The 5th Set for Powerlifting: a breakthrough in training system design


The 5th Set is a training system for the sport of powerlifting. That includes a periodization model, a system for routine composition, procedural guidelines to transition from and to different phases within a mesocycle or between mesocycles, and very precise instructions concerning execution.

It certainly can be used by people who wish to get strong in general, but these users must be willing to get strong “powerlifting style”. The 5th Set is not an all purpose system and this is the first focus of my praise for the book: all “all-purpose” systems for strength training fail. They may fail more or less, but they all fail. The reason for this is that it is impossible to build an all purpose manual. “All purpose” are the training principles: adaptation (at all levels), supercompensation, inhibition, recovery are all universal. There has not been any dramatic new scientific finding in any of them that would change the way training principles, as we know them, are applied. Swede Cory Burns makes a statement about this right away.

It could be argued that such a precisely focused system will be interesting to a minuscule community of powerlifting practitioners. I don’t believe it, though: the “powerlifting way” of getting strong is quite attractive to practitioners who become more involved with their own process (those more proactive). I’ve seen that happen more than once. Life creates some ironic all or nothing dilemmas. The super stressed engineer is told by his doctor that either he takes charge of his body and adopts healthy habits, or he is on his way to crashing into any type of degenerative catastrophe. This guy then registers at the most convenient gym and, control freak as he is, does some research into what is the best method to cross the separation line between his mind and his body. These guys frequently fall into powerlifting. More often than not, because some attractive piece of writing led them to it.

All that said, I believe the 5th Set, being a better powerlifting training system than those previously available in neat, written form, can be a more widely useful tool than it appears to be.

So why is the 5th set a better powerlifting training system?

The chief reason is that it solves the paradox of biological individuality versus a formal method (in the form of a recipe). Before the 5th set, you had to settle for the latter. You had to settle for a recipe and, like all of the good ones, it will be very good for about 10-15% of users and fall, like a well behaved bell curve, into uselessness to everybody else.

With the 5th set you have a self regulating mechanism within the system that is pretty much the “individuality-meter”. It is the 5th set itself: after four sets with a given weight, calculated according to a percentage of the individual’s estimated 1RM and progressing linearly, there is a 5th set of “as many reps as possible” (AMRAP). The AMRAP set, or 5th set, will determine decision-making in a manner that the resulting routine is both formally in accordance to the method (recipe) and strictly adjusted to the individual.

The progress from micro-cycle to micro-cycle and the shift to a new meso-cycle in the 5th set system makes the tiring question as to periodization linearity or non-linearity quite obviously futile.

There are many other aspects of the 5th set that deserve praise. The early emphasis on the unequal nature of strength gain and technical proficiency in powerlifting and the adjustment of the method to this (and not vice-versa) is important. The practitioner may choose any one or two lifts for the 5th set protocol (the other(s) being speed/technique lifts for that mesocycle), but never the deadlift and the squat together. Without worrying about any complicated technical speculation (which is all they would be) as to why this choice would lead to disaster, the reader is told it does.

The choice and use of assistance exercises in a given routine is another item where Swede makes a huge contribution. We are plagued, today, with the “magic bullet” assistance work for the squat, the bench press or the deadlift. Each week the powerlifting community is bombarded with blog posts about “that” incomparable exercise that will add 50lbs to your bench press. This is confusing for the majority of the lifters. In the 5th set, the choice of the assistance work is well explained in connection to an inventory of weaknesses. Randomness is taken out of the way.

If the reader cares to pay attention to the text (and not skip to the templates), he will be introduced to the concepts of exercise, training, training programs, among others. He will understand that the execution of an exercise out of the context of a plan is usually poorly correlated to improvement towards any type of goal. So, whether the exercise is done in the same sequence, form, intensity and volume or whether it is done randomly, the practitioner doesn’t have great chances of achieving anything.

Although the book is written in a concise and objective manner with the explanation of the training system on focus, it doesn’t fail to address all important items concerning a powerlifter’s career, such as: expectations as to progress rate, choice of attempts in a meet, the role of recovery and how to use it to make important decisions in the program, among many others.

With all that said, the least I can say is that Swede Cory Burn’s 5th Set for Powerlifting represents a breakthrough in training system design. This is not to say that there were no good systems before or that this is the ultimate system, no room for improvement. But it does mean that if you care about training methodology and you care about powerlifting, then this book is a must read. You may adopt it or not, but I am sure that its revolutionary nature will not escape you.

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