4 Variations to the 5 x 5 Workout

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The  5 x 5 workout has stood the test of time as a training routine that will get you big and strong. But that doesn’t mean that everyone should be doing the same version. Read on to see how you can tailor 5 x 5 training to your individual needs.


Spend a few months lifting heavy things in the gym and you’ll eventually find your way to the infamous 5 x 5 workout. Why is it infamous you ask? Well, it works. Few things build strength as well as this format.


The idea behind strength training is to stimulate your motor units. Motor units are the nervous system and the muscle fibers they control. Your glutes – the muscles you’re sitting on while reading this- have more motor units then, say, the muscles in your forearm. Someone who is untrained is pretty lousy at using their motor units.  As you lift weights that are heavy enough though, you teach your body to use more of those units. All other things being equal, the person who can recruit more motor units is going to be stronger or perform better at an athletic task.


That’s where 5 x 5 training comes in. It’s long accepted that performing lower reps in the gyms builds neurological strength with little or marginal effect on body weight. Sets of 6 or fewer seem to be the sweet spot; you could go lower and even do sets of 1 or 2 reps but you’ll probably hit a wall sooner than you think.


That’s because of the large demands performing near maximal work places on your structural tissues. If you’re lucky, you’ll suffer burn out and miss a few weeks of training. However, it’s more than likely that you’ll develop tendonitis or even suffer an injury. So doing 1 or 2 reps is something that should be done in moderation.


Instead, sport scientists have accepted that 3-5 reps seem to work best. As it’s been said by wiser people than me: 1 or 2 reps are good for demonstrating strength, while 5 reps seem best for building it.


The workout itself is pretty straightforward: perform 5 sets of 5 reps for each set. Get 25 reps total and then add weight the next workout.  That’s it. But if you picked the right weight, those last 2-3 reps on each set will be pretty tough. By the end of the workout,  that last set of 5 will make you question your sanity.


But that doesn’t mean everyone should be doing the same version. Here’s 4 different tweaks to this classic workout routine that you can tailor to your specific strength level.


5 x 5 Workout, Sets Across


With this version you can use the same weight for every single set. This works well for people with who can’t lift more than 300 pounds on their squat. If you’re unaware of what you can squat for a set of 5 reps, then I’m also talking to you. Lifting truly heavy weights are hard to recover from- but in this case, your 5 sets shouldn’t be forcing you to miss any reps till months into the workouts.


5 x 5 Workout, Three working Sets


This variation is more like 3 x 5. You’ll still do 5 sets total, but consider the first two sets to be extended warm up sets. If you can squat 350 pounds, this version is probably for you. Doing 5 sets of 5 reps with 300+ pounds on each set can be pretty taxing; so much so, that you may stall out after your first month. One month of training is not very productive. Therefore a workout may look like this:


Set 1 – 250 x 5 reps

Set 2 – 280 x 5 reps

Set 3-5- 305 x 5 reps


5 x 5 Workout, One top set


Consider this the advanced version. Let’s say our 350 pound squatter has built up to a nasty 450 pound squat after two more years of training. Now, 5 sets at 85% of their 1RM makes for a pretty nasty training session. Instead, we work up to one single all out set. But don’t fret; those four sets will still help build strength.


Set 1- 315 x 5 reps

Set 2- 335 x 5 reps

Set 3 – 360 x 5 reps

Set 4- 380 x 5 reps

Set 5- 395 x 5 reps


5 x 5 Workout, Waves


The last version incorporates the idea of back off sets. Your third set will be the toughest while the last two will allow you to lift lighter loads. This is good for someone who just doesn’t have the recovery and seems to burn out before hitting that last set. Now your workout looks like this:


Set 1- 250 pounds

Set 2- 280 pounds

Set 3- 305 pounds

Set 4-280 pounds

Set 5- 250 pounds


All four versions could literally take care of your training for the next 3-4 years. Start with A, go to B, then D, and finally, C. As you can see, the 5 x 5 workout may be all that you need to get big and strong.

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