In researching old Iron Man, Strength and Health, and Muscular Development magazines from the ‘50s, the ‘60s, and even the early ‘70s, I found one of the most popular methods of training among powerlifters was the 5/4/3/2/1 method. Most of the lifters who utilized this used either a heavy/light/medium or medium/light/heavy method of full-body workouts. On the subject of full-body workouts, I could find hardly any lifters who didn’t use them. (If they did use a split program, it was nothing more than an upper body/lower body split.)
The following routine is very similar to the ones used by a majority of powerlifters during this era. It’s also a perfect routine for any bodybuilder or recreational lifter that’s ready to make the transition to serious strength training. On word of caution: it’s not for outright beginners. Make sure you’ve spent several months on some type of heavy training routine before trying this one. Also, you might want to spend a few weeks on another full-body workout in order to be properly conditioned. If you don’t decide to do that, then remember: you’ve been warned.
This is a three-days-a-week program. I’ve listed the days as Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, although any three non-consecutive days will work. Here it is:
1. Squats—Begin this exercise with 2 to 4 progressively heavier warm-up sets of 5 reps. The number of sets will depend on your level of strength on squats. The stronger you are, then the more sets are needed, and vice versa. Once you are finished warming up, you will do your first “work” set of 5 reps. Pick a weight that is tough, but one where you know you can get all 5 reps. Once you are done, rest a few minutes (two to three is optimal) and then load the bar with another 5 to 20 pounds of weight. Once again, how much weight you add will depend on your level of strength. Really strong squatters will add as much as 20 pounds, while weaker squatters can only get away with as much as 5 pounds. For this set, you will be performing 4 repetitions. Rest, add more weight, and repeat for a set of 3 reps. Repeat two more times for a set of 2 reps and, finally, one repetition. Your final set of one rep should be done with approximately 95% of your one-rep maximum.
2. Bench Presses—Use the same 5/4/3/2/1 method as the squats.
3. Deadlifts—Use the same method as the squats and the bench presses. The only difference here is that your back and leg muscles will be a little fatigued from all the squatting. For this reason, you might want to be a little more conservative with the weights you pick. Only you know your body best.
1. Squats—For the light day, you are going to use a 5x5 system of training. Warm up in the same manner as you did on Monday, with 2 to 4 progressively heavier sets. For your “work” sets, you will use a weight that’s 10 to 30 pounds lighter than your 5-rep set from Monday. Stick with this weight for all 5 sets of 5 reps.
2. Bench Presses—Use the same 5x5 method as the squats.
3. Deadlifts—Use the same 5x5 method.
1. Squats—For this day, you are going to use the same 5/4/3/2/1 method as on Monday. Here, however, you will use 10 to 20 pounds less on all of your sets. Make sure that you warm-up in the same manner as Monday.
2. Bench Presses—Use the same method as the squats.
3. Deadlifts—Use same 5/4/3/2/1 method as squats and bench presses.
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of this program:
1. Many powerlifters in the ‘50s and ‘60s used a program like this one almost verbatim. However, some lifters did add some extra assistance work. If you feel like it, don’t be afraid to include some sets of overhead presses, curls, lying triceps extensions, pullovers, chins, and ab work. Of course, you would only want to pick one or two (at the most) to add to the end of each session. Also, if you feel at all drained, then just lay off the assistance work.
2. Every five weeks, take a down week. Don’t push yourself at all during this week and cut out all assistance work. This will help your body recover better, and promote better gains in the long run.
3. Though simple, this program is intense. Make sure you are eating plenty of food every day and getting at least seven hours of sleep each night.