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What's The 5X5 Program & Is It EFFECTIVE?

The 5X5 style of training is very popular training in strength circles, and for many an introduction to the world of strength. It has given way to other popular training programs, and most probably popularized the use of “5” as the standard rep range for strength training. There isn't a set 5x5 program, although there are several popular iterations online: - Bill Starr 5x5 - Reg Park's 5x5 - MadCow's 5x5 - StrongLifts 5x5 Case in point: there are many types of 5x5 programs out there, each with their own structures and purported benefits (of said structure). All have success stories of some kind, and have been tried by thousands...yet they all have the same limitations, which we'll examine today. You're here for the question: will it work? Most likely. Depending on your past training history. For beginners who've never touched a barbell - it will work well for up to 10-12 weeks. For intermediates who've gone through other strength training programs - not as much. We'll look at why, and what to do about it. For the sake of simplicity, let's go with the most popular online version of 5x5 (currently): Workout A:
  • Squat 5X5
  • Bench Press 5X5
  • Barbell Row 5X5
Workout B:
  • Squat 5x5
  • Overhead Press 5X5
  • Deadlift 1X5

The straightforwardness of the program is immediately appealing to a novice trainee. I know it was for me.

The progression is the same as it is for most novice linear progression programs: add 5 lbs on the upcoming workout if you completed all sets of five reps.

The exercise selection is pretty minimal, and there's plenty of exposure to the main lifts. As far as results go, these types of programs can be quite effective if followed to the letter. But why? And what are its shortcomings (if any)?

Is 5X5 The Ultimate Beginner Strength Training Program?

If we are in agreement that building strength effectively is a result of strength adaptations and muscular hypertrophy, as the two primary levers of strength growth, then it's easy to see why the programs work. First, the 5-rep range that the program is based around is typically higher than the required 70% intensity range needed for strength improvements. Five reps at moderately challenging (RPE 8) to all-out (RPE 10) effort will generally be upwards of 80% of a lifter’s e1RM. Secondly, each session will average 25-reps per exercise (except for the deadlift: more on that later). By doing an average of three sessions every two weeks per lift, that will generally be averaged to:
  • 75 reps of squat
  • 37.5 reps of bench
  • 37.5 reps of press
  • 37.5 reps of rows
  • 7.5 reps of deadlifts
Assuming that the lifter is doing the program, these reps will generally be performed at an 75-80% intensity rep range. Setting For a complete novice, these aren’t terrible volume numbers. While not characteristically high, they are enough to stimulate a hypertrophy response on a novice trainee. The reps on the squat are a bit higher than necessary. Benching reps are lower than would be ideal. With deadlifts being far too low. What I’d like to design for a beginner would be closer to:
  • 54 reps of squat
  • 72 reps of bench
  • 32 reps of press
  • 47 reps of deadlift
As the base of the program, the lifter would be subjected to greater levels of volume in the bench & deadlift. As in, nearly double the bench volume, and almost five times the pulling volume. The squat volume is slightly less, but for a beginner trainee, 75 reps of squats per week is overkill. In fact, on the Starting Strength novice program, lifters are subjected to 45 reps of squats per week, and most people tend to see significant results at that volume level. It doesn't appear immediately obvious that novice trainees need any more than this. When I first started training in the manner described above, I followed a template that was exactly like this. I was able to add 50 lbs to my squat (315 > 365), 40 lbs to my deadlift (345 > 385), and 50 lbs to my bench (195 > 245). This came along with a bodyweight gain of 3 lbs & 7 weeks of training. Although, in later trials, I actually achieved a much faster rate of progress by being more aggressive with the weight gain. Instead of micro-managing a 250-300 caloric surplus, I let myself have anywhere from 350 to 500 calories in excess. The rate of progress was 50% faster, and I didn't notice too much extra fat. Although I'm sure there was some. It should be a noted that this was all done as post-novice training - a novice trainee would derive a much greater training effect. If I were to take an 18 year old, 5'8, 140-lb male who's never followed any formal strength training protocol, I would have him gain 30-lbs over the next six months while following a training structure as outlined above. This individual would mostly like see a sustained rate of growth that would have him squat somewhere in the vicinity of 405, bench 275 (paused), & pull 455. For sets of five. A trainee that followed the training as described without missing/skipping meals or workouts should very well set these numbers as their targets. To see a full layout for what I’d recommend for novice powerlifters, or novice strength trainees in general, see the post about my Beginner Powerlifting Program. Why would I program like this & what are its inherent benefits over the 5X5 program?

What is Good & Bad About the 5X5 Training Program

The 5X5 program although decent as an introductory training protocol for beginner lifters, it has some drawbacks that are mainly noticeable in the long term.

Simplicity & Structured Programming

So, for starters, it’s a simple and straightforward program. Again, that’s very appealing to someone just starting out. It also has an element of structuring and progression. Rather than not being sure what to do, or what the best way to progress is, the program states it simply: add 5 lbs. This also distills more abstract concepts like progressive overload into simple, actionable strategies. Although this simplicity is attractive to more novice trainees, and it's a feature built into the program: adding 5 lbs as a novice linear progression is not unique to 5X5.

Frequent Exposure to Main Lifts

Another plus that isn’t unique to 5X5 but a good feature nevertheless is the exposure to the main lifts. The fact that you’re squatting, pressing, and pulling rather frequently helps the lifter improve their technique (if done correctly) very rapidly: or much quicker than if they were not doing so. It can also cement the idea that training heavy, frequently, and with compound barbell movements is completely fine.

Decent Level of Volume at Proper Intensity

While not generally considered a high volume program, compared to other beginner programs, it is actually quite decent. Although I would tweak it as I demonstrated before, the program does contain sufficient volume for novice liters.

Skill Practice, Strength Adaptations & Hypertrophy

Overall, when compared to other programs in the primary levers of strength growth, the 5X5 program tends to fare fairly well. There’s frequent exposure to the main lifts, adequate intensity for strength adaptations, and enough volume to stimulate hypertrophy. So - what are its drawbacks?

Why 5X5 is Not An Optimal Training Program

Although it is a reasonably good program, there are some reasons for why it is not optimal.

The Repeated Bout Effect & the SAID Principle

Without going into too much detail, what the (SAID Principle) means is that your body adapts specifically to the stress imposed upon it. And it doesn't create tangential adaptations. Meaning: there's very little cross-over to other related movements or exercises. In other words: If you want to get stronger in the squat, bench, and deadlift - you have to train for strength in the squat, bench, and deadlift. Which means that anything that is not a Squat, Bench, or Deadlift will not impact your strength output in these lifts. Leg presses, dumbbell presses, reverse hypers, or any of these similar exercises do not have direct carry over. (This is a more complex subject outside the scope of this post. See that direct is bolded above). The 5X5 programs are great at improving your numbers because you're training the same movements over, and over, and over again. This is great, however... Your body is also very good at adapting to external stresses (The Repeated Bout Effect). This means that if you continue to train at the same intensity, with the same rep range, with the same movement patterns, with the same level of effort: your body becomes increasingly better at creating adaptations so that each workout disrupts its homeostatic balance less and less. It might first appear as a decrease in muscle soreness, as every workout becomes less novel - over time, however, the Repeated Bout Effect also means less gains. This means that each training session becomes continually less effective and the effects of the program are cut prematurely.

Daily Undulating Prioritization

This is where DUP comes in. By changing rep ranges, effort levels, energy pathways, and intensity percentages - the lifter is able to impose different stresses upon the body with every workout. This continual “shifting” of required stress adaptations from workout to workout means that your body does not become nearly as efficient at dealing with them as they otherwise would. Therefore, by altering certain parameters within the training program - the lifter is able to enjoy a much greater return on their time spent in the gym.

Volume Isn’t HUGE

Although the squat enjoys a great deal of high-intensity volume - the same cannot be said for the other lifts. Particularly the deadlift. This is another big reason for why the program isn’t effectively optimal. By applying the tweaks that I mentioned in the “Beginner Powerlifting Program”, you can elevate the volume of the training schedule in a way that produces maximal long-term hypertrophy benefits.

Lack of Continual Stress Increases During The Program

The last point being that the program is “set”. As the lifter becomes more trained, the program does not adjust its nature to the trainee’s apparent progression. As your body continues to develop adaptations to combat the training stress imparted by a workout, the effect of the program noticeably decreases. While in part this is dealt with by combining different training stresses & movement patterns (DUP), this is not addressed by volume or total weekly training stress. In other words, you’re doing the same amount of work throughout the entirety of the program. This will cause the effectiveness of the program to diminish quite sharply. Instead, your programming needs to reflect the reality of what’s happening: as you become better trained & capable of handling your current workload - your training must adjust to continue to stimulate progress. This kind of continued “stress programming” or adjustments to workload are not addressed by this program. In the beginning, when the stress of training is a novel stimulus, trainees will not need to adjust their workload too much. As the increased stress (“progressive overload”) will be handled primarily by the novelty of the stimuli & the slight weight increments. However, because that volume remains equal & the stimulus no longer remains “novel”- the weight increases (5-lb per workout/week) no longer become a suitable overload progression strategy. In this case, manipulating volume as the primary driver of stress and hypertrophy (i.e. muscle mass) will be the primary tool for continuing to stimulate further strength gains. Instead of trying to force a 5-lb increase & using that as the dose for which adaptations need to occur. As such, training protocols need to remain dynamic in order to remain effective in the face of continued adaptations.

The Final Verdict

To wrap things up, although the program is quite effective & suitable for beginners: if a lifter is most interested in maximizing their strength potential at level of advancement, they would be better suited with a more deliberate planning approach that addresses:
  • Intensity requirements for strength adaptations (the SAID principle)
  • Frequent exposure & practice with the main lifts
  • Volume demands for hypertrophy
  • Combatting the Repeated Bout Effect (DUP)
  • Long-term programming considerations for continued progress
See these programs here: Strength Training for Beginners & Powerlifting Program.

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