It's odd when I think that I've been teaching since 1979. Many of my colleagues are former students, and I'm amazed at the number of students I have that I've also taught their parents. Yet, as many of you know, I still train like I'm twenty. Or at least I think I do. I still leap into the fires with things like the Velocity Diet and Slosh Pipes.

About a week ago, the loudspeaker came on towards the end of my all female weightlifting class. "Teachers, go into lockdown immediately. This is not a drill." If you've lived on another planet for the last twenty years, you might not know what this means. But every student and teacher knew what was going on – we had an armed intruder.

For an hour, we sat in total silence hiding from windows and doors. In my mind, I thought of my children, my Godchildren, and the friends and family who were also hiding throughout the building. It turns out that the gun was only a lifelike Airsoft pellet gun. The parents of the kid later argued to the media that the school had "over-reacted." A few days later, in Finland, the story was tragically different and many students were killed. Over-reaction? I think not.

My daughter, Kelly, later told me that the kids had been discussing which room would've been the best to wait it all out in. It turns out that students were sobbing throughout the hour and many kids melted down, almost in turns. Well, nobody cried in the weightroom. Certainly my physical size helped, but I have to argue that there was also something else: I train warriors in my weightroom.

The girls had just finished one of the best workouts I know for anybody. And to be honest, these girls have been transformed by this training program. Let me share with Testosterone the Southwood workout and its cousin, the Big Five: Five by Five. Yes, I've written about the Southwood program before, but it's worth repeating.

Every so often, I'll get an email from a high school coach about teaching a group of kids to lift weights. The emails often sound like the task of getting kids to lift is insurmountable. Some of the coaches sound like they need a miracle worker to come in and exorcize the student body before they begin to exercise.

I always argue back to these fine men and women that it can be done... easily and inexpensively. I can't claim any credit for the following program, but I'm indebted to

Mr. Dave Freeman, my ninth grade physical education coach for making us do this!

After eight years at St. Veronica's School, I transferred to Southwood Junior High to begin junior high. It was a helluva transition. From Irish nuns to public school is big enough, but I was also going to play football. At 118 pounds of pure nothing, it was obvious to everyone that I needed to lift weights.

It was at this time that I was introduced to Southwood's lifting program. In a portable building, the school had outlaid about fifteen of those cement-filled weightlifting sets that everyone from my generation remembers as their first bar.

Mr. Freeman spent little time explaining the "rep-set" system of 8-6-4 because everybody, except me, knew what to do. That's part of the brilliance of the program. You learn it once and then you lift. Not exactly rocket science, but who needs rocket science on the football field?

The program was very simple. First, groups of four boys were given a bar. The bars ranged from very light, maybe 25 pounds, up to nearly a hundred pounds. Each cohort of boys would lift one at a time, put the bar down, and then the next boy would lift. The four would constantly move from lifter to watcher – the bar never stopped. The three sets (explained in just a moment) wouldn't take very long. In fact, sometimes it was hard to catch your breath in time for your next set.

The reps were very simple:

  • First set: 8 repetitions
  • Second set: 6 repetitions
  • Third set: 4 repetitions

The goal was also clear-cut: When you got all 18 reps, you added weight. If you started with a bar that was too light, you'd be bumped up to the next weight and a stronger group in the next workout. Of course, actual variations could include making an entirely new group with more weight, too – whatever was necessary to make the group work together.

The program involved four lifts:

  1. Power clean
  2. Military press
  3. Front squat
  4. Bench press

Each lift was done in the 8-6-4 rep format. The bar was cleaned (once) for the set of military presses, and the bar was also cleaned (once) for the front squats. So, each workout the athlete cleaned the bar from the ground to their chest 22 times. If, as some people believe, the power clean is the "king of the exercises," that's a lot of reps with the king!

Lift With the King
Lift With the King

To "hurry up" the training (as if necessary) there were times when Mr. Freeman recommended combining the power clean and military presses. One clean and one press, repeated for a total of eight reps. This was done with a lighter weight. One could also do the front squats after the clean and presses, too. I've only done this once, and it was an amazing cardiovascular workout.

Each day to warm-up, we had to run two laps and an obstacle course. The two laps were about 600 meters. The obstacle course had a wall, various upper body challenges, and some balance walking. All in all, this wasn't a bad program.

Here it is in table format:

To be performed three days a week in the weightroom:

  • Power clean 8-6-4 reps
  • Military press 8-6-4 reps
  • Front squat 8-6-4 reps
  • Bench press 8-6-4 reps

As I began coaching, I adapted this workout several times. One thing I've returned to with training groups is to no longer use the racks on the bench press. Instead, I have the two spotters deadlift the weight and bring it over the head of the athlete.

I discovered that young athletes don't set their shoulders right when they get a "lift off," but naturally grab the barbell correctly when two spotters raise the bar over their eyes. Also, this method insures proper spotting because you simply don't have time to start doing something stupid.

There are three basic methods for doing the Southwood workout. The first, or the "classic" as we call it, is to use one bar with one weight for all four exercises. What holds the athlete back on this variation is the military press.

The upside of this variation, and this is something to think about, is the athletes aren't afraid to go deep with the lighter weight in the front squat. Since I think depth is more important than weight in the early learning process, this classic variation might be the best.

However, the kids really know that they can do much more in the bench press. I usually find them doing lots of extra sets on their own after the formal workout is over. I don't see the issue of athletes doing extra work on their own as a real problem.

The second variation is to change the weights for each exercise. The front squat will still be held back by the power clean, but I think that an athlete who's early in the learning curve can get by with less weight on the front squat.

I'm still a believer in "movement over muscles," and I believe more in correct movement over weight. In other words, I don't think a 600-pound front squat is a "quad" exercise, as you better have your whole body ready for the hit. And, if you barely bend your knees, then don't brag about your big squat, either.

In a large group setting, this requires a lot of plate changing and juggling of athletes here and there. But this second variation is great for a group up to about twenty, as well as being ideal for individuals.


The final variation I use is to simply use the Southwood workout as a warm-up. Now, I know that everybody in the world is advanced now, but there's something about doing four big movements to get the body going. Like Alwyn Cosgrove's complexes, there's going to be some fat burning in all of this whole-body lifting.

For fun, try doing the eight power cleans, military presses, and front squats back to back to back. Then continue with the six reps and finish by tackling the four rep sets. I tried doing the bench presses in this cluster, but I found that I was wrestling with the bar too much getting up and down. Certainly safety is a concern, but I just found it too taxing for a warm-up.

From the Southwood Program, we progress to the Big Five workout. It's a simple linear progression workout using five sets of five reps of the same four lifts, with deadlifts added to the mix. I've commented in the past on the Five by Five here at Testosterone.

I have my athletes simply add weight each set, so that they finish the fifth set as heavy as they can go. With young male and female athletes at any level, you might find that they can lift within ten pounds of their max single for five reps. This doesn't happen to lifters with more than two or three years in the gym, but for a young lifter this isn't uncommon.

So, the next workout looks like this:

  • Power clean 5 x 5
  • Military press 5 x 5
  • Front squat 5 x 5
  • Bench press 5 x 5
  • Deadlift (any variation) 5 x 5

This Big Five workout is one that anyone would recognize from the annals of bodybuilding history. The late Reg Park used this with great success and his devotee, an Austrian bodybuilder with political ambitions, followed a very similar program.

Every fifth workout, we change one small thing by playing with the reps and sets. We shift to just three sets. A set of five, add weight, a set of three, add weight, and then a heavy double. This is the 5-3-2 workout. The goal is to go as heavy as possible on the double.

The problem with going heavy on singles with the young athletes is that you run into an old phrase called "fuzzy logic." It's one of those phrases that got beat to death a decade ago, and seems to have fallen into the same bin as "have a cow, man" and "I didn't inhale."

Basically, when most people go heavy with singles, the spotters help "a little" and the depth gets suspect on squats. The legs work harder on military presses, and well, the list just goes on. With a double, I can always be assured that at least one repetition was really a rep. We don't want fuzzy maxes in the weight room.

The reason I moved to the every fifth session 5-3-2 workout is simple: I started to see my athletes really improve as the volume of the five by fives built up. An easier test day every two weeks seems to keep the athletes enthusiasm high and keeps them coming back for more. I don't worry about boring my athletes when they're making progress. There's nothing worse than a program that's both boring andnon-progressive. Sadly, "boring and non-progressive" defines most training programs.

After three, or at most, four weeks of the Southwood program, I shift to the Big Five. After two months of work on the Big Five with the chance of maxing four times during the two months, and with a final max day at the very end, the athletes can now move onto other programs.

There's a level of mastery in the five major lifts that's evident to the eye of any visitor. There's also a lot of weight on some of the bars as I've had sophomores sneak into the 200's on power cleans for a set of five. That's some good lifting for an adult and amazing from a 15 year old.

The Southwood and the Big Five are just two of the many things I do to indoctrinate my students into the world of lifting, fitness, and health. I've had many students who've really bought into the program. They've supplemented their diet with fish oil capsules multiple times a day, and tossed back a protein shake before, halfway through, and at the end of their workouts. The gains in hypertrophy and strength are impressive.

After a few weeks of doing battle with the weights, my students are ready for anything.

Dan John is an elite-level strength and weightlifting coach. He is also an All-American discus thrower, holds the American record in the Weight Pentathlon, and has competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting and Highland Games. Follow Dan John on Facebook