One of the most popular muscle and strength-building programs of all time is the 5x5 protocol. Lifters were swearing by it 50 years ago, and in recent years, it has only gotten more popular. Why? Because it's simple, sustainable, and it straight-up works.
This training approach is designed to hit your muscles hard three times per week and then allow enough time to promote growth and recovery. It has been most popular among strength-seeking lifters, because it has you training in the strength-building sweet spot of 70-80 percent of your 1RM on big lifts. When you hang out there in the majority of your work sets, you can keep making incremental strength gains for a long time.
But this is more than just a strength program. A well-designed 5x5 will reliably produce an increase in muscle mass as well, provided you are eating enough calories to support this muscle growth. This version of 5x5 also contains some higher-rep accessory work that will help add muscle mass along with strength.
Is 5x5 for beginners? Sure, it can be. But while 5x5 is sometimes advised as a beginner program, it's probably best used by intermediate lifters who have a base of training. No, you won't be maxing out, but the intensity and volume are higher than many bodybuilding-focused prorams.
What the 5x5 program specializes in is periodization, which is changing the program as you progress through it to constantly change the stimulus. This increases the challenge your muscles each week, but also provides enough recovery time between training sesions to keep you from burning out.
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Choosing Your Weight
The biggest mistake people make in 5x5 training, and in strength training in general, is going too heavy.
During the first week of the training program, you should error on the side of caution and use weights that feel light enough to allow you to hit every rep without much of a struggle. This will allow your muscles to grow accustomed to this type of training. Remember, 5x5 works best as a long-term commitment of at least a month or two, not a once-in-a-while thing.
If you know what your 1RM on the big lifts are, start 5x5 with around 65 percent of that max. This weight shouldn't be so easy that you feel you could do a lot more than that but likewise it shouldn't be so hard that you are not able to complete the given protocol.
Bumping It Up
If after the first week you have managed to successfully complete all your sets on the big lifts, then bump the weight up 5-10 pounds for the following week. That may not sound like much, but it's enough to keep you progressing! Remember, 5x5 works when you hit all your reps, not when you miss them.
If you bump it up and are not able to successfully complete all the reps with proper form then this is too high of an increase. Stick with the weight you used last week, and try again next week. If you find you're still struggling to lift the amount of weight you were using, keep it the same for one more week. This may not feel like you're getting stronger, but keep trusting the system!
By the time you hit weeks 4-6 you will hopefully be setting new rep maxes and will be seeing a significant increase in strength, provided you are in a caloric surplus. You can sometimes still see strength increases even if you are in a deficit however it is much more unlikely, especially among advanced individuals.
What Comes Next: Peaking Phase
After one or two four-week cycles of 5x5 training, you'll bump up against a weight that, try as you might, simply won't allow you to manage 5 sets of 5 reps. This is inevitabler! Here's what to do next.
For the next two weeks, drop your sets and reps down to 3 sets of 3 reps. This will allow you to push each set even harder and therefore hopefully lift more weight, thus upping your max.
Once 3x3 gets tough, you can take it down to one set of three for 2-to-3 workouts and maybe even try for single reps maxes at the end. It should be noted though that not everyone needs to see what their max is. If you hit a solid double or triple, you can plug that weight into a 1RM calculator and use it to determine your 65 percent 5x5 starting weight in the future.
If you choose to end the cycle after the initial 4-6 weeks of 5x5 that is alright too and in some cases, such as for those who are training for sports, the intensity levels during the peak phases are just too much for them to handle along with their other physical pursuits.
As with any program you need to ensure you have proper pre- and post-workout nutrition while doing 5x5 training. You may not get sweaty doing sets of 5, but rest assured, your body is working hard!
The workouts are going to take a lot out of your body so providing them with the nutrients to fuel the activity as well as recovery from it is essential. Eat adequate calories, aim for a gram of protein per pound of bodyweight each day, and don't be afraid to see the number on the scale go up along with the weight on the bar.
A Timeless Approach for Strength and Size
So if you are looking for a new workout to try and already have a few years of training behind you, give this a chance. If you can set your ego aside and do the work, you will join the legion of 5x5 believers. Then, you can always return to it in the future whenever you want to see the weight on the bar go up!