David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.
The Stronglifts 5x5 Workout Routine
If you search online for 'strength training' one of the first results you will get is the Stronglifts 5x5 workout program. Devised by Mehdi it is one of the most popular training routines around and is based on the original 5x5 concept that has been used with tremendous success since at least the 1950s.
But just what is the Stronglifts program? Does it work? And is it the right routine for you? In this article I'll explore those questions.
What Is The Stronglifts 5x5 Program?
The 5×5 system of training simply involves doing an exercise for 5 sets of 5 repetitions. This can be done with the same weight, in which case you would need to do a couple of warm up sets first; or you can ‘ramp up’ the weights, so each set gets progressively heavier, but you still do just 5 reps on each of the 5 sets.
This method of training was used by Reg Park in the 1950s to build his exceptional physique. It was later used by Arnold Schwarzenegger to lay the foundation of his physique well before he ever used more conventional ‘bodybuilding style’ workouts. And it was further popularized in the 1970s by the renowned strength coach Bill Starr.
A 5x5 routine is usually done using compound exercises and full body workouts, but it can be done with split systems if desired. And if you follow the routine diligently it will enable you to build tremendous strength, coupled with a corresponding increase in muscular size.
The Stronglifts version of the 5×5 workout comprises of two full body workouts, each with just 3 exercises. These workouts are alternated over 3 weekly visits to the gym, so each is worked three times every two weeks.
The workouts are as follows…
- Squat 5×5
- Bench Press 5×5
- Bent-Over Row 5×5
- Squat 5×5
- Overhead Press 5×5
- Deadlift 1×5
You’ll notice that all the exercises are performed for 5 sets of 5 reps, except the deadlift which is performed for just one set of 5 reps (but two warm-ups sets are done before this one final set). The reason for this is that deadlifts are extremely demanding (especially if you are squatting in the same workout) and one set is all that is needed. Doing more will only make it too difficult for you to recover properly.
How Do You Progress On The Stronglifts 5x5 Program?
Mehdi makes a big thing of stating that you should start off with very light weights. This should ideally be the empty Olympic bar for the squat, bench press and overhead press, 65lb for the bent-over row and 95lb for the deadlift. However if you have been training for a while and these weights are too light, you should still start off with no more than 50% of your current 5 rep max weight.
Then progress is made by adding 5lbs each workout to all your lifts except the deadlift, to which 10lb per workout is added.
All the five sets are done with the same weight, but 2 - 3 warm up sets are done first for each exercise.
The time will eventually come of course when you will fail to achieve 5 reps on all 5 sets with the weight you are using. When this happens you stay on the same weight for the next workout and try again. If you still fail to complete 5 reps on all 5 sets you have one more try the next workout. But if you fail a third time you then need to de-load. That is you reduce the weight by 10% (only on the exercise that you have stalled on) for the next workout, and commence increasing the weights as before. You should then be able to get to a higher weight for 5 sets of 5.
When you stall again (that is you go three workouts without being able to achieve 5 reps on all 5 sets with a particular weight) you de-load again as before. And when you stall a third time you reduce the number of sets to 3. So you’ll now be doing 3×5 instead of 5×5. This reduced volume will enable you to continue to make strength gains for much longer.
The same thing will happen, in that eventually you will stall on 3×5. And again you will de-load as before. But when you have stalled three times on 3x5 you will move on to 1×5, which is effectively a ramped 5×5 as I described earlier.
However you should not start off with 3×5 or 1×5 (unless you are quite strong to begin with) because the higher volume with your maximum weight will elicit more gains in muscular size when you are just starting out. But when you are more advanced it will simply be too much for your system to handle, and you won’t be able to recover from it properly.
Mehdi demonstrates the Stronglifts 5x5 workout A
Does Stronglifts 5x5 Work?
The answer to this is an unequivocal yes. It works very well. But is it the perfect program? Well perhaps not. There are some slight modifications that I would make, especially for anyone who has been training a while, to make it more productive.
The first problem with Stronglifts is that squatting three times per week for 5 sets of 5 will quickly get too tiring and will put too much strain on your legs. Don’t get me wrong; it’s fine if you are just using the empty bar, and for a few weeks after that. But once you start to use any sort of respectable weight it will be too much. And it’s just not needed anyway. So I would cut it down to 3×5 quite quickly rather than waiting until you have stalled three times. And/or I would switch to squatting alternate workouts like you do with the other exercises, and like I suggest in my version of the 5×5 workout routine as described later on.
Also I would add in one or two assistance exercises after your main lifts. Again this is not important when you first start out as your arms, calves and all your other muscles will grow just fine by doing these basic compound exercises. You need to make sure you eat enough of course, and get sufficient sleep. But if you are new to training you will grow better using a routine of this sort than you will with any of the more usual bodybuilding routines that you see online and in the muscle mags.
But when you are a bit more advanced your arms will grow better if you add some curls to your routine, as well as some direct triceps work. You could do some calf work as well if you wish, but really calf size is more down to genetics than anything else. And although you can bring stubborn calves up to an extent, it does take a large amount of volume to achieve this, and you would be better waiting until you are much more advanced before you try to accomplish this.
As for abdominal training; you don’t really need it. If you brace your abs when you are doing your other exercises (especially deadlifts and overhead presses) they will firm up very well anyway. And if you want a flat stomach or a six pack, this is mostly developed in the kitchen rather than the gym. Just make sure you eat clean and train hard (and maybe do some cardio too) and you will get the slim, defined waist you are looking for.
And one final problem is the number of repetitions used. Again 5 reps is ideal for beginners and you will develop both strength and size from doing this. But when you have been training for a while you will need to incorporate reps that are a little higher if you want to develop maximum size. So you might want to go up to 8 reps occasionally (especially on your assistance exercises) in order to achieve this.
And here he demonstrates workout B
My Version Of The 5x5 Workout Routine
So with this in mind here is my version of the 5×5 workout program. It still consists of two workouts which you will alternate over three weekly visits to the gym, but the workouts are as follows:
- Squat 3×5
- Bench Press 3×5
- Bent-Over Row 3×6-8
- Barbell (or EZ bar) Curls 3×8-10
- Deadlift 1×5
- Overhead Press 3×5
- Chin-Ups (or Pull-Ups) 3×6-8
- Parallel Bar Dips 3×8-10
Where it says 3×5, you would do two ramping sets of 5 first to warm up the muscles and prepare them for the heavier work.
So it is 5×5 starting with a set at about 60% of your final weight, then another set at about 80%, and then your 3 sets of 5 with your final weight. This is the way Reg Park taught it back in the 1950s and I believe that for all but the absolute beginner who is using very light weights it is still the best way to do it.
You will notice that this routine is very similar to the one I described in my article on the full body workout routine, which I recommend you take a look at to give you more information on why a program of this sort is the best way to build muscle for most people.
So Is The Stronglifts Program Right For You?
Well if you are just starting out and you are prepared to start off with very light weights the Stronglifts 5×5 program is an excellent one and I would highly recommend it. But if you have been training for a while I would suggest you do my version instead.
But whatever you do, avoid the 5-day per week split routines where you train each body part once per week and go to failure on all your sets. These are just not that effective for natural trainees, and training to failure all the time puts far too much stress on your central nervous system. So although you might make some progress at first, your gains will quickly come to a halt.
Routines of this sort were devised for people who use steroids, and although they may have something to offer for very advanced people, as a beginner or intermediate who just wants to put 20 - 30lb of muscle onto your frame as quickly as possible, you will achieve that goal far quicker with a routine of the sort described here.
So whether you use the Stronglifts version or not, a 5×5, or 3×5, or 3×5-8 type of routine using mostly compound movements incorporated into a full body (or upper/lower body) workout regimen is the way to go if you want maximum results in the minimum amount of time. Best of luck; and if you have any questions do ask them in the comments below.
Footnote: Mehdi has a huge amount of useful training information on his site stronglifts.com, so it's well worth a visit some time.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on May 16, 2019:
It's difficult to say without assessing you physically, but I would suggest that doing five sets of a heavy exercise will very quickly become too much. And even my version may not be the best idea for you. You might want to take a look at my article on training for older guys, where I outline a similar approach which will probably be more suitable for you.
Pablo on May 15, 2019:
David, I'm a broken down 43 year old with shoulder and knee issues, shoulders seem to have been fixed surgically, knees holding good so far.
Would you think this could still benefit me? I did this when I was younger and it definitely got me going, I was stronger.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on February 15, 2019:
Yes, at 35 that should be fine.
Toni on February 15, 2019:
Hello! I´m 35, do you think I could do you´re version of routine everyother day?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on December 29, 2018:
You can do more deadlifts if you wish or course, but personally I always did better by working up to one top weight set of 5.
Chris on December 29, 2018:
I disagree with the 1x5 deadlift personally. Eddie Hall and Hafthor didn't set world records by skimping on their deadlifts. The 1x5 seems good for a casual lifter but not so much for someone in or looking to get into competitive lifting.
The rest I found rather agreeable and I learned a few things from this post.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on May 30, 2018:
Glad to be of help Eric. Hope that goes well for you.
Eric C. on May 28, 2018:
Good tip! I've done dumbbell overheads before, I'll try that. And because I'll have to increase the weight by 10 lbs (5lbs on both sides), I'll only do that every other week or every three workouts, and see how it goes. thanks again
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on May 28, 2018:
If you have a shoulder issue you obviously have to work round that as best you can. So if you can't do overhead presses, what about overhead dumbbell presses? Or even machine presses for a while? Failing that, yes incline press can be done, but I would reduce the number of sets of dips to 2.
Eric C. on May 26, 2018:
Thank you for your replies. I've been on your version now for a few weeks, going great so far. Just one more question. What do you think of substituting incline press for the overhead press? Do you think that would be too much volume for the chest?
Reason I do that is because I have a shoulder issue that makes it difficult to do an overhead press with any appreciable weight.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on May 17, 2018:
You can start my version a little heavier because it's 3x5 rather than 5x5. Of course you could do 3x5 on stronglifts and start a little heavier if you wish. And this is in fact what Mehdi recommends for experienced lifters who are quite strong.
Eric Cosio on May 12, 2018:
Thanks! Does the same advice for starting weight apply to your version of the program?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on May 08, 2018:
Yes, he wants you to start with really light weights so you can practice and perfect your technique. Hardly anyone does the lifts properly - especially squats. But if you are experienced and lift properly start with about two thirds of your current 5RM. Seriously, that's enough. The weights will go up very quickly, and you'll almost certainly do better in the long run that way.
And yes, you can add in a rear delt exercise at the end of workout 1 and a trap exercise at the end of workout 2 if you wish. The rear delt work is especially recommended for anyone who has been training a while.
Eric Cosio on May 08, 2018:
I really want to try this program! I was put off by how Stronglifts 5 by 5 wants to start with so little weight. I have been lifting for over year, consider myself to be intermediate. How about if I just started the 5 by 5, with close to my 5 rep max?
Also, what do you think of adding assistance work for the rear deltoids, and for traps?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on April 03, 2018:
You are welcome Rich. Yes, about 80% 1RM. Best of luck.
Rich on April 03, 2018:
Thank you for the prompt reply. I am an experienced lifter and am readying myself to get back into the ring (it has been a few years). That 7-8 rep is usually about 80-81% of a 1RM (right?). A program like this is perfect for me because it allows me to utilize the strength gains of the "big lifts" and incorporate it with being in the ring as often as I am.
Thank you for the information.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on April 03, 2018:
Hi Rich. Your final weight is the weight you use for your work sets. Start off with about your 7 - 8 rep max if you are accustomed to training. But absolute beginners should start a lot lighter so they can practice their technique first and gradually build up from there.
Rich on April 03, 2018:
Using your version, you mention a "final weight." What is this? I was thinking a 5RM, but that seems wrong, and the 50% of the 5RM you had mentioned earlier would be very low. What is the final weight you suggest starting with (on your program)?
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on December 25, 2017:
You are welcome Scott. Glad you are making decent progress with Madcow.
Scott M Ewing on December 24, 2017:
Thank you for pointing out the folly (for many folks) of squatting 3x a week. I found this out myself while trying SL after a long hiatus. Having gone as far as I could go with SL, I applied the same principals to Madcow, and am making decent progress. I simply don't have enough recovery to do squats and DL in the same session. I suspect that many others are in the same boat. Thanks again!
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on December 04, 2017:
If you hit your rep goals for that workout (top end of the rep range where a range is given), then increase the weights slightly next time. If you don't, stay on the same weight.
siva on December 04, 2017:
which stage increase weight
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on November 08, 2017:
Thanks Pete. In answer to your question; it depends on what stage you are at. If you are a beginner I would stick with it as it is for your first 6 - 12 months. But if you've been training a while and feel your side delts need more work, then yes, add some lateral raises at the end of workout A.
Pete on November 08, 2017:
I just wanted to say your modified version of the 5x5 two day split is amazing!
One question would you advise doing any form of shoulder work like upright Row or DB Lateral Raise on workoutA
Or would that overwork Shoulders, as I really like the idea of working more on the side deltoids to give that wider look
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on June 09, 2017:
You are welcome Jeremy; best of luck with this.
Jeremy on June 09, 2017:
Thank you for this. Ive been lifting for over 12 years and am just bored with the regular so I have been looking into this program. I downloaded his app but I'm going to incorporate you set up to it with some extra calve work.
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on October 18, 2016:
It's not really advisable; 5x5 is best done with compound exercises. Isolation exercises are more to assist growth in certain areas and better done with higher reps.
DEan on October 18, 2016:
Can I do isolation exercises like the lateral raises, bicep curls, lat pulldowns etc using the 5x5 method? Appreciate your fast reply.!
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on June 23, 2016:
Glad you liked the article Janaka.
janaka on June 22, 2016:
thank you for the article,,,it is very informative and I prefer and train the your version of 5X5 because it includes pull-ups,curls and dips..
David (author) from Birmingham, UK on July 14, 2015:
Glad you liked it Brian. Perform them with body weight until you can do three sets of 8 through a proper range of motion. Then start adding weight.
Brianb on July 14, 2015:
Thanks for the article. Very informative. Are the pull ups and parallel bar dips weighted or only performed with body weight? Thanks