Countdown for Big Gains:

September 11, 2003 05:30 PM

What is the appropriate ratio of volume and intensity? How can you build limit strength, muscular endurance, and hypertrophy all at the same time? What's a good way to go from sets of five to building for a new max?

If you have been training with weights for any extended period of time you have asked these questions at some point. I know I have. How many times have you expected to hit a new max single after working sets of five only to be disappointed? Or how many times have you wanted to handle heavier weights, but weren't getting enough volume to encourage muscle growth? Weight training is an individual endeavor and achieving success depends greatly on determining what will work for you specifically, but I think there are some training systems that can be of universal benefit. The 54321 system is one of those systems. The 54321 system can be beneficial to many different types of trainees because you can apply it a number of different ways. I will discuss some different ways you can implement this system into your training depending on what your goals are.

Increasing weight on each set

Most, if not all of us, want to get stronger. We aren't satisfied with a 400-pound deadlift, oh no, 405 or 410 sounds much better. We also know that in order to achieve a new PR, we need to lay the groundwork for growth by increasing what our overall work capacity is. Runners call this laying a base, they know that before they can turn in x number of miles in a race, they have to be putting in x number of miles per week. The same is true in weight training. When we become capable of more volume and more intensity during our training week and individual training session, we will be ready for an increase in limit strength. One of the great benefits of the 54321 system is a vast improvement in your weight training conditioning.

If you have been doing your PTP workouts with the standard 2 sets of five, finish up the cycle you are on now with a good hard set of five using PTP style high tension techniques. Now, go back in the logbook and see what you stated the cycle with. Let's say you did a 10-workout session linear cycle that started with 350 and you added 5 pounds per session and ended with 400x5. Awesome work! Well, we know that now you've got to back off for a while and not try to hit the same 5 rep PR week after week or risk burnout and injury, but at the same time, you don't want to loose the feel of that 400 pounds in your hands. What you would do is start your 54321 cycle with say, 355. Your next 10-workout linear cycle may look something like this:

Day 1: 355x5, 365x4, 375x3, 385x2, 395x1
Day 2: 355x5, 365x4, 375x3, 385x2, 400x1
Day 3: 360x5, 370x4, 380x3, 390x2, 400x1
Day 4: 365x5, 375x4, 385x3, 395x2, 405x1
Day 5: 365x5, 375x4, 385x3, 395x2, 410x1
Day 6: 370x5, 380x4, 390x3, 400x2, 410x1
Day 7: 370x5, 380x4, 390x3, 400x2, 415x1
Day 8: 375x5, 385x4, 395x3, 405x2, 415x1
Day 9: 380x5, 390x4, 400x3, 410x2, 420x1
Day 10: 380x5, 390x4, 400x3, 410x2, 425x1

Now, you may be thinking that you still never hit that new 5rep max from the previous PTP cycle. That's ok. It may take several cycles for you to comfortably handle 400 in this scheme because you are doing a lot more work. Let's say you hit that 400x5, then did 360x5 (90%). That's 2000 pounds for the first set, plus 1800 pounds for the second set equaling 3800 pounds. Now, take the first session you did using the 54321 system; add up all those poundages and you have 5525 pounds. By the end of the cycle you are lifting 5905 pounds compared to the 3800 pounds lifted at the end of the PTP cycle. It will take you a little time to get adjusted to the increased volume. If you are new to this system, or if you have been using primarily 2x5, or 3x3, I would suggest starting out in this fashion. If you aren't comfortable adding weight each set, simply add weight every other set. In other words, use the same weight for 5 reps and 4 reps, then add weight and use the same weight for 3 reps and 2 reps, then do a heavy single.

Same weight sets plus a heavy single

This method can be very useful for building up to a max without burning yourself out. This is the method I used to get my wife to deadlift 225 at a bodyweight of 135. Using this method, one would lift the same weight for 5,4,3, and 2 reps, then attempt a heavy single. With this method you are ramping up for one big push by counting down your reps with the same weight, but maintaining tension as if you were adding weight. The ramp up sets can be thought of as a "dress rehearsal" for a heavy single. Why is this method better than warming up for a single the conventional way? Well, you certainly wouldn't fatigue yourself this way before a contest, but by training this way you are adding more volume or total weight lifted to your session, and you are hitting heavy singles that are not true maxes. There is less chance of burning out the nervous system this way because these singles will not be your true limit weights. You can bet that if you pull all of your singles this way, when you get to the meet and warm up the conventional way you will be pleasantly surprised.

Using our same hypothetical lifter capable of 400x5, an example of a 10 session linear cycle using this method would look something like this:

Day 1: 350x5,4,3,2 380x1
Day 2: 350x5,4,3,2 390x1
Day 3: 350x5,4,3,2 400x1
Day 4: 350x5,4,3,2 410x1
Day 5: 350x5,4,3,2 420x1
Day 6: 350x5,4,3,2 430x1
Day 7: 350x5,4,3,2 440x1
Day 8: 350x5,4,3,2 450x1
Day 9: 350x5,4,3,2 460x1
Day 10: 350x5,4,3,2 470x1

The only set that is worked progressively for the cycle is the heavy single. At the same time, you are really "greasing the groove" with 350. Your comfort level with 350 will equate to more practice with high-tension techniques as you prepare for the heavy single of the day.

Same weight throughout

If you choose to employ this scheme, you will not be working as heavy, but it can be just as productive. Using this method you will use the same weight for all 5 sets. To get the most out of this method only rest long enough to get yourself ready for the next set; this can have a tremendous conditioning effect.
Instead of fitting more total weight into one session, you are fitting more total work into a shorter span of time.

Again, using a lifter capable of 400x5 a cycle might look like this:

Day 1: 350x5,4,3,2,1 (90 seconds rest between sets)
Day 2: 350x5,4,3,2,1 (60 seconds rest between sets)
Day 3: 350x5,4,3,2,1 (45 seconds rest between sets)
Day 4: 360x5,4,3,2,1 (90 seconds rest between sets)
Day 5: 360x5,4,3,2,1 (60 seconds rest between sets)
Day 6: 360x5,4,3,2,1 (45 seconds rest between sets)
Day 7: 370x5,4,3,2,1 (2 minutes rest between sets)
Day 8: 370x5,4,3,2,1 (90 seconds rest between sets)
Day 9: 370x5,4,3,2,1 (1 minute rest between sets)
Day 10: 375x5,4,3,2,1 (90seconds rest between sets)

You would be finishing with 375, which is 93% of 400. This is a substantial increase in overall conditioning. Of paramount importance is to maintain tension throughout all sets. No strained backs allowed! You will be breathing hard, but get it under control, get yourself tight, squeeze hard and go. It would not be surprising to find an increase in muscle size to go along with an increase in cardiovascular conditioning using this method.

Make up your own system

Of course, you do not have to do only linear cycles. Linear cycles were referred to here for ease of demonstration. Refer to PTP for examples of different types of cycling. Personally, I prefer wave cycles where I am continuously changing the intensity rather than being locked into a pre-set plan of adding weight each session. If that is what works for you, then good on you. I prefer to have a starting point and a planned ending point for a given cycle and how I get there depends on how I feel each day. If it's day 8 and I'm feeling like only kryptonite can stop me, I will hit my end of cycle weight and wrap it up early. Don't be afraid to experiment and see what works best for you.

You can use the 54321 system up to 4 or 5 times a week, but be aware of what other work you are performing and how your body is reacting to it. If you're training consists of the deadlift and a pressing movement, start with 3 days a week and then add sessions as you get accustomed to the increase in volume. If you add kettlebells, martial arts practice, running, and other sports to your weekly load, start with 2 sessions a week and add as you can. It's better to start conservatively and build than to jump in blindly and get yourself injured. It doesn't matter where you start out; it matters how far you take yourself in the end.

These are just a few ideas on how to implement the 54321 system. Feel free to integrate them into whatever training you are doing right now and you won't be disappointed. When you come up with your own methods for success, share them with the rest of us.

Ken James is a former Navy Corpsman who served in the Marine Corps
Reconnaissance Community for 4 years. He holds a B.S. in Criminal Justice
Studies from the University of North Dakota where he also worked as an
instructor in grappling and submission fighting. He is a state champion
in both powerlifting and kettlebell lifting.