Strength training: Go with the four-by-four program for gains

Literally getting ugly with the iron.

Many moons ago, when I was a college kid with a fascination for all things weight lifting, the dorm director where I was living threw a two-part opportunity toward the guys: Sign up for a campus wide powerlifting meet, and he’d show us some tricks about how to get stronger fast.

That may as well have been catnip to me. I attended a seminar he put on and learned about his “four-by-four” program and immediately signed up to compete.

I didn’t do that great at the meet, but I learned a lot. And that four-by-four program stuck with me. I went from pushing around weenie-weight to rattling some plates in a matter of a few months.

Many years later, I found myself looking for a good program to boost strength in the big lifts: deadlift, squat and bench press. And I remembered that program my dorm director wrote out on a chalk board when I was a scrawny little freshman stuck in the “curls for girls” mentality of strength training.

I’m glad I went back to it. As challenging as it can be, it’s also been rewarding. Over the spring and summer, I’ve tacked on 50 pounds to my squat.

So how does it work? I’ve modified it a little: the original program was heavily dependent on doing singles, right up to a one-rep max. Nothing wrong with singles, but I think that’s a thing you should do very occasionally.

First, you need to figure out what your one-rep max is in the lift you’re performing. And then you’ll calculate some percentages to build the workout. Here’s an example of it looks like:

Warm-up with an unloaded bar, 10-12 reps.

Continued warm-up, 135 pounds, 8 reps.

Six reps, 60 percent of your 1RM

Four sets of 4 reps, 90 percent of your 1RM.

Two sets of 5 reps, lighter weight with a variation of the lift you’re performing.

So let’s say you’re working on your bench press, and you know your 1RM is 200 pounds. The workout would look like this:

1×10, unloaded bar

1×8, 95 pounds

1×6, 120 pounds

4×4, 180 pounds

2×5, 115 pounds, close-grip bench press (or some other chest press variation)

Or, say you’re squatting, with a 1RM of 300 pounds. Here’s what that might look like:

1×10, unloaded bar

1×8, 135

1×6, 205

4×4, 270

2×5, 150, front squat (or some other squat variation)

Finally, here’s what this workout would look like if you were deadlifting with a 400-pound 1RM:

1×10, lightly loaded bar (light bumper plates)

1×8, 135

1×6, 240

4×4, 360

2×5, 225, Romanian deadlift (or some other variation of the deadlift)

They key with making this work is to progressively increase the weight you’re using over an 8 to 12-week span. Back in the day, we were taught to go for about 10 pounds per week. I’m more conservative – I shoot for 5 pounds a week, and if my body ain’t feeling it, I’ll stand pat if I must.

You’ll also want to scale up the 1×8 weight a little as you progress. You don’t have to make that weight challenging; just heavy enough to give you some resistance while warming up your muscles. A lot of times, a 135-pound bar is great for lifters who are in that “intermediate” stage of strength training development.

One other thing: Let’s say you’re lifting legs twice a week. If you’re going to do the four-by-four program, use it once a week. On your second leg day, do another type of workout. Maybe something with the same or similar exercises, but lighter weights with more reps (I currently do a 5×10 workout, increasing weight with each set, but not topping out at more than 75 percent of my 1RM). That way you can still get in quality work, but not fry yourself in the process. And don’t forget to program a deload week every 6-8 weeks.

Include supporting exercises for the back end of your workout (maybe some reverse lunges, calf presses, leg extensions and kettlebell swings, if you’re doing a leg day workout) to round things out.

This is one of those plans designed primarily for strength. It’s not a hypertrophy workout (though as you get stronger, you’ll probably pack on some size), nor is it designed to get you ripped (that happens in the kitchen, homie). But it will help build a good base of strength, and as we know, that can lead to a whole lot of other good things.

Bob Doucette

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