The Perfect Program?

I'm going to get my ass kicked for writing this article. Dave Tate, Jim Wendler, Eric Cressey... I can just see the hate mail pouring in. Not just that, but Louie Simmons only lives three hours from me. He might just drive over to Indianapolis and kick my ass, too. But what I'm going to say needs to be said.

Is a 5 x 5 program the only way to get strong? Hell no, even though a lot of people will tell you that it is. Truthfully, there are a lot of drawbacks to this program, especially if you're a beginner or an advanced lifter.

But does it have its place? Can someone succeed on this style of program? Is it possibly the most ideal program for an intermediate level lifter? I think so, and that's why I'm going to risk getting my ass-kicked – so you can build some wheels of steel!

Most people think they're way more advanced than they really are. Everyone wants to stroke their ego and feel important. They think they need an advanced program to see progress. But do they really? Let's look at the differences between what a beginning, intermediate, and advanced lifter need to succeed.

The Beginning Lifter

The beginning lifter can get stronger doing just about anything; however, the more volume a beginner gets the better. His biggest gains are going to be neurological in nature, so just becoming more efficient at movements is going to equal more weight on the bar. In other words, if you want to squat more when starting out, volume is king – just get more squat reps in!

The Advanced Lifter

The advanced lifter is going to need to be very selective in what methods he employs to get stronger. Too much volume and he's going to overtrain quickly.

Advanced lifters are much more neurologically efficient, meaning each and every rep they perform is going to create deeper inroads to their recovery process. Simply put, an advanced lifter is going to get a lot more out of intensity based workouts versus volume dependent workouts. These lifters will get more out of squatting less (e.g. fewer reps), but making sure those reps are heavy.

The Intermediate Lifter

So where does that leave our intermediate lifter? If you said somewhere in the middle, you get the gold star for the day! Sets of 8, 10, 12 or 15 reps just isn't going to cut it, yet intermediates don't have the proper base of strength and technique to see great success with a program that puts a huge emphasis on low-volume and high-intensity.

So for this lifter, a program that uses lower rep sets and focuses on increasing overall intensity (after all, you can use more weight for 5's than you can 10's), is going to see good progress on this style of program. Basically, you get the best of both worlds: an increase in intensity while keeping your total volume up. For many, a 5 x 5 (five sets of five reps) program really fits the bill.

I think too many people want this program to be a panacea for every lagging muscle group or body part, so they absolutely destroy themselves. Not only do they use this program for every exercise they perform, but then they never take recovery weeks on top of that. No wonder I often hear lifters proclaim, "I tried 5 x 5, but I just got overtrained and injured."

It wasn't the program's fault, genius. It was your own! If you're running a 5 x 5 program that looks like this below, you better hit the "abort" button sooner rather than later:

  • Squat: 5 x 5
  • Deadlift: 5 x 5
  • Bench press: 5 x 5
  • Military press: 5 x 5

Worse yet, 5 x 5 failures do all this in one workout! No wonder these guys crash and burn!

The modified 5 x 5 program I'm going to teach you only has you training 5 x 5 on one exercise, and you only perform 5 x 5 on one week out of the cycle. I've had great success myself using the 5 x 5 program for my squat, so a little later we'll examine what this program did for me. But first, let's try to figure out if you're truly an intermediate or not.

I know you're going to ask this, so let's nip it in the bud right now:

I don't know.

It's hard to label a lifter. Are we talking about chronological age? Training age? Relative strength levels? Absolute strength levels? Because dependent on just these factors, you can get widely varying answers.

Here are some general rules of thumb to help you determine if this program may work for you:

  • If you've been training less than three years.
  • If you can't squat 2x bodyweight with a belt only (this has limited application to larger lifters).
  • If you have great technique with light weights/warm-up sets, but fall apart on heavier reps/sets.

It's hard to classify, but I'd be willing to bet that the majority of lifters on this site could still benefit from a program similar to this.

In my first powerlifting meet, I squatted a whopping 336 pounds. I was downright embarrassed. Even though I'd only squatted for about three months, 336 pounds just isn't acceptable given that I weighed 176 pounds. I'm not totally sure, but I think several female competitors (in lighter weight classes no less!) out-squatted me.

I struggled for a long time trying to build my squat. I tried all kinds of programs along the way: wave-loading, clusters, Russian squat cycles, etc. You name it, I tried it. In the end, two things brought my squat up:

  1. An absolute passion for learning and practicing better technique.
  2. The following squat cycle with some well-planned assistance work.

Long story short, the first time I ran this cycle, I finished the last week with 3 sets of 5 reps at 315 pounds at a bodyweight of about 187. The last time I ran it (almost two years later), I performed that same 3 x 5 workout with 405 pounds at a bodyweight of approximately 200. My competition squat also went from 446 to a fairly easy 530 in my last meet.

A 90 pound increase in my raw squat over the course of two years, in my opinion, isn't too shabby. I hope this program can give you the same kind of results!

So here's the week-by-week template I used:

Week Sets/Reps Load Rest Gear
1 4x5 70% 3-4 min. None
2 5x5 80% 4-5 min. Belt
3 3x3 65% 3 min. None
4 3x5 85% As needed Belt

Program Notes

  1. Week 1 is basically an introductory week. I try to get back in the groove and do all sets with no gear (yes, that includes no belt). Surprisingly enough, this was always the week that made me the most sore.
  2. Week 2 is an intensification week. You not only crank up the volume (25 reps vs. 20), but also the intensity. If you survive, you'll see why people can get bigger and stronger on a 5 x 5 program! Belt usage is optional here. I didn't start out using it, but after I ran the cycle four or five times, I started to use it on this week (week 2).
  3. Week 3 is an unload week. At first I played around with a load of 75%, but quickly found that it was taking too much out of me and I needed more rest. Going down to the lower weight allowed me the mental and physical break I needed.
  4. Week 4 is where it's at – it's your lowest volume of any of the work weeks, but the intensity is balls-out.
  5. As you'll see, I periodize the use of supportive gear in the program as well. I'm a big believer that raw strength will carryover to better numbers in gear, so I use full gear (wraps, suit, and belt) sparingly over the course of the year. If your federation uses a boatload of gear (double/triple ply, briefs, canvas, etc.), take that into consideration as you'll need more time to learn your equipment.
  6. The rest periods are general guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules. Remember that the nervous system takes anywhere from 5-20 times as long as the muscular system to recover, so give yourself plenty of rest to ensure you're fresh for each and every set.
  7. Finally, please note that this was based off of my raw (belt-only) max, not my competitive max. Leave your ego at the door your first time trying this program. I'd leave a few pounds off the bar the first time around just to get used to the workload. If you choose not to heed this advice, don't say I didn't warn you!

What assistance exercises should I use?

How's this for an answer: the ones that'll help build your squat!

I'm not you, and I don't know what your weak points are, where you miss lifts, or whether you're static or spring proficient. If you haven't read it yet, checkout Overcoming Lousy Leverages Part I to figure out what assistance work will best benefit you.

However, I know someone is going to ask for an example template, so here's the basic template I was using that netted me the best gains:

Tuesday Friday
Squat, per program Deadlift, ME or Speed Work
RDL, 2 x 5-6 Good Mornings, 2 x 5-6
Glute-Ham Raise, 3-4 x 6-8 Glute-Ham Raise, 3-4 x 6-8
Single-Leg Exercise, 2-3 x 6-8 Single-Leg Exercise, 2-3 x 6-8

Please note that this is what worked for me. Always pick the exercises and set/rep ranges that are most conducive to yourprogress.

Can I use this program for my bench press or deadlift?

"Can" and "should" are two totally different animals. Can you? Sure, but I wouldn't recommend trying to use this program for any more than one lift at a time. What I'd do if you wanted to use this program for all three lifts is something like this:

Exercise Cycle 1 Cycle 2 Cycle 3 Cycle 4
Squat Squat Cycle Maintenance Maintenance Squat Cycle
Bench Press Maintenance Bench Cycle Maintenance Maintenance
Deadlift Maintenance Maintenance Deadlift Cycle Maintenance

If you think about it, this is a great intro to a conjugate-based program where you're shifting the emphasis from cycle-to-cycle. You'll specialize on one lift for a month, then maintain that lift while focusing on another.

I actually tried this program with both my squat and deadlift at the same time when I first started out. While I gained on both lifts, it wasn't until I focused on bringing up my squat that it really started to grow. As well, I have a deadlifting body-type, so my deadlift had a tendency to go up as I drove my squat up.

Lastly, when I performed this cycle for my deadlift, I took off one set from the original template. Week 1 I did three sets, week 2 four sets, etc.

What do I do once I'm done with this program?

The goal should always be to use a program for just as long as you need it and no longer. If you've achieved some of the goals we discussed earlier (I really like the 2x bodyweight squat in this case), it's probably time to move on to more intensity-based programs (e.g. a Westside style template).

When I finished this program, I was probably ready to move on to a more intensity-based program, but that's when the knee issues started and I needed to address those. I'm going to have to do some re-building to get my squat back to where it was, but at this point in my training career, intensity is what's going to get me stronger.

Okay intermediates, it's a call to arms. You have five weeks. Take a recovery week next week and then get cracking on this program. Report back here in five weeks and I'll look forward to hearing your results!