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Lifters like even numbers. Page through this magazine and you’ll see lots of sets of eight to 12 reps, but odds are you won’t find any seven to 11s. So the first thing you’ll probably notice about the 5×5 system is its odd digits. Five sets of five reps? Seems a little off. In truth, this set and rep scheme is 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 you how this “odd” system may be the right one for gaining strength and size.
SEE ALSO: Transform Your Body with Stronglifts 5X5
British-born Reg Park—Mr. Universe, cinematic Hercules, and idol of young Arnold Schwarzenegger—developed his own 5×5 system, which cycled through 10 to 12 basic lifts in a single workout with every exercise performed for five sets of five reps. He performed only two exercises per body part, and some areas were neglected entirely. For example, front and back squats and deadlifts were all included in Park’s routine, all of which stimulate the hamstrings a little, so he didn’t include direct ham work. With its full-body emphasis and Olympicstyle 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, but never add reps. Five is your maximum. 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 into a modern bodybuilding program.
■ Choose two basic exercises for larger body parts like back and one for smaller muscles like biceps.
■ Select a weight with which you reach failure on the first set at five reps.
■ Rest up to three minutes between sets, and do five sets of five reps, ideally using the same weight throughout.
■ After the 5×5 sets, do two additional exercises per body part for three sets of 10 to 12 reps.
EXERCISE SETS REPS
Barbell Bench Press: 5, 5
Dumbbell Incline Press: 5, 5
Cable Crossover: 3, 10–12
Dumbbell Incline Flye: 3, 10–12
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, and 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 reps. Nevertheless, a focus on lower reps may jump-start 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 hoist only three times, most of your focus will have to be on technique, and if you miss your groove you might get only 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. Including such lifts will ensure that, unlike with most 5×5 routines, you’ll hit your muscles 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 Reg Park’s formula is workout frequency. A Park-style scheme typically tries to cram nothing but 5×5 arrays in a fullbody session (for only five to 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.
■ If you fail to get five reps on any of the first four sets, reduce the weight slightly for the next set.
■ When you can get five reps on all five sets with the same weight, increase the weight the next workout.
■ For the 5×5 sequences, focus on compound, basic lifts like squats and bench presses.
■ Most of the additional exercises should be isolation moves like leg extensions and flyes.