5x5 Training: The Most Effective Muscle Building Technique?

The game-changer you’re looking for

Scott Mayer
Sep 25 · 5 min read
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Credit: Sam Sabourin on Unsplash

Every fitness enthusiast is in pursuit of a goal.

Some of us want to run faster or jump higher. Others want to lose weight and get healthier. For those of us who want to add muscle and strength, let me introduce you to your new best friend:

5x5 training.

Popularized in the 1960s by Reg Park (the bodybuilding idol of Arnold Schwarzenegger), the concept is rather simple. For a given exercise, perform 5 working sets of 5 repetitions. 5x5.

Proper execution is not quite as cut and dry.

5x5 training is intense. Workout pacing, recovery, and nutrition must be dialed in to achieve maximum results and avoid injury. But if done right, the results can be astounding.

While not a training protocol for beginners, the 5x5 method is grounded in sound muscle-building principles, useful for trainees at all fitness levels.

Let’s take a look.

The preparation phase

A proper warmup is key to maximizing performance and minimizing injury risk. Warmups raise body temperature and increase blood flow, priming your cardiovascular system and muscles for use.

I’d suggest walking or biking, perhaps rowing if that’s your thing. Aim for 5–10 minutes of light to moderate movement. If needed, gently foam roll any tender areas for another 3–5 minutes.

Compound exercises work multiple muscle groups in one movement. They bend and manipulate the body at multiple points of flexion. These are the types of exercises we want to focus on.

Think barbell squats, bench presses, overhead presses, bent-over rows and deadlifts.

Never perform 5x5 training on isolation movements, such as bicep curls, leg extensions or lateral raises. These exercises don’t lend themselves to heavy weights (loads) and can overwork joints, tendons and ligaments.

What weight should we use?

Most training regimens have you performing sets of 10 repetitions or more. Since you’re now halving the number of repetitions per set, you need to use heavier weights.

You also need to consider the increased number of sets. You’re now doing 5 sets instead of the customary 3.

Honestly, your best guess is good enough to get started. If you need a number, use a weight you can get 8 repetitions with. Once you start working you’ll know if you need to increase or decrease the weight at all.

Success begins with proper preparation.

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The execution phase

You’ve completed your warmup. You’ve established your exercises and picked your starting loads.

Time to do the work.

An example of a 5x5 workout:

  • Barbell Squat: 5 sets x 5 reps
  • Barbell Bench Press: 5 sets x 5 reps
  • Bent Over Barbell Row: 5 sets x 5 reps
  • Front Barbell Squat: 5 sets x 5 reps
  • Overhead press: 5 sets x 5 reps
  • Barbell Deadlift: 5 sets x 5 reps
  • Barbell Squat: 5 sets x 5 reps
  • Barbell Bench Press: 5 sets x 5 reps
  • Bent Over Barbell Row: 5 sets x 5 reps

Focus on form as you raise and lower the weight. In general, breathe in as you go down, out as you go up. As the weight increases, make sure to brace yourself properly — take a quick breath before performing the repetition, perform the repetition, then exhale at the top. Slight variations based on personal preference are fine, but make sure not to unbrace until the repetition is complete.

If you can’t maintain good form, the set is over. Bad form is a precursor to injury.

“Form is more important than weight,” says C. J. Murphy, a competitive powerlifter and strongman. “Every rep should look crisp and smooth.”

Concentrate on each muscle as it lengthens and contracts. Make sure prime movers (glutes, quads, lats, core) are doing the majority of the work. Ancillary muscles (hamstrings, biceps, calves) are there for support and stability.

Maintain a measured pace. Your repetition tempo shouldn’t be too fast or two slow. Lower the weight under control, then lift up explosively (still under control).

Allow yourself enough time to recover between sets. This could mean 1–2 minutes or 3–4 minutes, depending on the loads used and the complexity of the exercise you’re performing. There’s no rush.

Once you can complete all 25 repetitions, increase the weight. It might take a couple days, it might take a couple weeks. For barbell exercises, add 5–10%. For dumbbell exercises, add 5 pounds per side.

The recovery phase

Muscles aren’t built in the gym. They’re built at rest.

The stimulus to build muscle size and strength is what’s generated during a workout. The actual muscle building processes occur during recovery.

Said another way, it’s what we do when we’re not in the gym that has the greatest impact on muscle growth.

Prioritizing sleep is a fundamental axiom of any muscle building program.

There are a myriad of benefits to sleep. Most notably for weight training, sleep impacts tissue repair and cognitive function.

Both are necessary to fuel a more intense workout regimen like 5x5.

Aim for at least 7 hours, try for 8.

As you would during any muscle-building program, make sure to take in enough protein to facilitate tissue growth. Protein contains amino-acids, the building blocks of cells.

Prioritize protein from whole food sources before adding in supplements. Whatever your stance on diet, getting proteins from real food always outperforms protein from a whey container. Supplements are just that, supplements to whole food sources.

Increase caloric intake slightly on days you train. Due to the intense nature of 5x5 training, you burn more calories during your workout and require more calories for recovery. Shoot for a 10% increase, if you’re eating 2000 calories per day, start with 2200.

What you can expect from 5x5 training

Simply put, you can expect results.

Your body is in for a shock with this unique combination of load and volume. And shock is exactly what the body needs to spur physiological changes.

You can expect to be sore as well. Especially the first week or so. Respond accordingly. If you’re too tired or sore heading into a training day, postpone until tomorrow. Opt for some active recovery or light cardio instead.

Remember, our muscles grow and develop when we rest. So make sure to get enough rest!

Start slow. Get established. You’re not going to make all your gains in the first week.

Overall, you can expect your fitness journey to expand to new heights. Especially if you’re new to lifting heavier weights. Enjoy the process and learn as much as you can.

Be strong, be safe, be well.

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Inspiring stories related to health, fitness and the pursuit of well-being.

Scott Mayer

Written by

Runner, thinker, curious observer. Owner of In Fitness And In Health. scottmayer.substack.com

In Fitness And In Health

A fast-growing health and fitness community dedicated to sharing knowledge, lessons, and suggestions to living happier, healthier lives.

Scott Mayer

Written by

Runner, thinker, curious observer. Owner of In Fitness And In Health. scottmayer.substack.com

In Fitness And In Health

A fast-growing health and fitness community dedicated to sharing knowledge, lessons, and suggestions to living happier, healthier lives.

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