By John Destacamento, December 14th, 2020


Introduction to Series

In the world of fitness ask someone to describe the word “strength” and many people will visualize a Strongman competitor, Olympic Weightlifter, Powerlifter or Bodybuilder. Strength coaches are the back-bone to these athletes influencing with their own specific style of programming. However strength programs share many basic fundamentals. The methods I discuss within this series are some of the more popular frameworks. These frameworks are guidelines and it is more logical for coaches to design the actual guts of the program based on the level of the individual and their specific goals. For example, if annotation says to perform 5 reps of squats at 65%, coaches should determine the appropriate rest periods, tweaking of technique and regressions when necessary.


You may have already heard of "Strong-Lifts." (StrongLifts, 2020) The name sounds new but the techniques have been around for decades. In the early 90’s I read an article called the Fabulous Five which includes the: Squat, Bench Press, Military Press, Barbell Row, Deadlift. It’s only a matter of time before another fitness influencer writes a spin-off version calling it something like the “Barbell 5” or “Strength Base Lifts.” Heavy Barbell Lifts is just another program similar to Strong Lifts thus the most simple and straight forward technique within this series.

Most programs are split into two workouts meaning half of your primary lifts are on day 1 and the other half on day 2 which is 48 to 72 hours later. The exercises within this program are compound movements such as the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift which may include Barbell Rows, Military Presses, Lat Pull Downs and others. If you visit the Strong Lifts site, they claim to be a lean version of the Starting Strength Program.


In this series I won’t dive into details of the Starting Strength (Rippetoe, 2017) book by Mark Rippetoe. I do own two copies of his book and support his content. Starting Strength is a very good read for beginning strength competitors. It provides a significant amount of scientific details and studies including useful amounts of kinesiology and exercise biology. However, the title of this series is “Strength Methods used by Top Coaches.” So my intentions are to provide specific methods not an entire training program. Starting Strength leans towards the Linear Progression method which will be discussed later in the series. Linear Progression is just one of several strength techniques.

I wanted to include a model similar to Strong Lifts to this series because it provides a good guideline to lifting heavy. Strength coaches usually cannot apply their best techniques until lifters are in the Novice stage so utilizing techniques from Strong Lifts has good starting ground.


Heavy Barbell Lifts and Strong Lifts are recognized by their numbers which are 5 by 5. Meaning 5 repetitions and 5 sets. Most coaches suggest no more than 5 exercises per workout, this adds up to 25 sets with most of them being heavy loads. Even with 3 exercises on one day and another 3 for the next workout can be effective if done right.

    Monday: Day 1
  • Squat : 5 reps, 5 sets.
  • Bench Press: 5 Reps, 5 sets.
  • Lat Pull Down: 5 reps, 5 sets.

    Wednesday: Day 2
  • Deadlift: 5 reps, 5 sets.
  • Strict Press: 5 reps, 5 sets.
  • Barbell Rows, 5 reps, 5 sets.

Friday: Repeat Day 1

Then repeat sequence the following week starting with Day 2 on Monday.
Video: Kristin Pampeyan, UCSB.
The Strict Press aka Standing Military Press is often left out in many strength programs. I always suggest it in almost all my programs. For Olympic Style Lifting, it's a must to be included to your accessory work.

Sets must start moderately heavy and there is no gradual progression build up. I prefer to have my lifters warm up with 3 reps of 20% then again at 30% of their calculated 1 rep max. This set is not counted within the 5 primary sets. The lifter proceeds with 65% for sets one and two, then 75% for sets 3, 4, and 5.


I highly suggest not attempting a one rep maximum without the presence of a qualified coach. You can easily estimate your one rep maximum by determining the three rep maximum. My method is to have the client (at least novice, no beginners) lift multiple sets with a gradual build up. Begin with the estimated 50% for 3 reps. If you have no clue, start with half their body weight after warm up. It may take several sets to reach that official 3 rep max. What is important is to provide longer interval rests so the client recovers accordingly and doesn’t get too tired before reaching max. When the client begins to struggle at the last rep of the 3, that’s where you’ll stop. This is estimated as 85%. The procedure looks something like this:
  • General and specific warm ups
  • Set one: 50%, 3 reps.
  • No struggle on set 1, then Set 2 add 5%,
  • No struggle on set 2, then Set 3 add 5%

Continue this pattern until you noticeably struggle on a repetition. This will be your estimated 85%. If happen to struggle on the first or second set, then that amount will become your 85%, no longer necessary to continue.

This process usually takes 8 sets, so keep in mind rests between sets should be longer as the weight becomes heavier. 90 seconds to 120 seconds are ideal.
clean Photo:John Destacamento, EfitX founder.
If you are planning to compete in a Powerlifting meet, practice discipline according to your organization rules. The USA Powerlifting organization (USAPL) requires the Bench Press bar to be stabilized (unmoving) at the touch of the chest, so this may require about a one second pause before thrusting the bar upward. Also USAPL requires your feet to stay flat on the floor during the lift. Visit the USAPL for detailed information.

Although you do not attempt a PR in this type of program, you can estimate this by adding 10 to 15% to your 85%. If you can hit 200 lbs for 3 reps with a slight struggle. Your one rep is estimated between 220 to 230 lbs.


Let’s assume the lifter has a one rep max P.R. of 315 lbs.
  • Set 1: 65% - 205 lbs, 5 reps
  • Set 2: 65% - 205 lbs, 5 reps
  • Set 3: 75% - 235 lbs, 5 reps
  • Set 4: 75% - 235 lbs, 5 reps
  • Set 5: 75% - 235 lbs, 5 reps
It is not recommended to max-out or try for personal records within this program. The purpose is to hit moderate to heavy loads consistently for the first week. After a few weeks, usually three, the loads shift with a progression of about 5 to 10 percent. The reset would look like this:


  • Set 1: 65% - 215 lbs, 5 reps
  • Set 2: 65% - 215 lbs, 5 reps
  • Set 3: 75% - 250 lbs, 5 reps
  • Set 4: 75% - 250 lbs, 5 reps
  • Set 5: 75% - 250 lbs, 5 reps
Of course, this is with the assumption that the lifter has set a new one rep max weight which is not technically true yet. Other coaches may suggest a smaller or larger incremental increase weekly or bi-weekly.
Photo:John Destacamento, EfitX founder. Masters 50, 67kg class


To get the maximum benefit of your lifts, practice full range or near full range of motion for every repetition. This becomes more difficult to achieve as you get older. If you plan to do a competition it is important that your squats break parallel to the floor with your hips. This is utmost important or you’ll be red flagged which nullifies your lift. Most novice lifters develop bad habits by not producing enough depth in their squats and often bounce bars off their chests while performing the Bench Press. It is recommended to hire a strength coach at the beginning of your training so you don't waste time fiddling around and taking risks.


Don’t do accessory lifts. An example is when you performed 5 sets of Bench Press then decide to perform a few Chest Flys, you hinder the ability for that muscle to recover thus make it difficult to monitor statistics.

Don’t perform more than 5 repetitions. The objective is to keep the load of weight significantly heavy. If you are capable of doing eight reps in the last three sets of five, logically, the load amount is not heavy enough. If you perform eight reps in the first two sets, then you are only tiring yourself out prior to finishing the exercise.

Don’t add ballistic movement exercises to your routine. No explosive exercises which involve speed and power. A clean is a ballistic movement which involves more technique than strength.

Don’t gradually build up amounts each sets and don’t perform de-loaded sets. Like mentioned above, the objective is to have at least 4 of the 5 sets fairly intense. A few warm ups is okay, but they must be significantly light, no more than 30% at 5 reps.


Heavy Barbell Lifts is a good strength starter program. It's simple to follow and ideal for clients to do a few workouts per week on their own without a coach. It utilizes the linear progression model so it keeps risk of injury fairly low. However after weeks or months of applying small increments as the linear progression suggests, strength adaptation arrives quicker when compared to most other training methods. This eventually means your progress may hit the wall or you may get stuck sooner since this program denounces accessory lifting along with no increase in repetitions plus no variances.

I wouldn't recommend this program for long term. I prefer to perform this method with beginning to novice clients for a duration of eight weeks. After eight weeks, my suggestion would be to cycle into a different program or method for the following several weeks and fall back to this type of program if you desire.

Are you ready for Heavy Barbell Lifts or Strong Lifts? Ask a qualified strength coach.
Read Fitness Biography of EfitX founder John Destacamento
03-29-2021: How to build a home gym on a budget. By Rebecca Lake
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12-15-2020: Going back to the gym tips.
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Stronglifts, 2020, © 2007-2020 StrongLifts is a Trademark of StrongLifts Ltd. Read more

Rippetoe, 2017, Starting Strength, 3rd EditionBook, © The Aasgaard Company

USA Powerlifting, 2020, Organization

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