday and between lifts, put in your numbers. After training you can compare your actual number of sets, reps and weight to what you had planned on doing and adjust according. To properly understand the reps and sets, let’s break down squats and look at how this training works.
The first two sets of 15 reps are the warmup. First set is a weight that is light for you, same with the second set. You are simply trying to get the blood pumped in the legs, get a good stretch and get ready for the big weights. The next set of 10 reps should be harder. The last two reps should be a little bit of a struggle. You are pyramiding the weight up so when you get to the 5×5, it’s not a shock to the body. Now, once the warmup is done. it’s time to get serious. 5 sets, 5 reps each is a mental toughness game. The first 2 or 3 sets should be hard, but you should able to hit 5 reps without dying. But sure to rest a good 90-120 seconds between sets. It’s the last two sets that really make the difference, its here where it doesn’t matter if you get 1 rep or 5 reps, it should be hard and you should be smoked by the time its done. But wait that’s not it! Right after you finish that last set, rerack the bar, reduce the weight down to the weight you used on your second warmup set and get at it, no rest, just start banging out the reps. I can guarantee you by the time you hit 8 reps, your legs will be screaming for mercy, your body will be telling your mind to quit and your lungs will be on fire. Just remember, you always got another rep in you! Push to failure and then break for a good 2-3 minutes to recover before you move on.
Keep in mind that form is a paramount for the big 3 – squats, deadlifts, bench press. Take your time and visualize the movement in your head. Watch these videos to see what good form is and how get the most out of each exercise.
Here’s some great links on powerlifting and different programs that can give you more options outside of the tried and true 5×5 rep scheme:
What Is The Best Powerlifting Workout?
100% Powerlifting Workout
Now that you know about powerlifting and what it can do for you, it’s time to hit the gym!