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A Look at the 5X5 Program

The 5x5 Program Ascending Ramp Examples

Training, like most things in the universe, tends to follow fads and trends.  Popular programs go out of style and others become the ‘next best thing’.   Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad.

In recent years, people have gotten fairly fascinated with what is a truly classic program: the 5×5 program.  Since this system happens to be an excellent way of training, this is one of those cases where the fad isn’t a bad thing at all.

In this article I want to look briefly at the history of the 5×5 program as well as at some of the various interpretations that have been used over the years.  One source of confusion comes in that there are so many different ways to interpret 5×5 (depending on the goals and status of the lifter) and just saying that you’re doing “5×5” doesn’t really give all of the details.

So let’s look at the details.

The History of the 5×5 Program

I’m not sure if anybody can say for sure who first did a program consisting of 5 sets of 5 repetitions; it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if lifters in the early 20th century didn’t do something similar since they seem to have tried just about everything at one point or another.

However, almost without exception, the program can be mostly attributed to Bill Starr in his book The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football.  Even if others had done it before him, he was assuredly the one who did the most to popularize it.  Even decades later this is still an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

Now, here’s an amusing bit of trivia that I bet most aren’t aware of; and that is how Starr actually came up with 5X5 in the first place.  Quoting Starr himself:

The researchers found that 4-6 repetitions of 4-6 sets, increasing the weight on each successive set, produced the most significant increase in strength.  Terrific, I simplified the formula to five sets of five reps as that was the exact median and it was easy to remember.

In recent years, strength coaches such as Glenn Pendlay and Mark Rippetoe have re-popularized the 5X5 program and it is often recommended as a beginner training program.  There are many other write-ups (including the Madcow writeup of 5X5 programs) out there as well.

Basically, the 5X5 program is here to stay and there’s a good reason for that: it’s an excellent program for many applications.  It may not be the be-all, end-all that some seem to think it, but there are definitely a lot worse ways that the average trainee could train than this.

What is the 5X5 Program?

In the simplest terms 5X5 refers to a program made up of 5 sets of 5 repetitions.  As I noted above, Starr came up with this by simplifying data showing that 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps was about optimal for strength gains.

In many situations, repeat sets of 5 are a good choice.  They allow the trainee to train with a heavy weight but still get a decent volume in.   With higher repetitions, lighter weights would be required.  With heavier weights, the repetitions per set would have to drop.

As I discussed previously, sets of 5 are actually in the range that I commonly use for hypertrophy anyhow.  Generally speaking a maximum set of 5 will be about 85% of maximum and lifter will use a bit less if they are doing more than one set.

That’s a weight that provides sufficient tension to get maximal muscle fiber recruitment; 5 reps also allows sufficient work to be done with that weight.  High tension plus metabolic work is a winning combination for both strength and size.  Especially combined with load progression over time.

As well, since the metabolic fatigue from a 5 rep set tends to be fairly low (compared to higher repetitions sets), technique is often much more stable compared to higher rep sets.  When fatigue starts to hit on higher rep sets, lifters without stable technique often get sloppy.  Stopping at 5 reps avoids much of that.  This means that sets of 5 (or lower repetitions in general) can be useful to learn new exercises.

I would note that this can also go the other way around, especially as the reps get lower than 5 and the weights get heavier.  Groove becomes much more critical as the reps get lower; whereas lifters can often save a lift that is out of position when the reps are higher, their technique has to be much more consistent to do low reps without getting into problems.

The 5X5 Program for Powerlifting

I should note that there are critics of the 5X5 for certain applications, notably competition powerlifting.  The usual criticism is that 5X5 doesn’t provide enough heavy first reps to prepare someone for powerlifting.  A routine based around triples, doubles and singles are often preferred since this not only lets you go heavier but you get more properly done first reps which is a key to optimal powerlifting performance.  There is much merit to this approach.

However, I don’t recall the 5X5 being explicitly recommended for powerlifting so I’m not sure it’s a particularly valid criticism.  5X5 is a good way of building basic strength (and some decent size if you do it right) and that’s what it’s typically presented as.

Admittedly, some on the web (as people on the web are wont to do) have tried to make 5X5 the ultimate training program for all applications but that has more to do with people on the web than how 5X5 was ever really presented or meant to be used.

However, even saying that the program is 5X5 still doesn’t get into the details and that’s what I want to talk about next since there are at least 4 different interpretations of the 5X5 program that I’m aware of (and some folks have probably come up with more).

The Beginner 5X5 Program: Ascending Ramp

The beginner 5X5 program is actually an ascending pyramid or ramp from a light weight up to a single top set of 5 repetitions.  This was how Starr described his original program although I’m not sure it was exactly keeping with the research he was basing it on (it’s been years since I saw the original paper he based his recommendations on).

So a beginning lifter might do something like 45X5, 65X5, 85X5, 105X5, 125X5.  At every workout, they might try to add 5 lbs to the top set (or to each set) as their strength and technique improves.  For the most part, only the top set is a working set.

I say “for the most part” because when you work out the percentages being used, the top three sets actually end up being in a range that is sufficient to stimulate gains in beginners (roughly 60%+ of maximum).  But at this point I’m getting even more nerdy than I can stand so I’ll stop there.

As the lifter progress, often the top three sets end up being fairly stressful and one common modification of the beginner 5X5 approach is to cut the reps on the intermediate sets.  So rather than performing 5 reps each set, a lifter might go 5, 4, 3, 2 and then really give it their all on the top set of 5.

By limiting fatigue on the earlier sets, the lifter can give the top set more effort.  This approach is commonly only used towards the end of a beginner 5X5 program when the lifter is starting to move some decent weights.  Rank beginners should be performing all 5 reps on each of the 5 sets for technical and practice reasons as much as anything else.

Using the 5X5 Ascending Ramp for Learning a New Exercise

Now, I really like this interpretation of 5X5 for certain applications.  Training beginning lifters is one of them and this ties into an issue of teaching and motor learning.

When beginners are learning a new lift, they need to do a lot of perfect repetitions in order to not only learn but ingrain good technique.  The 5X5 ramp/ascending pyramid is a good way to do with this and have often used it to teach new movements.

So the lifter might start with the bar and perform do 5 perfect reps (ideally the lifter is being given coaching cues throughout).  Then depending on the movement and the trainee, weight (5-20 pounds) are added and 5 more reps are done; again with coaching being given.

If the lifter starts to get sloppy, I’d personally have them stay with the same weight for the remainder of the sets.  If technique stays solid, more weight is added until all 5 sets are done.  At the next workout, the lifter would start a little bit higher on the first set and pyramid up again (hopefully to a new top set).    A series of workouts might look like this:

5x5 Ascending Ramp Examples

Just gradually adding weight to every set so long as technique is staying stable at the heavier weights.

I’d note that a key to this is that the lifter is getting feedback from a coach more or less constantly at this point.  It’s no use to just go through the motions of 5X5 while adding weight on each set and thinking you’re doing it correctly.

One very large danger of un-coached lifters using the 5X5 is a tendency to go too heavy too quickly when there isn’t a coach to save them from their own impatience.

In any case, if there is a coach doing things right, each day the lifter should be getting 25 technically good reps (with technique improving over a series of workouts) with progressively heavier weights.  I you do the math, across three workouts per week, that’s 75 reps, across a 12 week cycle that’s nearly 1000 good repetitions (again, assuming the coach ensures that they are doing them correctly).  That’s the way to learn a movement.

Other Benefits of the 5X5 Ascending Ramp

As well, training this way not only helps with technique improvements but starts to teach the lifter how to push and focus more as things get heavier.  Each set with a heavier weight requires them to get a little bit tighter, concentrate a bit more, be a little bit more intent on keeping form solid as things get difficult.  Exerting effort in the weight room is learned skill like any other and this type of program is a good way to start teaching that to newbie lifters.

I’ve also used the 5X5 ascending ramp for reintroducing an exercise after a long layoff.  Things usually move faster (because technique is already established) but starting light and pyramiding up lets lifters get their groove back faster than trying to go too heavy too fast.  Over a handful of workouts, lifters can regain their technique and a lot of their strength by using a 5X5 ascending pyramid and adding weight on each set (and then starting a bit higher the next workout).

Reiterating the above, with this type of approach the early sets are basically always light enough to be done perfectly which is good for reinforcing proper technique.  As well, the gradually increasing loads teaches the lifter to maintain proper form and focus as things get a little bit more difficult.  As well, the top set is still stimulating strength gains so there is usually quick progress (positive feedback being a key aspect of keeping trainees continuing to train when they first start).

Again, the biggest potential drawback is that, left to their own devices, un-coached lifters will invariably add too much weight too quickly and their form will go down the toilet.  Or they’ll get hurt.  In that situation, using a higher repetition range (to limit the weight that can be used) may be a safer approach than the 5X5.

But, as noted, the 5X5 ascending pyramid is primarily for beginners; at some point, a single top set is no longer sufficient to stimulate much in the way of strength or size gains and more volume is needed.  Which is when folks typically move to the other common 5X5 interpretation.

The Intermediate 5X5 Program: Sets Across

The common next step after the beginner 5X5 ramp is what is usually referred to as 5X5 sets across.  The “sets across” means that the same weight is used for each of the 5 sets of 5.  Those sets are done after an appropriate warm-up so the lifter will be doing more than 5 total sets in practice.

Depending on the work weights, anywhere from 3-5 warm-up sets might be done prior to the 5 heavy work sets.  This can make for a long day which is why this is usually only used for a handful of exercises per workout (with additional work being done for a handful of higher repetition sets).

I’ve seen some routines where people wanted to try to do 5X5 sets across for a whole bunch of exercises, by the time you add in warm-up sets, the daily workout volume ends up way too high for most of it to be productive.

After doing warm-up sets, the goal of 5X5 across is to do all 5 sets of 5 with the same weight.  This pretty much requires that the load be less than the 85% value I threw out above; someone would have to have one hell of a work capacity/recovery ability to do 5 true maximal sets of 5 in a row.  Typically 75-80% of maximum might be used.

One general rule of thumb that is often imposed is that if you get less than 14 total repetitions across 5 sets (the goal is 25 reps), the weight is too heavy.    Usually this happens when the first set of 5 is too close to a true maximum.  Under those conditions, most experience fairly large repetition drop-offs with each set.

Another that is often applied is that if a lifter goes to the gym and sees a huge rep drop off after one set, they should call the workout and go home.  So if someone warmed up and then did 5 reps, 5 reps and then only got 2 reps, they should be done for the day.  This is a situation where the lifter is probably too tired to train effectively but not so tired that they can’t dig themselves deeper into the hole of insufficient recovery

Progressing 5X5 Sets Across

In this approach to the 5X5 program, when all 5 sets are achieved with the same poundage, the weight on the bar should be increased as the next workout.  How much would depend on the movement and weight being lifted by 5-10 lbs on bench, squat and deadlift and 2.5-5 lbs on everything else would usually be appropriate.

Once lifters get some training momentum going, especially if they are eating enough, they may find that they get all 5 sets of 5 for several workouts even as they add weight.  Or they might find that they add weight and don’t get all 25 reps, maybe they only get 23 (5,5,5,5,3).  In that case, they should stay at the current weight until all 25 reps are achieved before increasing.

Basically the goal of the 5X5 sets across program is to get a good whack of volume with heavy but not maximum weights and then letting the workout autoregulate itself such that getting all 25 reps means going up.  This is often coupled with a second workout, usually a 5X5 ascending set to a top set in the same week.

Other 5X5 Interpretations

While I think it’s safe to say that the above two interpretations are the most common (other approaches to 5X5 being more about cumulative loading patterns than individual workouts), there are at least two others that I have seen and/or used that I think are useful and worth discussing.  Both are simply truncated versions of the 5X5 sets across.

The Truncated 5X5 Workout: Warmups + 2 Sets Across

In one version, only 2 sets of 5 are done at the same weight, often after 3 lighter warm-up sets.  The program is still technically 5X5 but only 2 heavy sets are done.    When I have personally done programs like this I was never married to it having to be 5 total sets per exercise or 5 reps per set, especially on warm-ups.  I’d do as many warm-ups as I needed, usually dropping the repetitions as I went to my two top sets.

A typical workout might look like this

135X5, 185X3, 225X1, 265X1, 275X5, 275X5

So it’s technically 6 sets, 4 warm-ups and 2 work sets, with the repetitions dropping during the warm-up sets to conserve energy for the two grinder sets of 5.  Since only 2 sets of 5 are being done in this approach (this was John Christy’s default program), both can be much closer to limit sets than the standard 5X5 sets across.

So whereas 5X5 sets across might require the lifter to work at 75-80%, a 2 sets of 5 program can be 80 or even 85% of maximum if the rest interval is long enough.  This can make for some grindy and gruelling (both physically and mentally) workouts since they are all basically maximum sets.  If you want to go really nuts, you can do your 2 grinder sets of 5 and then follow it up with a set of 20-reps, at least on squats.

The Powerbuilding 5X5: 3X5 plus 8X10

A program at least similar to the above was presented by John McCallum.  Here you did 2 warm-up sets of 5 to 3 heavy sets of 5 at the same weight.  As with the 2X5 variant, those sets are worked much closer to maximum. This was usually followed by some higher rep pump/volume types of training for maximum growth.  In one of his more insane programs, the 3X5 heavy sets was followed by 8 sets of 10 with a 30 second rest.  Power bodybuilding or pure insanity?  You make the call.

When is the Truncated Approach Appropriate?

I find that the above two interpretations can be good when:

  1. A lifter is working with extremely heavy weights (very near a true 5 repetition maximum).
  2. A lifter has poor work capacity or poor ability to repeat sets with a heavy weight.

Both of these are actually related to the same reason: in both situations, trying to perform 5 sets of 5 with the same weight would mean reducing the weight so much that the optimum range (in terms of the percentage of max) for gaining strength or size is eliminated.   If you can only get all 5 sets of 5 by working at 60-65% of maximum for some reason, I don’t see that as particularly productive.    You’d be better off doing fewer heavy sets and working at a higher percentage under most conditions.

Yeah, sure, work capacity can be improved but, realistically, some people just suck at doing repeat sets with heavy weights, a couple of heavy sets and they are done for the day.  In that case, cutting the volume to keep the load up (and then making up the volume with higher rep work) may be a better option.  Both the 2X5 and 3X5 interpretations accommodate that.

The 5X5 Decreasing Set Approach

A final approach to 5X5 I want to mention basically combines the 5X5 Sets Across and 5X5 Truncated 5X5 together in a more or less auto-regulatory way.  Essentially the trainee starts with the 5X5 sets across workout, attempting to perform all 5 sets with the same weight as described above.

So long as they are able to get all 5 sets of 5 they add weight to the bar.  They continue doing this for as long as they can.  However, at some point many lifters reach a point that no matter how long they wait, they can’t ever get all 5 sets of 5 when the weight goes up.

In that situation, I recommend dropping the 5th set entirely so the workout becomes warm-ups to 4 sets of 5 at the same weight.  So long as they get all 4 sets of 5 they keep adding weight.

5x5 Decreasing Set Example

Eventually the same thing happens and they are only getting 5 reps on the first 3 sets and can’t ever progress the 4th set to all three repetitions.  So drop the 4th and make the workout warm-ups to 3 sets of 5. and continue adding weight.

When that stalls, drop to 2 sets of 5.   Many will be able to keep pushing the weights up on 2 sets of 5 for extended periods.  When they finally stall on the second set, drop to a single top set of 5.  When that stalls, deload by reducing bar weight by 15-20% and start over.

Approached this way, the 5X5 program becomes an auto-regulated volume to intensity taper.  You get the volume when you’re capable and gradually drop volume as the intensity goes up, hopefully reaching a new peak/5 rep PR at which point you back cycle and do it again.  Or change rep range.  Or take up golf.  Or….

Summary of the 5X5 Program

So that’s a look at the history and basics of the 5X5 program, along with some variations and alternate interpretations.  While the program is not the be-all, end-all that many think it is, it is a solid approach to training that can be useful under certain circumstances.

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