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Heavy 5’s for the win: A look beneath the surface!

Recently, our Lift n Movers completed a week of 1 rep maxes: squats on Monday, followed by bench presses and deadlifts on Friday. To our surprise, many of us hit personal bests. This was unexpected because we didn’t follow a traditional peaking cycle or taper down for recovery. We just showed up and lifted. So, what was going on beneath the surface that made this possible?

First, most of our training revolves around sets of heavy 5 reps. Heavy 5’s efficiently stimulate the nervous system, minimize lactic acid build-up, reduce soreness, and allow for excellent form and bar speed. They also enhance muscle tone and strength. While “size and strength” might sound intimidating, “tone” better describes the benefits from scientifically applied weight training principles. Heavy 5’s also improve the muscle’s contractile strength, or its ability to lift weight.

More importantly, heavy 5’s allow for progressive loading, leading to strength gains when applied slowly, steadily, consistently, and intelligently. This approach keeps the hormonal (endocrine) system in check, providing enough stimulus to challenge it without overwhelming it. This balance enables hormones to facilitate the biochemical adaptations necessary for progress. This is the holy grail of lifting: applying enough stimulus to strengthen muscles at a rate the endocrine system can handle.

These metabolic effects from heavy 5’s carry over to all strength endeavors, particularly 1 rep maxes. We didn’t need to peak or taper because our bodies are always ready to adapt under careful sequential loading, coupled with adequate rest. We only occasionally test our “always ready” state to see where we stand, as frequent testing can be counterproductive.

During test week, we closely monitored the lifters’ level of psyche or arousal. We aimed for a heavy 1 rep max attempt that was a 9 or 10 on the effort scale, avoiding 11 or even 10.5. Overreaching to 10.5 could result in missed lifts or injuries and could crush the hormonal system, leaving lifters wrecked for days. While this might be acceptable on a competition platform twice a year, it’s not suitable for our Lift n Movers, who train multiple times a week, year-round.

The difference between a 10 and a 10.5 effort is the difference between adrenaline and noradrenaline. Both hormones mobilize the body for action, but their effects differ. Adrenaline induces frenzy and fear, while noradrenaline promotes aggression and impassiveness. We encouraged lifters to approach the barbell with absolute certainty and no hesitation, minimizing stress on the body during max attempts. This strategy favored noradrenaline (lion) over adrenaline (rabbit). We want to be lions, not rabbits—choosing control and certainty over frenzy and doubt. This approach worked: no misses, lots of heavy singles, and plenty of PRs.

After the test week, we returned to a new wave of heavy 5’s. Starting at about 85% of our previous max, we plan to increase the weight gradually over the weeks, allowing the hormones to create the optimal metabolic environment for progress. The bottom of the wave, where the hormonal system refreshes itself, is arguably more important than the peak.

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