5×5: This barbell is super heavy and my legs are toast


95 lbs


When I tried to bend my knees for the deadlift, my quads seized up and refused to go any lower.


I’m not going to be able to pick up this barbell off the floor. Doing it 5 times seemed even more unlikely.

* * *

This is where it gets real, y’all. These weights are starting to get heavy.

I’m now at week 4 of the 5×5 program. Last time I wrote about all the things I lurve about this classic weightlifting program. All free weights (necessary because I work out in a home gym), all compound exercises, low reps , not ever having to take a lift to failure, and designed to increase strength.

In this program the weight increases for each lift by 5lbs for every workout (except for the deadlift, which is 10lb). I started with just the Olympic bar (45lbs) for all the lifts except the deadlift because the bar needs plates to sit up off the floor.

The first 3 weeks were pretty great. I love the simplicity of 3 compound exercises in a specific order. Up until this week the weights have been relatively easy, but I appreciated this time to really focus on my form. I know it’s going to be absolutely essential when the weight gets really heavy. The first three weeks got me into the rhythm of the program and let me figure out my pacing. So yeah, the 9 workouts where I moved up from the 45lb to 85lbs squats wasn’t too bad. Before starting the 5×5 program I was squatting 80lbs, and I pushed past that last week without too much of a struggle. The program was doing what it was supposed to do. Sweet.

But oh, this last workout was not quite a walk in the park.

More like I got ambushed by a gang of ninjas bent on revenge while I was walking in the park with only tictacs and a gas receipt in my pocket.


this looks heavy

It’s Day 10 and the squat is now at 90lbs. Heck, it looked heavy while I was loading up the bar. I unracked and walked a couple of steps toward the mirror. I stared hard at my reflection with the Eye of the Tiger.


ok here we go

The first time I lowered myself down for that 90lb squat, it felt like there was a giant magnet on my butt and it was being full-on magnetized towards the floor. My upper body went down so fast for a second, it felt like a freefall. Freefalling sounds fun, except when you have a hunk of iron on your back and a basement floor a foot under your butt.

So that was the first rep. I knew the rest of these sets were not going to be so fun.

On the second set, there was a little tremor in my quads.

On the third set, the tremor escalated to a definite quiver.

On the fourth set, my quads were legit shaking. I struggled hard to push myself up to a standing position.

On the fifth set, pain shot from my quads deep into my hips. Yeah, the kind that makes your breath catch. The pain in my muscles burned, then settled as a deep ache in my hip joints.


This is not good at all, you guys. And I was doing soooo well. I was really hitting my stride with this whole lifting thing. Pumping iron in my basement gym like a bawse. I wanted to fling myself dramatically onto the rubber flooring and weep about my failure. It felt like a major setback. The weight was only 5lbs heavier than it was on Wednesday, 2 days ago. Why was this now so hard?

I gave myself a few minutes for my pity party and then examined the facts: I wrecked my legs in taekwondo yesterday. For the past two days ( during my off days from 5×5), I’ve been working on my flying sidekicks in taekwondo class. And by working, I mean trying to do them and failing. I have to break a board with a flying side kick to pass my black belt test.


A flying sidekick involves: 1) running start 2) jump and tuck knees to chest 3) extend one leg to kick 4) bend knees slightly before landing on the floor. I’m not fast enough and not good at flying enough to complete all those steps under 4 seconds, and I end up short. By the time I get to extend my kicking leg, I’m already back on the ground, so my locked leg absorbs a huge impact when I come crashing down on the floor. My legs are getting beat up because science: force =mass x acceleration (120 lbs x running start). After attempting it a few times (and failing), my hamstrings started to cramp and seize up. And I still had to do the rest of the hour-long class.  I was limping out of the dojang last night.

Ooookay. So that’s clearly why these 90lb squats are super hard, right? Obviously I’ve been punishing my legs with these freakin flying sidekicks, so ofcouse that’s why I cant perform these squats properly.

Alright, moving on. Let’s get to these overhead presses.

Holy balls, these are terrible too!! They are even more of a disaster!! I hadn’t done barbell overhead presses prior to 5×5, so I spent the first 4 or so workouts with just the bar to get used to the mechanics of the lift. Today was the first time I actually put weight on the bar- a measly 5 lbs. Bad idea, especially after the squat fails. I couldn’t do a complete set with the 50lb weight. On one set I could only do one!!


this is insane. curse these weak arms

Yesterday’s taekwondo cannot explain why I can’t do these overhead presses. Straight talk: my morale was super low at this point.


i was doing soooo good

Last up was the deadlift – at 95lbs.  Of all the lifts in 5×5, I found the deadlift to be the “easiest”. Simply because the weight isn’t high off the ground, and I’m not under it. I also feel like it’s the most natural of all the compound lifts, and I have a pretty good feel of the body mechanics. In the 5×5 program the deadlift is only for one set of 5 reps. Surely, surely this last exercise will the saving grace of this fiasco.

Yeah, that’s when my legs bailed on me. The first few attempts failed because now my quads exploded with pain when I tried to bend my knees. I don’t back down when a set gets hard, and I’ve taken sets to failure before, but it didn’t feel right to push through this pain. I took like a 5 minute break, and eventually completed the set but it was hard.

Basically, Day 10 of my 5×5 program is going on the record as a very rough day. Failed reps, incomplete sets, bad form. The only thing that could have made it worse was getting an actual injury from the workout, or getting pinned with a bench press or something. It totally seemed like the worst workout ever.


The workout that made me curse the heavens

In retrospect, and most things always look better in hindsight, I realize that this day is all part of it. Inevitable, even. This was the first “bad” day I’ve had in the program, where I basically struggled with everything- but it was bound to come. The weights increase every workout- ofcourse I was going to reach my limits (here it is). Yes, it was also compounded by the tough class I had in taekwondo the day before, but cross training is another piece that I have to manage and figure out.

The program hasn’t been that hard until now – but now I’ve caught up to my work weight before I started the program and anything after this is pushing my limits.

Now the real work begins. It’s about to get real.


gonna power through

5×5: You had me at 220lb squat

So a few weeks ago I started searching for a weightlifting program. For the last 2 months of 2014 I was lifting but not following a plan; I was just kind of doing exercises at random. I would just walk into my home gym and choose exercises that I felt like doing that day. Usually a combination of barbell squats, deadlifts, bench presses, curls, dips, shoulder presses, lat pulldowns, and then finish it off with a short run on the treadmill.

It was all fine and good, but I knew I needed to find a program and follow it. You could walk around the forest without a map, and you’ll still get somewhere and see the sights. But if you actually have a specific location in mind that you want to get to, walking around aimlessly isn’t the smartest plan. Sure, you might get to that location eventually, but probably in a really roundabout way, and you’ll probably spend a whole lot of time getting lost or tangled in brambles…the point of this extended metaphor is that I NEEDED TO FIND A WEIGHTLIFTING/EXERCISE PROGRAM.

I only had two requirements for this lifting program:

  • No machines; all the exercises had to be done with free weights because I only work out in my home gym
  • It would build muscle and increase strength (duh)

So I looked where everyone looks to find anything these days. That’s right, I fired up my Mac and Googled. By the way, I do have books on weightlifting and strength training, but all the programs outlined in those books included exercises that involved exercise machines or some other equipment one would find in a commercial gym.

So I’m looking through programs on Bodybuilding.com, and there a ton of cool and flashy programs, but all of them include at least a few machines, or chin-up bars, kettlebells, bands, etc. A lot of them mixed weights and HIIT (high intensity interval training). They had a very Crossfit feel to them. I suppose I could have tried to modify them so I could work around the missing equipment, but honestly I was so overwhelmed by ALL THE EXERCISES AND BANDS AND BURPEES.


yo I’m gonna knock my forehead off tryna do that

Then I found it. The 5×5 program on the Stronglifts website. It’s like when you look across a crowded room at a party and lock eyes with a stranger, and in that moment you realize you found THE ONE.


This has never actually happened to me in real life

Here’s the 5×5 program in a nutshell:

  • There are 5 exercises: squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and bent over row.
  • 5 sets of 5 reps for each exercise
  • 3 times a week
  • 3 exercises per workout, squats in every workout
  • Increase the weight for each exercise by 5lbs every workout

Background: 5×5 was created by Reg Park, a 3-time Mr. Universe winner. He also trained Arnold. 5×5 is a time-tested program for increasing strength.


I absolutely loved the idea of this program. It was simple, old school, but progressive. Kind of like me. No fuss no muss, like my hair care regimen.

It met my number one requirement, that the program only uses free weights. Aside from the fact that I only work out in my home gym now, using free weights is infinitely more effective for building strength than using machines because you are forced to balance the weight yourself, and not the machine that does it all for you. Using machines will also force you into some unnatural movements not meant for how your particular body will move. I haven’t been weightlifting that long, but I figured this part out pretty quickly after squatting for a couple of months on a smith machine.

The second awesome thing about the program is that the program comprises five compound exercises. Compound exercies like the squat (the “king” of lifts) and the deadlift work the largest muscle groups and engage pretty much your whole body. That’s the stark difference between this program and all the others: there are no lifts that isolate small muscle groups, like curls for biceps or dips for triceps. All compound lifts, baby. And I dig it.

squat face

nuthin prettier than your squat face

I was also sold on the low reps. No need to take a set to failure. 5 sets of 5 reps. Low reps, heavy weight. I like it.

All of this seems pretty bare bones and old school, but the program’s claim is nothing short of extravagant: if I follow this program to a T, I will be squatting 220lbs in 3 months.

That’s crazy.

220 lbs.


That’s only 20 lbs less than twice my body weight.

This claim is based on the 5 lb weight increase from each workout (except for the deadlift, which is 10lbs). It’s recommended that you start the program with 50% of your work weight on each lift. I was squatting and deadlifting around 80-85lbs before I started the program, so I started with the just the 45lb Olympic bar. But in three months, after 36 workouts, I’m supposed to be at 220lbs. It sounds crazy, I might not get at 220 exactly, but I’m willing to bet some cash money that my work weight on the squat and deadlift will increase by at least 30-40 lbs and I will be achieving PRs for most of the second half.

The program is designed to increase the amount of weight you lift.  And so it’s perfect for someone like me- someone who is pretty early in the game and have a lot of room to improve. As opposed to someone who is already squatting like 400lbs- their gains with this program wont be as dramatic. And I believe that anyone can progress in anything, given the right training program.


all the muscles, f*ck yeah

So yeah, I’m pretty sold on the 5×5 program. But it would be remiss of me if I didn’t mention how I got sold on the 5×5 program. It was the StrongLifts 5×5 website. Yo, for real- this website is fantastic. This Belgian guy Mehdi explains the whole program step by step, gives the rationale behind it, and then gives you all these resources FOR FREE. Videos, excel charts if you want to log your workouts old school, and a 5 star app. He could charge a hundred dollars for this program but he basically is just giving it away. Check out the website, you won’t be disappointed.

I’m two weeks into the program and I’m digging it. This is a program that I can stick with, and I’m looking forward to my strength and muscle gains.

I’ll update on my progress and how I’m doing with the program every four weeks or so.

In the meantime: lift heavy!

On Being Legit

The first part of my blog title is pretty straightforward- I want to get fit. This means I try to eat healthy food, I lift weights, I run, I practice martial arts. The second part of my blog title – becoming legit – needs a little more explanation.

I think I’m doing an OK job of being healthy and fit, like a dude who can pick up a basketball and play a few rounds with the guys. But I don’t want to just be a dude who knows how to dribble… I want to be in the pros. A baller.

Plainly speaking, I don’t want to just be fit; I want to be athletic. I don’t want to just be able to exercise really well, I want to have athletic ability. That’s legit.


aw buuurn

Now, I don’t want to play sports or join athletic competitions. I just want my level of fitness to be extraordinary better than the average person who hits the gym three times a week or so.

So why “becoming legit”? Because I’m nowhere near that athletic level. Man, I get winded when we play a game of floor hockey with foam sticks in Taekwondo. I’m like, just let me be goalie (but don’t shoot the foam ball over here)!

Another aspect of the legitimacy is being able to adopt certain labels for myself, especially those that I feel are reserved for legit athletes.

Most notable is runner. I say that I run, but never I’m a runner. Aside from being different parts of speech, there’s a big conceptual difference between the verb run and the noun runner. Saying I run means this is a thing I can do, whereas saying I am a runner means this is something I am. It’s an identity, not simply an ability.

At this point, I cannot, will not, say that I am a runner.


Why? What is a “real” runner?

A runner can run long distances. A runner can keep running after 4 miles and doesn’t just say, f*ck this shit, I’m done. Because let’s be honest – most people who are in decent physical shape can run if they have to. Say, if the zombie apocalypse suddenly broke out, the regular person will be able to run for her life for probably – 30-40 minutes, maybe an hour, tops. But the runners will be able to go for miles and miles. They’re the ones who wont have zombies gnawing on their femur, folks.

A runner doesn’t even need to be fast. They can just keep going. And going. Running is hard for everyone, but a runner manages to overcome the wall. The wall of my legs burn because my veins feel like they’re pumping battery acid. The wall of my heart is tired from breathing. The wall of I’m so bored my brain is going numb (it’s hard to daydream when you’re in pain).

The thing with running is that it’s deceptively simple. It’s so easy to run but also so so difficult at the same time. It’s such a mental game. And I just can’t get my head right. By the time (/if) I get past the 20 minute mark, I’ve already bribed, threatened, cajoled, guilt-tripped, begged, soothed, psyched, and admonished myself. Trying to do that for hours in my head is just as exhausting as the actual running.

I am so jealous in awe of people who are real runners. You know, the marathoners and such. There’s nothing more legit than running a marathon. Because one does not simply run into a marathon. It takes dedicated training for several months. I ran one race in my life – a 5K in 2013. It was pretty great. I’d feel really good if I could make myself run more of those though. Hell, I’d be happy if I could do something respectable, like a 10K.

So a few weeks ago I’m having drinks at a bar with some coworkers. One person, Kristen, is a new colleague. Somehow we get on the topic of marathons, and it comes up that Kristen has run one in Egypt. Someone asks, how many marathons have you run? And sitting over there, cool as a cucumber, she says, eight. In different countries all around the word. And I’m like whaaaat…


who does that?

And I’m just over here trying to work up to another 5k guys!!! So case in point: Kristen is a runner. I run.

Some people might say, gee Kim, running seems to be not your thing because you kind of suck at it. Why not try to do something else?

Because this is something I want to be. I want to be able to say I am a runner. I want that freakin 26.2 sticker on the back of my Subaru Outback. Because I see long distance running as one of the most difficult activities, and I really want to conquer it. And yeah, because I think being a runner is badass. Long distance running requires incredible mental toughness.

So world, there you have it – this is one of my major fitness goals. This is a label I really want to earn. I’m not fast, I don’t have a lot endurance, but I’ll keep lacing up those running shoes and I’m gonna keep tryin.