The Big 5

     The easiest thing about bodybuilding should be gaining muscular bulk.  The truth is—if you train correctly and eat correctly—it shouldn’t be much of a problem.  But I’m guessing that a whole lot of you reading this article are in no way training and eating correctly.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t be flooded with emails on a weekly basis from lifters who struggle with this issue.  When I read over the training and nutritional regimens (or lack thereof) of these bodybuilders, it doesn’t take long to see the problem.  And if you walk into any gym in America, you’ll see the same kind of training on a daily basis—guys struggling to gain bodyweight pounding away on countless sets of high-rep chest and arm exercises (and usually on machines).  Many of them even train with “intensity” but it doesn’t matter.  They are all wasting their time because they are not doing the following (and let me sum this up as simply as possible; this is really all there is to it): Lifting a lot of weight on big, “core” movements frequently, and consuming a lot of “good” high-calorie foods each and every day.  Do this and the sky’s your limit.
     Okay, I realize that may not be specific enough for most readers, so let me add only a slightly more complex “system” for gaining mass[1].  I call this the “Big 5”:
  1. Squat heavy weights
  2. Pick heavy weights off the floor
  3. Put heavy weights over your head
  4. Drag or carry heavy weights over a distance
  5. Consume a lot of healthy, calorie-dense foods daily
     If you’re already doing all 5 of these things, then you’ve never had to ask anyone for advice with gaining muscle mass—you know exactly how easy it comes.  If you’re doing 2 or 3 of these things, then you’re halfway there (in fact, you’re probably making decent gains).  But the sad thing is I bet a lot of you reading this aren’t doing any of these things.
     It’s time to change that.
     What follows in these pages are tips, tricks-of-the-trade, suggestions, and workouts that will make every pillar of the Big 5 Program work for you.  (I must offer one word of warning: follow all of these suggestions and you’ll soon be purchasing another wardrobe.)
Squat Heavy Weights
     The good ol’ fashioned barbell squat should be the cornerstone of every mass-gaining program.  Period.
     If you’re the epitome of the 98-pound weakling who’s always getting sand kicked in his face, then you can’t go wrong with the 20-rep squat program.  For this one, twice each week load the squat rack with a weight that you can only get 10 reps—now do 20!  Yes, 20!  For the last 10 reps, you will have to take a few deep breaths between each rep—and you’ll be “sucking wind” as if there’s no tomorrow on the last couple reps—and then you’ll collapse on the floor in a heap once the set is complete.  (And if this doesn’t happen, you’re not doing it right.)
     As for the rest of the workout, add some overhead presses, some heavy back work, some pullovers, some farmer’s walks, and maybe one other exercise and you’re done.  Here’s an example program:
Monday and Thursday:
  • Squats: 2x20 reps
  • Pullovers: 2x20 reps
  • Overhead Presses: 3x10 reps
  • Deadlifts: 2x10 reps
  • Bench Presses: 3x10 reps
  • Farmer’s Walks: 2 sets for distance
     If gaining strength, power, and mass is what you’re after, start off with a 5x5 program twice per week.  Work up over 5 progressively heavier sets until you reach a max set of 5 reps.  If your max for 5 reps, for example, is 275 pounds, your workout may look like this: 135x5, 185x5, 225x5, 250x5, and 275x5.
     As you get stronger, don’t forget to throw in some heavy triples, doubles, or singles.  Also, as you get more advanced, throw in a couple of back-off sets for 8 to 10 reps per set.
     Squatting heavy weights doesn’t mean just doing barbell back squats, either.  Make sure you’re getting stronger on front squats, overhead squats, bottom-position squats, box squats, dumbbell squats, goblet squats, and old-fashioned hack squats (performed with a barbell) for good measure.
Pick Heavy Weights Off the Floor
     The most obvious exercise (for most people) here would be the deadlift, but that’s only one among many.  Do some kind of heavy deadlifting once per week, but no more than that.  Deadlifting will take its toll on your ability to recover from the workout.  Some days do heavy triples, doubles, or singles.  Some days do a 5x5 program.  Throw in some rack deadlifts, some deficit deadlifts, and some trap bar deadlifts occasionally.
     While you should only deadlift once per week, you should do other kind of pulling movements more frequently.  In other words, don’t forget about cleans, power cleans, snatches, and high pulls.
     Here’s a sample pulling workout using deadlifts:
  1. Deadlifts: 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps
  2. Rack deadlifts: 5 progressively heavier triples
  3. Power cleans: 5 sets of 2 reps (straight sets—use the same weight on all 5 sets)
     And here’s another program (sans deadlifts):
  1. High pulls: 5 progressively heavier sets of doubles
  2. Power snatches: 5 sets of 3 reps (straight sets)
  3. Power Holds: 5 sets of 30 second holds (These are simple.  Just pick up a heavy barbell using an over/over grip and see how long you can hold the blasted thing.)
Put Heavy Weights Over Your Head
     Maybe the most neglected aspect of modern-day workouts is training in heavy overhead movements.  In fact, I’m going to say it here and now (much to the chagrin of many): if the entire lifting world gave up heavy bench pressing in favor of heavy overhead pressing, the bodybuilding (and athletic) world would be better for it.
     Heavy standing barbell presses, dumbbell presses, push presses, clean and presses, and presses with odd objects (kegs, boxes, sandbags, etc.) should be staples of everyone’s programs.  (Not to mention other movements such as snatches and overhead squats that carry over into other categories of the Big 5.)
     Overhead movements stimulate the entire upper body for growth, they are not just a shoulder movement.  Show me a lifter who can put some serious weights over his head, and I’ll show you a seriously massive dude!
Drag or Carry Heavy Weights for Distance
     Along with the nutritional aspect of the Big 5 program, this aspect really brings the other three together.  Dragging and carrying heavy weights has numerous benefits.
     First, it uses a lot of muscle groups.  And the more muscle groups you can use in a workout, the more effective the training session is going to be.
     Second, it increases your body’s recovery capacity.  Dragging and carrying heavy loads lacks an eccentric portion of the movement, which means it doesn’t accrue much muscle damage.  The end result is that your workload capacity increases without causing soreness, which in turn increases your body’s ability to recover from workout sessions.
     There are all kinds of things that you can drag or carry to fit the bill here.  One of the easiest, and most well-known, is the farmer’s walk.  Sorry, but there’s nothing simpler than picking up a heavy pair of dumbbells and walking with them.  Simple?  Yes.  Easy?  No.
     In addition to the farmer’s walk, don’t forget about tire flips, sled dragging in all of its many guises, and anything else that you can pick up and carry (boxes, sandbags, large stones).  If you’ve seen it in a strongman competition, it probably fits the bill.
Putting it All Together
     Although I’ve listed a couple of workouts above, here are some more thorough programs, some examples of the kind of training you need to do week in and week out in order to get as massive and as strong as possible.
Full-Body Program
     This one is a modification of the classic 5x5, heavy-light-medium program (popularized the most by Bill Starr).  Forget about how basic it looks.  It meets all of our criteria, and it’s exactly the type of program most of you need to do.
     You train 3 days per week on this regimen.  Day one is your heavy day, day two is your light day, and day three is your medium day.  Most people prefer to train Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but any three non-consecutive days will work.
Day One—Heavy
  1. Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps.  Work up over 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps.  The last set should be an all-out maximum effort.
  2. Deadlifts: 5 sets of 5 reps
  3. Push Presses: 5 sets of 5 reps
  4. Dips: 4 sets of max reps.
  5. Dumbbell Curls: 2 sets of 12 reps
  6. Farmer’s Walks: 3 sets for distance.  For these, select a heavy dumbbell that you would struggle to hold in your hands for more than 30 to 45 seconds.
Day Two—Light
  1. Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps.  Work up to a weight that is only 80% (approximately) of what you used on the Day One workout for your final set.
  2. Power Snatches: 5 sets of 2 reps.  Work up over 5 progressively heavier sets of doubles.  The very nature of this exercise—the fact that you can’t use much weight—makes it perfect for a “light” day.
  3. One Arm Dumbbell Presses: 5 sets of 3 reps (each arm).  Work up over 5 progressively heavier sets of triples for each arm.
  4. Backward Sled Drags: 3 sets of distance.  Grab the reins/rope of your sled and drag it while walking backwards.
Day Three—Medium
  1. Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps.  Work up to a weight that is only 90% (approximately) of what you used on the Day One workout for your final set.
  2. Power Cleans: 5 sets of 3 reps.  Work up over 5 progressively heavier sets of 3 reps.
  3. Standing Overhead Presses: 5 sets of 5 reps.
  4. Tire Flips: 3 sets for distance.
     Try interspersing the above workout with the 20-rep squat program already mentioned, and you’ll be big beyond your belief in no time.
     (Oh, and by the way, don’t fret over the fact that there is very little direct chest and arm work in this program.  It simply won’t matter.  Your whole body will grow like a weed in July if you apply proper nutrition too.)
     If you’ve never done any kind of extensive training in squatting, pulling, or overhead movements, then you have no business doing anything other than the above program (or the 20-rep squat program).  However, if you are already well versed in this kind of training, then the program below should be just your cup of tea:
Advanced “Split” Program
     Although this is a “split” program, it’s not one in the typical-bodybuilding sense of the word.  In this program, you split up your different aspects of the “Big 5” program.  For instance, one day might be overhead and pulling movements, while the other day might be squatting and carrying movements.  Even though this is technically a split, you could be training the same muscles two days in a row.
     Keep in mind, too, that this is just an example.  As an advanced lifter, you need variety of movements.  Train heavy.  Train hard.  Repeat often with different exercises.
Day One—Squat and Carry
  1. Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps, 2 sets of 3 reps, and 2 sets of 8 reps.  For these, start with 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps.  Once you reach your max, or close to it, perform 2 more progressively heavier sets of 3.  After that, perform 2 back-off sets of 8 reps.
  2. Backward Sled Drags: 3 sets for distance
  3. Forward Sled Drags: 3 sets of distance
Day Two—Pull and Press
  1. Power Cleans: 5 sets of 3 reps, 3 sets of 2 reps.  Work up over 5 progressively heavier sets until you reach your max for 3 reps, then perform 3 progressively heavier doubles.
  2. Standing Overhead Presses: 5 sets of 5 reps, 2 sets of 3 reps, and 2 sets of 8 reps. For these, start with 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps.  Once you reach your max, or close to it, perform 2 more progressively heavier sets of 3.  After that, perform 2 back-off sets of 8 reps.
  3. Power Holds: 2 sets for maximum time.
Day Three—Off
Day Four—Pull and Carry
  1. Deadlifts: 5 sets of 5 reps.  Perform 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps.
  2. Tire Flips: 4 sets for distance
  3. Farmer’s Walks: 4 sets for distance
Day Five—Off
Day Six—Squat and Press
  1. Front Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps, 2 sets of 3 reps, and 2 sets of 8 reps.  For these, start with 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps.  Once you reach your max, or close to it, perform 2 more progressively heavier sets of 3.  After that, perform 2 back-off sets of 8 reps.
  2. Clean and Presses: 5 sets of 5 reps.  Perform 5 progressively heavier sets of 5 reps.  On each rep, you should set the bar on the ground, and then clean it back to your shoulders before pressing.
Day Seven—Off
Day Eight—Repeat
Consume a Lot of Healthy, High-Calorie Food
     I’ve saved the 5th pillar of this program for the end.  This is to reinforce the fact that without proper nutrition this program—as sound as it is—will ultimately be doomed.  Proper nutrition is essential for packing on mass and strength.
     Proper nutrition means you need to eat a lot, but it also means that you don’t eat indiscriminately.  Your goal is to get big and strong, not fat and strong.
     You need to eat a lot of high quality protein, a lot of high quality carbs, and, yes, enough high quality fat.  Here is an example of what your daily diet might look like:
  • Breakfast:
    • Scrambled eggs made with 5 eggs.
    • 2 pieces of turkey bacon.
    • 2 apples
    • 1 cup of coffee
  • Mid-morning Snack:
    • 1 banana
    • 2 tablespoons all-natural peanut butter
    • 2 cups of whole milk
  • Lunch:
    • 16 oz chicken breast
    • 1 baked potato (loaded!)
    • 1 glass water
  • Afternoon Snack:
    • 3 oz of almonds
    • 1 stick of string cheese
    • 1 cup of whole milk
  • Dinner:
    • Grilled steak
    • Steamed broccoli
    • Brown rice
    • 1 glass water
  • Evening Snack:
    • 2 cups of whole milk mixed with whey protein
     As with the workouts, keep in mind that this is just an example.  Some of you many need more food than this in order to gain and recover from the training sessions.
     Gaining mass should be one of the simplest things you do.  There is no need to struggle any longer.  All you need is the dedication and the willpower to follow the type of training and nutrition advice listed here.  Do this, and the muscle-building sky is the limit!

[1] I am not the first writer/trainer to suggest such a system.  Strength coaches Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline have recommended similar programs.


  1. Very interesting read.

    I started a 6 month strength gain (with added calories) and it still surprises me how taxing these workouts are. Twice a week is all I can take.

    ALL compound movements.

    Chest 2x6-12
    Dumbbell pullovers 1 set of 6 - 12 reps
    Back 2x6-12
    Shoulders 2x6-12
    Abs 2x8-12
    Triceps 1x6-12
    Biceps 1x6-12
    Legs 2x8-12
    Calves 2x8-12

    The goal is to start with a weight that I can only do the minimum reps listed and work my way to the highest reps listed (12), once that happens I increase the weight to drop back to the minimum.


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