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 5X5 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 5X5 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 5X5 (depending on the goals and status of the lifter) and just saying that you’re doing ‘5X5’ doesn’t really give all of the details.
So let’s look at the details.
The History of the 5X5 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.
So me…I’m giving him the credit for it.
Tangentially, The Strongest Shall Survive, even after so many years is truly a great book and I highly recommend that anyone who is a student of lifting get a copy. It’s only $20 (a paltry price to pay these days) and can be had from the excellent folks at Aasgaard.
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 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 5X5?
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.
Now, sets of 5 are actually a good repetition range for a number of reasons, I’d note that these are discussed in both of Mark Rippetoe’s excellent books Starting Strength and Practical Programming for Strength Training both of which I not only also highly recommend but are also available from Aasgaard. Again, very highly recommended.
As I discussed in Reps Per Set for Optimal Growth, 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.
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.
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. And there is much to this idea.
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).
Beginner 5X5/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 well, as 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.
Basically, 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.
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 (something I’ll write a full article about at some point in the near future).
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 (this is a little bit different than how Rip describes it in Starting Strength). 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). Rinse and repeat.
I’d note that a key to this is that the lifter is getting feedback from a coach basically constantly. 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; ideally the lifter is getting technical feedback and using that to make adjustments as they learn the movement. On this note 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. And if 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.
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 groove 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
5X5 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. Of course, that would be done after warm-up sets (you can read my article Warming up for the Weight Room Part 1 and Warming up for the weight room part 2 for details on how to optimally warm up) so the lifter will be doing more than 5 total sets of the exercise 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.
In any case, 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.
Some other general rules of thumbs are often thrown out (usually when the loads are too heavy) for this version of 5X5: for example, if you can’t get at least 14 total repetitions across the 5 sets (a complete workout would be 25 reps), the load is too heavy. So if you got something like 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 the weight is too heavy. It probably means you started way too close to your 5 repetition maximum.
Some also suggest that if you hit the gym for your 5X5 and see a big rep drop off (e.g. sets of 5,5,2 reps), you should call the workout and go home after that third set. You’re probably too tired to train effectively but you’re probably not so tired that you can’t dig yourself deeper into a hole of insufficient recovery.
Of course, when you get all 5 sets of 5 with the same weight, you should go up a bit of weight at the next workout (how much weight would be added depending on the movement in question). Depending on how much you go up (and how quickly you gain strength), you might find that you get all 5X5 at the next workout or you might find that you drop a couple of reps at the end of the sets. In the latter case, you should stay with that weight until you get all 25 reps and then go up a bit. I think you get the idea.
Essentially the goal of the 5X5 across program is to get a pretty decent whack of volume at the same weight for each set, when you get all 25 reps, add a bit of weight. Assuming you’re eating well and recovering, this will let you make some pretty decent strength gains.
Other Interpretations of the 5X5
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.
In one version, only 2 sets of 5 are done at the same weight, often after 3 lighter warm-up sets. So the program is still technically 5X5 but only 2 heavy sets are done. When I have done programs like this, personally I was never married to it having to be 5 sets. I’d do as many warm-up sets (of whatever repetitions I thought were best) as needed and then do 2X5 at the same heavy weight.
Since you’re only doing 2 sets of 5, programs of this sort (John Christy’s basic program is based around this approach) are usually worked much closer to maximum then the standard 5X5 across. Whereas a true 5X5 might require loads of 75% to get all the sets, 2X5 might let you go 80% or even right at 85% if you have really good recovery. This can make for some grindy workouts because every work set is a near maximum set.
Very similarly is a program that used to be advocated by folks like John McCallum (author of the excellent The Complete Keys to Progress) which was 2 warm-ups and then 3 work sets of 5 at the same weight. Like the 2X5 approach, the 3X5 are usually worked much closer to a true maximum set of 5 than the 5X5 across. McCallum also often advocated following the heavy ‘bulk’ work with some higher rep pump/volume work (in one of his more insane programs, 3X5 heavy was followed by 8 sets of 10 with a 30 second rest). Power bodybuilding or pure insanity…you make the call.
In any case, I find that the above two interpretations can be good when:
- A lifter is working with extremely heavy weights (very near a true 5 repetition maximum).
- 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.
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.
Some Last Comments
It’s worth noting that certain lifts, such as deadlifts, often also don’t lend themselves well to 5 sets of 5 across, it’s just too exhausting of a load with anything but the lightest weights. Mark Rippetoe (again, buy Practical Programming) actually only recommends one top set of 5 on deadlifts for this reason. And I think he has a very good point.
Other lifts such as back and front squats, bench and overhead press, power cleans, etc. can usually be worked for 5X5 across if the lifter gives themselves time to get used to the volume. I would note that it would be uncommon these days for Olympic lifters to do sets of 5 in the power clean or any other competition (or competition related) movement. However, for athletes using powercleans for basic strength/power, sets of 5 can be completely appropriate.
I’d also note that I have sometimes used a combination approach of the 5X5 sets across and the lower volume versions I described above; basically moving a trainee from a 5X5 across to the lower volume over the length of a cycle.
Some people, when the weights get heavy, don’t ever seem to be able to get all 5 sets of 5 no matter how long you keep them at the same weight. So they’ll get 5,5,5,5,3 one workout and 5,5,5,5,3 the next workout and no matter how long you wait, that last set never gets to 5 reps. They just can’t do it for whatever reason.
In that situation, the solution is to drop the fifth set and have them do warmups + 4 sets of 5 across. And as long as they get all 4 sets of 5, they go up in weight. And, usually, at some point they start doing something like 5,5,5,4 and then 5,5,5,4 at the next workout.
At which point you drop the 4th work set and move them to three sets of 5 across. And then that stalls and you go to 2 sets of 5 after warmups… I think you get the idea.
Eventually the trainee will end up just pyramiding up to one top set as they drop the other sets off. It ends up being a semi-unplanned volume to intensity taper but it doesn’t follow a set schedule. You simply drop sets as needed to keep the trainee adding weight to the bar.
By the same token, if you reach a point where they can keep getting multiple sets (say 2 sets of 5) with weight increases, you keep progressing there until they stall. And, of course, when they finally stall out completely, then it’s time to backcycle the weights and start over again. Or change rep range. Or take up golf. Or….
So that’s a quick look at the classic 5X5 program and 4 of the more common interpretations (again, I’m sure there are others out there). Used appropriately, it can be a very good program for a lot of applications. It’s not the be-all, end-all of training, mind you, but then again nothing is.