5 x 5 Training: What Is It & Does It Work?
History: It’s not clear as to who created the 5 x 5 lifting program. Many lifters of the 20th century experimented with various set and rep ranges to determine the best program for strength building. It’s safe to assume someone came up with the idea but for this articles sake we’ll give credit to Bill Starr. Bill popularized the 5 x 5 program in his book The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football. Other notable strength athletes and coaches who have made the 5 x 5 program, or variation of the program, relevant to the avid lifter include the likes of elite Olympic lifting coach Glenn Pendlay and legendary powerlifting competitors and lifters Mark Rippetoe and Jim Wendler. All these men have one thing in common, they were/are very, very strong and know how to make others strong.
The Program: The 5 x 5 program is exactly what it says it is. It’s 5 sets of 5 reps of the same weight. You might start with 5 sets of 2 reps of a given weight and continue with the same weight until you reach 5 sets of 5. Once you are able to complete 5 sets of 5 reps then it is time to increase your workload and restart the program. That’s it. While this method can be used in many movements to get stronger it’s main priority has been to increase the 3 ‘big boys’ of lifting: the bench press, squat, and deadlift.
How it works: When you multiply 5 x 5 you get 25. Simple. 25 reps with perfect form and heavy weight allows muscle fibers to adapt to the load and increase in size and strength. Very rarely do muscles become strong without growing in size or vice versa. Now, multiply those reps by the weight you are using (say 225lbs on bench press). 25 times 225lbs equals 5,625lbs! That’s a huge volume load for a workout. Now compare that to 185lb bench press for 3 sets of 10. That 5,550lbs. The 5 x 5 not only has a greater workload but also requires fewer reps. Fewer reps mean better focus on form and more energy output for each rep. The greater the focus, the greater the results.
Does it work? I would say without a doubt, yes. While it’s not the end-all, be-all of strength training it has shown many novice and advanced lifters a way of increasing overall body strength. While 5 x 5 is the prescribed method you have the ability to make variations based on experience and specific goals. For example, if you were a beginner I would recommend staying with the 5 x 5 system for the first 3-6 months. It’ll rapidly increase your muscular strength and size (don’t worry ladies, you won’t grow like the men do but you will get strong). For more advanced lifters the program can be used to help you ‘reset’ after a hard training cycle or you may add/remove sets and reps to accommodate your training goals.
If you don’t like powerlifting then you are more than welcome to try the 5 x 5 program with bodyweight exercises or kettlebells. In fact, gymnastic Jr. national team coach Christopher Sommer and the strength and conditioning specialist for Russian special forces Pavel Tsatsouline have popularized performing 5 x 5 training for body weight and kettlebell movements with Building the Gymnastic Body program and Enter the Kettlebell, respectively. If it’s good enough for gymnasts and special force operatives from around the world it’s good enough for you.