Have you tried the 5x5 workout? Do you know someone who has? Were you frustrated at the lack of size you gained on the program?
If so, this article is for you.
Now, strictly speaking, if you are:
- a beginner, or
- have fantastic bodybuilding genetics
…you can build muscle with a 5x5 workout. However, for the majority of people, you’ll add some muscle initially, then it stops. Even when your lifts go up, you struggle terribly to actually get any bigger.
So if you’re on a 5x5 routine and not building any muscle, it’s not your fault. Don’t blame your genetics, or your lifting form, or your motivation. It’s the workout’s fault.
Am I saying that 5x5 training is useless? No. And I want to make this abundantly clear before we go any further…I am speaking of 5x5 workouts solely within the context of muscle hypertrophy i.e. getting physically bigger, or putting on muscle mass.
The original purpose of the 5x5 program was to be a basic, strength training package. As such, I have no issues with it at all, and it can be effective.
But it was never intended as a routine to stimulate maximum muscle hypertrophy. It is incapable of producing such a result. If you simply want to be able to say, “Hey I can bench X amount, and I can squat Y”, 5x5 might just be for you.
If, however, your goal is maximum growth, you need a workout designed for such purposes. So if you want to continue getting bigger over time, 5x5 will not be for you.
This article serves to counter claims (often on the web) that a 5x5 workout will pack on muscle fast. It won’t. And I’ll offer proof with 12 x scientific studies to prove it.
I’ll cover this topic by examining the following areas:
- The Rep Range(s) for Optimal Growth. Is 5 enough? With a subtopic about Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy
- Pyramid Vs Reverse Pyramid Training
- Not Training To Positive Muscular Failure
- The Lack of Isolation Exercises with a subtopic on The Hormone Theory
So let’s delve into this…
(1) THE REP RANGE
I think most people agree that Bill Starr was the originator (or at least original popularizer) of this mode of training. There was some research indicating that optimal STRENGTH gains are obtained by training within a 4-6 rep range. Starr went in the middle and used 5 reps per set .
So this is my first point: Is the 4-6 rep range optimal for size gains?
To help illustrate, there was a question on Mark Sisson’s Mark’s Daily Apple site from a guy who was doing lower reps than others in his gym, but said that the other guys were, “far more jacked…their arms are flat-out bigger. Yet they throw around a lot less weight, preferring higher reps and a lighter load”. He couldn’t understand what was wrong.
Sisson replies with the following well-articulated response,
“A 2007 meta-analysis of the available literature  found that lifting 60%-85% of your 1 Rep Max for reps is probably the most effective way to stimulate hypertrophy. Reps-wise, that translates to about 6-12 reps per set. Since you’re currently doing 5 sets of 5, try reducing the weight and increasing the reps to between 6-8, which is a nice sweet spot for strength and size. To focus more on size, move the reps up to between 8-10.”
You need to use a load above about 60% of your 1RM in order to recruit all the available motor units. At 60% you’ll recruit them all after you’ve completed a few reps.
As my regular readers already know, my training system, Targeted HYPERTROPHY Training, uses reps from a low of 6 and a maximum of 12. So Mark Sisson nailed it here. But there are other scientific reasons to conclude that this range is optimal for muscle growth.
The N.S.C.A  says,
“Shorter bouts of anaerobic training (2 to 4 repetitions) are best for improving muscle power, moderate bouts of anaerobic training (5 to 6 repetitions) are best for building muscle strength, and longer bouts of anaerobic training, 8 to 12 reps per set, are best for increasing muscle hypertrophy.”
Here is a pertinent note from Charles Poliquin’s Poliquin Group site:
In practical terms, mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress are best produced with the following “hypertrophy-style” protocol: A moderate rep range (8 to 12 reps) with moderate loads (65 to 85 percent of the 1RM)…Training to failure is also indicated because lifting to the point where you can’t go anymore produces muscle damage and a large protein synthesis response, which will lead to greater muscle development.
Changes produced by lower rep ranges are more ‘neural’, as opposed to ‘structural’. This explains why the 5x5 guy can appear to get stronger but not any bigger over time.
Tom Venuto does a good job summing this up with the following…
“…when you train in the 6-8 rep range, the adaptations are still somewhat neural, but also metabolic/structural…In the 8-12 rep range, there is still some neural adaptation, but less than the 6-8 range and much less than the 1-5 range. The advantage of the 8-12 rep range is that you get maximal hypertrophy”.
This is also from Venuto and a great little illustration of different rep ranges and their effects:
- 1-5 reps 85-100% Neural Strength & Power, Little Hypertrophy
- 6-8 reps 75-85% Neural & Metabolic Strength & Hypertrophy
- 9-12 reps 70-75% Metabolic & Neural Hypertrophy & some strength
- 13-20+ reps 60-70% Metabolic local endurance, some hypertrophy, little strength
Note: In THT training you train in the rep ranges 8-12, 7-10, and 6-8. This constant cycling of ranges over time is what leads to CHRONIC or ongoing muscle growth. Great 😀
Here is an example of an excellent lift: 247.5kg deadlift (544.5lbs) by a guy who is clearly very strong, but who’s arms (and whole upper body) just doesn’t have much muscle. Please don’t take this as a criticism. He almost certainly knows he’s not training for size anyway. I’m just illustrating that getting very strong in these heavy compound lifts doesn’t automatically translate into getting a big, thick body as is sometimes claimed.
Coupling the more “anabolic rep ranges” of 6 up to 12 reps per set, with Progressive Overload (lifting more weight over time) is THE way to stimulate size and strength gains.
(1b) IS THIS EXTRA GROWTH JUST “SARCOPLASMIC GOO”?
I’m not sure anyone believes this any more, but sometimes the point is that made yes you will get bigger in these higher rep ranges, but the extra size is simply extra fluid inside the muscle called sarcoplasm. This fluid can’t generate force and therefore doesn’t make you any stronger. This type of growth is therefore sometimes called “non-functional hypertrophy”.
Functional growth, on the other hand, is the increasing in thickness of individual muscle fibers (called myofibrillar hypertrophy). However, the truth is that you can never produce one type of growth without the other.
Anyone who gets bigger, regardless of the rep range they use, produces both myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic growth i.e. their fibers get thicker and there’s some goo thrown in for good measure 😉
Since increased fiber thickness always comes with increased size, it is impossible to get bigger without getting stronger. Some 5x5 proponents actually claim that big guys get that way without actually getting strong (how does that work?).
Getting stronger is necessary for getting bigger. Increasing your lifts across all exercises, both compound and isolation (more on that later), is at the very CORE of THT Training. (and any good hypertrophy program).
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(2) PYRAMID Vs REVERSE PYRAMID TRAINING
Pyramid-style training means you increase the load each set and “ramp up” to your heaviest lift. However, REVERSE pyramid is actually a much better way to train to stimulate size and strength changes. (I’m aware some 5x5 variations use the same weight in each set, but some don’t).
Why is reverse better? Once a muscle is warmed up, with 2 or 3 light low-intensity sets, it then (and only then) has 100% of its available strength intact. It is at this point that you have the ability to hit any lift with the best performance you’ve got i.e. the heaviest weight for the most reps.
This is because with each successive working set you make further INROADS into your strength i.e. you get weaker. By the time you get to that last set, the weight you lift won’t actually be the heaviest weight you can handle in that particular lift. Perhaps by this stage you’ll only have 80% of your total strength left for example.
So you can and will perform you strongest lifts at the beginning of a workout, not the end. This pyramid training has always seemed to me to be a curious way to train for anyone seeking predominantly to increase their strength.
For each muscle group, like your biceps or your quads, maximum increases in size and strength will be stimulated by lifting the maximum amount of weight for the maximum number of reps.
The way to best go about this is to warm up first, which will increase body temperature, mobilize your joints, and increase neuro-muscular efficiency (acclimation), by doing lighter sets, then hit it 100% – and hit it hard!
Doing a number of heavy working sets first drains your strength and makes a truly maximum left impossible. All the best training systems use a Reverse Pyramid-style protocol e.g. MAX-OT training.
(3) TRAINING TO FAILURE
From the free THT book…
The necessary stimulation to force adaptation (growth) occurs in the last rep(s) of a set.
Training to the last possible rep of a set is called ‘Training to Failure’. All the growth stimulation is at this point. Again from the Poliquin Group as above…
“Training to failure is also indicated because lifting to the point where you can’t go anymore produces muscle damage and a large protein synthesis response, which will lead to greater muscle development.”
Physiologists Stewart Bruce-Low and D. Smith reviewed  evidence and research from High Intensity (to failure) originator Arthur Jones and concluded:
Jones advocated that those interested in improving their muscular size, strength, power and/or endurance should perform one set of each exercise to muscular failure (volitional fatigue)… Jones’ training advice is strongly supported by the peer-reviewed scientific literature, a statement that has recently been supported by a review of American College of Sports Medicine resistance training guidelines.”
These 5 studies      showed that even just one set will stimulate increases in size and strength…provided that the set is taken to a point of muscular failure.
The 2007 meta-analysis we looked at above  had to say this regarding going to failure:
“Regarding intensity, moderately heavy loads seem to elicit the greatest gains for most categories of training, although examples of very high rates were noted at both very low and very high loads when the sets were performed with maximum effort or taken to muscular failure.”
Basically this means that muscle growth can be stimulated with varying percentages of your 1 rep max (1RM). However, this is conditional upon taking those sets to failure. And as we’ve seen above, there is an optimal percentage of 1 rep max that translates to anywhere from 6-12 reps per set.
A surprising example of the effectiveness of training to failure for size gains, even when the load was quite light,  concluded that sets of just 30% of 1RM – that’s as high as 25 reps per set – produced better results than sets of 90% of 1RM in terms of protein synthesis levels. However, I and many others identified some flaws in the set-up of this study (too many to talk about in this article). Nevertheless it is useful to show that growth can be triggered even with sub-optimal loads if the sets are taken to a point of muscular failure.
So what is it about those last reps? Why train to high intensity? For evolutionary reasons, your body simply has NO interest in building any more muscle than that above normal levels. Muscle tissue is metabolically expensive i.e. it costs energy just by being there and is therefore disadvantageous – if you don’t really need it that is. You must get your body to think that it NEEDS more muscle than it already has.
Simply put, if you want more muscle, you have to FORCE it to occur. This involves training to high intensity levels.
Now, not all muscle fibers are responsible for size gains. As a set gets closer to the end, as the intensity of effort increases, more and more of the fibers that DO contribute to growth are recruited (fast twitch fibers). This is the SEQUENTIAL nature of muscle fiber recruitment, and there’s no getting around it.
Also note that muscle growth is a DEFENSE MECHANISM. The training you perform must be perceived as a THREAT by the body so that it not just compensates for what you did, but OVERcompensates and builds more muscle as a defensive barrier.
Likewise, a sun tan is a defense mechanism. If the sunlight isn’t intense enough, you won’t get a tan. It simply doesn’t matter how long you sun bath for; without intense sunlight, there is no tan. This is analogous to the AMOUNT of work you do in the gym. It really counts for very little if all this work is not coupled with high intensity.
In 5x5 (as well as some other training systems) there is a tendency to count up the “total volume” of the workout and disregard intensity of effort. Going to 100% (positive failure) means nothing according to this philosophy. So apparently 5 sets X the amount of weight = the effectiveness of your workout.
But your body isn’t counting up total reps. This is a biological matter, not a mathematical one. Let me illustrate this point by borrowing from this article in which I relay a discussion I had with a trainee who had bought into the volume idea and that intensity of effort didn’t matter. We were using the example of someone doing 70 total reps but stopping at 7 reps each time, (when they could really go to 10 and reach failure).
Mark: “Let me ask you: Why go to 7 out of 10 possible reps (or 70%)? If Total Volume was true, doing 5 reps (50% intensity of effort) for a total of 14 sets would also yield 70 total reps. It would be equally as effective, right?”
Mark: “Or why not do 1 rep, put the bar down, have a chat or whatever. And just make sure you do that 70 times, because it’s the total number that matters, not intensity.”
“Yeah but Mark, no-one is recommending training to just 10% or 50% in every set.
Mark: “Why not?”
“It’s too easy. You have to go a bit higher”.
Mark: “Ah, exactly. It’s too easy. It’s not taxing enough, or you might even say, it’s not intense enough. Don’t you see you’ve just conceded the point? You’ve just implicitly stated that there is indeed something about the intensity of effort. If this were not so, those low-intensity sets would stimulate an equal amount of growth because it’s all just down to the math at the end of the day”.
But it ISN’T all about the math. Intensity matters.
If intensity IS there, the math counts. If intensity isn’t there, the math counts for nothing.
Now let’s look at the fact that 5x5 workouts eliminate isolation exercises and why this is a bad idea for those seeking growth.
(4) NO ISOLATION EXERCISES
I don’t think I can take hearing another 16yr-old web warrior talking about “shitty isolation exercises”. The fact is that if maximizing growth is your goal, you need them.
Compound and isolation exercises COMPLEMENT each other. A quick definition of the word complement: “A thing that contributes extra features to something else in such a way as to improve or emphasize its quality”. Exactly.
Compound and isolation movements work together to produce maximum gains in size.
- What compound exercises can achieve, isolation exercises cannot.
- What isolation exercises can achieve, compound exercises cannot.
So to maximize your gains, you NEED to do both. That’s “need” i.e. it’s not optional. It’s just a monumental mistake to leave isolation exercises out of your workout if you want to build muscle.
Proponents of compound-only routines usually use fuzzy, vague terms like “work” and “hit” and “stress” when it comes to talking about exercising a particular muscle. There’s nothing wrong with the words themselves, but when it’s claimed that a compound exercises WORKS 3 or 4 muscle groups in one movement, implying that therefore growth stimulation is generated in all those muscles, it’s just wrong.
I can think of an exercise that “works” pretty much all my muscles – walking. If I go take a walk, I work pretty much all my muscles (yes even my abs). Will I stimulate growth? Well of course not (I’m sure we all agree). Why not? It’s just not intense enough.
That’s obviously an extreme example, but when you do an Overhead Barbell Press (a compound movement) you don’t just hit your shoulders, you also work your triceps. However, are the triceps worked to a sufficient intensity to trigger growth? No.
While your shoulders may have come close to 100% intensity (if you go to failure), your triceps may have been worked to say anywhere from 30% to 50%. If you want big triceps, hit them directly. Tricep Pushdowns are very effective.
Compound exercises work MULTIPLE MUSCLES to a LIMITED degree (limited to the weakest muscle in the group as it fails first), whereas an isolation exercise can work a SINGLE MUSCLE to its MAXIMAL degree.
Think about it, a compound movement DILUTES the resistance across many muscles. Yes you will use heavier loads, but don’t be fooled into thinking that all of this weight is being loaded onto the ‘intended’ or primary muscle. It isn’t.
For example, many people see pull-ups or lat pull-downs as the best lat exercise because heavier loads can be used. It is a great exercise and one I recommend. However, the load is being spread over the lats, forearms, biceps, traps, and even pecs. In contrast, the pullover machine directs 100% of the load to the lats, and it works the muscle in harmony with its function/line of pull (100% potential muscle fiber recruitment), and gives resistance in the fully contracted position. The best workout would start with the compound pull-up, followed later by pullovers with a dumbbell or at a pullover machine (I know someone out there just said “shitty machines”).
Certain body parts MUST be worked with a direct isolation exercise in order to recruit all the available muscle fibers. Maximum growth can only come from recruiting as many of these fibers as possible and inducing the micro-trauma that stimulates the compensatory adaptation of THICKER muscle fibers. Thicker individual fibers means larger muscles.
With certain muscles, you can only do this by incorporating isolation movements, which can train a muscle along the Line of Pull. A compound-only routine is incapable of recruiting all muscle fibers in all muscles and therefore cannot produce muscle growth at optimal levels.
A good example of this is the biceps. Turn your palm up towards the ceiling and then bring your forearm up to meet your upper arm – that’s it. Now provided that the weight you are using is heavy enough, you can recruit the maximum number of bicep muscle fibers. As you will notice, this is the movement of a barbell curl (an isolation exercise).
Put simply, an isolation exercise will provide a more COMPLETE stimulation of the fibers of the muscle trained. And you simply CANNOT stimulate growth in fibers that weren’t even involved in an exercise.
So we’ve seen that for the issues of intensity and muscle-fiber recruitment, isolation exercises are necessary. Now let’s look at something called the ‘hormone theory’ and how it applies to this compound/isolation topic.
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(4b) THE HORMONE THEORY
Sometimes a reason put forward in support of compound-only workouts is the idea that compound exercises produce a more anabolic environment in the body with higher levels of Growth Hormone, Testosterone, and IGF-1.
True? Well it’s true if you are comparing someone doing only compound exercises vs someone doing only isolation exercises. But of course it isn’t true of someone doing compound only movements vs someone doing BOTH compound and isolation exercises. Who, in their right mind, is recommending a workout consisting solely of isolation exercises anyway?
I would contend that the THT workout is one of the BEST workouts out there for raising levels of growth hormone, testosterone, and insulin-like growth factor 1. THT is, of course, a workout consisting of both compound and isolation exercises. However, does this SYSTEMIC hormone release make any difference to hypertrophy anyway?
Overall systemic rises in hormones are not responsible for growth in muscles that were not directly worked i.e. “isolated” with an isolation exercise. So, unlike what some people claim on the net, squats will not make your shoulders any bigger, and Overhead Presses won’t give you big triceps. And for big biceps you’re going to need to isolate and work them directly with an exercise like barbell curls or cable preacher curls (my favorite).
In contrast to the systemic hormone theory of muscle growth, there is the fact of LOCAL muscle growth stimulation i.e. muscle growth takes place in the muscle being DIRECTLY worked.
Local factors  specific to the muscle directly worked e.g. the amount of damage to individual fibers, Muscle-IGF-1, Mechano Growth Factor (MGF), are responsible for triggering growth and are seen to increase protein synthesis (the process of building new muscle) in the muscle directly worked. LOCAL triggering of muscle growth happens i.e. hypertrophy is a local event. This local metabolic stress always correlates positively with hypertrophy of the muscle in question.
And this makes sense again from an evolutionary perspective. We adapt to our environment. If a guy is working his legs intensely over and over again, his body will respond by giving him larger and stronger legs. The environment here is not demanding larger arms, and since extra muscle is metabolically expensive, his body will absolutely not make his arms any bigger. The body will never just add new muscle where it’s not needed.
This is the whole reason why building muscle is so hard and takes so long. The body would rather not have more muscle. There really does have to be an INTENSE and ONGOING direct demand placed on each and every muscle you want to get bigger in order for the body to respond in the desired manner.
That a systemic release in anabolic hormones doesn’t enhance muscle growth was shown in this study  and is covered quite well in an article called ‘The Fall of the Greatest Theory of Muscle Growth‘ over at the Exercise Biology site.
So this assertion that is constantly put forward, that it’s simply a matter of maximizing the SYSTEMIC hormonal response with basic compound movements, is based on an erroneous assumption. The simple answer is that to maximize muscle growth you need to do BOTH types of movements. There is a reason why all those huge bodybuilders train with a mixture compound and isolation exercises, you know.
So the idea that squatting will magically make your arms bigger is just not going to happen…well, unless you’re a mutant of some description 😉
I’d also add here then even dedicated strength trainers, those not interested in size at all, should throw in some isolation exercises. If you did some tricep pushdowns or tricep extensions, this would have a positive carry-over effect to your bench press and overhead press allowing you to generate more overload on the chest and shoulders respectively. Just something to consider.
Last, but not least, I’ll finish with some pics. While I highly recommend all the big compound lifts, some people (including the “shitty isolation exercises” people) make the point that it’s impossible to build muscle without them. So if you don’t squat or deadlift, you’ll just never build muscle. Not true. Apart from what I’ve said about local muscle growth stimulation, there is another point.
While I wouldn’t recommend a workout devoid of these lifts, there are big guys out there who don’t squat or deadlift…because they CAN’T! Let’s have a look…
I reckon these guys might have a thing or 2 to say about low-rep compound-only routines being the way to build muscle 😉 By the way, I’ve so much respect for these guys. It’s one thing to have the strength of mind and discipline to train and never skip workouts; it’s quite a different matter to do so with a physical disability. Inspirational stuff!
So there you have it. 5x5 training is not a bad way to train. But if you want to add size, it’s not the type of program to opt for. If you really want to start packing on size, and want a proven science-based routine that takes everything I’ve discussed in this article into account (and more) start THT (Targeted Hypertrophy Training) today!
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Train With 100% Intensity!
 Crossfit Journal Nov 2011
 The influence of frequency, intensity, volume and mode of strength training on whole muscle cross-sectional area in humans. Wernbom M, Augustsson J, Thomeé R.
 The National Strength & Conditioning Association
 Strength training methods and the work of Arthur Jones. Smith D & Bruce-Low S.S. Journal of Exercise Physiology online. 7 (6): 52-68.
 Effect of resistance training volume on strength and muscle thickness. Starkey DB, Pollock ML, Ishida Y, Welsch MA, Brechue WF, Graves JE et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1996;28:1311-1320.
 Relationship between indices of knee extension strength before and after training. Vincent K, De Hoyos D, Garzarella L, Hass C, Nordman M, Pollock M. Med Sci Sports Exerc 1998;30(5 Suppl.):S163.
 The effect of weight training volume on hormonal output and muscular size and function. Ostrowski KJ, Wilson GJ, Weatherby R., Murphy PW, Little AD. J Strength Conditioning Res 1997;11:148-154.
 Single versus multiple sets in long term recreational weightlifters. Haas CJ, Garzarella L, De Hoyos D, Pollock, ML. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2000;32:235-242.
 Strength training: single versus multiple sets. Carpinelli RN, Otto RM. Sports Med 1998;26(2):73-84.
 Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates Muscle Protein Synthesis More Than High-Load Low Volume Resistance Exercise in Young Men. Nicholas A. Burd et al. Published: August 09, 2010DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0012033
 Ageing and local growth factors in muscle. Harridge SD. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2003 Feb;13(1):34-9.
 Elevations in ostensibly anabolic hormones with resistance exercise enhance neither training- 2 induced muscle hypertrophy nor strength of the elbow flexors. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2010 Jan;108(1):60-7. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01147.2009. Epub 2009 Nov 12.
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