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Bodybuilders like round numbers. Page through this magazine and you’ll see lots of sets of 8–12 reps, but odds are you won’t find any 7-11s. So the first thing you’ll probably notice about the 5×5 system is its odd digits. Five sets of five reps? That doesn’t seem like a bodybuilding thing. In truth, it is more associated with strength training today, but it originated with musclemen like Reg Park back in the 1950s. With a few tweaks, we’ll bring 5×5 into the 21st century and show how this “odd” system may be the right one for gaining strength and size.
OUT OF THE PARK
British-born Reg Park—Mr. Universe, cinematic Hercules, and idol of young Arnold Schwarzenegger—developed his own 5×5 system that cycled through 10 to 12 basic lifts in a single workout with every exercise performed for five sets of five reps. There were only one or two exercises per body part, and some areas were neglected entirely. For example, both front and back squats were included in Park’s routine as well as deadlifts, all of which stimulate the hamstrings a little. However, there was no direct ham work. With its full-body emphasis and Olympic-style moves like power cleans and standing presses, Park’s paradigm now more closely resembles a CrossFit routine than a bodybuilding workout.
Nevertheless, the 1951 Mr. U set the parameters for every 5×5 system that followed. Focus on getting stronger in the most basic exercises by doing five sets of five reps with a maximum weight. When you can get five on your fifth set with the same weight you used on your first, increase the resistance slightly in your next workout. Never add reps. Five is your maximum, and if you get six on any set, increase the resistance for the next set. With those fundamentals, 5×5 systems have been tailored over the past half-century for strength athletes. What we’ll do is incorporate Park’s principles in a modern bodybuilding program.
STRENGTH AND SIZE
First, let’s define a basic exercise. Whenever possible, these are going to be free-weight and compound. They’re the lifts in which you can move heavy metal. These are good candidates: squat, hack squat, leg curl, deadlift, barbell row, bench press, incline press, military press, high pull, lying triceps extension, barbell curl. (Calves, forearms, and abs are not given the 5×5 treatment.) Note that we’ve included two exercises for bigger body parts (quadriceps, back, chest, shoulders) and one for smaller body parts (hamstrings, triceps, biceps). You should do the same.
After warming up, do the 5×5 sequence(s) first in each routine when your strength is greatest. Five reps is not ideal for muscle growth. Science has proven that the sweet spot is eight to 12. Nevertheless, a focus on lower reps may jumpstart growth if your muscles have become overly comfortable with the moderate range. Five is something of a strength middle ground. If you use a weight that you can only hoist three times, most of your focus will have to be on technique, and if you miss your groove you might only get a single rep. In contrast, five is enough that you can concentrate on your targeted area and reach the failure point time after time.
Because the first goal of bodybuilders is to stimulate growth, you don’t want to focus on only five-rep sets. The 5×5 sequences form the cornerstones of every routine in our program, but also included are two secondary exercises for each body part, done for three sets of 10 to 12 reps. These will typically be machine and/or isolation exercises, such as leg extensions for quads, pulldowns for back, and dumbbell side laterals for shoulders. Including such lifts will assure that, unlike most 5×5 routines, you hit all areas with sufficient volume. Furthermore, the combination of low and moderate reps stimulates muscle adaptation. As with the 5×5 sets, use maximum weights in the additional exercises, and, over time, you should see your strength increase in all sets, which will correspond to new muscle mass.
The main difference between our program and the many 5×5 schedules that follow Reg Park’s formula is workout frequency. A Park-style scheme typically tries to cram nothing but 5×5 arrays in a full-body session (for only five or 10 sets per body part), and two or three such workouts are completed each week. By contrast, our program with its secondary exercises totals 11 to 16 sets per body part, and body-part routines can be spread out over a modern split. On account of so many sets being pushed to failure for low reps, we recommend hitting all body parts, except calves and abs, only once per week, though how you divide muscles into workouts is up to you. Some bodybuilders like to do 5×5 for only a limited period. However, because this scheme includes both low and moderate reps, a variety of exercises, and a modern split with plenty of rest, 5×5 may be your best long-range strategy for increasing both strength and size.
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5X5 TIP SHEET
5X5 CHEST ROUTINE
Barbell Bench Press | SETS: 5 | REPS: 5
Dumbbell Incline Press | SETS: 5 | REPS: 5
Cable Crossover | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10–12
Dumbbell Incline Flye | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10–12