The 5 By 5 Workout
StrongLifts, Madcow… the list goes on of popular 5 by 5 workout regimes geared towards beginners to stack on muscle mass and get strong as hell.
In the gym and on bodybuilding forums within minutes of a newcomer asking what workout regime they should be following the recommendation for a 5 by 5 workout couldn’t come quicker!
Is the 5 by 5 workout regime the best place for a beginner to start? Here’s my take on it…
Pros Of The 5 By 5 Workout
Here’s the good when it comes to 5×5 training.
Focus is placed on compounds
Beginners often resort to utilizing heavy weights on isolation exercises to try and build muscle mass and strength, unfortunately hitting bicep curls and tricep extensions, particularly as a newcomer is not a good approach to build size or strength.
To get big and strong focus must be placed on the big mass moving exercises which all 5 by 5 workout regimes include, being the squat, bench, deadlift and overhead press.
You’re working in a proven rep range
The 4 – 6 rep range has been proven the most efficient rep range for a natural gym-goer to build both size and strength.
Performing a ton of light weight reps or drop set after drop set to try and ‘burn out’ your muscles isn’t the answer – 5 by 5 workout instead focus on programming a percentage of your 1 rep maximum (around 80 – 85%) which you will be lifting for 5 sets of 5 reps.
There’s no guesswork
There’s no paralysis by analysis when following a 5 by 5 workout because it’s so simple there’s nothing to debate!
You don’t have to compare dumbbell curls to barbell curls or anything else for that matter.
Simply hit your 5 sets of 5 reps on your key exercises 3 – 4 times per week and you’re done.
The only thing to remember is to continue to increase the weight each workout after you conquer the previously prescribed weight.
It’s all about progressive overload
As I mentioned, no guesswork or crazy tactics are involved in the 5 by 5 workout.
Progressive overload is emphasized.
Hit the weight for 5 sets of 5, then increase it next session.
Only hit 4 sets of 5 reps? Plug away at the same weight in your next workout until you hit it.
Progressive overload is the absolute key to growth in terms of size and strength – increased tension and stress on the muscle via increased weight, increased time under tension or increased reps.
Cons Of The 5 By 5 Workout
Here’s the negatives of 5×5 training from my experience.
Lower body outgrowing upper body
The amount of lower body work compared to upper body work in most 5×5 workout regimes builds an out of proportion physique.
A good physique should be proportionate and symmetrical – squatting 3 times per week while performing a minimal amount of upper body work will see you building big quads and hamstrings while maintaining a relatively small upper body by comparison.
5×5 is great for getting used to heavy weight and dialling in your compound exercises, but as far as body composition goes it’s far from ideal.
Volume is too high to maintain intensity
This is the #1 reason why I’m hesitant about 5 by 5 workouts for strength.
Strength oriented training should be pushing 90% and beyond of your 1 rep maximum.
If you can perform 5 sets of 5 reps of a set weight you’re not lifting heavy enough.
Recovery time insufficient for beginners
Terrible delayed onset muscle soreness, knee issues, rotator cuff impingements – I’ve heard it all.
Particularty for beginners, squatting and bench pressing heavy multiple times per week when their bodies have not yet adjusted (or they don’t do any active recovery) can cause excessive strain on the body and have them out of the gym with injuries or niggling issues relatively fast.
I’m a big advocate of training as hard as possible but you must first train smart.
Workout duration is lengthy due to rest required to perform your next set
As I mentioned, 5 sets of 5 reps is quite high volume, particularly when working with a 80 – 85% of your 1 rep maximum weight.
If you’re able to perform 5 reps, rest 1 or 2 minutes and bang out another 5 reps I’d question that you’ve calculated your 1 rep maximum incorrectly…
Towards the end of my stint following a 5 by 5 workout (Stronglifts) I found myself resting for 4~ minutes between sets.
For 1 exercise that’s no problem, but when your workout regime is comprised of 15 sets that takes quite some time!
Is The 5 By 5 Workout The Ultimate Strength Builder?
From my personal experience and research I’d say no.
The sheer volume of the 5 by 5 workout regimes such as Stronglifts are too high to be effective.
I aim to work in 85 – 90% of my 1RM when performing my heavy compound movements at the start of my workout – as these sets require an extreme amount of exertion you should not be able to get out more than 3 sets at that weight.
If you’re able to lift the weight for 5 sets of 5 reps with a minute or two between sets you’re not lifting heavy enough.
Instead of working in a 5 by 5 style of programming I recommend (and personally follow) a 3 sets of 4 – 6 reps approach.
Give it a try, the biggest concern that guys have when looking at this spartan style of training is the low volume
“SJ, am I even going to grow considering I’m only doing 3 sets of such low reps?!”
Provided you’re lifting heavy enough (e.g. 90% of your 1 rep maximum) the answer is yes, more than if you were following a 5 by 5 workout.