5 x 5 Strength Training Template: How to Do It Right

Reg Park 5x5 Strength RoutineRecently I got lots of e-mails on programming. All of the people wanted me to analyze their programs and say what I think about them. Some of them even wanted me to try their program. I try to answer all of my e-mails. But I get really bored to write the same thing over and over again. So I decided to write another post on basics. Specifically on 5 x 5 strength template. I really like this approach and always amazed how it gets lost and returns, then again gets lost, then returns again etc. But first of all, let’s take a look at some history of this famous training template.

5 x 5 Strength Training Template in History and Its Variations

Well, I don’t really know whether old-timers used exactly 5 sets of 5 reps. I think, that they came up with something like this at some point. Lots of coaches attribute invention of 5 x 5 system to Bill Starr and his famous book The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football. I admit I haven’t read it yet. But it is on my to-read list. Here’s a quote and original template from the book (that I found here):

“These are 3 basic exercises used by weightlifters to increase their strength….the football player (and you can insert Martial Artist, Fighter, whatever there) must work for overall body strength as opposed to specific strengthening exercises….In other words the athlete should be building total leg strength rather than just stronger hamstrings. He should be seeking overall strength in his shoulder girdle rather than just stronger deltoids….the program is fast, simple and, most importantly, effective. It requires very little space and a minimum of equipment….”

Bill Starr’s 5X5 Routine In Its Original Form

Monday – Heavy

Power cleans – 5 sets of 5
Bench – 5 sets of 5 1×10 weight from 3rd set (add 10 rep sets after 8-12 weeks on program)
Squats – 5 sets of 5 1×10 weight from 3rd set

(set 1 35% of target / set 2 70% of target / set 3 80% of target / set 4 90% of target / set 5 target)

Wednesday – Light

Power cleans – 5 sets of 5
Incline Bench – 5 sets of 5 1×10 weight from 3rd set
Squats – 5 sets of 5 / 1×10 weight from 3rd set / set 5 use weight from 3rd set of Monday

Friday – Medium 

Power cleans – 5 sets of 5
Overhead press – 5 sets of 5 1×10 weight from 3rd set
Squats – 5 sets of 5 / 1×10 weight from 3rd set / set 5 use weight from 3rd set of Monday / set 5 use weight 4th set of Monday”

As you can see, template is simple and effective. There are 3 days with almost the same exercises (Bench Press “evolves” in Overhead Press throughout the week). Heavy-Light-Medium, which is great for intermediate lifters (for beginners, I think, it would be better to use linear progression increasing weight every session). In addition, you should have noticed that the weight gets ramped up every set. We’ll talk about this later in this article. Exercises used are basic compound lifts in Push-Pull-Legs fashion.

Of course, history of 5 x 5 strength training template doesn’t stop at the Bill Starr’s version. Another example is Reg Park’s 5 x 5 variant. It looks like this (you can read the original article here):

Reg Park’s Three Phase 5×5 Program

Phase One

45-degree back extension 3×10
Back squat 5×5
Bench press 5×5
Deadlift 5×5

Rest 3-5 minutes between the last 3 sets of each exercise.

Train three days per week for three months.

Phase Two for Bodybuilders*

45-degree back extension 3-4×10
Front squat 5×5
Back squat 5×5
Bench press 5×5
Standing barbell shoulder press 5×5
High pull 5×5
Deadlift 5×5
Standing barbell calf raise 5×25

Rest 2 minutes between sets.

Train three days per week for three months.

* After the basic Phase One, Park had a different set of recommended exercises for aspiring Olympic weightlifters. It used a few different sets and reps, and included lunges and power cleans.

Phase Three for Bodybuilders

45-degree back extension 4×10
Front squat 5×5
Back squat 5×5
Standing barbell shoulder press 5×5
Bench press 5×5
Bent-over barbell row 5×5
Deadlift 5×3
Behind-the-neck press or one-arm dumbbell press 5×5
Barbell curl 5×5
Lying triceps extension 5×8
Standing barbell calf raise 5×25

Rest 2 minutes between sets.

Train three days per week for three months.”

As you can see, this program is quite different from Starr’s except the first phase. I really don’t know whether phase 2 and 3 will work for the average trainee, but they will take serious effort at least to be accomplished. I know they probably won’t work for me as I have quite bad recovery. Another important point is the fact that Reg Park didn’t recommend ramping up the weight. He recommended 2 warm-up sets and 3 work sets with fixed weight.

Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe

Another reasonable program is Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. I wrote about it here. I highly encourage you to read his Starting Strength and Practical Programming for Strength Training. I think, it’s one of the best programs for beginners and with some tweaking it becomes one of the best programs for intermediates too. Mark recommends 3 sets of 5 (which is variation of 5 x 5) similarly to Reg Park’s example above, but overall program volume is much more reasonable. For advanced trainees (if their goal is bodybuilding) program volume may be too low, which can be adjusted with assistance “pump” work. Original template looks like this:

“Workout A

1) Barbell Squat 3 x 5

2) Barbell Bench Press 3 x 5

3) Barbell Deadlift 1 x 5

Workout B

1) Barbell Squat 3 x 5

2) Barbell Military Press 3 x 5

3) Barbell Power Clean 5 x 3

Workouts A and B should be alternated on a 3-times-per-week basis. For example, Monday – workout A, Wednesday – workout B, Friday – workout A, Monday – workout B etc.”

Simplicity at its finest. If you are new to strength training, I highly encourage you to use this routine.

Madcow, Stronglifts etc.

These are other notable variations of 5 x 5. I won’t include actual templates here, but if you are interested in trying them:

You can learn more about StrongLifts template here.

You can learn more about Madcow template here.

They are both just variations of the above.

My Experience with 5 x 5

I, personally, was first introduced to 5 times 5 system by Mike Mahler (it was featured in several articles by him and in his e-book “Aggressive Strength Solution for Size and Strength”). It was something really new for me as I was used at that time to basic 3 x 10, classic bodybuilding-style and HIT-style work. I was so brainwashed in those days that I thought it was impossible to gain muscle on low repetitions. To my great surprise, 5 x 5 worked and worked very well. That’s how I found my love with strength training. Gaining muscle was not a great priority anymore. Especially seeing the results that steroids can deliver to others. I have a guy at work that gained at least 15-20 kg in 2 years with no fat (he has visible abs). He’s now 100 kg. Of course, he uses steroids (he told me). And this is true for almost any big guy in the gym at least in our country. I am highly competitive person. And after that I just lost interest in bodybuilding. What’s the point? Yes, you can put in a lot of effort, get perfect program and perfect diet, and gain pretty decent size in 5-10 years. However, some guy will just inject this and that, have really sub-optimal training and nutrition, and will be bigger than you in less than 2 years. So building muscle for me is more like a side effect of building strength. From the time I discovered it, I use some variation of 5 x 5 in almost all of my programs. This is what works for me.

5 x 5 Methods Explained

So what you can see in above examples? Low reps, low-to-mid amount of sets, heavy weight, basic exercises, full-body routines etc. I won’t use percentages here, but probably they are between 70-85% of 1RM. Therefore, basic methods of 5 x 5 are:

  • 4 warm-up sets of 5 working towards 1 top work set of 5;
  • 2 warm-up sets of 5 and 3 work sets of 5 with fixed weight;
  • several warm-up sets and 5 sets of 5 with fixed weight.

Every one of them has its own application. 5 sets of 5 with fixed weight requires less intensity because it has more volume. It may not be suitable for some people. They just might not get all the reps in all the sets no matter what they do. Their sets may look like 5, 5, 5, 5, 3. I’m one of these people. With increased intensity I tend to not get all the reps in such template. Second variant is much more suitable for me. First variant has less volume with working weight, which can be used in light and mid days because you have only one set of practice with working weight.

Here’s a method of progression I learned from legendary Brooks Kubik. You can start with 4 warm-up sets of 5 and 1 working set. Next session you can do 3 warm-up sets and 2 working sets. Next session you can do 2 warm-up sets and 3 working sets. Then add weight and start over with 1 working set of 5. Here’s the picture to make it more visual.

5 x 5 Progression

Secondly, despite the examples above, 5 x 5 is not only for full-body routines. You can successfully use it with split routines. Iron Addict’s SPBR is one of the examples. You can check it out here.

5 x 5 and Calisthenics

Regular 5 x 5 routines are great when it comes to weights. But what about calisthenics? Well, everything is a little bit trickier (as always). 5 x 5 will definitely help you build strength in bodyweight movements, but great chances are that you’ll need to use more flexible scheme. It’s all because you can’t make microadjustments like with barbell exercises (well, you can. Read here how. But it’s not pure bodyweight training anymore). There are 2 ways out:

  1. Weighted calisthenics
  2. Use more flexible set/rep scheme

Rough Strength Variation of 5 x 5

Of course, I can’t leave you without routine and practical knowledge how to implement 5 x 5. You can find beginner routines here.

Let’s implement several training tools and several methods of 5 x 5 and create a program for intermediate trainee for gaining strength and building some muscle:

Day 1

A) Sandbag Zercher Squats 3 x 5

B) Tuck Planche Push-Ups (between chairs) 3 x 5

C) One-Arm Kettlebell Row 5 x 5

D) Ring Triceps Extensions 3 x 8-12

Day 2 – off

Day 3

A1) Kettlebell Double Lunges 5 x 5 (each leg)

A2) Kettlebell Double Swings 5 x 5

B) Pistols 4 x maximum

C) One-Leg Calf Raises 3 x 12-20

Day 4

A1) Handstand Push-Ups 3 x 5

A2) Weighted Chin-Up 3 x 5

B) Weighted Dips 1 x 5

C) Sandbag Shouldering 5 x 2 (1 per side, switch sides after every set)

Day 5 off

Day 6 off

Repeat.

Notes:

  • 1 x 5 means 4 warm up sets and 1 work set;
  • 3 x 5 means 2-3 warm up sets and 3 work sets;
  • 5 x 5 means 2-3 warm up sets and 5 work sets;
  • If you can’t accomplish all reps in work sets in first week, you’re using weights or exercises that are too hard for you;
  • If you can accomplish all the reps in work sets, you can add the minimum increment. No more than 2.5 kg;
  • If you want to add some muscle, then you need to be in calorie surplus and eat enough protein and carbs.

Closing Thoughts

This is by no means last word in 5 x 5 training but I hope I opened some new ways to train for you and made 5 x 5 system more understandable. Use these programs and see what works. Thanks for reading. Like and share. If you have any questions feel free to ask.

Play rough!

Alex

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P.S. What do you think of the 5 x 5 system?


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9 thoughts on “5 x 5 Strength Training Template: How to Do It Right

  1. zuffa

    love to read your .work .hope more will take notice .keep up the good work .. Alex …i am also a home trainer ..you can see.on you tube …kb5x5 ..also loved your story…

    Reply
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