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October 01, 2022
The 5x5 workout is a staple in the world of strength training. If you speak to anyone who has ever seriously trained lifting weights, there is a good chance they have run a version of this training program before. We certainly have!
It has reached such a high status in the strength community due to its simplicity, effectiveness, and emphasis on major compound exercises. It's a no-frill, strength and muscle-building program that works. But, can it be better? We think so. This article's going to explain the program, discuss how it can be improved, and show you how to make personalized adjustments to meet your needs.
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The term "5x5" can mean a few different things to different people. Old school lifters may think of Bill Starr's 5x5 program as the original format.
New school guys will likely think of the Stronglifts' 5x5 program as it has greatly impacted the newer generation of lifters. Some may simply know it as a workout split focusing on a rep scheme in which you perform five sets with five reps of an exercise.
Let's discuss these in a little more detail.
Bill Starr is an old-school lifter and elite strength coach. Back in 1976, he released his book "Only The Strong Shall Survive: Strength Training For Football."
In it, he introduced the first 5x5 workout plan (at least the first one to gain traction). Since then, it has spawned countless other similar workout programs. His original program is a 3-day split, requiring you train 3 days a week with 3 exercises per session for a total of 6 exercises.
Throughout the week, the load varies in intensity with a heavy, medium, and light day.
While it's called 5x5, it also uses a 5x10 rep scheme. It looks like this:
You perform this week after week, adding weight when the entire set is performed.
Stronglifts was created in 2007 by a guy named Medhi. To be honest, there's not a whole lot of information available on him. As for the workout routine, it has a few key components, including it uses five barbell movements, includes two workouts that alternate, only has three exercises per workout, and requires training 3 days a week.
The program looks like this:
As mentioned, these two workouts are alternated throughout the week, emphasizing adding more weight to each session.
Before we get into some problems with the existing 5x5 workout programs, let's first talk about the good stuff. From this context, we’re going to address the basic components of a 5x5 program. This includes variables such as requiring a minimal amount of exercise, only utilizing main compound lifts and a simple rep scheme, and placing a heavy emphasis on progressive overload.
Here are some of the reasons we think it's a good program for most people to follow when starting their lifting journey.
A 5x5 weight training program focuses on the basics and eliminates all the extra stuff. Not that extra stuff is necessarily bad, but many new beginners can end up focusing on it too much.
Further, you will focus on foundational movements you'll use in your training for years to come.
Being that a 5x5 program is for the beginner and intermediate lifter, you're still going to grow plenty of muscle. This is due to the exercise selection and emphasis on adding more weight every session. If you're looking for more information on training for strength vs. hypertrophy, make sure to check out our article on the topic.
As mentioned, barbell movements are used as your main compound lifts. Not only are you able to train the entire body, you learn the fundamental movement patterns as well.
The most critical lifting principle you need to know is progressive overload.
Sometimes, new lifters will lift weights every week but see no progress. Upon examining their routine, it's not uncommon to see that they have been lifting the same weight every week. Progressive overload simply states that one must continually add weight (whether by increasing weight lifted, reps, or sets) for progression to continue.
All the major muscle groups are hit with a 5x5 program as they use the major barbell lifts. These lifts allow you to hit more muscle fibers and muscle tissue with one movement, thus building more lean muscle mass. This explains why you only need a few exercises.
5x5 workouts have their fair share of benefits, but there do seem to be a few issues with a traditional 5x5 program that we'd like to discuss.
We love all the barbell lifts in these programs. That said, we believe they're missing a few key movement patterns.
We believe any effective strength training program should have two primary lifts: chin-ups and lunges. We'd also add in dips, but the point is that these vital movement patterns are omitted when they could easily be added in.
For example, you could throw them at the end using body weight.
This isn't a massive deal as we actually like the fact these types of programs are so simple. However, it still stands that there's little room for customization.
This can make it inadequate for people with specific issues from mobility, injuries, lack of skill, or lack of equipment.
Our next gripe: Just because you can use only 5 exercises doesn't mean you should.
The point is, while you could progress with the way the current programs are written, adding a few extra exercises would significantly improve the quality of the program and your ability to improve your muscular strength.
This is directed more towards Stronglifts. Even though it only prescribes 5 exercises, it still manages to have you perform the back squat 10 times more than the deadlift!
To be clear, we love squats. But we think alternating them every other workout would make room for an additional exercise in the program.
While 5x5 works, it's certainly not the only rep range to consider. A broad range of loads can be used to improve different variables for a beginner lifter, yet many 5x5 type programs omit them.
Granted, if they didn't use a 5x5 rep scheme, they wouldn't be 5x5, but it still stands.
While Bill Starr does vary the load and uses a 5x10 rep scheme for some lifts, it's still pretty narrow in terms of variability, which can lead to workout boredom.
As seen, there are a few issues with 5x5 that can be improved upon. The good thing is we can easily fix them.
We're going to show you a terrific alternative to your typical 5x5 workout that addresses the above issues while retaining simplicity. In this 5x5 version, you're going to train 3 times a week using 3 exercises per workout. In total, you'll use 8 different exercises.
One of the most significant differences you'll see is that you'll use more than just barbell movements. In this version, you will use bodyweight movements frequently used in calisthenic plans as well. This is for a few reasons.
The first, which we already mentioned, is that we think that chin-ups and dips are vital to any training program for maximal muscle growth and strength in the upper body. Further, these movements add a degree of athleticism that barbell movements can't replicate.
The third body weight movement is the lunge. Again, it's a critical movement that significantly enhances the effectiveness of any strength program.
However, these also serve another purpose. Instead of using lighter weights to alter the loads, you'll use your body. In effect, this middle day will be a quasi "light day" in between the other two days to give you a break from heavy weights to aid muscle recovery. That said, you'll also perform squats again but with a lighter rep scheme of 3x10.
The lifts you'll use to train the whole body are:
The two workouts that use barbell exercises are going to follow your typical 5x5 rep scheme. Again, we're staying with the general idea, so that's what it is.
These sessions will start off with either the back squat or deadlift, as these are the most challenging movements.
The reason you're doing the row both days is that there's not another barbell movement that doesn't require setting up like a bench row. Plus, the row is awesome. Since it's included twice, we placed it at the end of the workout when you're most fatigued. We also require you to switch your bent over row hand grip in both workouts to hit the muscles slightly differently.
Then during the third workout, you'll perform your light sets of squats followed by your body weight exercises.
For your primary barbell movements, your starting weights will be around 75% of your one rep max. If you're not sure what you're one rep max is, use a weight that you can perform about 10 reps with.
This may feel light for you, but you will grow into it fast. It's always a good idea to start lighter and work into it.
We're also going to throw in one other twist. You are going to train 4 sets of 5 reps with this weight. However, on your 5th set, you're going to drop the weight by about 70% or so and perform max reps. For the 5th set, you don't need to track. While it's important, it won't determine your progression.
This is to allow more volume and hit different physiological variables. Even beyond building muscle, this will improve your muscular endurance while adding something different to the mix.
Workout B, the bodyweight day, isn't going to use a 5x5 rep scheme. Instead, you're going to use RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) to monitor your loads, following some guidelines.
Without further ado, here's your new and improved 5x5 workout.
The cardinal rule for progressing on a 5x5 program is to add weight in the smallest increment possible during your next workout. You want to postpone hitting a plateau for as long as possible.
Too often, guys will try to add the maximum amount of weight they can on the bar each session. While you definitely need to push yourself, this will stall you much sooner. Therefore, just like your starting weight, you want to be as conservative as possible.
With that said, try to keep your weekly jumps between 2.5 to 5 pounds.
Be sure to run a proper warm-up before each training session, especially A & B. This should include 5 minutes of a general warm-up and about 5 minutes of a dynamic warm-up. We suggest trying these bodyweight dynamic warm-up exercises if you're looking for recommendations.
When you get to your exercises, you will need to ramp up to the target weight. This simply refers to performing some warm-up sets as you increase the load. The amount you do depends on how heavy you're lifting and the exercise.
For warm-up sets, deadlifts and squats should use at least 3 warm-up sets, the bench press and overhead press should use at least 2, and the bent-over row needs at least one.
This is in addition to the very first set, which you should perform 10-15 reps of with just the bar weight.
Always use proper form. If you are unable to do one of the exercises properly, perform the other exercises and then spend the time needed practicing the exercise you need help with.
Until you can use the proper form, you can use an alternative exercise. Here are some possibilities:
Again, use the alternatives only if you're practicing form on an exercise and can't yet use a heavy load.
Also, always use proper weights. As we mentioned, 5x5 works, but it's not a time for ego-lifting. Not only will you progress slowly, but you will also increase the chance of injuring yourself.
Many new lifters think that they need to pump out a bunch of curls and lateral raises to build muscle. While we love isolation exercises, you don't need them as a beginner since any load provides muscle gains¹.
That said, there's nothing necessarily wrong with performing isolation moves as long as they're not replacing bigger movements. And let's not forget that one of the main reasons lifters follow a 5x5 is to keep exercises to a minimum.
The length of time you follow a 5x5 program will vary for everyone but it really comes down to how long it works. That said, you should follow this program for at least 3 months.
Within this time frame, most people will be able to improve relatively easily. While you may not make a jump on every movement in every session, you should be able to progress pretty regularly.
There are two main reasons you may want to alter some things in the program.
A deload week is a period, generally, a week, when you take a break from lifting heavy weights to allow for optimal recovery. It's used extensively in strength training as your nervous system can get fried lifting heavy loads.
Being that this program is set up to only really have two heavy days a week and four full rest days, you may find that it's not as taxing as other 5x5 programs that have you lift heavy every session. On that note, you can use some personal discretion.
It's going to depend on your training age and what type of loads you are lifting. If you're a beginner, there's likely no reason, as the weights you're using aren't really stressful enough. However, if you've been lifting weights properly for some time, a deload could be extremely useful.
Some general guidelines to follow include: If you've been properly training for 6-12 months, you could do a deload every 4-6 weeks. And if you've been properly training longer than 12 months, you should deload once every 3-4 weeks.
During your deload week, you run the exact same program but use 50% of the load.
So you've finished our 5x5 program, and now you want to try something new. You can do a few things, but to stay within a similar format, we'll stick with running a program 3 days a week.
Running a 5x5 is very taxing on the body, so we want to avoid back-to-back 5x5s. Switching it up is easier on your body, and it also frees up time to do more than three exercises.
Also, we want to add more variety in the movements and the loads used. Therefore, on your two heavy days, you'll perform 5 exercises. They'll start off using the deadlift and squat again, but this time, you'll use 3X3. While this is actually heavier, you're only doing 3 sets of 3 reps, making it much easier for your nervous system to handle.
After, you'll have 2 exercises that you use 4 sets. The first set is a top set which will be a heavy 3 reps. Thereafter, you'll drop and perform 3 sets of 6 reps.
You'll then have an awesome accessory movement, either the leg press or close grip bench press. Last, these sessions will end with Farmer's carries to train your cardiovascular fitness and improve your overall strength and muscle mass.
The middle day will again use the three bodyweight exercises. However, for the chin-ups and dips, you will load them so that you are in the 6 rep range for 3 sets. Then on the 4th, you'll max.
After these, you'll run through a series of isolation exercises where you just perform two sets of each. The goal is to be somewhere in the 8-12 rep range. For these, feel free to rest anywhere from 1:00-1:30 between each set, depending on your time. It looks like a lot of exercises, but the goal is to go through them with intensity.
*For lunges, start with 100 at a time. From there, you will add 10-12 every week.
**For the elevated deadlift, you can use a squat rack if you can set the bar low enough. If not, use blocks or plates to elevate the deadlift.
One thing must be clear when following a 5x5 strength and muscle-building program. You need to eat.
Of course, we fully believe that you can run a 5x5 while cutting. But generally speaking, people who run this program want to increase strength and size. To do this, you need enough calories and proper macros.
At the same time, you only want to increase your muscle mass, not body fat. Therefore, you want to be in a caloric surplus of around 300 calories. This will be enough to support your needs. If it seems you're having trouble gaining weight, you can bump it up to 500. We also suggest utilizing the best high protein low fat foods, and even following this muscle-building 7-day meal plan for extra inspiration.
After you have your total calories, break them down using these guidelines:
Spread these calories out evenly into 4-5 meals a day. For what to eat after a workout, consume a meal with a 1:2 ratio of protein to carbs with at least 25 grams of protein. An even higher amount may provide extra benefits.
A 5x5 program refers to one that focuses on simplicity, using a rep scheme of 5x5.
While the original 5x5 plans work, we feel like our version will help you make even bigger gains. The most important lesson to learn from 5x5 is that strength and conditioning don't need to be fancy or complicated to be extremely effective. Sometimes, a simple strength training program really is best.
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