In November 2018, I joined a gym for the first time in my life, with the simple goal of becoming stronger. Not bigger, stronger—an often-overlooked but major difference.
I had never done strength training before. I was, and still am, no big guy, measuring 1.80 meters in height and weighing in at 78 kilograms (5'11", 171lbs). I did have some experience in Freeletics, which is a bodyweight training program carried out in a Crossfit-like manner, meaning lots and lots of repetitions and a strong focus on endurance and stamina rather than pure strength.
My frustration with Freeletics was that I did not feel like I was getting stronger. I got more fit, for sure, but not really stronger.
To give you a gauge of my fitness level at the time I started strength training: I could do 25 burpees in 1 minute and 28 seconds and I could run 5 kilometers in a little under 25 minutes and 10 kilometers in about 55 minutes, translating to 5:30 per kilometer, or 8:51 per mile.
Strength-wise however, I was dead average. I could do a maximum of 12 push-ups in a row, and stuff like pull-ups was not even on my menu.
So I joined a gym to do weight training. And as my results were quite impressive for me, I figured they might be for you as well. The steps I took are surprisingly simple. The time invested — surprisingly little. The money spent — quite affordable.
Before We Start
What You’ll Need
- Access to a gym with barbells and weights
- Comfortable workout clothes
- Steady, flat gym shoes, preferably weightlifting shoes
- Three hours per week to train
What You Won’t Need
- A special diet
- A pre-workout or other stimulants
- Whey or other protein powders
Gyms Can Be Intimidating
But really, they aren’t. My very first day at my new gym, I entered the dressing room, and one of the trainers was there too. He took off his shirt, and his body was totally Instagrammable and perfume ad–worthy. But he also was the kindest, most helpful guy. He became somewhat of a mentor to me, helping me with whatever questions I had and supporting me along the way.
He’s also the person who put me on the strength program that yielded the quick strength gains that I am sharing with you today.
Picking a Gym That Works for You
I picked a gym that was close to my workplace. This way, I could easily incorporate workouts into my day, before or after work, or even during work. I also went for a gym that looked trustworthy, not too busy, and sophisticated.
It’s worth investing in a gym with proper support and quality materials. Especially when you start out, you will want all the help you can get, and you want to work with safe, well-maintained equipment.
Strength training does not come without risks! Therefore, qualified trainers and proper equipment can go a long way. “Lift safe” is what they say.
The gym I joined had invested in a great visual identity, pretty good photography, and a custom-made, bespoke website. This showed me that its staff cared about the details.
How Much Should a Gym Membership Cost?
My membership costs €60 per month (about $70), which gives me one credit for one training session every day. I suggest choosing a membership that allows you to go every day, because this will give you the freedom to reschedule as needed.
Cheaper gyms tend to be more crowded and to have less experienced trainers and lower-quality equipment. I’d recommend starting out in a good, respected gym that’s more on the costly side — you can always switch to a cheaper gym once you’ve got all the basics right.
What a gym costs varies widely per country, state, city, and even neighborhood. Read reviews, ask around, and when you’re considering a place, ask for a free training session to check out the vibe, the trainers, and the equipment. If during a free session no one notices you and there is no guidance, it’s not a good gym.
What to Expect
I increased my strength from basically zero (absolute beginner) to novice in four months of training, totaling 37 sessions of approximately one hour each. If you’re dedicated and are generally healthy, you can do this too.
- You will be training for roughly three hours every week.
- You will be sore after some training days, but not all of them.
- You will become significantly stronger and able to lift a respectable amount of weight within four months.
You will not gain massive, pumped-up muscles. Strength programs are not the same as bulking programs. This is a strength program. You will see a difference, but this program does not yield beach bodies.
Within the powerlifting community, this type of training program is well known. I did not invent it, and it is not new. However, I had never heard of it before, and neither had most of my friends, colleagues, or acquaintances. The effectiveness of the program made me think, “If only I had known about this before.”
This is my way of letting you know before.
The Magic Number Five
The program contains only five exercises. These exercises train the biggest compounds (combinations of multiple joints and muscle groups). People may tell you that this is not enough. It is. To become stronger, these five exercises cover everything you need.
- The squat
- The deadlift
- The benchpress
- The bent-over row
- The overhead press
We will get into each one of these in a minute.
You will perform five sets of each exercise per workout (except for deadlifts, which you’ll actually only perform one set of—more on that later). A workout consists of three of the five exercises, with one overlapping exercise every workout — the squat. So your alternating workouts will look like this:
- Workout 1: squats, benchpress, bent-over rows (in that order)
- Workout 2: squats, overhead press, deadlift (in that order)
Every set consists of five reps of the exercise. Just five heavy reps of the same weight. That’s all.
Three Times per Week
Your goal is to do your exercise program three times per week. If you can only get two workouts in per week, you can do that and still make progress, albeit more slowly. But your goal is three.
Before the squat, benchpress, and overhead press, you will do a warmup that looks like this:
- Five reps with the empty bar
- Five reps with 45 percent of the training weight
- Three reps with 65 percent of the training weight
- One rep with 85 percent of the training weight
(There’s more about how to figure out training weight and how to do each exercise below—keep reading!)
You don’t rest between the warm-up sets. Deadlifts and bent-over rows do not require a warmup, as they are performed last.
Apart from the specific warm-up sets, I do a short general warm-up consisting of the following:
- 50 jumping jacks to get my blood flowing
- 10 lunges, during which I focus on technique and control
- A five-minute yoga session to improve mobility, including downward-facing dog, a few plank variations, chaturanga, and child’s pose.
You do not rest between reps. They are to be performed back-to-back. One rep ends, the next rep begins.
You do rest between sets. These are the rules for resting:
- If the set was easy, rest for 1 minute and 30 seconds.
- If the set was hard, rest for 3 minutes.
- If you missed any reps, rest 5 minutes and try again. You will get the next set — I promise.
If you are a complete beginner like me, it is suggested that you start with the following weights. Don’t worry if they feel light at first — the weights will quickly increase. No need to rush things.
- Squat: 20 kilograms (empty bar)
- Benchpress: 20 kilograms (empty bar)
- Deadlift: 20 kilograms (empty bar)
- Overhead press: 20 kilograms (empty bar)
- Bent-over rows: 20 kilograms (empty bar)
Yes, you will start everything with an empty bar. This allows you to focus on technique. You might feel that the exercises are too easy for you. Your eagerness is good! But trust me, focusing on technique now will greatly help your progress further down the road and prevent you from hitting plateaus early on.
Don’t be tempted to squeeze out more reps, skip warm-ups, or increase weights too quickly. Stick to the program — the simplicity is what makes it work. Don’t jinx that.
Every time you successfully finish five sets of an exercise, you will increase its weight the next time you do the exercise.
All exercises are increased by 2.5 kilograms after five successful sets, except for the deadlift, which is increased by 5 kilograms after each successful set (as you only do one set). This seems like a lot, but you’ll be surprised by how quickly you will become stronger.
If you do not finish five sets of five reps, do not increase the weight.
Putting It All Together
This is what the schedule looks like when you start with the empty bar (weighing 20 kilograms):
- Five sets of five squats at 20 kilograms
- Five sets of five benchpresses at 20 kilograms
- Five sets of five bent-over rows at 20 kilograms
- Five sets of five squats at 22.5 kilograms
- Five sets of five overhead presses at 20 kilograms
- One set of five deadlifts at 20 kilograms
- Five sets of five squats at 25 kilograms
- Five sets of five benchpresses at 22.5 kilograms
- Five sets of five bent-over rows at 22.5 kilograms
- Five sets of five squats at 27.5 kilograms
- Five sets of five overhead presses at 22.5 kilograms
- One set of five deadlifts at 25 kilograms
- Five sets of five squats at 30 kilograms
- Five sets of five benchpresses at 25 kilograms
- Five sets of five bent-over rows at 25 kilograms
- Five sets of five squats at 32.5 kilograms
- Five sets of five overhead presses at 25 kilograms
- One set of five deadlifts at 30 kilograms
… and so on.
By workout 6, you’re only two weeks in and have already increased your squat by 62.5 percent and your deadlift by 50 percent. That’s what I call progress!
If you stick to it and don’t miss any reps, this is what week 5 will look like:
- Five sets of five squats at 57.5 kilograms
- Five sets of five overhead presses at 40 kilograms
- One set of five deadlifts at 55 kilograms
Wow! That’s a 278.5 percent increase on your squat, a 275 percent increase on your deadlift, and a 100 percent increase on your overhead press.
Workout 15 is also the time you will probably start missing reps — at least that’s when I did. Don’t sweat it; missing reps is part of the program. This means you’re really pushing your limits, and your body will adapt accordingly.
Take five minutes after a failed set and try to get five reps the next set. Don’t increase the weight until you complete five sets of five reps.
Always consult your trainer before trying a new exercise and keep asking experts to look at your form while you do your exercise. Good form is essential, and you’re not in the position to see how your own execution is.
As a workaround, I filmed myself doing the exercises using my phone’s slow-motion function. This way, I could review my form and compare my execution from day to day. It also helps to replay your slow-motion recording together with your trainer, as he or she will be able to show you what you’re doing right — and what you could improve.
I am not certified trainer, so I’m including links to instruction videos by former powerlifting champion Mark Rippetoe that greatly helped me.
In this exercise you squat down with a loaded barbell on your shoulders and then stand back up in a controlled manner and with a focus on keeping your back straight.
In this exercise you lower a barbell down to your chest while laying on your back and then push it back up, locking your elbows at the top.
The Overhead Press
In this exercise you stand straight up, lift the barbell overhead from the chest while locking elbows, and then slowly lower it back down.
The Bent-Over Row
In this exercise you bend over with the barbell in your hands, keeping a straight back, make a rowing motion in which the barbell moves toward your bellybutton, and then slowly lower it back down.
In this exercise, you lift a (loaded) barbell off the ground. The weight, when on the ground, is dead — hence the name. Focus on a straight back and a tight core. After standing up straight, the weight is lowered back down — not dropped — before the next rep is executed.
My Training Log
Here is my entire training log, so you can see my progress and how often I trained. Before I started this schedule, I did two lessons together with my trainer to get the technique right. He then suggested I start with a little more than the empty bar on some of the exercises.
You can clearly see the reps I missed, and also the setback on January 30 after nine days of not training. The last week my trainer gave me some extra advice and instructed me to slightly increase the rep pace, which greatly increased my efficiency and caused a pretty big leap in weight.
Challenges I Ran Into (and You Might as Well)
There are always setbacks—but setbacks are there to be overcome. Even though my process went pretty smoothly, I did run into a few challenges.
Not Having Time
My way of handling this was prescheduling three workouts for the coming week each Sunday. Then when the week unfolded, I would readjust the schedule if absolutely necessary. However, already having the three workouts planned helped me mold the rest of the week around the workouts, instead of the other way around. Having to try to squeeze in a last-minute workout when you’re tired and just want to go home and eat is a lot harder than knowing you’re going to work out on, say, Wednesday.
Skipping Workouts Happens
Even if you’ve prescheduled your workouts, things will come up, schedules will change, and loved ones will want attention. That’s why I prefer to get my workout out of the way as early in the day as possible — meaning mornings. Not everyone is good at working out at 7 or 8 a.m., but I promise, the more you do it, the easier it will get, and it will make your day a lot better knowing you’ve already got the workout down.
Also, skipping one workout every now and then will not stall your progress all that much. It’s all about striking a healthy balance.
Stagnation Can Occur
On one occasion, I missed 10 days of working out. When I got back to the program, I had to unload all weight by approximately 10 percent. That meant I had lost a week and a half of progress.
Even though this can be frustrating, the fact that you came back after stagnation is to be applauded. Be happy to be back in the gym rather than mourning over the lost progress. You’ll get back to your previous level before you know it.
However, stagnation can be prevented. If you know you don’t have the time or you will be very busy for longer than a week, you can try to squeeze in one short workout during which you at least get some reps in at your weight. This will make sure your muscles are still used to lifting the weights. You might not progress, but at least you won’t lose progress either.
This is a great tip that I got from my trainer that I applied once when I felt I was catching a cold. I did not go all the way, but I did get some reps in, which helped me maintain my strength.
Injury isn’t common when you follow a well-balanced program. However, I can only advise you to be careful. It’s better to progress a little slower but more safely than to maximize progress and risk injury. In the end, if you get injured, at minimum you will lose the progress you could otherwise have been making.
I did run into some discomfort in my left quadriceps, so I immediately sought counsel from a physiotherapist. Following their recommendation for an adjusted, more gentle warm-up schedule relieved this issue.
This was no real concern for me, but in general I found that most people are nice when you just openly talk to them. If all equipment is taken, there’s no harm in asking if you can share one barbell rack, doing your reps while the other person rests. Or you can mix in some light mobility exercises while you wait. Be careful not to engage in too demanding exercises if you do this, though — you’ll want to save your strength to get your reps in.
The basics are simple. I hope this helps you become a stronger version of yourself. If I can do this, you can too. Stay positive, stick to the program, and whatever you do, don’t give up. Oh — and have some fun while you’re at it too.