Unless you’ve had your head in the sand the last few years, you’ve probably heard about the 5×5 workout featured on Stronglifts 5×5, Starting Strength and so on.
Although Mark Berry was using something resembling 5×5 in the 1930’s, Bill Starr – author of the 1976 book The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football – seems to get much of the credit for coming up with the idea.
As the title of Starr’s book suggests, the 5×5 workout was designed mainly for building strength.
It’s true that size and strength are linked… up to a point anyway. But there are multiple ways in which you can gain strength without a corresponding increase in muscle size. Stronger does not always mean bigger, and bigger does not always mean stronger.
I should point out is that there’s nothing “magical” about 5 sets of 5 repetitions (as opposed to, say, 4 sets of 6 repetitions or 6 sets of 4 repetitions).
Starr only picked that particular configuration of sets and reps because “it was easy to remember.”
“Once I had sorted out the specific exercises that would do the job most effectively,” writes Starr “my next task was to assemble them into a working order. It was back to the research library to see what pure scientists had uncovered on the subject.”
“Surprisingly enough, the research was rather easy to come by and the conclusions were almost universally alike concerning the acquisition of strength.”
“The researchers found that 4-6 repetitions of 4-6 sets, increasing the weight on each successive set, produced the most significant increase in strength. Terrific. I simplified the formula to five sets of five reps as that was the exact median and it was easy to remember.”
If building muscle is your main goal, there’s a very simple way to make the 5×5 workout work even better. And that’s by adding a little more volume.
As Mark Rippetoe points out in Practical Programming:
“For those whose main goal is increased muscular weight and size, keeping a higher volume day in most cycles is necessary.”
“A specific example might be the trainee who is mostly interested in gaining muscular weight. He has completed the novice stage, and has finished a training cycle with 5 sets of 5 for one workout and speed sets for the other.”
“He wants to gain weight, so he will keep the 5 sets of 5 portion of the workout and add in a higher volume workout for the second session. The choices might be 5 sets of 10 across, 5 sets of 12, or even 3 to 4 sets of 15.”
There are several ways to increase your training volume. The one I want to talk about today is something called a back-off set.
To do a back-off set, complete your regular 5 sets of 5, then simply reduce the weight and crank out an additional set of 10-30 reps.
Interestingly enough, there was a study done a few years back where researchers found that the addition of a back-off set led to faster gains in muscle size and strength.
Basically, one group of subjects performed two leg exercises for 5 sets of 3-5 repetitions, while a second group did exactly the same thing, but added a back-off set (25-35 repetitions with a lighter weight) 30 seconds later.
Over the course of four weeks, the guys using the back-off set added more muscle and got stronger faster than subjects doing only 5 sets of 3-5 reps.
This kind of “combination training” is nothing new. In fact, it was very popular with some of the top bodybuilders in the 1950’s, such as Bill Pearl and Reg Park.
In his book The Wild Physique, Vince Gironda points out that Pearl and Park used to mix up their training, using both heavy and light weights.
“I remember studying Reg Park’s physique when he was power training,” writes Gironda.
“He was doing 5 sets of 5 reps. His physique looked thick. Obviously, he had maximized his muscle fiber size.”
“Park then went to South Africa and followed a system of 10-rep exercises. The appearance of his muscle changed because the capillary count looked higher, but the thickness appeared to suffer fractionally.”
“A few years later, Park mixed up his training and his physique reached its ultimate potential. He had both cross-sectional thickness and muscle height. He looked superb.”
According to Gironda, both Pearl and Park would perform 3-4 sets with a heavy weight and low reps, and then finish off with 2-3 sets of higher reps with a lighter weight.
In summary, the 5×5 workout is a highly effective way to get stronger. Add a bit more volume and you’ll find that it’s a great way to add size at the same time.
If you enjoyed this post, there's a good chance you'll also like Truth and Lies about Building Muscle: 10 Muscle Myths Debunked By Science.
It's a FREE 20-page special report (PDF) I put together to debunk 10 popular myths that are still widely believed, despite all the evidence to the contrary. You can click here to download a copy.
About Christian FinnChristian Finn holds a master's degree with distinction in exercise science, is a certified personal trainer and has been featured on BBC TV and radio, as well as in Men's Health, Men's Fitness, Fit Pro, Zest, and Perfect Body magazine.