What I learned from doing 5x5 workouts: strength, mental toughness, and overcoming failures
Updated: Dec 15, 2021
Those of you who have listened to my Podcast Episode # 10 with Jesse Burdick know that the conversation with Jesse inspired me to be more intentional about building strength.
Per advice from Jesse, one of the best ways to build strength is to pick 3-5 exercises and do five sets of 5 lifts. Start with lower weights and build gradually to heavier lifts. I love his analogy of creating a 5x5 island, and I think Jesse Burdick and Katie Hogan would be the perfect couple to do a 5x5 island heavy lifting TV show. Shout out to all the TV/ show producers out there - I would watch it, and I know that many people would as well.
As Jesse says, strength is paramount, and if it was easy, everyone would already be strong. Get out there, put your best effort in, and lift heavy! Check out Jesse's program at PowerWOD.com.
I decided to follow the 5x5 StrongLifts program, which is easy to follow. I have now been on this program for about 14 weeks (with a few breaks that I had to take because of a personal trip and a tennis injury), and this is what I have learned thus far:
1. Lifting heavy is A LOT OF WORK:
I mean, duh, doesn't everyone know that? In general, people may know that, but experiencing it is an entirely different thing. As a tennis player and someone who loves working out and trying all sorts of sports and things, I consider myself a slightly above average human when it comes to my physical abilities. I used to train 4-7 hours a day: 3-4 hours were typically spent on the court perfecting my tennis game, and 1-2 hours were spent off the court doing some other physical work such as conditioning, active recovery - yoga, pilates, mobility exercises, or strength training. Most of what people in tennis called "heavy work" was done in the fall. October or November was the best time to take some downtime from tennis after the season and get some volume training to build up for next year. This is where we would do conditioning in the mountains, do a lot of hill runs, longer distances, and a bit more heavyweight strength training - or what tennis players would consider heavyweight strength training. Looking back from where I am now, the weights I used to lift were quite pathetic, and if I had worked on my strength more, I could have been a better tennis player. I am putting this background here because I want to give you a perspective of where I come from and try to describe the difference of what tennis players call strength training vs. what building strength and power is in comparison to my past 14 weeks' experience.
One of the main things I have learned during these past 14 weeks is how challenging a 45-50 min 5x5 heavy lifting session can be. The way the 5x5 Strong Lifting program is structured is that you lift every other day or three times a week, and you rotate between workouts A and B, which have different lifts, but squats are part of every workout. The goal is to rest between the workouts so you recover and get ready for your heavy lifts the next day.
The first two weeks felt relatively easy - it was almost like cheating as I was used to doing 20-40min a day CrossFit type of workouts ~6 times a week. I decided to ignore the days off during the first couple of weeks and inserted my cardio between the lifting days - I did some Assault AirBike and some lighter 15-20 min CrossFit workouts with Olympic lifts to focus on working on technique.
At around week three is when the lifts started to get heavier. I recognized that I was not recovering enough as my legs or arms would get tired from the CrossFit workouts (depending on what I did the day before the lifting session) I inserted in between. I could not perform well during my lifting days, so I had to drop the CrossFit/ cardio sessions altogether and start taking days off to continue following the program and focusing on strength. This was more than anything a mental challenge for me, as I am not used to resting ~3 days a week. I decided to insert 30-45min yoga classes with my favorite instructor Dustin from Apple Fitness+. They ended up being a good complement for recovery and perhaps some light zone 1-2 15-20min cardio sessions.
Another strange thing was that I started getting headaches in the evening after the lifting sessions during weeks 3-5 when the weight became heavier. Based on my research, I hypothesize that my body and nervous system were getting used to lifting heavy weights, so the headaches were part of an exertion that my body was not used to. It was a different type of training that my body and nervous system had to get adjusted to. I focused on drinking more water on days I was lifting, but that didn't make a difference for me. The headaches ended up going away in about 2-3 weeks, and I don't get them anymore, despite me lifting much heavier weights now than I did during weeks 3-5 of this program (when headaches started).
2. Building muscle takes a lot of effort:
For those women out there who are worried about lifting heavy, so they don't get "bulky," I need to insert a comment here that I fit into all of my clothes the same way I used to, and my weight has stayed unchanged or went slightly down. I could have measured myself or done some bodyfat testing, but I didn't. My body has stayed more or less the same (I would argue I may have gotten a bit leaner but since I don't have proof - I didn't take pictures or done body fat measuring this is purely my feeling). Also, I didn't change my diet during this time, and the strangest thing to me is that I dropped the intensity of my workouts (as my Crossfit workouts would typically drive me to 170 - 180 heart rate levels) and also the quantity when it comes to the number of days with high intensity as I only do strong lifts ~3 times a week (in comparison to Crossfit 6 times a week).
If you are worried about lifting heavy and its impacts on "getting bulky," - don't be. Just try it! You may see the opposite effect, as when you start building muscle, your body will begin to burn more, your metabolism will be positively impacted, and you may start losing weight or look the same but with more muscle and less fat (assuming your eating habits will stay unchanged).
3. Learn to breathe:
Another super important thing for me was to learn how to breathe. I am still perfecting this one, and I continue to improve, but breathing is critical for lifting heavy. I recognized this the most with my squat and deadlift as the weight got heavier. Proper breathing will definitely help you push the weight more effectively, and I felt stronger when my breaths were correctly synchronized with the lifts. I researched breathing such as this video and found a technique that works for me that I continue to make minor adjustments and improvements to.
4. Building confidence and resilience:
I feel that my confidence has gone up as I lift more weight. It feels cool having a whole bunch of weight on your shoulders and being able to squat heavy. I mean, it doesn't feel fun at all while doing it, but when you are done, you feel accomplished, especially if you can clear heavyweight through the five sets of five reps without dropping the weight!
On the not-so-fun note, I had to adapt my mindset to lifting heavy, and I am still adjusting. I consider myself someone who typically enjoys working out, but I definitely found the feeling of "I REALLY DON'T WANT TO DO THIS" that I imagine many people have while working out. I guess I can understand people better now and know how they feel. Somehow, I much rather do a grueling CrossFit session than throw a heavyweight on my back and do 5x5 squats. Perhaps that is precisely the reason why I need to do more lifting. This makes me wonder, can we build resilience by doing what we don't enjoy? If I can get better at stuff that I don't enjoy doing and push through this pain of a heavy 5x5s, how much does this translate to mental resilience that I can use in my everyday life? I wish there was an easy way to measure it, like with a thermometer or something. It is amazing how adaptable our bodies and minds are. The older I grow, the more I appreciate what my body can do and how it adapts to different stuff.
5. Learning to overcome failures:
To build on the resilience note, I have become very frustrated with failing during this program, which I logically understand is inevitable as you cannot continue increasing weight and clearing the sets and reps forever. I have reached a level where I am close to my max weight on most of my lifts, if not all. I had to de-load some of my lifts to build back up. The positive thing is that I feel stronger during my lifts than before, and I have better mobility and stability, as Jesse also commented during our podcast that this is likely to happen. But when you are close to your max weight and keep on failing, it gets frustrating quickly. Then you finally get through the set of 5x5, and you win to progress to the next round - guess what? You do the same thing you just did BUT with more weight! It is easy to question yourself: Can my body do this?
Perhaps, this is another aspect of strength training that can be an excellent tool for life. At some point, you start failing every workout, and you need to be able to go out there, try again and delete the last failed session from your memory. You hope that you recovered enough to lift the weight today and lift one rep at a time. Is there a better analogy in life? "Put your best effort in, trust yourself, and try again!" In my opinion, that is all we can do and all that we can control. Focus on doing the best you can with what you have. If you prepare, show up, and give it your best effort, that is all you can ask for.
A couple of other takeaways that popped into my mind after today's lifting session:
6. Drinking and lifting heavy don't go together! I have cut down drastically on my alcohol consumption a while back, mainly due to the significant impact on my readiness and recovery. I drink very rarely, and I had noticed when I had even 1-2 glasses of wine the night before my day of lifting, my performance was drastically impacted.
7. Food and impact of poor diet on heavy lifting: I find that poor diet choices drastically impact how I feel and what I can lift during the heavy lifting session. It is not just what I eat the day of lifting but even the food I eat the day before. I have certainly felt a similar impact of diet on my performance during other sports, but for whatever reason, it seems to be even more so for this type of workout.
8. Buckle down and learn how to suffer well. At least for me, lifting heavy = a lot of suffering. Learning how to suffer well is a skill that can be useful.
Disclaimer I: Jesse's heavy and my heavy are very different. :)
Disclaimer II: This post has nothing to do with my job. The opinion in this article are purely my own and are not associated with my job or Apple in any shape or form.