The 5×5 system of training has been around for decades, and it’s still one of the most popular training methods there is, for the simple reason that it works so well.
Reg Park (who built 20 inch arms and did a 500lb bench press before steroids were ever used in the sport) trained this way in the 1950s. And Arnold Schwarzenegger (whose mentor was Reg Park) later used it in his training to build a solid foundation, well before he ever used more conventional bodybuilder style training.
The method was then further popularized in the 1970s by legendary football strength coach Bill Starr, who used it to train all his athletes.
So What Is a 5×5 Workout Routine?
The 5×5 system simply involves performing an exercise (or group of exercises) for five sets of five repetitions. There are, however, a number of different ways you can go about doing this, depending on your stage of development and your own personal goals.
5×5 training is best done with the big compound exercises, and it’s usually set up as a full body workout, which is ideal for the beginner or intermediate level trainee. But it can be just as effective when incorporated into upper/lower splits, or even a push/pull/legs split, and these tend to be better for those who have been training for some time.
A typical approach, when using a full body routine, would be to do a squat or a deadlift variation, together with an upper body push and an upper body pull, all for five sets of five reps. Assistance exercises could then be done after these if desired. But these would be done for a more conventional set and rep scheme, e.g. three sets of eight.
The 5×5 workout routine is a very effective method of training for both the beginner and the more advanced trainee, depending on the actual approach taken. And although there are a number of different approaches you could take, the three most common are as follows:
The Sets Across Method
This is the basic 5×5 method, where you simply perform all five sets of five reps with the same weight (after your warm-up sets).
This is one of the best training methods for beginners, because five reps is the ideal number for practicing technique. The reason for this is that form often starts to break down when you go much above five reps, whereas when doing lower reps, the weights tend to get too heavy, so form needs to already be established in order to avoid injury.
Five reps is also the optimal number for building strength, and by doing five sets you’ll have sufficient volume to elicit a good muscle building response too. Granted you may build muscle a little faster by working in the 6–10 rep range, but you’ll reach a plateau sooner too. By doing 5×5 you’ll be able to continue to make progress for much longer, so your eventual results will be better.
When you first start training in this way, it’s important to use relatively light weights, so you can get a feel for the movements and practice proper technique. In fact, if you are a complete beginner, just the empty Olympic bar (45lb) will be enough for most exercises. If you’ve been training for a while, however, and you feel this is too light, you can start a bit heavier. But don’t go above about two thirds of your current five rep max.
Then simply add some weight to the bar on each exercise every time you train. By adding 10lb to your squat and deadlift, and 5lb to your other lifts, you’ll quickly progress to using some respectable weights, and your size and strength will increase accordingly.
The Ramping Sets Method
With this method, you do your first set with a fairly light weight (about half your top weight), and then you add weight to the bar each set. So you work up (or ramp up) to one top weight set of five. So it’s really 1×5 with four warm-up sets done first.
For example, you might start an exercise with 95lb for your first set, and then increase to 115lb for your next set, then 135lb, then 155lb, and finally 175lb for your final maximum weight set.
This method tends to work better for more advanced people, as doing five sets of five 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 set. Your five 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 on your final set. Whereas if you were doing all five sets with the same weight, you could not realistically do this with much more than 80% of your 1RM. This is perfectly fine for beginners (say those in their first year or so 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 sets and then do your final three sets with the same weight. So you’d do your first set with about 60% of your top weight, your second set with about 80%, and then you’d do your three top weight sets. So it’s really 3×5.
This is the way Reg Park taught how to do it back in the 50s, and it’s still the best way to do it for most intermediate level trainees.
The partial ramp is obviously an intermediate stage between the above two methods. So assuming you start with the sets across method, you’ll eventually reach the point where you can’t complete all five sets of five with the same weight. At this point just switch to the partial ramp and reduce your number of top weight sets to three. By doing this you’ll be able to make progress for much longer.
Then, when you find you cannot complete three sets of five, drop it down to one (and add two additional work-up sets) – so you are now doing a full ramp.
When you fail to do five reps on your single top weight set, give yourself two more attempts at it. 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 five with this lighter weight. Then just build it back up as before, and you should hit a new five 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. Perhaps a year or two – or maybe even more.
An Example Workout Routine
Here’s an example of a beginners 5×5 workout routine. It involves doing two different full body workouts, and alternating these over three weekly training sessions, 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
- Deadlift 3×5
- Overhead Press 5×5
- Chin Ups 3×8
You’ll notice that with the deadlift, I have suggested you start with just three sets of five, instead of the full five sets. That should be enough for most people, as deadlifts put a tremendous amount of strain on the body. And you should find your strength will improve very well by doing three sets. But after a while, even this amount will become extremely demanding, so make sure you drop down to one set as soon as you start to struggle to complete all three sets.
For chin-ups, just do three sets of eight reps (after one or two warm-up sets). If you can’t do full range chin-ups, start off with partial chins, and gradually increase the range of motion until you can do them full range. Then, when you can do three sets of eight, start adding extra weight to them. You can also use partial chins as warm-ups if you need to.
When you’ve been doing this program for a while (or if you are a bit beyond the complete beginner stage) you could add barbell curls to the end of workout A and parallel bar dips to workout B if you wish. Do curls for 3 x 8-10 and dips for 2 x 10-12 (after warm-ups). This will provide your arms with some additional growth stimulation.
So if you are not getting the results you want with your current routine, or if you are looking for a good workout plan to get started with, give this 5×5 workout routine a try. I’m sure you’ll be very happy with the results.
Photo credit: Kuwait-Ra’ed Qutena, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, via Flickr (with permission)