Having done all manner of bodyweight exercises for the past eight years, I wanted to try something new. My gains had tapered off, and doing more of the same wouldn’t help. I decided to sign up for a gym and try weightlifting. My plan was to run StrongLifts 5×5 and see where it took me.
That plan was scuttled on Day One.
The StrongLifts program requires power racks and barbells. Every time I entered the gym, every rack and barbell would be in use. There would always be someone else waiting in line to use them.
I had to make do with what was left.
Improvise, Adapt, Overcome
I took stock of the situation. The other gym goers didn’t just take the racks and bars. They grabbed the benches and occupied the machines. Without fail, there would always be people on the equipment, and more people waiting for their turn. The one thing I could count on to be reliably available were the fixed barbells.
Fixed bars became the foundation of my new program. My goal was simple: gain muscle by lifting heavy. I wanted to go for big compound lifts: I only had between 45 minutes to an hour at the gym, so I had to maximise efficiency. I played around with the lifts for a while, eventually settling on squats, bent over barbell rows, clean and press, and of course, deadlifts.
I started with 30 kilos. Lift five reps, rest, then lift again. I did one exercise at a time, moving on only when I completed my five sets. I timed each rest session for twenty deep breaths, longer I needed it, shorter if I could get away with it. As it transpired, 30 kg was the bare minimum I could do. Coming to the end of the workout, I couldn’t even hit five complete sets. The day after I completed a proper workout, I awoke stiff and sore everywhere.
But it was progress.
The plan was to work out three times a week: Monday, Wednesday and Friday. The rest of the week was for recovery and light workouts. At that time, rest was absolutely critical: my body just wouldn’t handle heavy exercises two days in a row.
My initial goal was to hit five sets of five reps of 30 kilos for all four exercises. With each session, I aimed to lift more reps than the last. If I could only do three sets of five reps the last time around, then I aimed to do three sets of five reps, plus one more rep. I built on that foundation, steadily working my way up to 5×5. If I couldn’t meet the day’s objective of lifting more reps, that was fine: I stuck to the old number and kept trying until I could. Within the first month, I had hit my target.
StrongLift’s approach of five sets of five reps of ever-increasing weight sounded good, but since I couldn’t count on the bars and adjustable weights being available, I had to be very careful about increasing weight. The fixed bars came in increments of ten kilos. Not insurmountable — it just required care.
After clearing 5×5 of 30kg, I picked up the 40kg barbell. It was noticeably heavier than the previous weight, but I was committed. I began with the modest goal of three sets of five reps. The extra weight piled on me fast: rest breaks took longer, and near the end I could barely squeeze out that many reps. The following day, the aching muscles returned.
I decided I would stick to my original goal of 3×5 until I could lift the bar with good form. No failed weight, no stumbling, no loss of balance, just good clean lifts. When I met that goal, I slowly worked my way up to 5×5. I spent a week doing 5×5 of 40kg, ensuring I could take the strain, before moving on to 3×3 of 50 kg and working up again.
Every increment is a new challenge. At lighter weights you might be able to muscle your way through. But at heavier loads, you have to start paying attention to form, or you will develop debilitating injuries. More than a few times I had to scale back to a lower weight or stick to smaller sets until I was ready. I learned to listen to my body, to pay attention to how I reacted to weight, and adjust accordingly. When in doubt, I fell back on lighter loads and lower reps: a man can always try for heavier weights at a later date, but he can’t recover so quickly from torn tendons, crushed bones or blown joints.
Do the Work, But Don’t Be An Idiot
No matter how busy I was, I made time for the gym. The weather didn’t matter, the time didn’t matter, how tired I was didn’t matter, I showed up and did the work three times a week.
If I showed up late, I adapted. If I was really tired and I couldn’t lift big, I toned it down. If I had something to do on a regularly scheduled gym day that I could not avoid, I made certain to show up on the following day. No excuses, no whining, just show up and do the work.
That is the secret to success in everything you do. You have to keep working at it, and keep getting better. You will always be tempted to slack off. Know that to succumb to temptation is to sabotage yourself. Be it writing, martial arts, gym or whatever else you do, if you want to get good at it, you have to show up and do the work.
Of course, the flipside is that you shouldn’t be an idiot.
If you’re struggling to finish a rep, you shouldn’t recklessly muscle through it if it means compromising your form. You’re there to get stronger, not to risk injury. If you’re sick, you shouldn’t show up. Working hard will only delay the recovery process, and it is rude to pass on your disease. Two months ago, I was bedridden with severe conjunctivitis for almost a week. I couldn’t even exercise: trying to run, jump, do push-ups or other activities drove up the blood pressure in my eyes, leading to throbbing aches. I simply rested until I had recovered. When I returned to the gym, I started off light, then worked my way back up.
Work hard. Give yourself no excuses to slack off. But respect your physical limits and stay safe and healthy. You’re going to the gym to get stronger, not to give yourself lifelong injuries.
Building Back Up
The iron tears your muscles down. Rest and nutrition build them up stronger than before.
I can’t advise anyone on pre-workout supplements, protein shakes or sports drinks. I’m allergic to everything on the market. I had to figure out nutrition the old-fashioned way: clean eating.
There are plenty of formulae and guidelines out there to calculate your optimal nutrient intake. The general principle is to consume plenty of protein and nutrients, moderate your carbohydrate intake, and have more saturated fat. Thanks to my dietary restrictions I’m practically forced to eat clean anyway. The one major change I made was to reduce rice and other sources of empty carbohydrates, and substitute them with chicken, tuna, eggs, and huge amounts of vegetables.
My current diet revolves around oats, white rice, white meat, eggs, the occasional fruit, pork and mutton where possible, and all the vegetables I’m not allergic to. I don’t presently have the time or inclination to measure every little gram of nutrient that goes into my diet. I just make sure that at least two-thirds of what I eat every day contains vegetables and protein, and the rest takes care of itself.
My hydration plan is equally simple: lots of water every day. Tea if the occasion calls for it, fruit juice if it’s available, but absolutely no soft drinks and coffee. This is less a lifestyle choice than a dietary requirement, but I have no issues with it. The body, after all, is 70 percent water, and you need to keep yourself topped up.
For me, the critical factor was getting enough sleep. Sleep deprivation is the bane of modern living, and a roadblock to getting stronger. You can’t keep abusing your body and expect it to get better without giving it time to recover. While my current schedule requires a workweek that fluctuates between 50 to 60 hours of work, I still take time out to get at least 7, preferably 8, hours of sleep. It’s not always possible, but I try my best.
Putting Everything Together
As I grew more comfortable with the iron, I experimented with other exercises and inserted other workouts: pre- and post-workout jogs, dumbbells, variations of my preferred lifts, other lifts, heavy bag work. I mixed and matched to meet my schedule, sticking to my core lifts and keeping track of my performance. I keep my workouts between 45 minutes to an hour long, but every now and then I test myself by going the distance, stretching to 75 minutes by incorporating additional cardio work.
In addition to gym time, I did other exercises. Filipino martial arts, minimum of two hours a week. Yoga, at least once a week. High Intensity Interval Training, on occasion or when pressed for time. With my Individual Physical Proficiency Test (Army fitness test) coming up, I swapped out one gym session a week to train specifically for the IPPT events.
Put everything together, and in the past half year, I gained 3 kilograms of muscle, going from 57 to 60 kg. For my last gym session, I did the following:
- 3 sets of 6 dips
- 5 and a half minute run at 13 km/h
- 1 set of 15 reps of deadlifts, bent barbell rows, clean and press, and squats with 40 kg barbell
- 1 set of 5 reps of clean and press with 80 kg barbell
- 4 sets of 5 reps of bent barbell rows and squats with 80 kg barbell
- 1 set of 5 reps of deadlifts with 110 kg barbell
In half a year of training, I deadlifted almost twice my bodyweight…at the end of a grueling workout.
This program is not and cannot be for everyone. I started with a baseline of physical fitness, having spent 8 years doing bodyweight exercises and 2 and a half years of martial arts training. Absolute newbies might have to go at a slower pace. I’m also certain there are other ways to optimise this program: split training, precise nutrition intake, more rest. On the whole, though, I’ve achieved what I set out to do: get stronger fast. Since the gym doesn’t offer anything heavier than 110 kg fixed barbells, I imagine I shall have to find a different goal soon.
Discipline, body awareness, and exercise and recovery plans. These were the tools I brought to the gym. Going forward, I intend to continue to employ these tools to meet new challenges. Regardless of how fit you are now, these tools can help you get stronger, fitter and healthier. If your goal is to get stronger, then make a plan, work the plan, and hit the iron.