If you have any experience searching for strength training routines, you probably know how overwhelming it can be to choose a workout plan.
The 5×5, also known as the “Strong Lifts 5×5,” is a simple and effective workout plan for building strength, muscle, and athleticism.
Despite the apparent simplicity, the 5×5 program is designed to push you to your limits and drive incredible gains in your maximal strength and muscle mass.
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The program is excellent for beginners and intermediate lifters to build a base of strength, muscle, and movement knowledge that can be built upon throughout their weight training career.
This article breaks down everything you know about the 5×5 program to plan and begin incorporating the training plan into your fitness routine.
What is a 5×5 workout?
A 5×5 workout comprises compound barbell movements — like squats and deadlifts — using heavy weights and lower repetitions per set. As the name implies, a 5×5 workout usually involves 5 sets of 5 repetitions.
The goal is to build strength in compound movements by adding weight every time you do the workout. You’ll only do these workouts 3 times a week, as the rest days in between workouts are crucial to encouraging muscle growth.
The barbell movements are as follows:barbell bench pressbarbell deadliftbarbell overhead pressbarbell row
The combination of these movements works most of the large muscles in your body.
5×5 workout structure
Each workout, you will perform three of these movements.
Barbell back squats are included in every workout, while all other exercises cycle on a weekly basis and are performed either once or twice per week, depending on whether you’re on week 1 or 2.
The only exception to the 5×5 rule is deadlifts, of which you will only perform 1 set of 5.
The reason for this is that heavy deadlifts are one of the most demanding exercises, and doing them too often can easily lead to overtraining.
They’re also performed last in the workout to avoid fatiguing the core and stabilizing muscles that are needed for other movements.
Exercises for a 5×5 workout
You might be confused by the relatively limited selection of exercises. Most workout programs include many machine, dumbbell, and isolation exercises.
The reason for choosing these five barbell movements is that barbells ultimately allow the most overall weight to be lifted, which drives the greatest amount of strength and muscle growth.
Additionally, these barbell movements hit the most important muscles in your body when it comes to functional performance in both athletic activities and everyday life.
Research suggests that movements like barbell deadlifts and squats lead to substantial improvement in athletic abilities like jumping and sprinting (1, 2)
Finally, all these movements require you to stabilize your torso to support the load of the barbell while you perform the movement.
Stabilizing your spine while lifting heavy loads is one of the most functional ways to train your core and avoid injuries.
The 5×5 program comprises 3 workouts using the 5×5 set and repetition scheme for each movement, with the exception of the deadlift, which gets a 1×5 working set.
Each week has two workouts — A and B. You’ll perform workout A on Monday and Friday, and workout B on Wednesday. Your rest days will be Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday.
Of course, you can assign each workout to any day of the week, as long as you stick to the overall workout and rest day structure.
There are two different weekly cycles to allow for equal numbers of each exercise when compounded over the length of an 8–12 week program.
Over every 2-week cycle, you perform the same number of sets and repetitions for every movement. This ultimately leads to balanced strength across all the areas you work.
Squatting first on every workout
You’ve probably noticed that the squat is the first exercise of each 5×5 workout.
There are specific reasons for this:Demand on the body. Squats require core stabilization. With the barbell on your back, you cannot afford to be fatigued. Most of the other exercises don’t require you to stabilize the same load with weight pressing directly down, or they allow you to drop the weight easily and safely in the event of a failed repetition.
The overhead press is the one additional lift in which weight is directly overhead while you’re stabilizing. Still, the resistance used on the overhead press is typically a fraction of the weight used on your back squat, so the demand on your core is substantially lower.Summary
The 5×5 program is a comprehensive barbell training plan that’s excellent for beginners and intermediate lifters.
For optimal gains, you should base your program on a 1 repetition maximum (1RM). For 5 reps, you should be roughly able to lift 85% of your 1RM.
However, if you’re a complete beginner at the gym, you won’t know your 1RM, nor can you safely test your 1RM given your lack of experience with the movement.
If this describes you, start each movement with just the bar, which is typically 45 pounds (20.4 kg).
Perform 2 full weeks or longer of the program with just the bar before you begin adding weight.
Although it may be tempting to add as much weight as possible each workout, your best bet for long-term gains, avoiding injury, and ensuring consistent progress is to increase the weight slowly and incrementally.
To be as conservative as possible, for every 2-week cycle, increase your squat and deadlift weight 5–10% or 10 pounds (4.5 kg) (whichever is less), and 5–10% or 5 pounds (2.3 kg) (whichever is less) to all of the upper body movements.
While this may seem slow, this conservative approach will result in substantial increases when looking at a long-term commitment to weight training.
For example, just starting with the bar and performing the program as described would lead to a reliable 130-pound (59-kg) increase to your squat in 6 months, and half of that amount to your bench and deadlift.
Without having a professional trainer to coach you, this level of progress is remarkable.
Within a few years, this gain will already place you well ahead, progression-wise, compared with the lack of progress you’d face if you burned out too soon by trying to increase weight too fast.Summary
Start with low weight for the first 2 weeks — or just the bar if you’re a beginner. If you know your 1RM, start with 85% of that weight. After each 2-week cycle, add 10 pounds (4.5 kg) to the squat and deadlift and 5 pounds (2.3 kg) to upper body movements.
Although the 5×5 plan is simple, there are a few things that go into planning your program and troubleshooting any issues that come up.
The following sections will help you start planning the nuts and bolts of your training program.
Begin each workout with 5 minutes of light cardio, such as brisk walking or moderate stair climbing. You should break a light sweat and bring your heart rate up to around 100 beats per minute.
Each barbell exercise should involve at least 2 warmup sets using incrementally more weight until you reach your first working set, which is the actual start of your 5×5 sets.
If you’re just starting to lift and only using the bar, you can skip the warmup sets.
Once you add your first extra weight, perform a single warmup set with the bar.
After you’re a couple of weight increases in, perform 2 warmup sets with about 60% and then 80% of your working weight for the day after your set with just the bar.
The amount of rest between sets varies depending on the intensity. In the early phases of training, resting less than 60 seconds between sets is likely adequate.
As the weight increases, bumping your rest up to 90–120 seconds between sets is warranted.
Once you start really nearing your true maximum weight, you may require upwards of 5 minutes between sets on the squats, and 3 minutes on the upper body exercises.
Recall that deadlifts are always a single heavy set performed at the end of the workout.
Deloading is a lighter week of training after a few weeks of heavy training in the gym. This allows your body and nervous system to actively recover while maintaining the movement patterns you have worked so hard to develop.
To work deloading into your program, every fifth week should be performed using around 50% of your previous session’s working weight on each exercise.
For example, if you performed week 4’s squats with 150 pounds (68 kg), deload to 75 pounds (34 kg) for all your working sets on week 5. Then pick it back up at 150 pounds on week 6.
With this structure, your deload weeks will alternate between week 1 and week 2 workouts, which will even out over time.
The importance of tracking progress
For the best results and ability to adjust your program, keep a training log of everything you do in the gym.
Include the date, time, sets, repetitions, and weight performed, as well as subjective notes on how you felt that day, your sleep quality, and similar observations.
This allows you to look back at your progress and recognize patterns such as lack of sleep leading to less progress. Plus, it can help keep you motivated on days when you just don’t feel like lifting.
Troubleshooting a plateau
Plateaus are periods of training when you don’t seem to be making progress. They can occur for numerous reasons, and breaking plateaus is as much an art as it is science.
Plateauing typically occurs due to undertraining, overtraining, inadequate nutritional intake, or other lifestyle factors such as lack of sleep and excessive alcohol consumption.
If you’ve been following the program perfectly and reach a point where you cannot hit your targeted weight, you may be experiencing a plateau.
It’s unlikely that you’re undertraining, given that the volume in a 5×5 program is fairly high.
The first thing you should try is taking a more serious deload week at around 25% of your previous working weight, or even taking a full week completely off.
Make sure you rest, avoid late nights, eat enough protein and healthy carbs and fat, and avoid alcohol.
After your rest week, begin the program again using 80% of your previous working weight, and you may find yourself blasting through your plateau.
If you’re still stuck, you might need to switch to a different program for a while to change up the stimulus or seek the guidance of a fitness professional.
While properly performed training ultimately reduces your risk of injury, you can still get injured during the program (3).
While muscle soreness will happen, never lift through joint pain, and always seek professional guidance for injuries. If the pain persists, stop lifting and seek a referral to a licensed physical therapist, ideally with experience helping barbell athletes.Summary
Reaping the greatest benefits from your 5×5 program requires some initial input regarding the starting weight, workout setup, planned deloads, tracking, and troubleshooting.
The muscles used in 5×5 workouts include both prime movers and stabilizers.
Prime movers are the large muscles that generate the force to move weight, and they include the following:quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings on squats and deadliftsdeltoids (shoulders) and triceps on overhead pressespectorals (chest), deltoids, and triceps on bench pressesrhomboids (back), lats (back), and biceps on barbell rows
The stabilizer muscles keep your torso and spine from moving while supporting the heavy load.
You can imagine the stabilizer muscles as serving the same purpose as the frame and weight column on a weight stack machine.
They allow your prime movers to optimally push the weight in the intended direction. This analogy also helps explain the core training benefits of barbell lifts versus weight machines.
Stabilizers of the torso include the following:transverse abdominisinternal and external obliqueserector spinae
Collectively, these muscles keep your spine from rounding, arching, twisting, or bending to the side under load.
If your spine moves under heavy load, it places immense pressure on your intervertebral discs, which can lead to serious injury without proper stabilization.Summary
The 5×5 program targets a wide range of prime mover and stabilizer muscles for a great full body workout.
The 5×5 program offers many benefits when it comes to maximizing your overall growth and development in the gym.
Building maximal strength
The low number of repetitions means you’ll be lifting very heavy weights relative to your current strength level and body size.
This heavy training teaches your nervous system to maximally recruit each muscle fiber, meaning you can produce more force with the same muscle fibers over time.
This leads to substantial improvements in your overall strength, including both 1RMs and the ability to easily move lighter loads, given that the same load will eventually be a much smaller percentage of your 1RM (4).
Packing on lean muscle mass
Although 5 repetitions are fewer than the typical 8–12 range often utilized in muscle building, research suggests that loads of 5 repetitions or even lower lead to substantial gains in muscle tissue and strength (4, 5).
Revving up your metabolism
Moving heavy weights requires immense energy. As such, your metabolism must rev up both during the workout and afterward to repair your muscles and remove the waste products associated with working hard.
Additionally, maintaining added muscle requires additional calories.
Therefore, the 5×5 program can help you burn a substantial number of calories over time, which can help reduce or maintain your body fat even with the same calorie intake (6).
Practice using the major lifts
While barbell lifts are incredibly beneficial, they take time and practice to learn. As a 5×5 beginner, the total number of weekly repetitions is high, meaning you get plenty of practice with the movements.
However, because each set comprises relatively few repetitions, you won’t get so fatigued that your form breaks down, meaning the quality of your repetitions stays high even with high numbers of total repetitions.
Finally, the spacing of the workouts throughout the week means you’re revisiting the movements regularly and getting plenty of well-rested practice.
You wouldn’t expect to learn a musical instrument or skill with just one practice per week, and the same applies to the barbell movements. Frequent, quality practice leads to perfection.
Barbell lifts form the core of many athletic strength and conditioning programs. Strength and conditioning coaches have their athletes do these exercises for the same reasons you should.
The barbell lifts transfer incredibly well to many sporting activities, and ample research backs their use as a method of improving athletic performance.
Full body training
The 5×5 program trains nearly every major muscle in your body, providing an excellent full body training plan without having to spend endless hours on weight machines.
Between the prime movers and stabilizers, your body will get a complete workout.
Simplicity of programming
With only three exercises per workout, you’re not forced to juggle seven or more exercises per workout.
Practically speaking, this makes keeping track of your progress far simpler, as you have fewer numbers to track each workout.
Additionally, this saves you the hassle of waiting for equipment.
Once you’ve staked out a workout area in a squat rack, you can perform most — if not all — of your workout without having to shift to another area of the gym. This saves quite a bit of time if your go-to gym is busy when you do your workout.
Understanding serious strength programs
The final benefit is learning the principles that drive effective, gimmick-free programming.
After following the program for 3–6 months, you’ll see serious gains. You will come to believe in the effectiveness of simple but challenging barbell workouts as the prime driver of improvement.
From then on, you’ll be much better prepared to assess the validity of trending programs, and you’ll know firsthand whether an influencer, fitness coach, or co-worker is pushing a needlessly complicated and possibly ineffective workout plan.
You’ll be able to confidently discuss these benefits and have the strength and physique to back your claims.Summary
The 5×5 program offers a wide range of benefits with a relatively simple workout structure.
The 5×5 is a simple and effective barbell training program that’s well suited for beginner and intermediate lifters.
The 5×5 focuses on key barbell movements for a full body workout that will build strength and muscle, as well as your athletic performance and a host of other benefits.
In the long run, you’ll have to change up the program for continued improvements into the advanced stage of your lifting career.
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Nevertheless, the 5×5 workout can deliver continued improvements for your first year or two of lifting, at which point you’ll have the knowledge and base strength to transition to a more advanced training program.