Pearls of wisdom: 5×5 workouts (Stronglifts etc)

Contrary to De La Soul, three isn’t the magic number anymore; it’s five now. And not just 5, you must multiply it by itself. What do we get? 5×5 

5×5’s are said to be the go to for muscle mass, strength development, power building, losing body fat and more. You never know guys, maybe they’ll get you laid too? 25 reps are the answer to everything. Yes, everything.

Enough sarcasm! Give me the real low-down on everything 5×5?!

In all seriousness, 5×5’s are very popular and have stood the test of time. They cater to the minimalist preachers; they’re inherently simple – you do 5 sets of 5 reps with a set weight and once you can do all 5×5, you increase the weight. The ‘secret’ logic behind the set and rep scheme is: by doing 5 reps you can use a heavy enough load to call on your higher threshold motor units and fastest twitch muscle fibres.

This is providing your 5th rep is close to maximal in terms of exertion. The 5 sets element is meant to be where the hypertrophy is born; high load with relatively high volume equals muscle, strength and aesthetics. That’s what the promo says anyway.

5×5 is a superb program for the novice. 

I’ll concede, I wish I personally had done a proven 5×5 routine way back when at least 25% of my body mass was pure fat. Not the prettiest of nostalgia, but hey. Instead of doing excessive running and ignorantly starving myself (what can you say, I was dedicated!), I would’ve ran the classic and universally hailed: Stronglifts 5×5 OR Jason Blaha’s 5×5 novice template. I think Stronglifts would’ve won though as there’s more simplicity. 

Three workouts weekly on non consecutive days. Squats every workout, bench press and overhead press to take care of all upper body pushing needs. Deadlifts and barbell rows providing all the upper and lower body pulling requirements. Run a slight calorie deficit and watch the fat melt away, do empty stomach walking on rest days. I could have looked like Arnold’s twin in 12-16 weeks. There you see how vivid my imagination is. That would’ve been nice, right?

The irony is, it’s these associations with Arnold that 5×5 marketers use to sell you on their program. Look what Arnold got from MY product. Forget the steroids, forget all the high rep isolation work. Everything Arnold achieved was because he made that vital decision as a teenager to do that 5×5 from Reg Park. Neither the 5×5 program or Arnold are the enemy here, it’s the over-hypers, marketers and mis-informers.

(tumblr.com) – I thought Arnold only ever did big heavy compounds as part of a 5×5?

A traditional 5×5 will build muscle and strength………..for a while.

Like anything, it doesn’t last forever though. I hate that law of nature as much as you do. Trust me. Reason being, you just cannot add 5 or 10 lbs to the bar every workout forever. Sorry. BUT………you can for a good while – especially if you’re smart with it. Smart in this context means knowing when and how to modify the template to suit your particular status at the time.

Mistake: Doing 5×5 straight sets for too long

5×5 sets across will get you very strong, especially by natural standards. But the point of inevitability will arrive; this volume of work is neither practical or possible – at least in terms of productive return potential. There’s the time factor, when you’re using considerable weights for all movements, there is a significant portion of time naturally required for your warm up sets alone. And don’t forget rest periods. The bigger and stronger you become, the more rest and recovery you require in order to produce maximal output.

The inverse relationship between volume and intensity shows up here too. The more intensity, the less the volume. It’s for these reasons that programs such as Stronglifts actually state those capable of squatting 300 lbs/ 140 kg, shouldn’t use the program at all. I actually really like the Stronglifts progression model. After X amount of stalls/de-loads, you employ a 3×5 structure instead of 5×5. This usually keeps the progress coming in for a long time to come. I’ve personally struggled to nail a weight for 5×5 back when I was doing 5×5 routines, but I’d always manage the first 3 sets. It was downhill after that though.

Fix:

After a set # of stalls, use a 3×5 scheme much like Stronglifts or Starting Strength – which is based entirely around 3×5. I also think the classic ramping style (Madcow) 5×5 (which is technically 1×5) works great. Especially for those time-strapped. This is what legendary strength coach Bill Starr endorsed for athletes looking to gain both strength and size. Each set increases weight in specific increments until you reach your top set, which will be in or around a true 5 RM load. It’s only the last set you really want to destroy and conquer, and push the weight up each week. The time consuming warm ups of the straight sets are eradicated and instead, factored in. Which leads me to………

Mistake: Non nonsensical rest periods

This is big. It’s tricky switching over to a 5×5 from any form of pump or ‘fluff’ training style. You’re used to chasing the burn, feeling your heart pound and building up a sweat. 3 minutes rest after a set of 5 feels easy, and almost like you’re not even training. If this is the case, you’ve got a lot to gain from the program. As you mature through the program you’ll find 3 minutes isn’t actually enough many times.  Hence my reasoning for the ‘ramping’ approach. Can you really rest upwards of 5 minutes between each set for a total of 15 sets? That’s literally living the gym life.

When you ramp up, you can rest a minute or so between sets 1 and 2, maybe 2 minutes from set 2-3 or 4. And finally, a MINIMUM of 3 minutes prior to the ‘money’ set; set 5. 5-8 minutes can actually be called for here too. After this set, you don’t need as much rest as you transition to your next exercise as this movement is usually targeting a completely different section of the body.

(nobsbb.com) – The Madcow template. You can see how the entire program is cyclical. 

Mistake: Training to failure. 

I said it, you never want to fail a big lift – if you can avoid it. Sometimes it happens, but it’s occurrence should be minimised. This is anecdotal experience talking. I failed squat after squat, dropping the bar off my back whilst buried in the ‘hole’. All because I was stubbornly trying to force my way to progress. I thought deloading and stopping shy of failure was for pussies.

CNS fatigue? Come again?

Being ‘hardcore’ doesn’t get you anywhere with this style of training. You end up with achy joints, trouble sleeping and no progress to show for it. These are things only experience truly teaches you. That’s not to say don’t push it, and push it hard. But to use some auto-regulation. Once the bar significantly slows on the concentric, your set is done. You’re allowed a slight grinder – perhaps a 3-4 second fight to lockout. Any slower is just a drain on the body and brain.

Which is compounded when you do straight sets and find yourself barely getting 5 reps for your first set, and the rest comes in 4’s, 3’s and even 2’s. It’s OK to get those numbers, just ensure you rack the bar once you struggle. Letting the ego go shouldn’t be hard here because the workout frequency is high, thus you get another attempt in no time at all.

This also presents another pro to the ramping approach because if you were to hit failure, it would only be on the last set. Even then I’d try to avoid it. Although at least you won’t have the potential for failure on 5 sets! And really don’t delay your de-loads, they’re crucial. As time to deload arrives, embrace it. It’s all part of the progress cycle.

The final mistake: Becoming obsessed/fixated on increasing the weight at all costs. 

This is a very good tip. Perhaps the best I can offer. As you exploit a 5×5 routine, you’ll find you often deload and build back up to a similar weight, which usually becomes a frustrating sticking point. This is where guys will check out mentally and start believing they’re not meant to be stronger for genetic reasons or whatever. Or maybe they just start hating life because they can’t bench 70 kg for 5×5.

An approach I use, and have coached people to use, is to keep an eagle eye on the total number of reps you achieve across all the sets.

Maybe you’ve done: Set 1: 5. Set 2: 5. Set 3: 4. Set 4: 4. Set 5: 3.

A grand total of 21 reps. Instead of reaching 70 kg (for example) again and aiming to ‘crush it’ and get all 5×5, why not look to get 22 reps across all sets? It might not seem much, but it’s progress. Progress is progress whether it’s in millimetres, centimetres, inches, metres or miles. 

The final word – 

5×5 gets my thumbs up. It’s a good program, especially for beginners looking to start off on the right path. Simple and effective. Proven and time tested. Modifiable for differing experience levels.

Recommended. 

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. James says:

    The Madcow template looks insanely ambitious, especially for a guy who just turned 61 years old. I did a 5×5 for six weeks and plateaued, basically because it was so difficult to get the barbell off the floor for hack squats and dead lifts.

    Since then, I’ve backed off and started a five-week progression. Week one involves performing 4 sets for all lifts (2 warm up sets using progressively heavier weights and then two working sets) with 10 reps per set. Week two moves to 8 reps, (number of sets stays the same for all five weeks), week three at 5 reps, week four at 4, and finally week five at 3 reps (the weights go up as the reps go down).

    Then the cycle starts again with the 10 rep scheme, only with an increase in weight over the previous round.

    In your article, you didn’t mention that programs like the 5×5 or 3×5 stimulate myofibril hypertrophy while higher rep schemes encourage sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. In my current routine, I’m attempting to split the difference, so to speak, and achieve gains in both areas.

    Unfortunately, as men get older, we process testosterone less efficiently, so I won’t see the same sort of lean muscle growth I would have if I were doing all this in my 20s, 30s or 40s. On the other hand, anything I can do to fight and maybe even reverse sarcopenia (muscle loss due to age) is worth it.

    Oh, I should say that I initially substituted hack squats for back squats in my 5×5 program because I’ve never done a back squat in my life and I didn’t trust my ability to balance a heavy barbell across my traps without dropping it and possibly injuring myself.

    But when I decided on my current workout cycle, since I knew I’d be lifting much lighter weights, at least for the first few weeks, I decided to teach myself (YouTube can be very helpful) how to squat in the squat rack. My weights so far have been relatively modest because I’m learning the finer points of squatting, principally how to balance the barbell as I lift it off of the rack, move down into the squat, and then move back upward. At least for me, it’s harder than it looks.

    I’ve been supplementing those four sets of squats with three sets of hack squats (a warm up and then two working sets) just to make sure my legs are getting a proper workout, and after only a few weeks, the effort is making a noticeable physical difference, particularly in my quads.

    My main takeaway from your article and this discussion is that anything involving heavy lifting, even for 3 to 5 reps, needs to be approached with a certain amount of reason and even caution.

    Don’t go too heavy just because someone put a number on a chart saying you have to. As much as I’d like to lift like the Incredible Hulk, I realize that I have limitations and I’d rather work up the scale slowly until I encounter them rather than let my ego take control and do some foolish thing that will get me hurt and knock me out of the gym for a prolonged recovery period.

    All that said, thanks for today’s blog post. It’s very informative.

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    1. Thanks once again James for the input!

      That protocol you outlined sounds quite good actually. It works on a nice scale. Madcow actually works similarly. It has you start off way below your CURRENT 5 rep max, then work up to, and beyond it in the coming weeks. Once you exceed it, you de-load and repeat (ideally with higher numbers across all sets).

      Squats are a highly neuromuscular lift aren’t they? If you use the squat rack with the pins set adequately, you should be relatively safe. The squat has never caused me too much trouble personally, although I’m structurally built for it: short femurs, long torso. The deadlift took me ages to ‘master’ however.

      You’re right about the testosterone, but it sounds like you’re already ahead of the game there in terms of lifestyle and activity. Besides, the benefit of age in this case is making you much more sensible. Hence the hack squatting and respecting heavy loads.

      Would your 20 year old self have done that? Youth is wasted on the young! 🙂 haha

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      1. James says:

        That much is true. I wouldn’t have had the discipline to do all this in my 20s.

        At nearly 6′ 3″ (I lost about a quarter of an inch due to age/gravity), I have long femurs, long torso, long everything, so my center of gravity works against me both in squat and deadlifts.

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  2. Mike says:

    JR,

    Enjoying your site, and the interview with nattyornot.

    50yr old man, haven’t worked out in over 20 yrs, not looking to win a contest. I have unlimited training time, as I am fortunate enough to work from home.

    I have been looking at the 5x5s (ALL of them), but I was wondering if you have any thoughts or experience with 5 consecutive day programs (Mon-Fri). I realize the volume would have to be low and it would have to be scheduled right. Not looking for the one body part per day schtuff, but a good, honest program to kick me off on the right path.

    Oh, and I just read your post “Forget the quest for perfect programs and answers!”, and I am definitely in the information overload phase. I just can’t seem to find a way to lift 5 consecutive days….

    Thanks
    Mike

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    1. Hi Mike, great to meet you!

      Glad you got something from my posts. That nattyornot interview is actually my most favourite article to date. I agree with the majority of his philosophies too. That’s definitely a ‘go-to’ site for info.
      I do think 5×5 would be a good place to start, although I wouldn’t advise doing it on a 5 day split – unless you’re OK with doing cardio on the other 2 days? Are you looking for pure weight/muscle gain or more of a re-composition effect?
      Also, what 5×5 template are you favouring most at the moment?

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      1. Mike says:

        Merry Christmas JR!! Thanks for the response!!

        You know, I have been on about every website there is, and am more confused than ever!!
        I would describe what I am looking to do as body recomposition…5’9″, 180, belly. Not in bad shape, but could be better. But, very weak.
        To play the acronym game, I have looked at: GST, HFT, HIT, GVT, and most of the other acronyms. I have looked at all the 10x10s, 10x3s, 5x5s, All Pros beginner, Fierce 5, etc…. They all seem like outstanding programs for someone looking to put on strength (pure 5×5 seems a boring for me though, effective, but boring).
        I like natty’s concept of western linear progression…Starting light, adding weight and lowering reps each week….My main concern is volume and recovery. I know better than to try to do squats 5×5 every day, but I would like to work out every day (different body part). I know this is the bro split, but I’m also not planning on all of the volume that bodybuilders do.

        I guess I’m wondering if there is a piece of this picture I am missing…I know there is nothing magical about any of this, and I can definitely program my own routine, just seeing if you have any thoughts or ideas on a good way to start…(is it worth it for me to do one of the big 5 (dead, bench, row, OHP, squat) each day, medium volume and intensity?)

        Thanks, I appreciate your reply, and hope you have a very good holiday season!!
        Mike

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      2. Hey Mike,

        Sorry I took a while getting back to you. I personally wouldn’t run something like GVT in your position. I think that would be overkill. I’m also (as I’m sure you could guess) not a fan of bro splits for naturals. I believe frequency is a naturals best friend.

        10×3 is good on paper, but with that you are limited to how many exercises you can do per workout unless you want to LIVE in the gym – 2 hour + marathons. Western progression is actually quite good. Have you found any potential templates utilizing that method that you like the look of? I’d be interested to see it.

        I think a full body routine on non consecutive days would work well for you. It needn’t be a 5×5. You could also look into upper/lower splits, although that might be jumping the gun a bit.

        Monday: Upper body high intensity day.
        Tuesday: Lower body high intensity day
        Wednesday: Off
        Thursday: Upper body volume day
        Friday: Lower body volume day

        That could work well. It would just come down to using appropriate exercises and parameters.

        I would advocate a 3 day full body routine for now, and then start looking to maybe up the frequency as you find your groove – I know this isn’t what you want to hear! 😉 Sorry, haha.

        Thanks for the holiday wishes and I hope you had a great one too 🙂

        Like

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