Most lifters have heard of a 5×5 workout arrangement. Two legendary strength coaches, Bill Starr and Mark Rippetoe, popularized this training method. It is simple, easy, and often quite effective. 5×5 involves performing 5 sets of 5 reps on a given exercise (squats, bench, etc) as your main working sets for the day. 5 reps seems to be an ideal number for both building strength and for improving neuromuscular coordination (technique). 5 sets provides extra practice and increased volume over the traditional 3 sets. In short 5×5 is and likely always will be a solid way to train.
But can we make it better?
There are 2 traditional ways of structuring the 5×5 workout: ascending sets or straight sets. With ascending sets, the weight will increase each set with the work out culminating in one extra tough set. Here’s an example of an ascending set:
225×5, 245×5, 265×5, 285×5, 305×5 (Volume = 6,625 lbs)
There are two main problems with using ascending sets and 5×5. If you look at the example above, it really isn’t 5 working sets. If the lifter really can hit 305×5, then the first 2 sets are just warm-up sets. This isn’t bad per se, but in reality is it is 3 sets of 5 and only one set is at the lifter’s actual capacity, so now we have to ask if enough volume is performed. In general, if you are lifting 80% or less of your working weight for the same reps, consider that a warm-up set (in this example 245 or less for 5 or fewer reps isn’t enough stimulus to be considered a working set).
There is a fix to the above problem. You can use very small jumps. For example, the lifter could choose to do:
265×5, 275×5, 285×5, 295×5, 305×5 (Volume = 7,125 lbs)
This is certainly a tougher workout, but now we have to factor in potential fatigue. What if in reality the lifter only gets 3 or 4 reps at 305 because they were fatigued from the set of 295 just prior to it? And as you introduce overload, for example going up 5 lbs on every set, the workout gets tougher and tougher. At some point you’ll likely find your last set – the most important one in this example – compromised because of all the working sets you performed prior to it.
Some prefer to use straight sets, which can also be called sets across while using a 5×5 plan. This simply means the same weight is used for all of the sets. Here’s an example:
285×5 x 5 sets (Volume = 7,125 lbs)
However, this method has its own issues. First, it requires a lot more warm-up sets. In this example, the lifter will likely complete 4-5 warm-up sets to prep for 285, and then the lifter is hitting 5 sets at that weight, so we are looking at almost 10 total sets. That isn’t necessarily bad but it will eat up a lot of time, that is at least 30 minutes on one exercise and it could well be more with longer rest periods.
Second, the lifter never hits their top set. While the total volume is slightly higher with this method than our very first example, the lifter never hit the 305×5 top set. Exposure to that maximal weight is key to building strength and causing adaptation. Volume is important, but intensity is king. If you are training for strength you need exposure to the increased weight.
Third, this workout is plain boring. If you are a personal trainer straight sets are pretty boring for clients to perform long-term (and they figure it out very quickly and thus don’t ‘need’ you) and even for a lifter training themselves straight sets can get stale pretty quick.
What is the solution?
Let me introduce The NEW 5×5 Workout. With this method I will try to combine the best practices of set design into one easy to follow and extremely effective workout.
With the NEW 5×5, a pyramid style will be used and it will be set to certain, ideal parameters. Here’s an example of The NEW 5×5 system using the same lifter from before:
265×5, 285×5, 305×5, 295×5, 285×5 (special) (Volume = 7,175 lbs)
Set 1 – First real set, a borderline warm-up but heavy enough to let you know the day has started. Form should be perfect. Warm-up sets should be performed prior to this on most exercises.
Set 2 – Solid weight. This is a good training weight that makes up the bulk of most strength training programs, heavy but very doable.
Set 3 – Top set. Here the lifter is hitting their goal weight for the day. When you get this weight it means move up the next time the workout comes around. It is very important to experience this heavy weight to build maximal strength.
Set 4 – Small back down set. With the top set completed, we don’t need to worry as much about fatigue. Performing our top set first makes this set feel ‘lighter’ because our fast twitch motor units have already been activated, however this is still a heavy weight and it provides a great training stimulus.
Set 5 – Special set. The weight has been decreased again but now we are going to add in an intensity technique to make this harder. I call this my domination set, meaning when I am done with it I know I totally dominated the weight. My favorite intensity techniques to use on the last set are:
- Pause reps – incorporate a full one-second pause between the eccentric and concentric part of the rep (at the beginning of the lift like pausing the bar on your chest in a bench press).
- Double Pause Reps – my current favorite. On the negative (lowering) portion include a pause halfway down, then another pause at the bottom. Then press up normally.
- Negatives – lower the bar at a 4-6 count for each rep, then lift up normally.
Form should be very good on this set and with the intensity technique, it should feel almost as hard as set 3 (the top set).
Set 1 is the easiest set and it always uses the lightest weight
Set 2 and Set 5 use the same weight
Set 3 is the top set and it uses the heaviest weight
Set 4 is between set 3 and 5 and it should be the second heaviest weight
Set 5 is when you employee intensity techniques
For overload typically increase all sets by 2-10 lbs when you repeat the workout
I am fine with a lifter trusting their gut on selecting the weights to get started with this routine, but if you want percentages then I would do this. Pick a weight that you know you can complete with good form for 5 reps but it is still hard. Use the weight for the following information.
Set 1 = 80%
Set 2 = 90%
Set 3 = 100%
Set 4 = 95%
Set 5 = 90%
Putting this into a routine
You can simply incorporate this into your weekly routine, but most intermediate and advanced lifters can’t follow linear, weekly overload for any consistent length of time. This is where I like to borrow a strategy from another legend in the strength game – Jim Wendler. Wendler is famous for his 5/3/1 workout, which in short has lifters performing 5 reps on one week, 3 on another, and 1 on the third, and then they cycle back, up the load, and start over again. I find increasing the load every 3 weeks is ideal in this scenario. Personally, I like using 8/5/3 reps on this particular routine, but you have some freedom there to tweak things.
Using our lifter above, this is how a 6 week sequence would look of 8/5/3 combined with The NEW 5×5 Workout routine (estimated 1RM ~350)
1) 235×8, 255×8, 275×8, 265×8, 255x8sr (8 reps this week)
2) 265×5, 285×5, 305×5, 295×5, 285x5sr (5 reps this week)
3) 285×3, 305×3, 325×3, 315×3, 305x3sr (3 reps this week)
4) 240×8, 260×8, 280×8, 270×5, 260x5sr (8 reps this week)
5) 270×5, 290×5, 310×5, 300×5, 290x5sr (5 reps this week)
6) 290×3, 310×3, 330×3, 320×3, 310x3sr (3 reps this week)
Sr = special reps with intensity techniques employed
On this plan we are going up 5 lbs every 3 weeks, not incredible progress but enough to keep you coming back and if you can follow this plan for 4-5 months that is a 25-35 lb increase. Even if you start a little light, which I always suggest, it is a still an honest 15-20 lb increase per lift which should put a smile on your face.
You have control over the amount of weight you want to jump for each set. If you are lifting more than 100 lbs you want to jump at least 10 lbs on the way up and then 5 lbs on the way down, minimum. If you like a lot of volume keep the jumps smaller, if you don’t like as much volume make bigger jumps (5-10%). As your strength moves up you may find you want to increase the size of the jumps and that is okay. In short if the second set tires you out for the third set, either rest longer or make bigger jumps. If you are failing on the 4th or 5th set then make bigger jumps on the way down or rest longer.
You can use this program for deads if you want. Deads typically respond better to lower volume than squats or bench. An easy modification is to a) make bigger jumps (5% minimum) and b) eliminate the 4th set
I have been using The NEW 5×5 Workout program on squats, bench, deadlifts, military press, pull-ups, and curls on both myself and my athletes and we are experiencing success with it. Give it a try and see if it doesn’t breathe some new life and some new PR’s into your program.