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5x5 Workout | Build Strength, Size & Athleticism

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

A woman completing a 5x5 workout with an Olympic barbell.

The 5x5 workout training method (also called stronglifts 5x5) is a simple yet effective way to develop strength. In addition, it can also be used to increase muscle mass while also promoting sporting athleticism.


As well as being a recognised method of improving strength and size, 5x5 workouts can be tailored to accommodate a wide range of exercises. For example, 5x5 workouts can just as effectively be applied to resistance bands, kettlebells, and dumbbells as they can machines and barbells.


In this article, the 5x5 training methodology has been outlined and explained. Also, the numerous fitness benefits of 5x5 training have been discussed. This way you will know what to expect when you start including 5x5 workouts in your exercise routine.


So, what is a 5x5 workout?

Simply put, a 5x5 workout consists of a grouping of exercises each of which is performed for 5 sets of 5 reps. For example, if you planned to apply this formula to a lower body workout, it might look something like this:

  1. Barbell squats – 5 sets of 5 reps

  2. Dumbbell lunges – 5 sets of 5 reps

  3. Step-ups – 5 sets of 5 reps

  4. Seated leg press – 5 sets of 5 reps

As you can see, once you’ve selected a series of exercises specific to your training goal, all you then do is apply the 5x5 formula. That, in a nutshell, is the 5x5 workout methodology. This begs the question, though, if 5x5 workouts are so simple, are they beneficial?


Is 5x5 workout effective?

If you’re used to high-volume training – circuits, HIIT and AMRAPs (as many reps as possible) – you’ll no doubt be dubious as to whether a workout comprised of so few sets and reps could confer any benefits. I must admit, I too was skeptical. That was before I tried out the Stronglifts 5x5 Training Program.


What I neglected to remember was that 5x5 training is specific to one component of fitness. If strength (and size) development is your fitness objective, you must apply the strength training protocol. To do so the ‘consensus guideline is to perform 2–6 sets of six or fewer repetitions,’ (The Complete Guide to Strength Training). The 5x5 formula fits within this guideline.


Go heavy with 5x5

Because of the low sets and reps in 5x5 workouts, you are able to ‘push the poundage.’ This is a fundamental factor for increasing strength: low volume + high weights + long rests.


Arnold Schwarzenegger reminds us that to build strength ‘you need to train according to basic power principles – fewer reps and sets, more rest between sets, but with increased poundage,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding).


How to create a 5x5 workout

The method of creating a 5x5 workout has been briefly outlined above. However, perhaps a more comprehensive explanation is required.


Before rushing off to create any workout, the first thing you should establish is what Watson calls the ‘training effect’ (Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance). That is, the fitness outcome you want from your workouts. With 5x5 the question is already answered – strength!


However, not all strength was created equal. Performing static or isolation exercises can build synthetic strength that is good for little else other than pushing big weights in the gym. This type of strength doesn’t necessarily translate to improved athletic performance.

Aim for functional strength

Functional strength, in contrast, is developed by performing complex compound movements or dynamic exercises such as the kettlebell long cycle or dumbbell snatch. The reason why it’s called functional strength is that it transcends training disciplines and can result in improved performance in other training disciplines and sports.


Once you’ve settled on your fitness goal it’s time to start creating your workouts. For the example below, we’ll assume that you have decided to develop whole-body functional strength.


Example of a 5x5 workout

Now that you know what training effect you’re aiming for, your next task is to select exercises specific to that aim. The strength part of the fitness goal will be achieved by applying the 5x5 formula and strength training protocol: low volume + high weights + long rests.


To promote physical functionality, we will need to select dynamic compound exercises that engage multiple muscle groups. Such exercises include traditional powerlifting movements – deadlifts, squats, cleans – strongman movements – tyre flips, weighted carries, keg tosses – and classic kettlebell disciplines – swing, snatch, long cycle.


5x5 workout exercise selection

When creating your 5x5 workout, you have the option of focusing on a specific muscle group – such as those of the legs or back – or engaging the whole body. If you’re creating a functional strength workout, you have no choice but to train multiple muscle groups. The reason is that functional exercises activate a wide range of muscles.


However, even when selecting functional exercises, you must be mindful that they do not target the same area of the body. By doing so you will likely over-training a muscle group which will impair your ability to maximise each lift. For example, putting thrusters, push presses, and Cuban presses in the same workout would place excessive strain on the shoulders.


In the session plan below, a 5x5 workout has been created for four contrasting training objectives.

A 5x5 workout plan.

5x5 workout fitness benefits

A surprising number of fitness benefits have been ascribed to the 5x5 training methodology. According to one leading exercise and fitness publication, 5x5 is an excellent way for beginners and intermediate trainers to build a solid base of strength while also mastering foundational movements.


5x5 training is effective in part because it enables you to maximise strength gains. The combination of low sets and reps interspersed with protracted recovery periods is a near-perfect recipe for overloading the muscles. Watson tells us that ‘A training effect occurs when a part of the body is worked harder than normal. This situation is referred to as overload,’ (Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance).


In addition, 5x5 training is highly versatile. It can be applied to all manner of exercises and used for a variety of different training equipment. For example, you could apply the 5x5 formulae to resistance machines, barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and even resistance bands and body weight exercises.



Build strength with 5x5 workouts

By now we know that 5x5 training ticks all the strength-building boxes. The combination of low sets and reps, long rest periods, and heavy weights is the most effective way of increasing strength.


As Arnold Schwarzenegger reminds us when striving to develop strength and size, ‘you need to train according to basic power principals – fewer reps and sets, more rest between sets, but with increased poundage,’ (The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding).


This formula is effective because it enables us to lift heavy weights which in turn overloads the muscles. If we want to encourage strength gains and muscle growth, we must work the body harder than normal. ‘Importantly, overload intensity . . . generally governs strength improvements,’ (Exercise Physiology – 5th Edition).


By doing so the biological process called hypertrophy is triggered. Hypertrophy occurs when muscles are sufficiently stimulated: ‘An increase in muscle tension provides the primary stimulus to initiate skeletal muscle growth (hypertrophy) with exercise training,’ (Exercise Physiology – 5th Edition). To achieve this stimulus, you have to be prepared to push the poundage.

5x5 training increases muscle mass

A number of factors – or conditions – are required to increase muscle mass. Building lean muscle is as much a matter of what you do outside the gym as it is what you do inside the gym.


For example, in the book The Complete Guide to Strength Training, former professional bodybuilder and fitness coach Anita Bean tells us that post-training diet practices are of paramount importance. To help the body repair damaged tissue and grow back new tissue, we must feed the muscles quality nutrition. ‘Resistance training provides the stimulus for muscle growth while your diet should provide sufficient energy (calories) and nutrients to enable your muscles to grow at an optimal rate. One without the other will result in minimal lean weight gain.’ (Sports Nutrition | The Complete Guide).


In addition to eating right, rest and recovery are also essential factors for encouraging muscle growth. Strength training places significant strain on the body – arguably more so than other forms of training. Thus, rest and recovery are recognised as crucial components of any mass building program.


So, when you’re eating and resting right all that’s left is to implement a resistance regime that provides the stimulus. Such a resistance regime must satisfy certain criteria. This criterion includes:

  1. Low sets and reps

  2. Long rest periods between sets

  3. Heavy weights

  4. Compound exercises that engage major muscle groups

All this by now should sound familiar. As discussed above, the 5x5 training method includes the first two elements from the list. The Stronglifts 4-Week Training Program we created in conjunction with this article, features only compound exercises. If building bigger, stronger muscles is one of your training objectives, you now have all the tools to do so.

5x5 workouts can improve athleticism

In our article Strength Training, we discuss the many health and fitness benefits linked to increased strength. Just a quick taste . . .


A Harvard Health journal outlined contemporary research showing how increasing strength in early life can slow the aging process. As we age muscle mass slowly decreases: ‘The average 30-year-old will lose about a quarter of his or her muscle strength by age 70 and half of it by age 90,’ (Harvard Health). Age-induced muscle atrophy – technically called sarcopenia – can be slowed by building strength and muscle mass in our formative years.


Strength training can also increase the strength of connective tissues – ligaments and tendons. This is beneficial because it can reduce injury susceptibility, which is why most athletes include some form of strength training in their exercise regimes.


5x5 training can increase bone strength

Furthermore, regularly lifting heavy weights can also increase bone density. Of course, denser bones decrease the risk of fractures and breaks. It’s this reason why women are especially encouraged to engage in resistance training. Bone regeneration ceases in postmenopausal women. Consequently, bone density slowly decreases as they age. This accounts for why bone breaks (and osteoporosis) are more prevalent among elderly women than elderly men (Cawthon – 2022). Building denser bones in youth, which can be achieved by engaging in strength training and impact exercise, provides a protective measure as we age.


In addition to these many health and fitness benefits, strength training can also improve our performance in other exercise and sporting disciplines. Athletes and sports enthusiasts of all stripes seek to develop strength. From cyclists to skiers, rowers to rugby players, gymnasts to golfers, more and more sports are tapping into the performance-enhancing effects of strength training.


5x5 workout training program

Now that you are the font of all 5x5 training knowledge, and no doubt a whizz at creating 5x5 workouts, you probably want to put all this theory into practice.


To help you integrate 5x5 training into your routine, we have created a 4-Week Program. The program is comprised exclusively of 5x5 workouts with the objective of increasing whole-body strength.


To maximise the effectiveness of the program and make it more accessible to a wider audience, all the exercises are barbell compound movements. Thus, all you need to complete the program is an Olympic barbell and a selection of bumper plates.


So, if you’re ready to embark on your strength-building journey, follow the link and start the 5x5 Training Program today.


 

5x5 training FAQ

To conclude, we thought it might be helpful to answer a few 5x5-workout-related frequently asked questions. The questions are aimed more at the beginner and those that are new to 5x5 training. If the FAQ fails to answer a question you have, pop it in the comments box below and we’ll answer it as soon as we get back from the gym.


Is 5x5 workout enough?

If your primary training objective is to build strength, then 5x5 workouts will help you achieve this. However, as Daniel Liberman points out in his brilliant book Exercised: The Science of Physical Activity Rest & Health, strength training is not an effective way to burn fat or improve aerobic fitness.


To the question How much and what kind of exercise are best [to lose weight]? Liberman is unequivocal. ‘This one,’ he tells us, ‘is easy: cardio is better than weights for obesity,’ (Exercised).


It’s for this reason that it is important to include a cardio element to your strength program. You could do this either by engaging in aerobic exercise after your strength workouts or set aside two to three workouts in your regime for cardio. By doing so you’ll build strength while keeping up your cardio fitness and fighting fat.


Related: Try this Cardio HIIT Workout

Is 5x5 workout only for beginners?

No, not at all. Irrespective of your level of exercise experience, you can still take part in 5x5 workouts and have a go at the Stronglifts 5x5 Training Program.



How long does 5x5 workout take?

The duration a 5x5 workout lasts is dependent on your training goals. For example, if your aim is to build strength and size in the leg muscles, your 5x5 workout may only feature two to three exercises. From start to finish, such a short workout would take 20-minutes tops to complete.


Related: Need an all-purpose Barbell Workout?

But if your training goal was a bit more ambitious, say you wanted to develop whole-body functional strength, it’s likely that your 5x5 workout would be considerably larger than the example above. A workout that features more exercises will obviously take longer to get through.


So, perhaps this answer could be summed by saying that the typical duration of a 5x5 workout is between 20- to 40-minutes.


 

Enjoyed this workout?

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This image shows the Hungry4Fitness book of circuits and workouts volume two. Inside the image it identifies the key features of the book which include: Over 70 fully customisable circuits and workouts suitable for all levels of fitness and ability; 4-Week Functional Fitness Training Programme; How to create your own circuits and workouts including essential training principles; Key exercise explanations and tutorials; A complete guide to fitness testing; The 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge; CrossFit-style training sessions including EMOM, AMRAP, and HIIT workouts; An illustrated, step-by-step guide to stretching.

 

This article of a 5x5 workout ends with the author bio, which reads: In this text box it says: As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance! Blog Author: Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.

 

References

Bean. A. (2008) Strength Training: The Complete Guide To. A&C Black. London.

Bone breaks/fractures and osteoporosis are more prevalent in elderly woman than elderly men. The full article can be accessed at: Cawthon PM. Gender differences in osteoporosis and fractures. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2011 Jul;469(7):1900-5. doi: 10.1007/s11999-011-1780-7. PMID: 21264553; PMCID: PMC3111766.

Delavier. F. (2010) Strength Training Anatomy. Human Kinetics. USA.

Harvard Health journal on staying healthy. Access the full journal at: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/want-to-live-longer-and-better-strength-train


McArdle, W. D., Katch, F. I., Katch, V. L (2001) Exercise Physiology Fifth Edition. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins.


Schwarzenegger. A. (1998) The Encyclopaedia Of Modern Bodybuilding. Simon& Schuster. New York.

Watson A. W. S (1995) Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance. Longman. England.

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