Google around for information on the 5×5 workout, and you’ll find plenty of different opinions about whether or not it’s a good way to put on muscle mass.
Some say that 5×5 is mainly for strength, and that you need higher reps in the 6-12 range to build size.
Others say that if you’re on a 5×5 routine, gaining strength and eating enough, then mass gains are sure to follow.
Who’s right? Is the 5×5 workout a good way to put on muscle mass? Or should you be using higher reps and lighter weights?
What is the Stronglifts 5×5 Workout Program?
StrongLifts 5×5 is a workout program put together by Belgian lifter Mehdi Hadim.
Although guys like Bill Starr and Reg Park seem to get much of the credit for coming up with the 5×5 routine, Mark Berry (who was a champion weightlifter) was writing about it back in the 1930s.
However, while Mehdi didn’t invent 5×5, he did write a guide about it in 2007. People found the guide helpful, and it quickly grew in popularity.
With Mehdi’s version of 5×5, you perform just five exercises, the so-called big 5 compound lifts, over the course of a week:
There are two different workouts alternated throughout the week.
In workout A, you do the squat, bench press, and barbell row. The lifts in workout B are the squat, overhead press, and deadlift.
- Bench Press
- Barbell Row
- Overhead Press
How to Do Stronglifts 5×5
For each exercise, you do 5 sets of 5 reps. The exception is the deadlift, which you do for 1 set of 5 reps. You take a day of rest between each training day.
Week one looks like this:
- Monday: Workout A
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Workout B
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Workout A
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
Week two starts with workout B, and looks like this:
- Monday: Workout B
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Workout A
- Thursday: Off
- Friday: Workout B
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
Before your work sets, do several progressively heavier warm-up sets. Start off lifting an empty bar for 2 sets of 5 reps. Add 10-20 kg (25-45 lb) and do another warm-up set. Repeat the process until you reach your work weight. The reps decrease on each warm-up set as you get closer to your work weight.
Rest for between 90 seconds and five minutes between sets. If the last set was easy, 90 seconds of rest should be long enough. If 5 reps was a real struggle, or if you missed a rep, give yourself 3-5 minutes of rest before attempting the next set. In general, the stronger you are, the more rest you’ll need between sets.
Add weight on each lift when you’re able to do five reps in all five sets. Your goal is to keep on adding weight to each exercise for as long as you can. On the squat, bench press and overhead press, start off by adding 5 lb (around 2.5 kilograms). On the deadlift, add 10 lb (around 5 kilograms).
Deload when you start missing reps. If you fail to get five reps on every set for three workouts in a row, you drop the weight by 10% on that particular lift in the next workout. Then you go back to adding weight in every workout until you get back to the weight you were stuck on.
What Results Can You Expect With Stronglifts 5×5?
What results can you expect with Stronglifts 5×5? And how long will it take to see those results?
First off, you’re going to get stronger. Exactly how much stronger is hard to say. Much depends on the length of time you’ve been lifting weights, and how well you respond to strength training.
Beginners tend to gain strength relatively quickly and can add weight to the bar on a regular basis (in every workout in some cases). Over time, as your body adapts, gaining strength becomes progressively more difficult.
Intermediate lifters will need to accept that their rate of progress will be slower than it was when they were just starting out. Instead of adding weight from one workout to the next, the intermediate lifter will hit a PR on a weekly and then a monthly basis.
In terms of the amount of weight you’re able to lift, you’re also likely to see faster results in the squat and deadlift compared to the bench press or overhead press.
Adding 10lb to a 200-lb deadlift, for example, represents a five percent increase in strength.
Adding that same 10lb to a 100-lb bench press represents a ten percent increase in strength. Don’t expect to add the same amount of weight to each lift on a consistent basis.
Some people also respond extremely well to strength training, while others will see results a lot more slowly.
In one study, Australian scientists got a group of men to do the parallel squat twice a week for 10 weeks, and found large differences in the amount of strength that was gained . There was an average increase in strength of 29% for fast responders, 14% for medium responders and just 3% for the slow responders.
SEE ALSO: Strength Standards: How Strong Are You?
Is Stronglifts 5×5 Good for Building Muscle?
Let’s take a closer look at the pros and the cons of using StrongLifts as a way to build muscle.
SL 5X5 is very simple to follow. You do five sets of five reps for no more than a handful of compound movements, three times per week. That simplicity is one of its biggest strengths. Everything is laid out for you, so there’s very little to think about. You just go to the gym three times a week, stick to the plan, and focus on training as hard as possible.
You don’t need much in the way of equipment. All you need is a barbell, a squat rack and some plates. It’s ideal for people who don’t like the idea of joining a commercial gym, and prefer training at home in a garage or basement.
A focus on progressive overload. One of the cornerstones of the program is adding a fixed amount of weight to the bar every workout. You’re always trying to beat your previous performance in the gym, and lift more weight for the same number of reps.
This type of linear progression works well for beginners, who are usually capable of hitting new PRs from one training session to the next.
Stimulating muscle growth does require that you reach a certain threshold of effort, and constantly pushing yourself to lift more weight is one way to ensure that you’ll eventually hit that threshold.
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SL 5X5 uses compound lifts. These exercises work large numbers of muscles at the same time, which means they also stimulate growth in all of those muscles. The bench press, for example, is going to build muscle not just in the chest, but the deltoids and triceps as well. Likewise, the barbell row hits the traps and biceps as well as the lats.
Sets of five give you a good mix of strength and muscle size. There are lots of good things to be said about sets of five. For one, you’re using a weight that’s around 85% of your maximum. That’s heavy enough to recruit large numbers of muscle fibers.
Compared to higher reps, fatigue is minimal, so exercise technique is less likely to go down the pan. And, you still get enough volume to stimulate growth.
Training with lower reps and heavy weights is a perfectly good way to gain muscle mass. In some cases, it’s been shown to work just as well as higher reps and lighter weights .
Little variation in exercise selection. SL 5X5 involves just a handful of compound exercises. And while that’s one of its strengths, it’s also one of it’s main weaknesses, particularly if your main goal is to build muscle.
That’s because maximizing the development of a particular muscle group requires the use of several exercises, rather than just one.
In one trial, researchers looked at muscle growth in two groups of men who trained their whole body three days a week for nine weeks .
The first group did the same exercises, while group two used different exercises for the same muscles. Everything else, sets, reps and rest between sets, was the same.
The varied exercise routine led to a significant increase in muscle thickness across all 12 sites measured.
However, the same results weren’t seen in the group following the non-varied routine, which didn’t stimulate significant growth in all regions of the muscle.
In some areas of the biceps and quadriceps, the varied exercise group saw roughly twice the increase in muscle thickness compared to the group that did the same exercises.
If you want to get into powerlifting, a strength training program should be centered around the bench press, squat and deadlift.
After all, that’s what powerlifting is all about – increasing your 1-rep max in those three core movements.
That doesn’t mean you do only those exercises and nothing else. An effective strength training program designed to increase your 1-rep max will also include a number of accessory lifts, based on the needs and goals of the individual.
But if you have no interest in powerlifting, and couldn’t care less about increasing your 1-rep max, you’ll build a better physique by using a much larger range of exercises.
Training volume goes down rather than up. When you stop progressing on five sets of five reps, Stronglifts has you switch to 3 sets of 5 reps, then to 3 sets of 3, and eventually to 1 heavy set of 3 reps followed by a couple of lighter back-off sets.
In other words, when you hit a plateau, your training volume goes down. In the short term at least, you’ll probably notice that reducing volume leads to an increase in strength.
But that’s mainly because of a reduction in cumulative fatigue during a training session, as well as making it easier to recover from one training session to the next.
However, cutting back on the number of sets you do isn’t necessarily going to stimulate more muscle growth, unless what you’d been doing prior to that reduction in volume was too much.
If anything, you’re better off starting with less volume, and looking for ways to increase it when you hit a plateau, rather than the other way around.
Some muscles receive a lot more stimulation than others. In workout A, you’ve got a pushing exercise (bench press), a pulling exercise (bent-over row) and a leg exercise (squat).
Even with just those three exercises, you’re covering plenty of muscle groups.
- The bench press hits the chest, shoulders and triceps.
- The barbell row is working your lats, biceps and rear delts.
- The squats take care of your quads, glutes and lower back.
Of course, there are some muscles that aren’t being trained directly, such as the calves. And the hamstrings aren’t going to grow much from squats. But overall, it’s a decent full-body workout that works most of the major muscles in the body.
The second workout, however, is a different story. Like the first training session, workout B starts off with the squat, but also includes the deadlift and overhead press.
While the overhead press hits the shoulders and triceps, it’s not doing much for the chest. Likewise, the lats and biceps aren’t getting a great deal of stimulation from the deadlift.
No vertical pulling exercises. Most exercises for your back can be put into one of two categories – a horizontal pull and a vertical pull. The barbell row is a horizontal row, and is an effective way to train the back. However, there are no vertical pulling exercises, like chin-ups or lat pulldowns.
If you took two different people, and got one of them to do a vertical pulling exercise like pull ups, while the other did a horizontal rowing exercise, like the barbell row, you’d expect to see more lat growth with pull ups.
Too much focus on the lower body. Squats are done three times a week, which means you’re hitting the legs three times a week. That’s fine.
But the bench press, overhead press, row and deadlift are performed three times every two weeks.
This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If you just want bigger legs and get better at squatting, it’s fine. But if you want a bigger upper body as well, chances are you’re leaving gains on the table.
On the Stronglifts 5×5 program, training frequency for the quads is fine. But for everything else, the upper body in particular, it’s less than ideal.
No isolation exercises. The default version of StrongLifts doesn’t include any isolation exercises. Mehdi says that compound lifts allow you to lift more weight than isolation exercises. And because you can lift more weight, you can build more muscle.
The reason you can lift more weight during a compound lift like the pull-up compared to an isolation lift like the dumbbell curl is because several large muscle groups are doing the work, rather than one or two smaller ones.
In fact, when researchers compared a compound lift (the single-arm dumbbell row) with an isolation exercise (biceps curl) it was the curl that led to faster growth in the biceps .
It can take a heavy toll on your joints. One of the downsides of doing the same heavy compound lifts over and over again, especially if you’re lifting heavy weights, is that your joints can take a beating. Incorporating some different exercises and rep ranges will often make things a lot easier on your knees, elbows, wrists and shoulders, especially if you’re in your forties, fifties or beyond.
5×5 For Size
One of the claims often made about training with heavy weights and lower reps is that it builds a better physique. Your muscles look thick, heavy and dense, whereas training with lighter weights and higher reps just makes you look puffy and pumped.
However, there’s no good reason to believe that the muscle gained from heavy weights and low reps is going to look substantially different to muscle that’s been built with higher reps and lighter weights.
When it comes to building muscle, the rep range you use is a lot less important than making sure your training program has the right balance of frequency, volume and effort.
Truth is, you can build muscle with a variety of loads and rep ranges, from low reps and heavy weights to higher reps and lighter weights.
In fact, there’s some interesting research to show that varying the number of reps you do can speed up gains in muscle size.
In one study, subjects lifted weights three times a week using either a constant or varied training program .
The constant group kept their training program the same, doing 8-12 reps on every set. The varied group changed both the weight and the number of reps, switching from heavy (2-4 reps) to medium (8-12 reps) to light (20-30 reps) on days one, two and three, respectively.
Statistically speaking, there was no significant difference in the rate of muscle growth between the two groups.
But the effect size (which refers to the size of the difference between groups) did favor the varied protocol.
The differences between the groups weren’t dramatic – a centimeter or so here and a few millimeters there. But, this study lasted just eight weeks. Over months and years, those small differences will add up.
One group of subjects performed two leg exercises for 5 sets of 3-5 repetitions. A second group did 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 gained more muscle mass and got stronger faster than subjects doing only 5 sets of 3-5 reps.
This kind of “combination training” 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.
Some exercises also lend themselves better to certain rep ranges than others.
Isolation exercises like dumbbell curls or leg extensions? Your joints will often feel better with lighter weights and higher reps, and you’ll stimulate just as much muscle growth.
Deadlifts and squats? Lower reps and heavier weights will help to build strength as well as size, which is what a lot of people want from those exercises. And it’s often easier to maintain good form when you’re doing a relatively low number of reps.
Higher reps can also make for shorter workouts.
When researchers compared three different set and rep configurations during a 10-week bench press training program — 7 sets of 4 reps, 4 sets of 8 reps, and 3 sets of 12 reps — there was no significant difference in the amount of muscle growth between the three groups .
Training with heavier weights did lead to bigger gains in 1-rep max. However, subjects doing 3 sets of 12 reps gained the same amount of muscle as those doing 7 sets of 4 reps. All while spending a lot less time in the gym.
Doing more reps in each set means you can get the same amount of muscle growth with fewer sets. This will free up time for additional exercises for the muscles that StrongLifts neglects.
Overall, doing five sets of five reps will do a decent job of building muscle, as well as increasing strength gains relative to higher reps and lighter weights. But if you want to put on muscle as fast as possible, it’s my view that a variety of rep ranges and loads will give you better results.
Stronger Doesn’t Always Mean Bigger
Although Mark Berry was using something resembling a 5×5 program 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. But that doesn’t mean there’s a perfectly linear relationship between strength gains and size gains. If you double your strength in every exercise, you’re not going to double your muscle mass.
Over the years, I’ve seen plenty of guys who can lift a lot of weight, but they’re not particularly muscular.
Getting very strong in the various compound lifts isn’t the key to building bigger muscles as is often claimed.
And there’s nothing particularly special about 5 sets of 5, as opposed to, say, 4 sets of 6 or 6 sets of 4, or even 3 sets of 8. You’re still doing around 25 reps in total, spread across 3-5 sets, using a relatively heavy weight.
Starr only picked that configuration of sets and reps because “it was easy to remember.”
Here’s what he had to say on the subject in his book:
“Once I had sorted out the specific exercises that would do the job most effectively, 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.”
Compound Lifts and Testosterone
A common argument in favor of the 5×5 workout is that compound exercises create a more anabolic environment in the body, speeding up muscle growth by “increasing the release of muscle building hormones like testosterone and growth hormone.”
This, for the most part at least, is a myth.
Exercises like squats and deadlifts do lead to a small temporary increase in testosterone and growth hormone. But the size and duration of this increase isn’t sufficient to have much of an impact on muscle growth.
The fact that a given workout increases levels of various anabolic hormones doesn’t automatically make it a good way to put on muscle.
Did Arnold Schwarzenegger Do 5×5?
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.
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.
What’s more, 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 squats, push-ups, chins, rows, sit-ups, bent-leg raises, bent-over twists and calf raises.
“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.”
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 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.
If you’re a beginner who wants to get strong, build some muscle and learn the basic exercises, the 5×5 program is a decent place to start. It’s relatively simple to follow, and requires little in the way of equipment.
What’s more, when you use the Stronglifts 5×5 app, much of the thinking is done for you. This makes the program very simple to use, which is great if you’ve never touched a barbell in your life.
However, the 5×5 workout does have its weaknesses, most notably the large difference in weekly training volume between the upper and lower body, the limited menu of exercises, along with the fixed number of reps per set. If building bigger muscles is your main goal, there are better options out there.
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