5×5 Workout Routines: Not Just a Program

The 5×5 workout is a classic staple of strength training. It’s named after the set/rep arrangement that’s commonly used: 5 sets of 5 reps. Clever stuff, right? The 5×5 workout is more than use a naming gimmick; if used properly, it’s a very flexible and easily-adjusted methodology (note that, please!) that can be used by just about anybody looking to build basic, full-body strength.

Which is to say, that’s most everyone, regardless of goal. Want to get bigger? Want to play better? You need to be worried about getting stronger. There is no punchline to that.

Sadly most people just think it’s one program out of many, and further, they think it’s some inflexible thing that you must do precisely as written. They don’t understand any of the nuances – with regard to “the five by five”, or in a larger sense, with regard to the overall planning of their training. I’m writing this to clarify and expand on some of these misconceptions; the 5×5 system will be the focus, but it will also serve to illustrate “the process of training” at the same time.

Don’t get hung up on the specific details. That’s the key. Repeat that to yourself; a few times, if you have to. Consider how the details are changing and what’s actually happening, instead of looking at it as “workout A”, “workout B”, and so on. Your body’s adaptation, getting bigger/stronger/leaner/whatever, doesn’t know what clever acronym of a program you’re doing. All it ‘knows’ is what stress it’s being exposed to.

Thinking in terms of ‘programs’ is directly counter to this. It’s about overload and recovery. How you go about those things is important, but at the same time it’s just a matter of trivia.

Bill Starr and The Strongest Shall Survive

The 5×5 was first popularized by strength coach Bill Starr in his book The Strongest Shall Survive, first published back in 1976. In this wonderful classic, Starr was outlining a program to develop strength in football players, and he ended up laying down a smart, simple system that will pay off dividends to anybody that can follow it without getting Training ADD.

The workout program he suggested was simple enough. Three times a week, you’d go to the gym and train your entire body (the ‘full body workouts’ that are coming back into vogue these days) with three exercises: the squat, the bench press, and the power clean. You’ll see other variations on this floated around, some using the incline bench instead of the regular flat bench, or high pulls instead of power cleans, but that’s the gist of it. Three lifts, one for the legs, one for the back, and one for the shoulder girdle; very basic, and very effective at developing strength.

As you might expect from the name, the program revolves around doing sets of five reps – specifically, five sets. You might see where the name comes from if you’re paying attention. The real genius behind the program, beyond simply focusing on basic lifts, is the way Starr organized the week into heavy, medium, and light workouts by varying the progression on each day.

Monday was five sets done in a pyramiding fashion – you’d make more-or-less equal weight jumps each set up to a best set for the day. Maybe start at 135, 185, 205, 225, and then hit 255 for your top set.

Wednesday was a light day. You’d work up like Monday, only you’d stop adding weight at the third set and simply repeat that weight for the fourth set. So following from Monday you’d go 135, 185, 205, 205.

Friday was much like Monday for the first four sets, simply adding weight for sets of five. The fifth set would be done for a triple (set of three) with a weight a little heavier than your top set on Monday. After that triple, you’d back off down to the weight used on your third set and try to knock off eight reps with it (a back-off set). So this might go 135, 185, 205, 225, 260, then 205×8 as a back-off set.

Monday you’d turn around and try to hit Friday’s triple for your top set of five. Obviously you’re not trying to go all-out on the Friday set, at least not each and every week. You can but you’re going to burn out fast. This is where your periodization schemes would come into play. You’ll start a cycle light, then work up to a point where the weights get god-awful difficult. At that point, you’ve got some options to keep the gains coming.

Starr also suggested ‘beach work’ for the arms which was generally 2-4 sets of 8-10 reps with whatever exercises you like, along with exercises for the lower back and the abs, which he knew were vitally important for any athlete.

(Big thanks to Mighty Louse and the Tight Tan Slacks blog for the classic articles; you can find a wealth of old-school information from Starr and other greats there, and I strongly advise you to read them all.)

Wichita Falls and the Internet

Starr’s routine remains one of the better things you can do as far as strength training, and I say better only because I don’t believe there is ever a such thing as a perfect best; and that hasn’t changed with time. With the advent of the Internet (for better or for worse), a lot of training styles have been given a new life, and the 5×5 is no different. This can be both good or bad; when people get exposed to new ideas, it’s good.

It’s bad when people use SEO and other marketing tricks to re-brand an old program as their own, exploiting the fact that people don’t tend to distinguish between implementations of a program, and then use it to make money. But I digress; this isn’t a hater piece.

It does bring me to a good point, though. People have a bad habit of thinking that lifting weights is just about going to the gym and doing what’s on a piece of paper. That’s missing a piece of the puzzle.

Enter Glenn Pendlay and Mark Rippetoe out in Wichita Falls, Texas. Taking Starr’s original concepts, they’ve managed to turn out quite a few impressive athletes and have developed a pretty comprehensive methodology based around the entire “5×5 program”. I know it’s unusual these days to have coaches on the Internet that actually work with real lifters, but I’ll be damned if it hasn’t happened.

Their methodology is expanded on in some detail in the book Practical Programming by Rippetoe and Dr. Lon Kilgore, which has recently been released in a second edition (I haven’t bought the new edition as of this writing, but I’m told it’s quite good even compared to the original).

The biggest things you can take away from the Wichita Falls guys, with their “Starr 2.0” programming (yeah, even I groaned about that one…) are the need to manage cumulative stress from training, and the need to look at ‘getting strong’ as an on-going process that has different needs as you become more advanced. By ‘advanced’ in this context we can say ‘stronger’ and ‘more specialized’ – in the way that a top-level powerlifter will generally be very good at the bench press and squat, or a top weightlifter will be very good at the snatch and the clean & jerk.

We can also add ‘responsiveness to training’ as another qualifier, one that Rippetoe and Kilgore emphasize as key to the definition. The longer it takes to go through the stress -> recovery cycle, the more intricate your programming will have to become. That’s a damn important lesson that your average gym-monkeys and bodybuilders just don’t ever seem to get.

Over the last few years, stress management has become a key interest of mine. The body reacts in very measurable ways to any workout, and the reaction is dose-dependent – the harder the ‘hit’ from each workout, the greater the stress response and the resulting adaptation. Most people tend to get stuck in a rut, doing the same things over and over. Even if they are trying to add more weight to their lifts, they find it doesn’t work. They don’t know how to manipulate the actual stress of their workouts, and the body gets stuck. By adding in periodic intelligent variations, you break out of that plateau.

Thus you get the ever-popular “change it up, shock the body!” mantra, which is at best a half-truth. At worst, it’s a confusing and entirely pointless cluster-fuck of a statement that causes more problems than it fixes. There’s smart ways to vary a workout routine, mainly by adjusting the volume and intensity; and then there’s bugfuck stupid, like all the people that switch to a new program every 4-6 weeks because some guy on the Internet said so.

Yeah I’m another guy on the Internet too, but I can at least back my labcoating up with a healthy dose of theory and anecdote.

While you need a significant stimulus in order to trigger gains, the downside is that you also have to recover from it. There’s also a disparity between the fitness gain of a workout and the residual fatigue effect; while a large stimulus can potentially trigger a large improvement, it will also impact you so much that you can’t repeat it very often.

And of course while you’re out of the gym recovering, you’re also de-training. The progress you’ve made is undoing itself because your body isn’t being challenged. Your body doesn’t give a damn that you’re recovering from your ‘arms’ workout last week – all it ‘knows’ is that it isn’t receiving further stimulus.

So the body needs on-going stimulus, yet ‘too much’ stimulus will take a long time to recover from. If that sounds like your body’s being a pain in the ass, that’s because it is. Bodies like to adapt, but the more adapted they get, the less they like it. Chew on that one for a minute.

The disparity between ‘fitness gain’ and ‘residual fatigue’ grows larger as you improve, too. The stronger you become, the harder it is to trigger gains and the easier it is to rack up fatigue. This is the crux of the problem as you progress from beginner to intermediate to advanced: there are different needs at each stage, depending on how deeply you have to dig in to your recovery ability to create gains.

So there’s a three-fold problem here: 1) creating enough stimulus to actually get stronger; 2) getting enough recovery between stimulating workouts; and 3) doing both of these without de-training between your workouts.

Impossible? Maybe if you’re only used to thinking in terms of body part split routines, but the solution is deceptively simple: make some workouts harder than others. Have some ‘stimulating’ workouts that create a large stress, but mix them with medium and light workouts that will preserve your gains without impacting your recovery. Starr talked about that in the article I linked earlier, and he talks about it even more when he discusses the importance of light days.

This concept of stress management is the core of the current 5×5 workout routines that are popular at the moment, just as it was with Starr’s old system (and Starr had to figure it out from trial and error, without the backing of modern research into exercise adaptations). The 5×5 ‘routine’ is more than a simple routine for that reason; the routine itself is just an easy way to implement the concepts.

That’s the difference in a simple program and a programming methodology. On a related note, it’s the Moon, stupid.

To spell it out for those of you that don’t get philosophy, the routine you do isn’t important as long as the principles are being followed. It’s a subtle distinction, but one that most people don’t make.

A Beginner 5×5 Workout

What’s commonly known as “Mark Rippetoe’s Beginner Routine” or “the Starting Strength program” is better thought of as the beginner or introductory phase of the 5×5 system. This routine doesn’t stray far from Bill Starr’s workouts. You have three training days each week (on non-consecutive days), each of which is a full-body session with three exercises. So you’ll be in the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or maybe Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday.

Rip suggests the back squat, bench press, chinup/pullup, overhead press (OHP), and deadlift to get started. You have two workouts: the A workout of squats, bench press, and chinups; and the B workout of squats, OHP, and deadlifts. The arrangement is simple: alternate between each workout every time you go to the gym. If you want to call them workouts A and B, then you do A-B-A one week, B-A-B the next.

As you progress, it’s suggested that you add a little variety to the exercises while sticking to the same framework. You might do the squat, bench, chinup ‘A’ workout, then alternate that with the front squat, OHP, and deadlift for the ‘B’ workout. If you find the deadlift is getting taxing, you might alternate that with a Romanian deadlift or power clean every other week.

For each workout you just do a basic pyramid arrangement, much like Starr’s original version. The big change here is that instead of five sets of five reps, working up to a top set of five, you stick to three sets of five (3×5). Your goal each workout is to beat your weight from the last workout, even if it’s just a tiny amount. This novice program will work for anywhere from 6-9 months for a true beginner.

You’ll probably find yourself hitting peaks or ‘getting stuck’ after a period of time. When this happens, the first step is just to back-cycle – drop your weights back maybe 10-15% from your bests, and work back up. Once this happens a couple of times, it’s a pretty clear sign that the session-to-session (or linear) gains are about done – so you can move on to the next stage.

Intermediate 5×5 Workout Routines

Now we have to introduce a little more variety to the process to keep things moving along. The process already started in the beginner routine by adding a few more exercises and spacing things out a little. Here, we still have three workouts per week, but there’s pretty substantial differences between them.

In Practical Programming, this is labeled the Texas method, but I’ve seen it around on the ‘net for many years. For awhile it was popular as the ‘MadCow 5×5 routine’. This was a funny twist, in that MadCow adopted this program from Pendlay’s comments, and thus what we know as the Texas method. He packaged it up by putting it into a spreadsheet that calculated out a training cycle based on input maxes, and thus another Program was born, completely separate and distinct from the 5×5 system, despite the fact that it’s the same damn thing.

(That’s not directed at MadCow; I knew him once upon a time and he had the best of intentions putting that routine up. It’s just that I’m constantly appalled at how many people just can’t grasp the difference in the Finger and the Moon.)

Anyway, you’ve still got your Mon/Weds/Fri workouts, only now they’re different.

The Monday is now a high-volume/high-stress day that defaults to five sets of five (I say defaults because there are other options, but I’ll get to that). This 5×5 is done with the same weight for each set (‘sets across’ instead of ramping up)

The idea here is to rack up a fair amount of volume with a pretty heavy weight. Glenn Pendlay has suggested that top working weights here might be as heavy as 82-87% of the 1RM, if you’re one of those that needs percentages; needless to say that would be a pretty brutal session that you wouldn’t want to repeat more than once a week. But that’s okay, because you don’t need to. The entire point of this session is to be an ass-kicking.

On Wednesday is the light session, which keeps the weights around 70% (if you like percentages) and mainly puts you through the motions. Generally this is something easy like 3×3 or 2×5. You can also switch to a different, lighter exercise (another option suggested by Starr), simply because you’ll use lighter weights on a front squat than a back squat, for example. You get some exposure to lighter weights which helps with retaining strength gains, but not so much that it impacts your recovery.

Friday’s intensity workout is just the pyramid or ramping-up approach, working up to a best set of five just as with the original method. I personally tend to stay away from calling this a “5×5” session simply because you may not end up doing five sets of five reps.

As you’re first working through this kind of cycle, you certainly should. I just think you’ll find that you won’t always benefit from doing the same pyramid as you get stronger. As your poundages go up, the more concerned you’ll have to be about wearing yourself out with lighter sets; you might end up only doing sets of 1-3 reps as you build up to your best set just so that you don’t drain yourself before you hit your top set.

Once it’s all put together, you end up with a nice little undulating periodization scheme. The stress waves from high to low to medium across the week. Monday’s session kicks your ass, the light day helps you recover a little while giving you a little time in the gym, and then Friday brings you up to a new peak. That’s all a periodization system is designed to do.

Of course, realize that the weekly structure itself can change. If you want to put Monday’s volume/stress workout, which is the hardest of the week, on Friday so that you can have two days to recover, that’s fine too. If you need to put your hard squat day on Monday and then your hard bench press and back work on Friday, that’s also fine. There’s nothing really set in stone here, which is the point.

The suggestion is to go through at least a few cycles of this method ‘as-written’ before you start to make changes to it. This is for two reasons: so you can milk the benefits, and so you can figure out how your body is going to respond.

The training cycle is simple enough; it’s when you peak out and then have to start over (or back-cycle, as you’ll hear it called). Start conservative, with weights you know you can handle, and aim to start breaking records around three or four weeks in. Once the weights get heavy (for you), you might milk this for a week or two before you really hit a plateau. If you’re using an RPE scale to regulate this, and you should be, think in terms of hitting in the range of 9-10 on a regular basis. Note that one hard workout is not the cue to start over; that’s a bad day. A week or 10 days of bad workouts, nothing but grinders and missed reps and fatigue, that’s a sign to scale it back.

Here’s the thing about that: you don’t want to actually get to a point where you stall out, and timing that really is an art form. It’s a lot easier to avoid burn-out than it is to overcome it once you’re there. Spend a little time working with challenging weights, then get out before you really burn out. Once you’ve broken a record or two, you back off the weights.

At that point, reduce the weights by 10-20% and start the cycle over again with the goal of breaking the records from the last cycle. This is a neat way to informally periodize your training, by spending some time with lighter training and some time with heavier, more taxing training.

After you do this a few times you’ll probably find a benefit to focusing on either the volume/stress workout or the ramping workout each week – not both. When you do this, you just put your focus on the targeted workout and then make a token effort for the other. If you’re pushing the volume workout, you’d make it a point to add weight and really work to break your records for 5×5. The intensity workout would still have you working up to a single heavy set, but you wouldn’t go all-out and try to add weight each week, nor would you try to break your records. You make a token attempt on one workout, and put all your effort into the targeted workout. Of course the same would work in reverse if you were trying to improve your top set of five reps.

You can vary things even further. Instead of sets of five, you might like triples, doubles, or even singles. There’s nothing to day you can’t do 6×3 on Monday, or 8×2, or something along those lines. Likewise, you could work up to your best triple on Friday, or you could do 5×1, or even something like Westside’s dynamic effort days where you do 10 sets of 2 with a lighter weight and bands.

There’s also no reason you have to stick to the three full-body workouts, either. You can break things up into upper body/lower body workouts, which is a time-tested method, or pushing/pulling exercises. Squats and presses would go on the pushing day, while pulling movements like rows and deadlifts would go on the pulling day. Just keep in mind that even though the weekly routine might change, the basic principles haven’t. It’s still about progression, overload, and recovery.

Once you’ve gone through the basic program a few times, you should have an idea of how you’re going to respond. Problem is, most folks don’t have the creativity or self-awareness to realize that the guidelines are just guidelines; once you’ve got some experience you can change things within reason, as long as they fit the theme of the routine. There is no set program; it’s all about modifying the process from week to week and from cycle to cycle. As long as you’re being logical with your changes, you can do whatever you like.

In Practical Programming, Rip suggests that most people aren’t really going to need much more than the intermediate-level routine, so this might be the limit for you. If not, read on.

Options for Advanced 5×5 Workout Routines

If by some chance you happen to just get that strong and exhaust all the different methods that the intermediate stage offers, you might just need some kind of advanced planning. Most people, your gym-rats and ‘I just want abs’ types, never need this level of complexity. If you’re a competitive strength athlete that has your sights aimed high, you’re probably going to get here sooner or later.

Just to use myself as an example, I know very well that if I tried to program my deadlift like an intermediate, for weekly fluctuations, that’d last about two weeks before I collapsed into a pile of CNS-fried glop. I’m not even that strong, either – at 195 lbs I can pull somewhere around 550 in a belt. To make that number go up, as I’d like it to, it takes some pretty substantial trickery on my part. Just deadlifting with heavy sets of 5 doesn’t cut it anymore.

Unlike the last two instances, there’s really no ‘routine’ here at the advanced level. In Practical Programming, it’s suggested that advanced-level planning is as much art and ‘whatever works’ as it is any defined program. In my own experience, that’s pretty well true. By this stage, you just have to figure out what works; the good news is, if you’re at this point, you’ve either got a good idea, or you’ve got somebody you can ask.

In his comments on the progression of the 5×5 system, Glenn Pendlay has said the same thing. You’re still accounting for the trend of progressive stress-response that all athletes go through as they improve. Advanced athletes will just have to look at things on a multi-weekly or monthly scale.

Instead of having a ‘stress’ workout each week, like the 5×5 Monday session before, you’d have several weeks worth of high-stress training. Following that, you’d throttle back and recover. In Practical Programming, they call this ‘pyramid loading’. I’ve also seen it called an ‘accumulation/intensification cycle’ in comments from Charles Poliquin. You’ll see hints of this in the ‘block periodization’ that’s becoming popular these days as well.

Glenn Pendlay has discussed this option in some of his commentaries:

…so for a guy like this, we wouldn’t use [the 5×5 workouts] all the time, we would do 5 sets of 5 with lighter weights for 3-4 weeks, working up to one really heavy workout trying to break our record, then move on to a more Westside style of training, with max effort work one day and dynamic effort work another day, much easier to recover from if you are pushing really heavy weight.

Glenn’s comments here were in reference to Kyle Gulledge, who had a raw squat up in the mid to high 600s at the time of that writing – this is obviously meant for very strong guys who would wipe themselves out training with the weekly records of an intermediate program.

For this approach you’d squat 5×5 with sub-maximal weights for all three weekly workouts during a 3-4 week cycle, making the goal to break your record (for five sets of five) with one hard workout at the end of the cycle. After that, you’d switch to something like Westside, which counts as a massive reduction in volume and increase in intensity. This allows recovery while exploiting the development that took place with the volume phase.

I’d also note that if you read the writings of Jeremy Frey and Landon Evans over on EliteFTS, where they discuss block periodization, you’ll see roughly the same structure in place – a phase of lower-intensity but higher volume training, followed by a lower-volume but much higher intensity phase. There are differences in the details, but it’s the theme I’m after.

Another option would be weekly variation between high, medium, and low stress – so-called ‘wave-like loading’. In Mike Tuchscherer’s Reactive Training Manual, he discusses this exact method. The trick here is that you need some idea of what constitutes ‘high stress’, ‘low stress’, and so on – making this unsuitable for beginners and most intermediates.

Interestingly enough, the thought process is very much like Boris Sheiko’s powerlifting methodology. Sheiko is a bit more in-depth in terms of how it’s put into practice, and there’s a definite specialization towards powerlifting (which would be because it’s a powerlifting system), but again these are superficial differences – the underlying thought process is the same even though the implementation varies.

High-stress weeks would be ‘more’ – more workouts, more sets, more heavy and maximum attempts. The light-stress weeks would be ‘less’ – fewer sessions, less volume per session, and only moderate, non-challenging weights. Moderate weeks would obviously be somewhere in between the extremes.

The simplest wave approach is just to go heavy one week, light the next. I’ve seen waves that go from as few as that on up to 5-6 weeks, using various combinations of heavy, medium, and light weeks. You could do something just as easy as alternating rep ranges, say five reps the first week, triples the second, and only singles the third week. I’ll drop another anecdote and note that I used that method in conjunction with RPE scoring to train for the meet I did in December, and it worked quite well, netting me a 240kg deadlift at 86.6kg, in only a belt.Yeah it’s not world-class, nor is it even an all-time PR, but it is the best I’ve done that light.

Again, people are going to see more benefit from leaning towards the least-complex method that will still produce results. Start simple and then graduate up only when (if) you need it. I say this only because somewhere out there, a guy will find this site on Google and think he’s advanced because he’s been lifting for six months and has gone from 130 to 160 lbs.

Other Variations

You may be aware that one of my pet interests is applying science to the traditionally un-scientific disciplines of physique training – i.e., muscle-building, fat-burning, and bodybuilding.

With that in mind, I’d like to trot out a few variations on the theme that I’ve suggested to others over the years. These are based on the same ‘5×5’ concepts that I’ve gone over, but modified to be a little more appropriate for the situation. And no, I don’t mean adding inverted rows instead of barbell rows and claiming it’s some shit I came up with.

5×5 Workout Routines for Muscle Mass and Bodybuilding

Connecting the 5×5 methodology with bodybuilding is easy, assuming you can get the bodybuilder to give up his precious five-day split routine. Which is to say, it’s not easy. Strength, or more accurately exposure to heavy weight, is a requirement for building muscle mass. If you’re not handling heavy weights and attempting to increase those weights over time, then you’re not getting any bigger (unless you’re chemically assisted). I’ve gone over that I don’t know how many times in other articles.

It makes sense that a full-body strength routine focused on improving your basic exercises would fit in very well with that goal. In fact, if you’re in the off-season (whatever off-season bodybuilders have), it’s really hard to imagine a more perfect routine. The only changes that might be suggested would be addition of some higher-rep training (8-10 reps or so) to augment the basic strength work, and if you’re really convinced it matters, some isolation work for smaller body parts.

This will inevitably mean shoulders, biceps, triceps, forearms, and calves; the big parts are covered by the big lifts, which is the whole point. If you choose to add in assistance work for your body parts, you can either add it in at the end of your workout or add in separate pump ‘n tone sessions. For example, you might go in and do the ‘strength’ workouts, on Mondays and Thursdays, then do your bodybuilding training on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The key, of course, is shaking off the traditional myths of bodybuilding, which hold that you have to train each muscle group in specific ass-kicking sessions, or else they won’t grow. Bodybuilders never were big on things like ‘overlapping exercises’ or ‘understanding how the body works’.

Fat Loss with a 5×5 Workout

The 5×5 setup isn’t really a good option for fat loss at first glance. It doesn’t really have any sort of ‘metabolic training’, and the work loads can will be a too much for someone in a calorie deficit (and not using Dr. Zeigler’s Happy Recovery Tonic). However, it doesn’t take much imagination to accommodate both of those issues.

The trick here is to stay away from the really taxing workouts as much as possible; this means that the high-stress 5×5 days should become pretty infrequent. You can either reduce the volume (5×3 and 3×5 have both been useful options), or decrease the frequency of the high-stress session in the first place. For example, instead of once a week, you might make it happen once every 10-14 days – or even longer. I want to stress that this is only for the brave; personally I’d just drop it back to 3×5 or triples.

In place of this, you might find that the intensity workout and muscle-specific training (doing higher reps with ‘easier’ exercises) would be more useful. You’ll have better recovery and be able to slot in more conditioning work. Remember, fat loss isn’t about developing strength or muscle. You’re only trying to preserve it while you do other things.

One thing I have found useful is, like the suggestion for mass-building, only doing two strength workouts per week – and instead of doing bodybuilding on the other two days, slot in conditioning work instead. Conditioning work can be kettlebells, barbell complexes, circuit training, interval training, stubborn fat cardio, or even a non-retarded CrossFit workout (save your jokes, people!). ‘Metcons’ are fine here; just remember that safety and technique are important, so keep it to low-skill stuff. So you don’t die.

I’ve been dropping too many personal anecdotes in this article, but I’ve got one more. That particular strategy I just listed is money for ‘general training’ – if you’re interested in a balance of strength development and cardio fitness. I used it for dieting, putting deadlifts & OHP on Sunday and squats & bench pressing on Wednesday, with two hard conditioning sessions on Monday and Friday. It makes a damn nice change of pace if you’re trying to get away from single-minded PR chasing, or if you’re wanting a balance between staying strong and getting in shape.

If you want to get strong in the first place, you’ll see better benefits from specializing. But I realize not all of you want that, so here’s a good compromise.

The Internet Fad and Hater Feedback

As with anything popular, the 5×5 has become a bandwagon complete with Holy Websites and Saints. People put up articles, a group of fanboys latch on to it, and suddenly you’ve got a new phenomenon. This happened to Louie Simmons’ Westside, it’s happening to Boris Sheiko’s powerlifting, and it’s happened to the 5×5 too.

Per anything ‘Internet’, realize what I said earlier: the 5×5 would be better thought of as a methodology, a collection of principles, or a training system. It’s most certainly not a ‘routine’ or a ‘workout’ as you may be used to thinking of.

There’s sites out there that are promoting their own versions of the ‘5×5 routine’, which are at best cheap knock-offs with some exercises substituted in. How terribly original. Yes, I’m well aware of the irony in providing my own examples in this article; then again, I’m not claiming any of it as anything but an extension of the basic concepts that the real innovators have outlined.

I did commit perhaps the gravest sin of all: I actually tried these methods out with real people, like myself or clients, before putting them online. That’s the worst thing you can do as an online guru; and it’s nowhere near as original as replacing an exercise or two and calling it mine to drive up my search engine rankings.

To reiterate: the 5×5 is not a program or an 8-week cycle or any of that shit. The entire point is to learn how to vary things so that it’s flexible and that it adapts to your needs as you improve.

The sites I’ve read promoting their own ‘proprietary’ versions of the 5×5 routines are just enforcing the ‘do this exactly as written or else you’ll fail’ mentality. I don’t have to tell you how much that mindset really, really irritates me. Especially when it comes from people with no real results to show for their trouble. Pardon my Bro.

If you’re not a raw beginner working through your first year or so of lifting, there’s nothing stopping you from modifying the exercise choices or even the sets and reps according to your goals. Just make sure that the changes are logical, and that you’re training with some goal over the short term.

If you’re a beginner, that means you don’t have the experience to know what changes to make, so you should probably just shut up and do the damn program as written until you get things figured out, or until you go lift with a crew that knows what the hell they’re doing.

This is also not a program you ‘finish’. You can finish a training cycle, yeah. But the idea of being ‘done with’ the 5×5 makes as much sense as saying you’re done lifting weights.

As you’ve seen, there’s many an option to modify things according to your every need and desire. If you actually understand the system, you can use it for an entire lifting career – it’s not just one program that you go through and then have to jump to something else.

With a little critical thinking and creativity, you can adjust things in a systematic, methodical way and keep making progress forever. It won’t look like The 5×5 necessarily; but so what? That’s the entire point: when even the originators say it’s expected for the program to change as people get stronger, then you’ve got no leg to stand on with this “do the program as written!” nonsense.

(I realize that in saying this I’ve condemned myself to the Internet Curse. Somewhere, somebody is going to make a completely stupid change and then ask me why it’s not a good idea. The notion that you can change the program if it makes sense is predicated on people actually being able to determine what makes sense.)

Of course people won’t do this; it’s easier to whine about getting bored, to never make any attempt at being consistent, and then jump from program to program – then come back a few years later and complain about not getting any results. People seem to have an aversion to hard work with the basics, so program-hopping makes them feel better.

Note to you guys: having an ‘arms’ day is not helping you pack on the mass. It just isn’t. Sorry.

The 5×5 is far more than what most people realize, and I think that a lot of people would be better off sticking to some variation on this theme – not necessarily these specific workouts, exactly as outlined, but the idea of systematic changes made inside a consistent methodological framework. The way most people go to the gym and plan their training is just awful, and they have the results to show for it.

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