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Workout Systems: 5,4,3,2,1 Training Method

Bob Hoffman was born in 1898, and a lifetime of service to the sport earned him the nickname, “The Father of American Weightlifting.” Hoffman was a prolific writer, and in his early works he described a pyramid type of program design known as the 5,4,3,2,1 Training Method.

Hoffman believed that a good guideline for getting strong was to perform a total of 15 “quality” repetitions of a given exercise: 5,4,3,2,1 equals 15 reps, as does 5×3 and 3×5. Although there are flaws in this logic as sets of 5 produces a different training stimulus that sets of 3, the 5,4,3,2,1 Training Method became a widely-used program used by countless athletes in the Iron Game. It was a favorite of Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale, a former world powerlifting champion and popular writer on strength training, nutrition, and supplements.
One benefit of the 5,4,3,2,1 Training Method is that it teaches the muscles and nervous system how to express their true 1-rep maximum. It’s difficult to go from performing habitual sets of 10-12 reps to doing a true 1RM because these higher reps don’t recruit the higher-threshold fibers that produce maximum muscle force.
Powerlifter John McKean wrote about the training method is 1969 in Muscular Development, a magazine owned by Hoffman. Here is what he said about it. “The countdown provides the lifter with several advantages. First of all, he is relieved of the boredom of doing set after set with the same weight or for the same number of counts. Secondly, he looks forward to each coming set because, in his mind, the decreased repetitions make it easier to perform. Of course there is more weight to contend with but those detestable reps are diminished! It can also be seen that the body acquires a gradual adjustment to an ever-increasing weight. When one can force his mind and body to accept heavier workloads, he begins to improve.”
The program is simple. After performing several warm-up sets, anywhere from 1-5 reps with progressively heavier weights, you select a weight equal to your 5-repetition maximum (5RM), and perform 5 reps. From here you add 2-3 percent more weight every set, doing one fewer rep each set until you reach your 1RM. The difficulty of a particular set determines how much weight you will use for your next set. If a weight is easy, increase by 3 percent or more. If the weight is a struggle, a 1 percent increase is a better choice.
Here’s what a typical work/set progression would look like for a squat (after warm-up), assuming the 1RM for the movement is about 135 kg:
Sample Work/Set Progression
115 x 5
120 x 4
125 x 3
128 x 2
132 x 1
NOTE: Increase resistance by about 5kg increments
Obviously, you’ll need to adjust the starting weight upwards by small amounts as you progress. For instance, if you successfully completed all the reps (5,4,3,2,1), you’ll need to add a small amount of weight on the first working set of the next workout.
Agonists and antagonists muscles can be alternated with supersets using this training method. Here is a sample routine arm routine using the 5,4,3,2,1 method:
A1. Decline Close-Grip Bench Press, 5,4,3,2,1, 3210, 120 seconds rest
A2. Scott One-Arm DB Curl, 5,4,3,2,1, 6010, 120 seconds rest
B1. Incline BB Triceps Extension, 5,4,3,2,1, 3110, 120 seconds rest
B2. Standing Reverse Curl, 5,4,3,2,1, 3210, 120 seconds rest
There are many interpretations of the 5,4,3,2,1 Training Method. For example, weightlifters were known to add several more single reps at the end of the program to future stimulate maximal strength, such as with the following progression: 5,4,3,2,1,1,1. Also, some lifters would not use maximal weights for the first two sets, starting with perhaps 80 percent of their 5-rep maximum (1RM) and progressing to maximal weights.
The 5,4,3,2,1 Training Method has a long history, and it’s popularity suggests that it can be an effective way to shock your muscles into higher levels of strength. Give it a try, for old time’s sake!