Friday, April 3, 2009

Lyle McDonald - The 5X5 Program

The 5x5 program is one of the classic protocols for weight training. In this informative article, Lyle McDonald takes a look at some variations of the program that make it useful for people at all stages of experience.

The 5X5 Program

Training, like most things in the universe, tends to follow fads and trends. Popular programs go out of style and others become the ‘next best thing’. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes that’s bad.

In recent years, people have gotten fairly fascinated with what is a truly classic program: the 5X5 program. Since this system happens to be an excellent way of training, this is one of those cases where the fad isn’t a bad thing at all.

In this article I want to look briefly at the history of the 5X5 program as well as at some of the various interpretations that have been used over the years. One source of confusion comes in that there are so many different ways to interpret 5X5 (depending on the goals and status of the lifter) and just saying that you’re doing ‘5X5′ doesn’t really give all of the details.

So let’s look at the details.

The History of the 5X5 Program

I’m not sure if anybody can say for sure who first did a program consisting of 5 sets of 5 repetitions; it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if lifters in the early 20th century didn’t do something similar since they seem to have tried just about everything at one point or another.

However, almost without exception, the program can be mostly attributed to Bill Starr in his book The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football. Even if others had done it before him, he was assuredly the one who did the most to popularize it.

So me…I’m giving him the credit for it.

Tangentially, The Strongest Shall Survive, even after so many years is truly a great book and I highly recommend that anyone who is a student of lifting get a copy. It’s only $20 (a paltry price to pay these days) and can be had from the excellent folks at Aasgaard.

Now, here’s an amusing bit of trivia that I bet most aren’t aware of; and that is how Starr actually came up with 5X5 in the first place. Quoting Starr himself:

The researchers found that 4-6 repetitions of 4-6 sets, increasing the weight on each successive set, produced the most significant increase in strength. Terrific, I simplified the formula to five sets of five reps as that was the exact median and it was easy to remember.

In recent years, strength coaches such as Glenn Pendlay and Mark Rippetoe have re-popularized the 5X5 program and there are many other write-ups (including the Madcow writeup of 5X5 programs) out there as well.

Basically, the 5X5 program is here to stay and there’s a good reason for that: it’s an excellent program for many applications. It may not be the be-all, end-all that some seem to think it, but there are definitely a lot worse ways that the average trainee could train than this.

What is 5X5?

In the simplest terms 5X5 refers to a program made up of 5 sets of 5 repetitions. As I noted above, Starr came up with this by simplifying data showing that 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps was about optimal for strength gains.

Now, sets of 5 are actually a good repetition range for a number of reasons, I’d note that these are discussed in both of Mark Rippetoe’s excellent books Starting Strength and Practical Programming for Strength Training both of which I not only also highly recommend but are also available from Aasgaard. Again, very highly recommended.

As I discussed in Reps Per Set for Optimal Growth, sets of 5 are actually in the range that I commonly use for hypertrophy anyhow. Generally speaking a maximum set of 5 will be about 85% of maximum and lifter will use a bit less if they are doing more than one set. That’s a weight that provides sufficient tension to get maximal muscle fiber recruitment; 5 reps also allows sufficient work to be done with that weight. High tension plus metabolic work is a winning combination for both strength and size. Especially combined with load progression over time.

As well, since the metabolic fatigue from a 5 rep set tends to be fairly low (compared to higher repetitions sets), technique is often much more stable compared to higher rep sets. When fatigue starts to hit on higher rep sets, lifters without stable technique often get sloppy. Stopping at 5 reps avoids much of that.

I would note that this can also go the other way around, especially as the reps get lower than 5 and the weights get heavier. Groove becomes much more critical as the reps get lower; whereas lifters can often save a lift that is out of position when the reps are higher, their technique has to be much more consistent to do low reps without getting into problems.

I should note that there are critics of the 5X5 for certain applications, notably competition powerlifting. The usual criticism is that 5X5 doesn’t provide enough heavy first reps to prepare someone for powerlifting. A routine based around triples, doubles and singles are often preferred since this not only lets you go heavier but you get more properly done first reps which is a key to optimal powerlifting performance. And there is much to this idea.

However, I don’t recall the 5X5 being explicitly recommended for powerlifting so I’m not sure it’s a particularly valid criticism. 5X5 is a good way of building basic strength (and some decent size if you do it right) and that’s what it’s typically presented as.

Admittedly, some on the web (as people on the web are wont to do) have tried to make 5X5 the ultimate training program for all applications but that has more to do with people on the web than how 5X5 was ever really presented or meant to be used.

However, even saying that the program is 5X5 still doesn’t get into the details and that’s what I want to talk about next since there are at least 4 different interpretations of the 5X5 program that I’m aware of (and some folks have probably come up with more).

Read the whole article.

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