Go Big Or Go Home

How the 5X5 system can boost your strength and mass.



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 5x5 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 5x5 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 5x5 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 5x5 routines, you hit all areas with sufficient volume. Furthermore, the combination of low and moderate reps stimulates muscle adaptation. As with the 5x5 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 5x5 schedules that follow Reg Park’s formula is workout frequency. A Park-style scheme typically tries to cram nothing but 5x5 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 5x5 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, 5x5 may be your best long-range strategy for increasing both strength and size.


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