#24 – The Big 5, Strongest Men and The False Axioms of Fitness

April 3, 2024 by VAHVA Fitness

Eero & Samuli talk about "The Big 5" lifts, bursting the bubble of popular axioms of fitness and give advice on how to develop the strongest physique.

The Pillars of Strength

Our discussions over the last few months have focused heavily on ancient methods of training, and we've often referred to strongmen and powerlifters.

Previously, we have also spoken a lot about the toxic nature of modern bodybuilding (PED use and body image issues).

They’ve generated a lot of comments. While most have been positive, there’s also been the feeling that we’re attacking strongmen and powerlifters, or that we're somehow ‘hating on’ them.

We do give credit where it's due but also highlight the weaknesses in the modern approaches. Later in this article you will realize that there doesn't exist a single approach that is perfect for everything. 

Moreover, the reality is that we are openly against many of the modern axioms a lot of people believe in today. 

These popular axioms such as ‘modern training and lifters are superior by default’ or that ‘steroids are the only way to top performance’, are beliefs we don't subscribe to.

This obviously creates controversy and we welcome it as well. Just because something is popular doesn't mean it's right. Some of these aspects are literally unhealthy and damaging for the people (especially the youth) – and more people should take a stand against them.

Another of these axioms is around the idea that the weight of your lift is the correct measurement of your strength. We don’t think this is the case, and we definitely don’t think you should associate your strength with your lifts (they are only indicators of strength).

We aren't saying it's bad or wrong to train like a strongman or powerlifter, but we want people to be aware that strength is more multifaceted than just the maximal weight of your lifts.

In this article we will go into:

  • Three Areas Modern Thinking Makes Mistakes
  • Understanding and Applying Big 5 Lifts
  • The Different Phases of Fitness
  • Why You Must Embrace Change & Self-Responsibility
  • The 4 Pillars of Functional Strength
  • Returning to Nature.

Three Areas Modern Thinking Makes Mistakes

Human beings tend to think we’re the smartest and what we do right now is good for the person, no matter the time period. Our benchmark for intelligence often revolves around having the best technology.

But when you consider the effects of technology today, such as AI and social media, we may not soon be intelligent at all. The following three examples illustrate this point clearly.

1. Health

100-200 years ago, the richest people had access to the worst healthcare available. Doctors had limited knowledge and they would perform unnecessary treatments and surgeries.

Hygiene standards were also non-existent. An article reviewing 200 years of health and medical care declared ‘Sick people were safer at home than in the hospital.’

It was often better, or at least less harmful, to do nothing beyond resting and consuming simple foods. Still in the 1950s, actual cigarettes were prescribed for many different conditions.

Similar problems persist today. Eventually, we may find that many medications and pharmaceuticals we consume today turn out to be bad for the body and not the best options for healing.

The smartest people in the world know that physical health is directly correlated with cognitive performance. Your lifestyle plays a major factor in health and whether you get diseases or not.

While the average person declines physically and gets obese, so declines the cognitive ability (intelligence). This is where the modern healthcare has failed us the most – it's not getting us healthier because the medications will fix the symptoms but the root cause is rarely addressed.

Today we’re convinced that the modern way is the only way, and that we know the best, but the ancients also had wisdom, especially those who left behind a legacy.

This way of thinking affects how we view fitness as well.

2. Fitness

athlete workout routine for championship performance

Today, many "gym bros", strongmen, CrossFitters and powerlifters are acknowledging that their training has been harmful or it has come with a great cost to their health.

Elliot Hulse spent the last decades lifting big and harming himself through his training, and recently published a video calling himself a hypocrite.

He spent years talking about strength and about being the strongest version of himself, but admits that he wasn’t taking his own advice about health and fitness, and that he’d been living a double life.

He admits that he's operating at only 20-30% of his potential, acknowledging that this realization is painful.

Even though he recognised that his body was broken, his identity was so connected to his weightlifting, that he persisted.

We give huge respect to Elliot for realizing and speaking about this. This problem however isn’t just affecting him, it affects many people.

They don’t see that they could be stronger and healthier if they had a more respectful and healthier approach towards fitness and their bodies.

3. Intelligence

leg press quads squat athlete 20xx

Intelligence is about how fast you figure out what’s the best way to progress, and how adaptable you are. It’s not about knowing exactly what to do from day 1.

We didn’t start out training intelligently, we were doing exactly the typical methods you see on social media today and experiencing all the same problems as everyone else.

Now in retrospect, basing our training on popular axioms, instead of the wisdom of mentors and our bodies, was a very stupid thing to do. Yet, this is what we did in the beginning.

In strongman training, powerlifting, CrossFit, street workouts, calisthenics and gymnastics injuries are commonplace. You push yourself to the limit, and make mistakes when you do it.

Everyone makes mistakes, but being smart is about how quickly you learn from those mistakes and make the necessary changes to grow.

Being more open and in tune with your body helps you naturally identify and learn from these mistakes more quickly. This is why one of the main things we teach is self-knowledge and body intelligence.

A good coach or a mentor will point out tons of mistakes before they become a problem. In fact, we credit a lot of our speed of learning to having many excellent mentors along the way.

Intelligent training and strength development aims to keep the body healthy, while keeping the pain and surgeries away. It aims to develop the body in a sustainable and systematic way.

The "tough guy" attitude has to go. It’s not a sign of mental strength – or intelligence - to destroy your body.

Mental strength is a necessity but don't destroy yourself to prove it.

Understanding and Applying the Big 5 Lifts

The Big 5 lifts combined with the 5 sets and 5 reps (5x5) method of training is simple and effective, so it helps people to stay consistent. But that doesn’t mean it's a sustainable way to get strong and to build universal transferable strength.

The Big 5 lifts are the deadlift, the back squat, the pull up, the overhead press, and the bench press.

They are typically considered the kings of strength exercises, and there’s nothing wrong with them, but they should be combined with different things.

In fact, The Big 5 Lifts just present some of the basic movement patterns (shoulder & hip articulations) of a human being that we cover thoroughly in both Movement 20XX and Athlete 20XX Methods.

These 5 exercises are great foundational movements to build strength and size but they aren’t enough to fully develop the body - they simply leave too many foundational patterns and articulations untouched.

Of course, the Big 5 can produce great results. At the beginning of your fitness journey, they can take you pretty far.

It’s like carving a statue: you don’t start with the detail, but with the broad lines of the body and the overall shape.

You can use those lifts to shape out the body for some time, but the idea that you would do this for years will leave you imbalanced, and probably with many small wear and tear issues and even injuries.

When you’ve never been to a gym and you finally start going there regularly, you can expect great results with any type of training and the Big 5 is not an exception.

But after a couple of years of training the Big 5 day after day, you’re going to plateau especially if you do the same variations of each exercise.

Your body needs and demands variety.

The Different Phases of Fitness Journey

There are several different phases you can take your body through. We've gone through:

  • Heavy lifting, street workout and bodybuilding phase (Mainstream methods) 
  • Movement, calisthenics and mobility phase (Movement 20XX)
  • Stability and athletic training phase (precision training of Athlete 20XX)
  • Strength endurance & conditioning phase (Warrior 20XX)
  • Qigong phase (grandmaster's knowledge)
  • Most recently the Iron King Method phase

You can always change and continue to get benefits, entering a new level and dimension of training. But of course, you shouldn't train everything at once.

At the beginning of your fitness journey, almost anything you do will bring huge benefits. But if you want to get better after a certain point, you need to add variety to the exercises you are doing. There exists great benefits to training correctly from the get go.

The flip side of this is that if you’re already at a very high level, you can often get away with just doing the basics.

If you’re a high-level MMA fighter or football player, your athleticism is already at a high level. When you add deadlifts, squats, rows, or pull-ups, it’s a good addition which will make you better.

The problems mainly face the people in the middle, where you are lacking many aspects of strength, mobility, flexibility, stability, power, body control and where many parts of the body are still undeveloped and imbalanced.

The further you progress, the more you need to add. You can't become fixated on one way of training.

We recommend doing a simple, high-quality, holistic combination of exercises, and switching to another method once you feel strong and stable.

Shock the body, and keep your mind sharp.

This is how we’ve been training and how we've mastered multiple methods. Once you’ve mastered something, you can maintain it very easily.

Samuli's recent transformation (arms & forearms) with Iron King Method.

Last year, Samuli practiced the Iron King Method nearly every day to developed the grip and to master a new set of tools such as the Indian Club, Mace and Round Sandbag.

Now, he can train just once or twice a week and still see significant benefits, thanks to the huge progress he made last year.

Eero spent most of 2016 and 2017 training his mind/muscle connection developing the precision training methodology of Athlete 20XX Method, putting all the focus on body awareness, stability, and muscle control.

Now, he no longer trains as intensively in this manner, but the mind-muscle connection and its benefits persist and develop further without any specific effort.

At the beginning it's hard, but once you’ve mastered it, it becomes natural and stays in the body. All these phases leave an imprint in your body for the rest of your life (muscle memory & structural integrity).

So take the time to fix the weaknesses and imbalances thoroughly and methodically, like we highlight in Athlete 20XX Method.

Athletic ability is in the small details. It’s a combination of flexibility, agility, stability, speed and pliability of muscles, not just contraction strength.

When you can combine fine details into functional movement patterns and tasks, you can achieve ‘feats of strength’, but it's built on these small details.

Everyone does the big stuff for a while but sooner or later they make their way to health. We were lucky enough to hear our bodies, which is why we didn’t keep training like that.

It’s about redefining strength, which we spoke about at length here.

What we’ve been doing over the past seven years is where everyone with a strong mind-body connection is going. Only if you lack self-awareness, you keep destroying the body.

However, sooner or later, everybody experiences their ‘come to Jesus’ moment, and it requires you to embrace change and take full responsibility for your health.

Embracing Change and Self-Responsibility

animal movement skill flow

The mainstream fitness approach is fundamentally destructive. People use the gym to replace therapy and harm themselves as a result.

We discovered early that it’s not the right way to train. If it’s painful on your body now, what’s it going to be like in 5 years or 10 years?

People want precise instructions and to be told exactly what to do.

They want the answer given to them, rather than learning how to listen to their own bodies.

You have to take responsibility, and of course it’s hard, but it’s possible and necessary if you want to stay fit, strong, and healthy.

We’ve done it, and you can do it too.

And we’re definitely not the first people to do it.

Popular Influencers Who Changed Their Approach

We’ve followed Eddie Hall (the world's strongest man 2017) for many years and think he’s a great example of what we’re encouraging. He’s gone out of his comfort zone and entered a totally new field.

He could have stayed a strongman but instead he challenged himself to change and test himself in boxing and MMA. Not everyone does this, and it reflects incredible mental strength.

Since focusing on boxing and MMA, he has undergone an incredible transformation, dropping from 200 kg (440 lb) to 160 kg (352 lb). That may not seem much but that is losing nearly 25% of your bodyweight, of which a lot is muscle.

Later, in an interview Hall stated that his training and lifestyle probably ‘took decades off his lifespan‘. 

Athletic sports such as MMA require a different kind of strength, and there speed, agility, and movement are immensely valuable.

If he focused even more on MMA and wrestling, he would build muscle, but it would be different to his previous strongman muscles. His adductors, thighs, hamstrings, and his neck would totally change.

His deadlift would drop from 500kg (1,102lb) and people might think he’s gotten weaker, but from our perspective, he’d be a lot stronger as his strength would be much more functional and well-rounded covering areas that were not touched before.

Strength isn’t measured by a deadlift, and stepping away from the barbell allowed him to strengthen his body by doing something totally new.

He went from being the best, to being a beginner. That is an act of strength!

Similarly, Kali Muscle (a popular former pro bodybuilder) had a heart attack and completely changed his lifestyle. Today he is talking about how his position on steroids had also changed and how he is encouraging people to ‘stay anti-roids.’ for life.

Kali Muscle even said ‘the only regret I have in my life is competing in bodybuilding.’

Both Kali and Eddie saw that change was necessary, and embraced it, and they’re both feeling better for it.

Recognizing the Signs

Eero realized early that he preferred martial arts and calisthenics to bodybuilding.

Eero's initial transformation.

He looked at bodybuilders and compared them to Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, and thought they just looked bulky. But when he started lifting, he got obsessed with the golden era lifters and wanted the look of a bodybuilder.

He made many mistakes quickly – luckily never rupturing anything or causing serious injury. He made gains but the gains came with pain.

He realized that he felt better before lifting heavy, even though he was conventionally stronger. He could still do some moves but his flexibility was decreasing and he felt worse in general.

Similarly, initially Samuli was doing heavy lifts and calisthenics as his primary training but he had to stop completely when he suffered a bad ribcage injury and had chronic pain in his elbows.

Samuli was identifying with the numbers of the lifts and he was too obsessed with his personal bests.

With numbers, there’s no limit and no hope of happiness or contentment. It’s just like money and wealth, there’s no way to stop if you keep chasing the numbers.

Combined with reading lots of articles and blog posts, Samuli had heard ‘it’s part of the game to have injuries and surgeries’ but it never struck him as right.

The narrative of mainstream fitness is that it’s normal. It’s turning pain into a good thing, so when you experience pain you think ‘that’s just how it’s supposed to be.’ 

Arnold Schwarzenegger famously said: ‘No pain, no gain’ but this is not what he meant.

Both Eero and Samuli felt something was missing. That something was the functionality of strength.

We see functional strength being built on these 4 pillars.

The 4 Pillars of Functional Strength

The general idea is starting to take over that the only measurement of strength can come from the gym, but there are so many other ways to be strong. People aren’t seeing this.

It’s important for everyone to understand that you can still feel fit, strong, athletic, and healthy without doing the typical gym training. There are alternatives.

Even if you never lifted weights and never did a deadlift in your life, you can still become an insanely strong, super functional athlete. It’s possible without ever touching a weight.

Strength isn’t only found in the gym, but functional strength should always be built on these pillars.

1. "Grip First Principle"

Our biggest discovery in the last two years was how much more room for growth we had in our hands and ankles. These two areas limit your athleticism and your functionality incredibly.

In fact, almost nobody has these two areas fully developed. Only arm wrestlers have incredibly strong hands (or a hand) and maybe soccer players have their feet in the proper shape.

Typical training modalities just don't do the necessary job.

When everything is too convenient and comfortable, it isn’t building functional strength. You may fix mobility or imbalances, but you aren’t producing the athleticism or functionality that you’re looking for.

The Iron King Method focuses heavily on grip-strength because it’s one of the pillars of strength that is often neglected in gym training.

Wrestling focuses a lot more on squeezing and grip strength, which doesn’t get that developed in the Big 5. The barbell lifts lack the transfer because it’s too easy and one dimensional to hold them.

By making it easier to lift a heavier weight, ironically the grip remains underdeveloped.

It’s easy to train your grip outside the gym though, just take a look at rock climbers. The ancient equipment such as clubs, maces and round sandbags also develop the grip incredibly well.

When the grip is as involved in the lift as the rest of the body, then the functional strength starts to develop. The grip has to be as strong as the rest of the body, otherwise functionality is compromised. Say no to wraps.

Similarly, your ankles have to be strong as well.

2. Versatility of Movement

fat burner flow movement 20xx movement20xx

Animal movement training with Suvi Tuulia

Strength can be found outside the gym in a thousand different places.

We recently went for a 4-hour hike in the mountains with steep hills and it’s incredibly good for the legs, hips and most importantly the ankles.

It is amazing for developing athletic legs because the terrain is very uneven, and it challenges the legs and feet.

Another excellent example is swimming. People often think it’s purely an endurance sport but it’s great for muscle building, not to mention lung development.

In Movement 20XX Method, we move the body in so many fantastic ways that you will develop a true sense of body control. You become a master of movement by mastering your body.

We literally develop the foundations of human movement and you can do all of this at home without needing to go to a gym.

You learn how to move the body in all fours, how to crawl, how to squat, how to develop climbing strength, how to keep the body limber and how to move like a dancer or an acrobat.

3. Strength Endurance & Conditioning

L-sit hold lateral movement glutes

People often think the raw strength is the be-all and end-all of supplementary training. It's generally thought that ‘strength will make you better at everything.’ and although this is generally true, it's not the whole story.

Strength endurance is a form of strength as well and it's actually more important than your maximal output.

This came obvious to us and will come to obvious to any gym goer when they start doing MMA or any versatile sport – your strength is meaningless unless you can sustain it.

This realization caused us to create Warrior 20XX Method many years ago and what fundamentally changed our performance and athletic ability in MMA and any sport (tennis, soccer, football, hockey etc.) where endurance plays a role.

4. Intentional Training & Mind-Body Awareness

Scapula & shoulder control with the former UFC Champion Jiri Prochazka.

The intention you bring is the critical component. It’s not what you do, it’s how, and that's what makes the difference between an average workout, and a great workout. It's not the quantity but the quality of your training that matters.

In Athlete 20XX Method, we include the same movement patterns as done in the Big 5 lifts, but you don’t focus on the weight, and you aren’t trying to target maximal weights.

You are using these movements as a tool to learn how your body works. The main purpose is to develop the body, and not lift the weights at the expense of the body.

You’re not trying to lift the maximal amount; you’re learning how your body and muscles function within the movements. With every movement you’re developing the body and aiming to create the greatest stimulus for growth.

Developing this mind-muscle connection elevates every aspect of your training, and it is necessary for anyone looking to develop mastery.

The goal of strength training as done in Athlete 20XX Method is to make the body strong. It’s not to lift the highest amount of weight. These two do not always correlate.

The purpose is to make every part of the body strong, not just the big muscle groups or the beach muscles.

Returning to Nature

cat and eero

Lately, Eero has spent a lot of time observing a cat. Their movements are fluid, graceful, strong, versatile, and – importantly – natural.

Humans are of course different because we can develop the body consciously, but when we are natural and functional, we are strong.

When we talk about strength training, it doesn’t stop at the biggest most visible muscles, it involves the entire body.

The grip, ankles, neck, inner thighs, calves, every link in the body needs to be strong and mobile. Only then can you have the most transferable strength in any activity.

From this base of athleticism and strength in every part of your body you will learn new skills after a few repetitions, because your mind and body have been training together.

Lastly, of course time limitations exist, but if you can go to the gym, you have time to learn alternatives.

It’s not black and white. You can still go to the gym and lift weights, but you should be aware of the alternatives.

Lifting is only a part of strength, not the whole picture. How much you lift is an indicator of strength, not the full story.

Simple can be good, but a bit of complexity and variety is also good. The Big 5 can give you a good start, but you should expect more from yourself when you want to get stronger.

Stay strong!


samuli jyrkinen

About the author 

Samuli Jyrkinen

Samuli is the ninja behind the scenes (photography, videography, websites, program platforms and more). He has been training religiously for over a decade and has a firm grasp of physical and mental fitness. You will find our story here.

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