Build Muscle and Strength at the Same Time

The Thinking Lifter's Guide to 5x5

Build Muscle and Strength

Of all the set and rep schemes, few are as revered as the classic 5 sets of 5 reps (5x5). Promising to build muscle AND strength, it appeals to many lifters. But does it live up to its legendary status? Will it help you build muscle that's as strong as it looks? And what's the best way to use it?

While it's a great set and rep scheme, you'll get even better results if you make it your own:

1. Use Your Best Exercises

Most 5x5 programs use a small handful of traditional barbell lifts. This is great if you're structurally suited to do those lifts. If not, you'll break yourself down before you build yourself up.

For example, if you're structurally suited for the back squat, you'll have short legs, a long torso, and a great hip structure for squatting deep. So you'll get great results! However, if you don't have a good squat structure, you'll get better results using another squat variation (front, Zercher, Safety Bar, etc.).

2. Adjust The Number Of Sets As Needed

If your time is limited or you respond better to a lower volume, do fewer sets! If you truly need more volume, do more sets. Maybe you find 5x5 works for some exercises, but it's too much for something like deadlifts. While these set adjustments technically exclude you from the 5x5 club, they keep you in the gains club.

3. Adjust The Number Of Hard Sets As Needed

Doing 5x5 doesn't always mean you do 5 working sets of 5 reps. For example, Reg Park would do his first set with a lighter weight, his second with a medium weight, and then do the remaining three sets with his top weight. Other lifters have done 5x5 by ramping up the weight – only the last one or two sets were true work sets.

4. Adjust Reps As Needed

As you gain experience, you may find that you respond better to higher or lower reps. You may also find that not every muscle group or exercise responds best to the same rep range. So don't be afraid to use a higher or lower rep range than five.

Your optimal number of reps for each exercise can vary depending on several factors (muscle fiber type, limb length, muscle purpose, type of exercise) and is beyond the scope of this article. However, there's a simple way to know your best reps for a given exercise.

Here's how to tell if you're in your Goldilocks zone:

  • Reps too low: You'll feel joint stress and a draining, overall strain on your body. You won't feel like you're effectively stimulating the target muscle(s).
  • Reps too high: You'll get bored and the set will feel like bad cardio. It'll make you tired without feeling as though you effectively hit the target muscles. Doing too many reps can also cause your form to break down on higher-skilled exercises.
  • Reps just right: You'll be able to maintain proper form, feel minimal joint stress, and stimulate the target muscles. You won't "feel the burn" with lower reps, but the target muscles ought to feel a high level of tension.

5. Don't JUST Do 5x5

Even if you find 5x5 to be very effective, include other rep ranges. This will maximize muscle growth and help minimize the joint and connective tissue stresses of heavy lifting. Here are four options:

Do 5x5, then a high-rep, back-off set.

Back in 2004, researchers had one group strength train with 5 sets done at 90% of their 1RM and 3 minutes rest between sets. The other group did the same 5 heavy sets, but 30 seconds after the fifth set, they did one back-off set with 50% of their 1RM. This light back-off set helped the group gain more size and strength than the other group (1).

Do the first exercise using 5x5, then body build.

This method comes from Dr. Fred Hatfield (2). Research shows this system to be just as effective for power, strength, and muscle size as undulating periodization (3). This can work well if you prefer body-part splits. Here's a chest workout example:

  • A. Bench Press: 5 x 5 (explosive reps)
  • B. Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 x 8-12 (rhythmic reps)
  • C. Cable Flye: 2-3 x 15-20 (continuous tension reps)

Do 5x5 mixed with other training blocks.

You could use a 5x5 program and then do other training blocks. Each block should last for about 3-6 weeks.

Example: Competitive Lifter

  • Block 1: Hypertrophy
  • Block 2: 5x5
  • Block 3: Lower-Rep Strength Work
  • Block 4: Peaking for Meet

Example: Mass Gain

  • Block 1: 5x5
  • Block 2: Hypertrophy 1
  • Block 3: Hypertrophy 2
  • Block 4: 5x5

A great way to plan 5x5 training is with an upper/lower, heavy/light weekly layout. Think of light days as hypertrophy days. This gives you two training sessions where you go hard and heavy with 5x5. Then you get workouts that give you a nice pump while using more joint-friendly exercises before returning to 5x5 work. Here is the full program:

Day 1: Heavy 5x5 Lower

  • A. Squat: 5 x 5, plus 1 set of 15-20, rest 2-3 minutes
  • B. Deadlift: 2-3 x 5, rest 3 minutes
  • C. Farmer's Walk: 3-4 x 30 meters, rest 2-3 minutes

Day 2: Heavy 5x5 Upper

  • A1. Bench Press: 5 x 5, rest 90 seconds
  • A2. Chest-Supported Row: 5 x 8, rest 90 seconds
  • B1. Standing Barbell Press: 5 x 5, rest 90 seconds
  • B2. Chin-Up: 5 x 5, rest 90 seconds

Day 3: Hypertrophy Lower

  • A. Split Squat or Reverse Lunge: 3 x 8-12, rest 1 minute between each leg until all your sets are done
  • B. Leg Press or Safety Squat Bar Squat: 3 x 10-15, rest 2-3 minutes
  • C. Leg Curl: 3 x 8-10, rest 90 seconds
  • D1. Back Extension: 2-3 x 8-10, rest 45-60 seconds
  • D2. Hanging Leg Raise: 2-3 x 6-10, rest 45-60 seconds
  • E1. Single-Leg Dumbbell Calf Raise: 2-3 x 8-12, rest 45-60 seconds
  • E2. Dumbbell Shrug: 2-3 x 10-12, rest 45-60 seconds

Day 4: Hypertrophy Upper

  • A1. Ring Pull-Up: 3 x max reps, rest 60 seconds
  • A2. Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 x 10-12, rest 60 seconds
  • B1. Seated Cable Row: 3 x 12-15, rest 60 seconds
  • B2. Dip: 3 x 10-12, rest 60 seconds
  • C1. Side Dumbbell Raise: 2-3 x 12-15, rest 30-45 seconds
  • C2. Incline Dumbbell Curl: 2-3 x 8-12, rest 30-45 seconds
  • C3. Incline EZ Bar Overhead Extension: 2-3 x 10-12, rest 30-45 seconds
5 x 5 Workout

I've yet to find a study that directly investigates at 5x5. However, when you read between the lines, there are clues in the scientific literature:

1. Some Volume Is Good

In a study comparing 1, 3, and 5 reps, researchers found the greatest gains in size and strength with the group that did 5 sets (7). A 2017 systematic review and meta-analysis found that increasing volume helps with increasing muscle size (8).

2. Use More Sets For Fewer Reps

When you move into lower rep ranges, consider adding sets. Research comparing 7 sets of 3 reps to the classic 3 sets of 10 reps in trained men found that both protocols produced similar gains in hypertrophy but greater strength in the 7x3 group (9). Another study compared 7x4, 4x8, and 3x12. All groups gained roughly the same amount of muscle size, but the 3x12 group gained less strength (10).

3. At Some Point, More Volume Is Not Better

Two studies compared German Volume Training (10x10) with a modified version (5x10). Both studies found that the extra sets (10 sets instead of 5) did not improve muscle mass (11, 12). This suggests that while some volume is good, there's a limit.

4. More Exercises Might Be Better For Strength And Size

Many 5x5 programs use only one exercise per muscle group. While this reduces your chance of doing a bunch of inferior exercises, you may be leaving gains on the table. Doing only one exercise per muscle group is the investing equivalent of betting the farm. You might win big or lose everything. Smart investors diversify. Smart lifters use an appropriate mix of great exercises.

One study compared doing 9 sets of squats to doing 3 sets of squats, 3 sets of deadlifts, and 3 sets of lunges. The group that did three exercises gained more strength (13). Both bodybuilding tradition and recent research show that using multiple exercises can lead to more complete muscle development (14).

On one extreme, you have the program-hopper. On the other extreme, you have the lifter who falls in love with 5x5 and vows a life-long commitment that no injury or plateau shall break.

Between these two extremes is the smart-lifter sweet spot. Here you have a contractual agreement with every exercise, program, training method, or set/rep scheme – including 5x5. You commit to it only as long as it's delivering results, then you move on.

  1. Goto K et al. Muscular adaptations to combinations of high- and low-intensity resistance exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2004 Nov;18(4):730-7. PubMed.
  2. Hatfield FC. Hardcore bodybuilding: A scientific approach. Contemporary Books. 1993.
  3. Antretter M et al. The Hatfield-system versus the weekly undulating periodised resistance training in trained males: Effects of a third Mesocyle. Journal of Human Sport and Exercise. 2019 Jan;14(3).
  4. Starr B. The strongest shall survive: Strength training for football. Fitness consultants and Supply. 1999.
  5. Gallagher M. The purposeful primitive: From fat and flaccid to lean and powerful using the primordial laws of fitness to trigger inevitable, lasting and dramatic physical change. Dragon Door Publications. 2008.
  6. Rippetoe M. Starting strength: Basic barbell training (3rd ed.). Aasgaard Company. 2011.
  7. Radaelli R et al.Dose-response of 1, 3, and 5 sets of resistance exercise on strength, local muscular endurance, and hypertrophy. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 May;29(5):1349-58. PubMed.
  8. Schoenfeld BJ et al. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. PubMed.
  9. Schoenfeld BJ et al. Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Oct;28(10):2909-18. PubMed.
  10. Kubo K et al. Effects of 4, 8, and 12 Repetition Maximum Resistance Training Protocols on Muscle Volume and Strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2021 Apr 1;35(4):879-885. PubMed.
  11. Amirthalingam T et al. Effects of a Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscular Hypertrophy and Strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Nov;31(11):3109-3119. PubMed.
  12. Hackett DA et al. Effects of a 12-Week Modified German Volume Training Program on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy-A Pilot Study. Sports (Basel). 2018 Mar;6(1):7. PMC.
  13. Fonseca RM et al. Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Nov;28(11):3085-92. PubMed.
  14. de Vasconcelos Costa BD et al. Does Performing Different Resistance Exercises for the Same Muscle Group Induce Non-homogeneous Hypertrophy? Int J Sports Med. 2021 Jul;42(9):803-811. PubMed.
Andrew Heming is a strength coach, professor, and former Canadian University U-Sport head strength coach. Andrew helps athletes and skinny hardgainers get bigger, faster, and stronger. Follow Andrew Heming on Facebook