5×5 Workout: The Ultimate Guide

June 30, 2019 by  
Filed under Weight Lifting

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The life of a bodybuilder means constantly searching for ways to improve workouts for better outcomes. If you've been strength training for more than a few months, you'll know there are dozens of programs out there, and articles galore on the web promoting the "best" way to train. But the program that works is often the one you'll use, the one that is adaptable, and the one that gets results over the long term without injuries or over-training. The 5x5 workout has been around and is no newcomer to the bodybuilding scene—but it's lasted for a reason: it's simple, it works, and it isn't time-consuming.

Have you ever wondered about the 5x5 workout? Let's break it down.

What Is A 5x5 Workout Program?

5x5 workout

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The origins of the 5x5 workout are shrouded in bodybuilding myth and mystery, but it has been used by the greats such Mark Perry, Reg Park, and Bill Starr—from the 1930s through the 1970s—and beyond. One reason the 5x5 workout has endured is its simplicity, but the other—and perhaps more important reason—is its effectiveness. Anyone can learn this workout, but it's most effective if you have already built a solid base of muscle, have been injury free, and are looking to bulk up as well as gain strength.

The 5x5 workout can be done at the gym or using a pretty simple home gym, but it does require dumbbell and barbell equipment. This program is adaptable, and the specific program described below has been closely adapted from the 5x5 Advanced program.

Basic Principles

Bodybuilding has become so popularized in the last 25 years that many mainstream health magazines promote routines. Even in the 1970s when arguably the greatest bodybuilder of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was at his peak, few people knew about the sport. But the principles and foundation of bodybuilding are like any other sport: you have to push yourself to improve. The 5x5 workout requires upping your weight on a regular basis, and that is the secret to building muscle. A successful bodybuilder will lift more weight over time, as he (or she) develops in the sport.

Techniques

All bodybuilding techniques and proper form should be mastered before using the 5x5 workout. Because adding weight on a regular basis—at least weekly—is a cornerstone of this program, it is mandatory that the lifter knows how to properly perform a squat, a deadlift, or any other exercises for major muscle groups. If you are still learning the forms, which machines to use, and which exercises work specific muscles, the 5x5 workout isn't for you. But after just a few months of training, most bodybuilding enthusiasts have mastered proper form and technique.

Why Now?

This program, as noted above, has been around for almost a century. It is popular today because it implements basic bodybuilding techniques in a very simple format. Most people want muscle and strength without learning complicated routines. Lifters know there are techniques that improve their desired outcomes and are willing to learn new methods, but they prefer simplicity. Since the 5x5 workout gets results and it is so simple, it has remained popular. As new lifters learn about it, they realize it makes intuitive sense.

 Preparation 

man doing 5x5 workout

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The benefits of the 5x5 workout have been introduced, but in understanding why it works so well it is important to realize that a simple program has a lower barrier to completion. Even for people who are self-disciplined enough to stick with a six-day-a-week routine, at times, the workout can be dull or there are interruptions to the routine—sickness, travel—that make getting back to it very difficult. The more complex the routine is, the harder it is to maintain. The benefit of the 5x5 workout is that it is 3 days a week, includes all major muscle groups, and can be done at home.

Prepare Your Gym

To build muscle, lifting heavy things seems like the obvious activity. But heaving the couch overhead is not going to work, so if you have a home gym you are likely to own both barbells and dumbbells. The 5x5 program requires lifting heavy weights, so be sure you have dumbbells ranging to at least 100 lbs, to start. For barbells, 25 lbs is a sufficient place to start. For leg exercises such as squats and lunges, a Smith machine is recommended but not necessary. If you have a small space, using dumbbells and barbells with a chest press style weight bench is sufficient.

Barbells, Dumbbells, and More

Every home gym should have both barbells and dumbbells, because there are situations in which dumbbells are necessary, like deltoid exercises and some biceps exercises. But if you have to choose one due to cost, choose barbells. Ultimately, you can lift more weight and that is the goal of the 5x5 workout. The other two pieces of essential home gym equipment—worth paying top dollar for—are a weight belt and a bench. A belt is something you should own even if you are using a gym. It is personal, protects the back, and is useful for weighted-pull ups. The bench must also be sturdy, so don't skimp here.

Joining a Gym

If you already use a gym or don't want to buy more equipment, then opting for a gym membership is acceptable. A home gym has several advantages, but not everyone has the space, and some lifters like the company of others. We recommend you join a gym that takes lifting seriously and has plenty of free weights. Some of the more popular gyms are crowded with machines and have very little open space for activities like deadlifting.

Learning the Program

The 5x5 workout is a 3-day-a-week program in which you choose three strength exercises and do five sets of five reps each. On a mellow day, midweek or Wednesday, some exercises are performed at 3x5. The most important first step is to determine the right amount of weight to start. The aim should be to reach your PR in week three. Do not start too heavy because you need to build weight at a certain pace. For example, if your PR is 190 lbs for squats, do not start there but consider starting at 160 or 170. If you are able to reach a new PR in week 4, you are on the right track.

 Adding Weight Scientifically

The 5x5 workout has two phases. During weeks 1 through 4, most exercises are done at 5x5 but some are done at 1x5. Each exercise is performed 3 times a week except squats, which are performed all 3 days (Monday-Wednesday-Friday, for example). The barbell row, the bench press, the deadlift, and the overhead press are the only exercises done during the first 4 weeks. When reaching weeks 5 through 9, only one new exercise is added: pull-ups. When adding weight, it is fine to add only 5 pounds each week. The amount is less important than consistently lifting more each time you do the 5x5 workout.

The 5x5 Workout In Action

weight lifting 5x5 workout

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Weeks 1 to 4

The routine is simple and you'll have it easily memorized by week 2. On day 1 (e.g. Monday), you do 5x5 squat, 1x5 bench press, and 1x5 barbell rows. Tuesday is a rest day, and on Wednesday you perform squat (5x5), overhead press (5x5), and deadlift (3x5). Friday—last day—is nearly a repeat of Day 1, except squats are done 5x5 and bench press and barbell rows are done 5x5. This means you have 4 days a week to recover. In our example, Tues, Thurs, and Sat-Sun are all recovery days. This is important because the lifting is heavy and weights increase each week.
 

Week 5

This week has the same exercises as weeks 1 through 4, but instead of 5x5 repetitions do 3x3. Instead of 1x5 reps, do 1x3. In other words, during this week you have a chance to semi-recover. Do not decrease weight, just the number of reps and sets. At this point, you should be building muscle and feeling the challenge of this style of workout.

Week 6 to 9

These weeks use the same exercises as weeks 1 through 4, but instead of a deadlift, you do pull-ups. Depending on your strength and experience, you can begin with simple pull-ups and graduate to weighted pull-ups, or just begin with weighted pull-ups. If you can use any weight, even a 5-pound weight will be useful as it is recommended to get comfortable with weighted pull-ups. The other difference in weeks 6 to 9 is doing 3x3 and 1x3 sets, similar to week 5.

Recovery

This program has plenty of recovery time and if you've been in the bodybuilding game for a while you've learned that recovery is where muscle is actually built. Recovery is essential to avoid overtraining. The reason websites and magazines market this program for experienced bodybuilders is because a base strength and fitness level is necessary in order to prevent form mistakes and overtraining, which can lead to poor recovery and therefore poor muscle and strength gains. If you want to do the 5x5 workout, it's better to be patient and spend a few months building up your endurance and strength before diving in.

Consistency

One of the principles employed and integrated into the 5x5 workout which has been used with great results is periodization. This concept simply means changing stimulus frequently enough—for example, in substituting pull-ups for deadlifts—that the body has to adapt. Building muscle and strength is the result of recovery and adaptation, so doing the same workout routine with the same amount of weight does not produce results. A workout routine that is too consistent will help you maintain some muscle mass, but it won't build you much muscle.

If It Ain't Broke

It's a natural human instinct to look for the new, the better, and the improved. The 5x5 workout may be new to you if lifting is a recent pastime, but it is a very old system. The routine championed by 5x5 has been used by many great bodybuilders. Other routines will build muscle, but this a proven system that works for anyone willing to put in the time. The 5x5 workout is a classic example of the saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Bad Choices

5x5 workout

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This section lists the common errors people make when implementing 5x5. Please do not skip this section, because the simplicity of this program can fool you into believing it's hard to make a mistake. There are plenty of ways to do this program the wrong way.

Too Little, or Too Much Weight

If you start out too heavy, you will peak too soon and fail to get the full benefit of the program. You may get frustrated early on or even as you are nearing the finish line and be unable to complete the entire program. There is a pacing element to this program, so too much weight will throw you off. On the other hand, too little weight means you won't push yourself enough to make the gains you are capable of. The exact starting weight isn't precise but give it some thought by considering your PR and working backward.

Setbacks and Interruptions

It is natural that life happens, and things can interrupt even the best intentions. Decide now how you will deal with having to miss two or three days. The best approach is to pick up where you've left off, and just extend your end day by two or three days. It is critical to get back into the program as soon as you can, and don't give yourself a hard time for whatever the interruption was (even if it was just a bad hangover). Get back on the horse, and continue forward.

Bad Form

If you lift the wrong way, you can get injured. Sometimes injuries aren't noticeable right away, but only begin to develop after weeks or months of lifting incorrectly. The worst potential error is lifting with a rounded spine, which can lead to back problems and make other exercises impossible. Discomfort and even pain are normal events in the life of a bodybuilder, but if you are having chronic pain unrelated to the workout, check your form.

Improper Hydration

Make sure to drink before, during, and after a workout. It doesn't have to be a lot, and it doesn't require a special sports drink. If you have issues related to blood sugar, however, a sports drink or orange juice with a little salt is recommended. It is not necessary to drink a lot, but a hydration routine should become integrated into your 5x5 workout.

Rushing

Take whatever time is necessary to complete these workouts. It is only 3 days a week, so put aside at least an hour to avoid pressuring yourself to finish. One hour is plenty of time. Doing the workout slowly also helps avoid sinking into bad form habits because you are not focused on what you are doing. It isn't a race, and doing these exercises too quickly or inattentively can open you up to an injury.

Ignoring Your Diet

This program is not the same as the work you might do for a bodybuilding competition, and it doesn't require a special extreme diet. However, do not underestimate the problems that can arise if you ignore protein requirements or limit sugars. Bodybuilding uses huge energy resources, and therefore a diet of four to five small meals a day (if not more) is recommended. If doing the 5x5 workout you should be educated about diet. If not, read up on a recommended diet that goes well with heavy lifting. As with all dietary advice, use natural foods and eat meals that are balanced in protein, sugar, and fat.

Benefits

man holding dumbbell for 5x5 workout

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This program will build both strength and muscle mass if used correctly. In addition to the benefit of being simple and easy to learn, the muscle built is a guarantee. You will gain according to the natural progression of bodybuilding, so if you've started lifting only a month ago, we recommend you spend another two months, at a minimum, before doing 5x5. But it can benefit you now because the 5x5 workout is an appropriate goal to have in improving your strength. Bodybuilding is a sport that requires patience and repetition, but applying proven principles always pays off in the end.

Conclusion

Bodybuilding is hard work, but its popularity has continued to grow as athletes realize the benefits of strength and the enjoyment of reaching goals. The 5x5 workout is the next step for a lot of lifters, from beginning to intermediate. It uses two basic principles in combination to bring excellent results to those who do it right. The first principle is upping the weight at regular intervals, and the second is periodization. Upping weight is a basic bodybuilding principle that is used by all lifters, but the 5x5 program implements it is an elegant and effective way. 

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