One of the selling points of the 5×5 workout is that Arnold Schwarzenegger reportedly used it when he was starting out.
Some claim that it’s “well documented that Arnold Schwarzenegger built his foundation” using a 5×5 routine.
It is indeed well documented that the Austrian Oak used 5×5 when he was getting started.
But only if your definition of “well documented” includes somebody saying so on the Internet.
Did Arnold Follow a 5×5 Program?
If Arnold did use a 5×5 workout, or recommends it to beginners, he doesn’t mention it in his Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding or Arnold: Education of a Bodybuilder, both of which I’ve read from cover to cover.
Arnold didn’t write the books himself, but had help from his ghostwriter Bill Dobbins.
However, I’m going to assume that he gave the thumbs up to everything that was in there, and that the contents are an accurate reflection of his views at the time the books were written.
First, nowhere in either book does he lay out – exercise by exercise, set by set and rep by rep – exactly what program he used when he first started training.
Schwarzenegger actually got into bodybuilding when his coach decided that lifting weights once a week would be a good way to condition the team for playing football (soccer).
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The bodybuilders who were training in the gym noticed how hard the 15-year old Arnold was working out, and encouraged him to get into bodybuilding.
Here’s how he describes his introduction to bodybuilding in Arnold: Education of a Bodybuilder:
“That summer the bodybuilders took me on as their protege. They put me through a series of exercises, which we did together beside a lake near Graz, my hometown in Austria. We worked without weights. We did chin-ups on the branches of trees. We held each other’s legs and did handstand push-ups. Leg raises, sit-ups, twists, and squats were all included in a simple routine to get our bodies tuned and ready for the gym.”
“I was introduced to actual weight training through a tough basic program put together by these bodybuilders. The one hour a week we had trained for soccer was no longer enough to satisfy my craving for working out. I signed up to go to the gym three times a week.”
Arnold mentions using barbells, dumbbells and machines in his first workout, but he doesn’t say which exercises he used, or how many sets and reps he did.
However, if he believed that the 5×5 workout was such a good way to put on muscle, you’d expect him to recommend it to everyone who sets foot in the gym for the first time.
But he doesn’t.
In Arnold: Education of a Bodybuilder, he says that beginners should start out with a bodyweight program consisting of high-rep sets of:
“You should lay a foundation by stimulating the muscles, tuning the whole body in to resistance training using your own body weight,” he writes.
“And after you’ve accomplished that and feel good about it – which should take from two to six months, depending on your initial condition and your rate of progress – you can safely go into weight training in the gym.”
What Arnold Recommends for Beginners
Arnold’s love for 5×5 is also conspicuous by its absence in his Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding. Here’s what he had to say on the subject on page 149 of the 1992 edition:
“The first task facing the beginning bodybuilder is to build up a solid foundation of muscle mass – genuine muscular weight, not bulky fat. Later, you will try to shape this muscle into a balanced, quality physique.
“You do this by basic, hard training using heavy weights – grinding it out week after week until your body begins to respond. And what I mean by ‘basic training’ is not just a few exercises like bench presses, bent-over rows, and squats, but thirty to forty exercises all designed to stimulate and develop the major muscle groups of the body.”
“In my own early training, I practiced what I am now preaching. I started with the basics – bench and incline presses, dumbbell flyes, dips and pullovers. After three years, I was still doing only these five basic chest exercises.”
In other words, Schwarzenegger says that anyone wanting to put on muscle should do a lot more than the small number of compound lifts found in most 5×5 programs.
I could go on, so I will.
On a Reddit Ask Me Anything, Schwarzenegger was asked his opinion of the 5×5 workout.
“You probably won’t like this… When I was gaining strength, I liked to warm up with 10,8,6,4 and then stay at 2 reps for five sets, and then back to 4, then 6, and then use the stripping method and just drop plates and keep doing 4 reps until I couldn’t.”
The bottom line is this:
There is no evidence to be found in Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding or Arnold: Education of a Bodybuilder that he ever used a 5×5 routine, or that he recommends the program to beginners.
In fact, not one of the beginner exercise programs in either book involves doing ANY exercise for 5 sets of 5 reps.
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