Countdown to Strength Program Overview

Countdown to strength 5 week training program
This 5-week full-body training program will boost your strength levels across the board while also helping you build muscle and burn fat head-to-toe.

Updated July 3, 2018

As you know through my #TrainWithJim series, I’m all about full-body training for maximizing fat loss as well as building muscle. But if you think I don’t care about getting stronger just as much as getting bigger and leaner, you couldn’t be more wrong.

Truth is, I don’t design any training program that doesn’t include a serious strength element, and my #TrainWithJim full-body workouts are no exception. You can, and will, gain strength with a full-body protocol, provided it’s programmed correctly.

Enter my 5-week full-body Countdown to Strength, a program I put countless hours into designing. It maximizes every training goal that fitness enthusiasts like you and I care about: muscle-building, fat loss, and, of course, strength, through a combination of adequate volume, high intensity, high frequency, and a logical periodization model that increases load and drops reps one week (microcycle) at a time.

Ready to get stronger? Let’s start the countdown…

Download the Entire Countdown to Strength Program Here

Stronger in 5

With the Countdown to Strength program, the weight on the three main lifts – bench press, squat, and deadlift – gets progressively heavier, as does the weight on most of the other exercises, albeit at different and varying rep ranges. Therefore, this is essentially a linear periodized scheme.

The “Countdown” refers specifically to the descending number of reps per set you’ll do for each main lift each week – 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

In Week 1, you’ll do 5 sets of 5 reps for the bench press, squat, and deadlift. Then, in Week 2, you’ll increase the weight and decrease the sets and reps by one each, doing 4 sets of 4 reps. In Week 3, weight increases again, and total sets drop to 3 sets of 3 reps. In Week 4, same progression, where you’ll increase weight on the three big lifts and do 2 sets of 2 reps each. Finally, in Week 5 (the last week of the program), you’ll do 1 set of 1 rep on bench press, squat, and deadlift, which is basically testing your 1-rep max (1RM).

However, even when set-rep schemes are repeated in a given week for the main lifts (5x5, 4x4, 3x3, etc.), they won’t be performed the same way. Using Week 1 as an example, you won’t just be doing 5 sets of 5 normal-paced reps.

In some workouts, you’ll complete 5 sets of 5 reps with as heavy a weight as you can lift – about 60%-70% of your 5-rep max. These workouts focus on maximizing strength over time. In the workout charts below, these instances will be labeled “Heavy.”

In other workouts, you’ll be doing 5 sets of 5 fast and explosive reps with a light weight – only 50% of that used on the heavy 5x5 day. I’ll call these “Fast” in the workout charts. This workout builds power, which is important for exploding the bar off your chest (bench press), off the floor (deadlift), or out of the hole (squat). More power equates to more strength.

Finally, you’ll also have “Slow” workouts that call for 5 sets of 5 very slow reps – 5 seconds to complete the positive portion of each rep (concentric) and 5 seconds to complete negative (eccentric). For these sets, you’ll start with 50% of the weight used for the heavy workout. These workouts increase time under tension (TUT) of the muscle, which helps with muscle hypertrophy (growth). After all, you don’t just want to be strong – you want to look strong!

The same protocol will apply in subsequent weeks when sets and reps drop to 4x4, 3x3, and 2x2 – you’ll have Heavy, Fast, and Slow workouts for each of the three main lifts. (Week 5 will entail 1x1 on the three lifts but will basically just be another 1RM testing session without using specific rep speeds, so Heavy, Fast, and Slow sets are not applied.) Weight selection, however, will change from week to week for Heavy, Fast, and Slow sets.

In the Week 1 example above, you used 60%-70% of 5RM for Heavy sets, and 50% of the Heavy weight for Fast and Slow sets. As the reps decrease in subsequent weeks, the weight gets heavier by increasing the rep-max percentages each week. So you don't get confused, here's a chart to show you the weight progression (as well as rep speed prescription) from week to week.

Countdown Cheat Sheet: Weights & Rep Speed

On the three main lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift), where Heavy, Fast, and Slow are noted:

Protocol Weighted Selection Rep Speed
Heavy
  • Week 1: 60%-70% of 5RM
  • Week 2: 70%-80% of 4RM
  • Week 3: 80%-90% of 3RM
  • Week 4: 90%-95% of 2RM
Normal rep speed (1-2 seconds up, 1-2 seconds down)
Fast
  • Week 1: 50% of “Heavy” weight*
  • Week 2: 60% of “Heavy” weight*
  • Week 3: 70% of “Heavy” weight*
  • Week 4: 80% of “Heavy” weight*
As fast and explosive as possible on the positive, under control on the negative
Slow
  • Week 1: 50% of “Heavy” weight*
  • Week 2: 60% of “Heavy” weight*
  • Week 3: 70% of “Heavy” weight*
  • Week 4: 80% of “Heavy” weight*
5 seconds on the positive (up), 5 seconds on the negative (down)

*When you do the Fast or Slow reps before the Heavy (in a previous workout), you'll need to predict the weight you'll use for the Heavy workout. It's imperative that you write down how much weight you used in every workout for reference in subsequent workouts.

This periodization on the three main lifts is woven into my standard #TrainWithJim format of 10 exercises per workout, one for each muscle group (chest, back, shoulders, legs, triceps, biceps, traps, forearms, abs, calves). When squats are performed, that will be your leg exercise for the day; when bench press is done, that’s your chest move; and deadlifts will be considered a back exercise in this program.

Use 50% of the heavy weight. When you do the fast or slow reps before the heavy you will need to predict the weight you will use for the heavy workout.

There are a lot of changing variables in the Countdown to Strength program – load, rep speed, exercise order, and set count, to name a few – and these dynamics don’t just deal with the three main lifts. This isn’t some strength program that focuses only on bench press, deadlifts, and squats and then slaps “4 sets of 10” on all accessory exercises. Not even close.

There’s much more going on than that, so I’ll break it all down for you week by week, starting with an initial 1RM testing session.

Countdown Cheat Sheet: Nutrition

If you want to keep it simple nutrition-wise while following the Countdown to Strength training program, I recommend following either my Muscle-Building Rules (if you want to maximize mass gain) or Dieting 101 (if you want to maximize fat-burning).

Countdown to Strength Weekly Rundown

Week 0

You have the option of prepping for this program by testing your 1RM on the squat, bench press, and deadlift before starting the actual workouts (Week 1). You can test all three in one trip to the gym; or, for slightly more accurate strength numbers, you can test each lift on separate days so that you’re fresh for each one and not tired from previous lifts.

Here's how to best test your 1-rep max:

  1. Take the weight you can normally lift for 10 reps to failure, multiply it by 1.33 and round up. For example, if you can bench 225 pounds for 10 reps, start your 1RM attempt with 300 pounds.
  2. Perform a few warm-up sets doing no more than 3-5 reps per set. Gradually increase the weight over 2-3 sets until you are at about 75% of your estimated 1-rep max.
  3. Attempt your estimated 1-rep max weight for one rep and only one rep.
  4. If you were successful on the first try but know you can do more, add another 10-20 pounds for your next attempt. Keep adding 10-20 pounds until you reach a weight at which you fail. Use the last weight you were successful at as your 1RM. If you weren't successful on your first attempt, don't be discouraged. Simply decrease the weight by 5-10 pounds and try again. Once you reach a weigh that you can do for one rep, use that as your 1RM. Be sure to allow a good 4-5 minutes between attempts.

Estimating 1RM Instead of Testing

One other option you have for determining your 1RM – if you'd rather not go through the above process of actually lifting your 1RM weight – is to estimate it. The below link takes you to the National Strength and Conditioning Association's (NSCA) well-established "Training Load Chart."

To use the chart, you have to know how many reps (12 or fewer) you can get with a given weight before reaching failure. For example, let's say you know you can do 225 pounds on bench for exactly 4 reps (but not 5). Under "4" on the horizontal axis, find 225 pounds; then, go to the far left (under "1" on the horiztonal axis), and that's your estimated 1RM: 250 pounds.

Another example: If you know you can squat 315 pounds for 6 reps, your estimated 1RM would be 370 pounds. (In this case, you would have to use 314.5 pounds in the chart, which is the closest there is to 315 in the 6 reps column.)

The chart can also be used to estimate other rep maxes (ie, 5RM, 4RM, 3RM, 2RM), which will be useful in the Countdown to Strength program where I specify to use a percentage of, say, your 5RM. For example, let's say you know your 1RM is 300 pounds. Find 300 on the vertical axis under "1" – the numbers to the right of that are your estimated 2RM, 3RM, 4RM, and 5RM for that exercise (see below – round up or down to the nearest 5- or 10-pound increment). These estimates won’t be spot on everytime, but they'll get you close to a starting weight for a given exercise.

NSCA Training Load Chart

Here's a thumbnail image of the chart for quick reference (the above link will give you the full size chart with some explanatory notes at the bottom):

Week 1 – 5x5

In this first week of the Countdown to Strength program, each workout includes 5 sets of 5 reps on the bench press, deadlift, and/or squat (squat and bench on in Workouts 1, 3, and 5, and deadlift in Workouts 2, 4, and 5). But you won’t be using the same weight or intensity on all days. In some workouts, you’ll be using heavy weight (“Heavy”). In others, you’ll use light weight and explosive reps (“Fast”). And in others, you’ll do light weight and slow reps (“Slow”).

Refer to the above “Countdown Cheat Sheet” chart for instructions on weight selection and rep speed for Heavy, Fast, and Slow protocols.

The other exercises you do will be done for 50 reps each. But the way those 50 reps will be broken up will change from exercise to exercise and workout to workout. For example, you may use very light weight and do 1 set of 50 reps, or 2 sets of 25 reps. Or, you may go a bit heavier for 5 sets of 10 reps, or even heavier for 10 sets of 5. The goal is to complete all 50 reps in the allotted sets, so when in doubt, err on the lighter side when choosing weight.

Week 1 Workouts

Week 2 – 4x4

In the same manner as you did 5x5 on the main lifts in Week 1, you’ll repeat that with 4 sets of 4 reps in the second week. On all exercises, you’ll complete 40 reps total in varying schemes: 4 sets of 10 reps, 10 sets of 4 reps, 2 sets of 20 reps, 5 sets of 8 reps, and 8 sets of 5 reps.

Although it may sound like the workouts get easier in Week 2, since you’re completing fewer reps total, this isn’t actually the case. For example, 2 sets of 25 reps equals 50 reps total (Week 1). But those 2 sets are no more difficult than 2 sets of 20 reps (Week 2). And even 4 sets of 10 reps should be no easier than 5 sets of 10 reps, even though the latter has you doing 10 more reps total. This is due to the fact that you’ll using different weights and likely different rest periods.

Week 2 Workouts

Week 3 – 3x3

Continuing the “countdown” in sets and reps, you do 3 sets of 3 reps on the main lifts in the same style as the previous weeks. Now, you’ll complete 30 reps for all secondary exercises, cycling between 3 sets of 10 reps, 10 sets of 3 reps, 2 sets of 15 reps, 1 Set of 30 reps, 5 sets of 6 reps, and 6 sets of 5 reps.

Week 3 Workouts

Week 4 – 2x2

Your number of total reps per workout is really shrinking now, but remember, the weight is getting heavy. You’ll be doing 2 sets of 2 reps on the main three lifts in Heavy, Fast, and Slow protocols. On all other exercises, you’ll be doing 20 reps with a mix of these schemes: 2 sets of 10 reps, 10 sets of 2 reps, 1 set of 20 reps, 5 sets of 4 reps, and 4 sets of 5 reps.

Week 4 Workouts

Week 5 – 1x1

In the fifth and final week, we’re testing our 1RM again. There’s no need to do one workout using 1x1 of “Slow” reps or “Fast” reps, so you’ll be doing just three workouts this week – one to test each of the main three lifts again (bench, squat, deads). You’ll also complete a total of only 10 reps for assistance exercises – a mix of 1 set of 10 reps, 10 sets of 1 rep, 2 sets of 5 reps, and 5 sets of 2 reps. Consider this week the de-loading phase on your strength progression. Far fewer workouts, far less volume.

Week 5 Workouts

Download All Workouts Here

 

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