The 5x5 Workout for Massive Gains in Strength and Size

Updated on April 19, 2018
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David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.

5X5 workouts build size and strength
5X5 workouts build size and strength | Source

The 5X5 Workout Routine

If you want to increase your strength as well as your muscle size, there’s probably no better way of doing that than with a 5X5 workout routine.

The 5X5 system of training has been around for decades, and it's still one of the most popular training protocols around for the simple reason that it is so effective.

Reg Park used it in the 1950’s to build 20 inch arms and a 500lb bench press before steroids were ever used in the sport. Arnold Schwarzenegger (whose mentor was Reg Park) later used it in his training to lay down a solid foundation well before he ever used more conventional "bodybuilder style" training. And the method was further popularized in the 1970’s by legendary football strength coach Bill Starr, who used it to train all his athletes.

What Is The 5X5 Workout Program?

As its name suggests, the 5X5 system simply involves performing a group of exercises for 5 sets of 5 repetitions each. However there are a number of different ways you can go about doing this, depending on your goals and your stage of development.

5X5 training is best done with the big compound exercises, and it is normally set up as a full body workout, although an upper/lower split or even a push/pull/legs split can be equally effective - especially for those who have been training for a while.

A typical full body routine would involve a squat or a deadlift together with an upper body push and an upper body pull. Assistance exercises may be added afterwards if desired, but these would usually be done for a more conventional set and rep scheme such as 3 sets of 8.

The 5X5 workout routine offers benefits for both the beginner and the more advanced trainee, depending on the approach taken; the three most common approaches being as follows:

The Sets Across Method

This involves performing all 5 sets of 5 reps with the same weight (after your warm-ups), and it is an ideal beginners workout routine.

5 reps is the optimal number for building strength, and it’s also perfect for practicing technique. The reason for this is that form often deteriorates when done for much more than 5 reps, whereas when using reps lower than this the weights tend to get too heavy, which means that form needs to already be established in order to avoid injury.

And by doing 5 sets you’ll have sufficient volume to elicit a good muscle building response as well. Granted you may build muscle a little faster by doing 6 – 10 reps, but you’ll reach a plateau sooner too. By using 5X5 you’ll be able to continue to make progress for much longer, so your eventual results will be better.

When you start with this type of training it’s important to use relatively light weights so you can get a feel for the movements and practice proper technique. Even just the empty Olympic bar (20kg) is fine for most exercises. If you’ve been training for a while and feel this is too light you can start a bit heavier, but don’t go above about two thirds of your current 5 rep max.

Then simply add some weight to the bar on each exercise every time you train. By adding 5kg to your squat and deadlift and 2.5 kg to your other lifts you’ll quickly progress to using some respectable weights, and your size and strength will increase accordingly. In just 3 – 4 months you’ll be surprised at how much progress you’ll be able to make.

The Ramping Sets Method

This involves doing your first set with a fairly light weight, and then adding weight to the bar each set, so you work up (or ramp up) to one top weight set of 5.

For example you might start an exercise with 60kg for your first set, then increase to 75kg for your next set, then 90kg, then 105kg and finally 120kg for your final maximum weight set.

This works better for more advanced people, as doing 5 sets of 5 with the same weight will eventually become too taxing (as the weights become much heavier), and you’ll find you’ll be unable to recover from it properly. So your progress will grind to a halt.

Also you’ll be able to work up to a heavier final weight set. Your 5 rep max (5RM) will usually be about 85% of your one rep max (1RM). And by working up to one top weight set you’ll be able to get close to this figure for your final set. Whereas if you were doing all 5 sets with the same weight you could not realistically do this with more than about 80% of your 1RM. This is perfectly fine for beginners (say those in their first year or two of proper training), but when you are more advanced you’ll get better strength gains by going a bit heavier - at least occasionally.

The Partial Ramp

This is where you ramp up your first two or three sets and then do your final two or three sets with the same weight.

The partial ramp is an intermediate stage between the above two methods. It's the way Reg Park did it in the 50's, and it's still the best way to do it for most intermediate level trainees.

When you get to the point where you are unable to complete all 5 sets of 5 with the same weight, just reduce your number of top weight sets to three. But do two work-up sets first (i.e. a partial ramp). This should enable you to continue to make progress for much longer.

Then, when you find you cannot complete three sets of 5, drop down to two (and add an additional work-up set). And finally drop to just one top weight set; so you are now doing a full ramp.

When you then fail to do 5 reps on your single top weight set, give yourself two more attempts. And if you still aren't able to do it, it's time to de-load.

To do this, simply reduce the weight you are using for your top set by about 15%, and go back to doing three sets of 5 with this weight. Then just build it back up as before, and you should hit a new 5 rep max.

All in all, by starting with the sets across method and moving through the partial ramp to the full ramp, and then continuing by de-loading when necessary, you should be able to make progress on a training routine of this sort for a long period of time. Maybe a year or two – or perhaps even more.

What's your favorite method of training?

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The Ultimate Strength And Muscle Building Workout Routine?

It worked for Reg Park, Arnold Schwarzenegger and countless others, and doing a 5X5 workout routine as described here will work for you too. In fact there’s probably no better way to build muscle and strength for genetically typical, drug-free trainees.

Probably the best way to put the method into practice is to do two different full body workouts, and alternate these over three weekly training sessions, so each is worked three times every two weeks. The recommended workouts are as follows…

Workout A

  • Squat 5X5
  • Bench Press 5X5
  • Bent-Over Row 5X5

Workout B

  • Deadlift 1X5
  • Overhead Press 5X5
  • Chin-Ups 3X6-8

You’ll notice that in the deadlift I have suggested you do just one top weight set of 5 from the beginning. That should be enough for most people as deadlifts put an enormous amount of strain on the body. But you could do three sets if you wish, and if you recover well enough. But when you fail to complete all three sets, drop to one set immediately.

And for chin-ups, just do 3 sets of 6-8 reps (after two warm-up sets). If you can’t do full range chin-ups, start off with partial chins, and gradually increase the range of movement until you can do full hang chins. Then when you can do 3 sets of 8, start adding extra weight to them. You can also use partial range chins as warm-ups.

It’s important to perform all exercises with proper form and through a full range of movement if you want to get the best results from them. So ensure that in the squat you go right down until the tops of your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. And in the bench press the bar should touch your chest (it’s the bottom part of the movement that works the pecs most anyway). Partial movements give sub-par results, as well as leading to tight muscles and muscle imbalances, which can result in injury further down the line.

When you have been doing this program for a while, you could add a couple of extra exercises to it if you wish. Barbell curls can be added to workout A for 3 sets of 8 - 10; and parallel bar dips can be added to workout B for 2 sets of 10 - 12. This will give your arms some additional growth stimulation.

So if you are not getting the results you want with your current routine, or if you are looking for the ideal workout routine to get started with, give this 5X5 method a try and let me know how you get on with it. Or if you have any questions, just ask them in the comments below.

Comments

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    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      11 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      I'd suggest Texas. But you might want to replace power cleans with rows (for sets of 5) and you could add an assistance exercise or two at the end of each workout if you want.

    • profile image

      Steve 

      11 months ago

      What about after madcow?

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      16 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      Be careful with that back John. Make sure your technique on all the lifts is spot on, don't ever miss reps or grind reps, and maybe reduce your overall volume a bit if you need to. All the popular 5x5 programs I know of have you squatting three times per week, but I think alternating with deadlifts is better for most people, with the possible exception of absolute beginners. Or you could squat twice per week and dealift once per week.

    • profile image

      John Gunderson 

      16 months ago

      Do you know of verison of 5x5 (like your example) I can look up where your not squating 3 times per week? I had a lot of back pain with starting strength and stronglifts.

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      16 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      Yes you do John.

    • profile image

      John Gunderson 

      16 months ago

      When you become an intermediate and ramp, do you still rotate two different (a/b) workouts?

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      17 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      You can't realistically do a routine like SL 5x5 at your age, on a calorie deficit and with a sub-optimal sleep pattern. Definitely cut back to 3x5, and for deadlifts just work up to one set of 5 at your top weight. But if you're still feeling tired take a week off and resume as stated. Or do the plan here where you are not squatting three times per week.

    • profile image

      Tanveer 

      17 months ago

      I m 51 and 117 kg keeping my calories intake at 1800 per day. Doing SL 5x5 for 1.5 month. Now feeling tired as I have to my job in two shifts. My sleep is 5 hours in splits. Should I continue or use some other plan like 3x5. Kindly guide

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      20 months ago from Birmingham, UK

      Sorry Steph; I only just saw your comment as I wasn't notified of it for some reason. Your routine is ok, but I think training 6 days per week will become too much after a while. You'd be better doing a routine like this 4 days per week, or using the rotating 5 day cycle (2 on, 1 off,1 on, 1 off). But personally I still think upper/lower splits are the best way to train for most people.

    • profile image

      Steph 

      2 years ago

      What about working out 6 days a week (Push/Pull)? I've been doing the following and have seen gains in strength. I'm wondering what you think about my routine:

      Day 1- Bench Press, Standing Bicep Curls, Weighted Dips, EZ bar Curls

      Day 2 - Low Row, Triceps Press, Pull ups, Tricep Extensions

      Day 3 - Squats, Shoulder Press, Leg Press, Arnold Press

      Day 4- Bench Press, Standing Bicep Curls, Dips, EZ bar Curls

      Day 5 - Low Row, Triceps Press, Pull ups, Tricep Extensions

      Day 6 - Deadlift, Shoulder Press, Lying Leg Curl, Arnold Press

      Rest on the 7th.

      Your feedback is appreciated.

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      2 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      Just rest as long as you need to fully recover; but about 3 minutes should suffice.

    • profile image

      Frank 

      2 years ago

      How long of rest between sets and between exercises?

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      2 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      Glad to hear you are making good progress Chris. Yes your recovery should be better with a full ramp, but I don't like to stay on that. Best to alternate between the full ramp and partial ramp, going back to partial ramp when you de-load.

    • profile image

      Chris V 

      2 years ago

      Perfect. Now I have an idea on how to ramp.

      Now I am doing partial ramps, 2 warm up sets, 3 working sets. Progress has been good.

      5'8", 165 lb.

      Current 3x5 stats:

      Squat: 215 lb

      Deadlift: 220 lb

      Bench press: 175

      Press: 80 lb

      Rows: 120 lb

      The only thing I hope is that when I do finally switch to full ramp, that my recovery would be a whole lot better.

      Thanks, David.

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      2 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      20% is far too low. Madcow's version is good, though I personally like to start just a bit higher, at 55%.

      So it would be 55, 67.5, 80, 90, 100 - or thereabouts; it doesn't have to be exact.

    • profile image

      Chris V 

      2 years ago

      Thanks for writing back.

      How do you ramp up? I know Reg Park uses 60% and 80% of 5 rm for sets 1 and 2. But what about ramping to a 1 top set? What is a good percentage?

      How about 20%, 40%, 60%, 80%, 100%?

      Or Madcows' version, 50%, 62.5%, 75%, 87.5%, 100%?

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      2 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      Thanks Chris

      You'll need to increase your number of reps for the most part, and add in some extra exercises to increase your total volume. Check out my hub on the upper/lower split, or look at my blog for push/pull/legs if you want a more "bodybuilding style" of workout routine.

    • profile image

      Chris V 

      2 years ago

      Great Article!

      After I have built a great strength foundation and I decide to focus more on hyperhrophy, how do I go about it in terms of sets and reps?

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      4 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      Glad to hear about your success Joe. Yes the Stronglifts program is a really good one.

    • profile image

      Joe 

      4 years ago

      I have started a 5x5 strong lift program and in one months time, I feel the difference from when I was doing bodybuilding type of exercises.

      I only work out 3 times a week. 20 minutes of warmups and stretchings.

      approx 60 to 70 minutes trainning. 1 day: sqats,bench, presses.

      2 day: sqats,bb rows,dead lifts. 3 day: sqats,bench,presses.and so on. always 5x5. always 2 minute rests. always finish with full body stretches. So approx 2 hrs of well spent time. Lost sme weight and getting stronger.

      O

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      4 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      Yes it is frustrating isn't it? Hope it all goes well when you start back.

    • profile image

      James Miles 

      4 years ago

      Good news and thank you for the swift response!

      I'll chat with the osteopath next week and see when I can get back in the gym. Not exercising has been the most frustrating thing and the all body work out seems a good way to maximise my return!

      Thanks again.

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      4 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      Hi James

      Sorry to hear about your back injury. Sounds like you were doing good before that. Substituting the exercises you suggest for squats and deadlifts does not defeat the entire purpose. You will not get the same overall size and strength gains but you will still have a decent workout and should still make good progress.

    • profile image

      James Miles 

      4 years ago

      Hi,

      I've been training for a few years, naturally slim but managed to go from 12 stone to 14 stone, no real fat gains either but definitely hit a plateau towards the end. I had an accident last year (not gym related) where I damaged a disc in my back and so no exercise for a while.

      Appreciate you aren't a doctor (and I will seek medical advice before starting to go back to the gym) but I like the look of this routine but also know I will be unable to do squats or dead lifts anymore. If I replace these with cable split squats and sitting hamstring isolation exercises, does it defeat the whole object of the routine (and your other full body routine)?

      Thanks in advance for any advice!!!

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      4 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      The old school 70's routines are excellent when you are a bit more advanced. But first build a good strength foundation with a routine like this 5x5 system. After 6 months you could try 8 sets of 3, ramping the weight up each set, for a couple of months. Then you could go back to 5x5 for a while, but when you are getting quite strong don't try to do all 5 sets with the same weight. Ramp the weights up instead. And take a week off every 4 months or so to allow full recuperation. Hope that helps.

    • profile image

      Giovanni Velasquez 

      4 years ago

      I've been weight training for about 9 months but I feel as if I don't have a strong foundation and really would like to get much stronger would this 5x5 be ideal or not I was going to do an old school 70's routine

    • BeBrown profile image

      BeBrown 

      5 years ago

      Thanks for the visit, I've linked back to here :)

    • dwelburn profile imageAUTHOR

      David 

      5 years ago from Birmingham, UK

      No, not at all. I'd appreciate it. Stronglifts is a good program. I'll take a look at your hub too.

    • BeBrown profile image

      BeBrown 

      5 years ago

      Goo, informative hub. I have just written a hub about the stronglifts 5x5.Would you mind if I placed a link to this hub?

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