Simple Strength Training

This was the first proper lifting program I ever adhered to. Why? Because it was simple. Other programs had dozens of variations of exercises and convoluted combinations of sets, reps and percentages of maximums, to the point that I always felt I spent longer reading and planning than training.

This is a program created by Alexander Faleev, taken from an article written by Pavel Tsatsouline and shared with the world by Tim Ferriss. There may be better and more effective programs out there, but this one offers 80% of the benefits with 20% of the effort. After all, the most important part about any program is being able to stick to it.

What I Liked About Faleev’s Programm

It’s So Simple

Rock up, do 5 sets, go home. If you succeed in doing 5 reps each time, put the weight up next time. If you don’t, just do it again next time. That’s it. It’s bewilderingly simple and, for me, it worked like an absolute charm. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been happier in the gym than doing this programme because there was nothing to think about except getting in and getting it done. All my focus was on lifting.

Every week you do one session of 5 x 5 for each of the big lifts, then you do a second squat and bench session of 5 x 4 at 80% of whatever you did for your main session, for technique and speed.

That’s it, baby.

It Takes No Time

Faleev’s approach may involve training five days per week, but the sessions take no time at all. I’d say all the lifting is done in about 30 mins: 5 sets of 5 with 5 minute breaks. You can either just smash it out and leave, or you can use the extra time to work on something else like mobility, flexibility or actual skills. Hell, with five minute rest periods, you could even fit your other training in whilst you wait for your next set!

It’s basically impossible to miss a session, unless you genuinely can’t find 30 minutes in your day to look after your physical wellbeing, in which case maybe take a break from Facebook. If you do screw up and miss a session, it’s super easy to fit it in elsewhere in the week – because it’s half an hour.

It Works FAST

Using this program added about 63kg (140lbs) onto my three lifts within 10 weeks. That’s more progress than I’ve ever seen in anything ever. I wasn’t exactly a pro before, but neither was a total beginner. I wrote about my results at the time, here.

I’ve never come anywhere close to matching that monstrous amount of progress again. Of course, it’s hard to know whether to put it down to the program itself or the fact that I had never done a proper weight training program before because they all seem so boring and complicated. Faleev’s approach was easy and stress free, so I actually did it and stuck to it – and that’s the most important thing.

What I Didn’t Like About Faleev’s Programme

Nothing But Strength

Faleev’s 5 x 5 is all about strength training. It’s heavy sets of fairly low volume, week in and week out. It will get you stronger, but that’s it: there’s no conditioning, no volume work, no speed work – nothing that isn’t just grinding out heavy weights. It’s hella boring.

It also didn’t feel like I was developing into an athlete on this program. Of course, that’s a stupid complaint; the weight training only takes half an hour so I had plenty of spare time and energy to build up other parts of my athleticism, if I was so inclined. However, as a lifting program, I can’t help but feel like it should focus on something other than brute strength. The second bench and squat sessions were great for working on technique, but working at around 60 – 65% of my maximum for sets of 4 didn’t feel like it was developing my speed or my endurance.

It’s Hyper-Intense

Eventually, this programme got too hard for me. I’d just about complete 5 x 5 of a weight and find that the next session would be too heavy to complete even one set. The probable explanation is that, although you might be able to stick 5kg on every week to start with, as you near you true maximums and your progress starts to slow, you simply can’t make the same incremental jumps. At that point you need to make smaller jumps, or work in different ranges and volumes to get stronger.

Here’s an example. Say your max lift is 100kg. That makes your five rep max about 85kg (85%). With long enough rest periods, you could probably grind out five sets at 82.5kg. The next session you’d stick the weight up by 5kg to 87.5kg, which makes it now higher than your five rep max and closing in on your three rep max (90% of 100kg). This time your first set is going to be three or four reps sat best, and other four sets will be nowhere near. It’s demoralising, kinda dangerous and absolutely physically exhausting.

However, I feel like it I used smaller increments (1.25kg or 2.5kg instead of 5kg), eaten much more food and taken the occasional rest week, I would have continued to improve for much longer than I actually did.

Overall:

For a beginner, Faleev’s approach is great. It’s simple, easy to learn and new lifters will make great progress almost every single session. Those who need a little more time and variation to make increases in strength probably need a little bit more going on, but Faleev was a legendary lifter and says this is how he trained all the time, so what the fuck do I know?

Personally, I loved this programme. I felt like I only stopped making progress because I made the mistakes of not eating enough to recover and using set increments that were probably too big. That’s especially true for my bench press, which improved quite a bit and then stalled completely because I added too much weight too fast. Here’s my theory of better progression:
If I can complete 5 x 5 of a weight, it’s probably about 81% of my max. At that point, instead of just slapping a set additional 2.5 – 5kg on and seeing what happens, I should specifically add enough weight to bring it up to 84% of my max, so I can probably manage just a couple of sets of 5. By training at this new 84% I’ll gradually get stronger until I can do 5 x 5, at which point I’ll know it has dropped to more like 81% of my max and I can stick the weight up again – but specifically to 84%.

That’s my basic theory, anyway. If you compare it to much more complicated strength training approaches, is actually a fairly universal theme: train around 85% of your max until it’s no longer 85%.

However, current thinking suggests that lifting the same weight until you can do more reps doesn’t have the same physiological impact as lifting consistently heavier weights for fewer reps. Both approaches make you stronger, but the former makes your muscles more capable of greater large forces many times, whereas the latter makes them capable of producing greater forces overall.

That led me to seek a program that made me learn to shift more weight, instead of waiting for my muscles to be capable of doing more with the same weight.

Enter 531…

About the Author
Ed Gamester is a silly man who lives in the United Kingdom. He is the harbinger of Ghost Squad, singer of Gay Bum and author of A Rum Run Awry. He fights, kills and dies for TV and films, and gallivants around the place wrestling, drinking and lifting things for glory and profit. Where Ed treads, there stamp the boots of the Guild. Ed does not wear glasses, but feels this photograph makes him look more intelligent and artistically talented than he is. Feel free to contact him: he is disappointingly affable.

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