If you’re even a little bit interested in getting stronger, you’ve probably heard or read about the 5×5 workout program. One of the earliest iterations of this workout was popularized by Bill Starr — and it has since had a lasting impact on the strength scene.
The program’s hallmark is a lack of flash, focusing instead on raw effort. You prioritize compound movements for five sets of five reps (hence the program’s name) and vary the intensity to incite a different training stimulus. Its consistent ability to produce results over the years has reinforced that your effort can trump nearly all other programming bells and whistles. If you’re dead set on getting strong — really strong — here’s what you need to know about the 5×5 program.
- 5×5 Program Overview
- Design Your Own 5×5 Workout
- One-Rep Max Calculator
- Why It Works
- What You’ll Need
- Who Should Do the 5×5 Program
- Who Shouldn’t Do the 5×5 Program
There have been numerous iterations of Bill Starr’s original 5×5 program. Its initial format was designed primarily to improve the strength and power of athletes such as football players, Olympic weightlifters, and even combat athletes. You can also find variations with more broad applications, such as his beginner 5×5 or more specialized versions spawned to suit the needs of other populations.
Any version of the program centers around five sets of five reps for multiple compound (multi-joint) exercises. Another hallmark of the program is slow-and-steady progression — with the user increasing the weight on the bar by as little as 2.5 pounds each week.
A study published in Biology of Sport compared two groups of lifters following a bench press protocol. One group performed five sets of five reps (at 80% of their one-rep max), while the other performed six sets of two reps (using 87.5% of their 1RM). Both groups increased their bench press. (1)
What’s more, the researchers assert that “these results tend to support the common practical recommendation to start with a lighter load when employing a progressive wave loading strategy, as such a strategy yields similar improvements in performance with a lower level of exertion in training.” (1)
The Original Program
The original 5×5 splits your training routine into three days — a heavy day on Monday, light day on Wednesday, and medium day on Friday. You’ll focus on the squat, various presses, and the power clean (or barbell row) with negligible additional exercises beyond the core lifts.
Directions: Each workout will be based on a percentage of your 1RM, so it’s a good idea to know your max for each of the main lifts (see below). The program calls for you to perform a top set at a prescribed percentage of your 1RM for each exercise— using the previous four sets to ramp your way up slowly.
Progressing Starr’s 5×5 is as simple as increasing the load of your estimated 1RM by 2.5 percent each week. If (or when) you experience a missed repetition on a single lift or find that the program itself has become too difficult — deload by scaling back the load by approximately 10% and carrying on.
Monday (Heavy Day)
- Power Clean or Barbell Row: 5 x 5, top set @ 85% of your 1RM
- Bench Press: 5 x 10, top set @ 70% of your 1RM
- Squat: 5 x 10, top set @ 85% of your 1RM
Wednesday (Light Day)
- Power Clean or Barbell Row: 5 x 5, top set @ 65% of your 1RM
- Incline Bench Press: 5 x 10, top set @ 65% of your 1RM
- Squat: 5 x 5, top set @ 65% of your 1RM
Friday (Medium Day)
- Power Clean or Barbell Row: 5 x 5 @ 70% of your 1RM
- Overhead Press: 5 x 10 @ 70% of your 1RM
- Squat: 5 x 5 @ 70% of your 1RM
More than anything, the 5×5 is a set/rep scheme and mode of progression that encourages slow and steady strength gains. By staying true to the core principals of this method, you can create a 5×5 workout of your own that will ensure gains for months to come.
If Starr’s original program isn’t quite to your liking, you can apply the basic formula to your own workouts. Here’s the 411:
- You’ll train your full body three times per week, choosing three compound movements per workout.
- Instead of adhering to a light, medium, and heavy day, you’ll stick to a more straightforward mode of progression. Use 70-80% of your 1RM for all five sets of five reps. Each week, aim to add a little weight (2.5 pounds up to a max of 10 pounds). If you can’t lift more, stick with the same weight and try to add weight to just one or two sets.
- Isolation exercises aren’t forbidden. However, if you’re feeling tired and/or sore, don’t add them in. You should only perform these movements — lateral raises, biceps curls, triceps extensions, and so on — if you have the time and energy after the core program is complete.
- Squat Variation: 5 x 5
- Vertical Pull: 5 x 5
- Vertical Push: 3-4 x 12-15
- Core: 3 x 15
- Horizontal Push: 5 x 5
- Horizontal Pull: 5 x 5
- Hip Hinge: 3-4 x 12-15
- Core: 3 x 15
- Hip Hinge: 5 x 5
- Vertical Push: 5 x 5
- Horizontal Pull: 3-4 x 12-15
- Core: 3 x 15
If you’re interested in MacGyvering your own 5×5 workouts, use the menu of exercises below to fill in the above categories. You should stick with the same movements for four weeks before subbing them out.
- Flat Barbell Bench Press
- Incline Barbell Bench Press
- Decline Barbell Bench Press
- Dumbbell Bench Press (flat, incline, decline)
- Hammer Strength Press
- Barbell Overhead Press
- Dumbbell Overhead Press
- Arnold Press
- Machine Shoulder Press
- Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Dumbbell Press
- Z Press
- Log Press
- Bent-Over Barbell Row
- Pendlay Row
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Two-Arm Dumbbell Row
- Seal Row
- Seated Cable Row
- Face Pull
You must know your 1RM to complete the 5×5 program accurately. If you haven’t maxed out in a while, or have never maxed out, give this handy calculator a try.
One Rep Max Calculator
Like any strength program, the core lifts will be centered on compound exercises that challenge your full body. Your progress is controlled with structured increases in load over time — and there will be a cap on how much work you do per day.
It Focuses on Compound Lifts
The cornerstone of the 5×5 program is an emphasis on multi-joint, compound exercises. In any variation you find — barbell squats, deadlifts, cleans, rows, and various presses will serve as your main lifts.
These exercises force a tremendous amount of full-body coordination and thus strengthen many muscle groups at once. With the lack of machines or isolation-style exercise, your entire body will be forced to get stronger by controlling these barbells entirely by your own means.
The weekly increases in prescribed load are typically going to be as small as you have access to; for example, as low as 2.5-pound increases if possible.
The idea is to slowly and methodically increase the load and let your time and effort with each exercise culminate in increased strength. Slow and steady wins this race.
There is a decided limit on the number of exercises per workout within 5×5 programming. This is by design, as strength requires a specific measure of focus. Your ability to recover is paramount to your success. With too many additional exercises, you will likely get crushed under a wave of fatigue from such high-frequency barbell work.
5×5 programs account for this by significantly limiting the additional exercises beyond the main 5×5, often only employing zero to two additional lifts per workout beyond the compound work for the day.
Practice Makes Perfect
Strength isn’t just about your muscles. Your nervous system — made up of your central nervous system (CNS) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS) — controls many of your bodies major functions. Your ability to move, your senses, temperature control, sleep, and vital functions are all regulated by your nervous system.
When it comes to strength training, all movement starts in the brain. From gripping a barbell, to retracting your shoulders blades, to pressing a barbell over your chest — your brain fires off all of the signals to make those physical steps possible.
If you’re new to lifting — or haven’t lifted in a while — your nervous system will need time to acclimate to a new series of movement. However, practice makes perfect. The more you perform a movement, the more coordinated and efficient you’ll become at doing the exercise.
A study in the Journal of Neuroscience studied how weight training affected the nerves of two monkeys. Each monkey performed one-arm pulls with a single arm. After three months, the researchers concluded that “strength training is associated with neural adaptions.” It was the monkey’s nerves and their muscle-brain connection that was strengthened before their muscles. (2)
So why does this matter in regards to the 5×5 method? Because performing five sets of moderately heavy weight for two different compound movements grants you, the lifter, plenty of practice for your nervous system. This program forces you to focus on more sets and reps with fewer movements. You’ll become a better lifter, and if you’re a powerlifter or strength-hungry gymgoer, how you lift is as important as how much you lift.
Generally, strength training can be accomplished with a (somewhat) bare-bones set-up. However, a handful of things to account for before embarking on your strength journey — such as equipment, time commitment, and recovery strategies.
Like many strength-centered routines, the main equipment list you’ll need is the barbell, a squat rack, and plates to load the bar. Many commonly recommended additional exercises fall into the calisthenic category (chin-ups and dips), making them easy enough to do almost anywhere. With that in mind, having a good back extension or glute-ham developer couldn’t hurt, depending on how you specifically program your 5×5.
A dedicated bench press or adjustable mobile bench will also work — allowing you to set up in your squat rack to pull double duty.
While nearly every variation of a 5×5 program is suited to three days per week, you should allow for a fair amount of time in the gym. Up to three different exercises performed for five sets of five to 10 repetitions in a strength format call for a ton of rest. Allowing yourself the grace for adequate warm-ups and accessory time can also elongate your day, so give yourself a few dedicated hours of training to accomplish a quality session without rushing.
Recovery is one of the most important and overlooked aspects of getting strong. While training for muscle can have some clear signs of fatigue (delayed onset muscle soreness is pretty easy to spot), strength can be slightly less obvious.
Sometimes you won’t be sore, but you’ll still be under-recovered. Allow yourself adequate days off between sessions, following the split as best you can. Eat, sleep, and hydrate like your gains depend on it (because they do) — especially as you get deeper into the program.
The 5×5 method is fantastic for establishing a solid foundational strength base for nearly anyone, but it can be particularly beneficial for powerlifters and field sport athletes.
Field Sport Athletes
Field sports athletes such as football or rugby players serve as some of the most commonly prescribed populations for 5×5 programs. Given that many of the most popular variations were written with these athletes in mind, it makes sense that the exercise selection, volume, and results would benefit them the most. Its lower frequency and emphasis on strength weaves perfectly into the offseason or can be scaled to maintain in-season performance.
Barbell athletes such as powerlifters will especially benefit from utilizing a 5×5, which employs many of their competition lifts. The programming style, progressions, and emphasis on recovery also play perfectly into what a powerlifter needs to get brutally strong.
Depending on your strength level, it can serve as a potent beginner to intermediate powerlifting program.
Anyone looking to develop a strong foundation of strength would benefit from utilizing a 5×5 program. The program focuses on skill development on the effective barbell strength exercises by applying them multiple times per week.
Repeated exposure to these lifts helps develop rapid strength-skill increases, while slow progressions allow muscle tissue to adapt on the back end. Athletes far away from competition or new lifters looking to establish a strong base — this program is for you.
While most people benefit from strength training, you might find yourself in a unique position where a 5×5 is outside your preferred programming style.
Athletes who have already established a high degree of skill or strength might find many 5×5 programs too unforgiving to see continued progress.
The repeated exposures to barbell lifts are great for beginner, and intermediary strength development since a considerable degree of improvement will come from improved skill. Once your strength reaches a specific level, the linear increases in bar weight between each workout might be a bit overwhelming to be of benefit. Your strength has already reached a level where more time is needed at each weight to squeak out more progress than the program might allow.
Lack of Specificity
While there are many variations of the original 5×5, they are all rooted in the development of generalized strength. More customizable programs might be a better option if you have specific exercise or strength goals that fall outside the prescribed exercises or their potential carryover.
The lifter with no specific strength goal is the most obvious person who shouldn’t be using a 5×5. Strength is a dedicated pursuit; if you’re interested in maximizing muscle gain, endurance, or a wide range of other goals, a 5×5 might not allow for such variability. Like many programs, if you find yourself chasing dreams outside of what it specifically promises, there is little use for you here.
About Bill Starr
For some, Bill Starr may be a bit of a throwback, but his influence is widespread. Starr was an Olympic weightlifter in the 1960s, becoming a prolific strength coach, author of several successful programs, and writer for numerous publications.
One of his most recognizable contributions is “The Strongest Shall Survive” which holds up to this day. Starr also served as a strength and conditioning coach for many collegiate programs and professional football teams, actively contributing to the field well into the 2000s before his death in 2015.
The Final Word
Bill Starr is a legend in the strength scene, inspiring many other coaches and programs through his contributions.
His 5×5 program(s) highlight the beautiful, straightforward nature of strength training — with effort trumping nearly all else in the pursuit of massive progress. For your beginner and intermediate programming needs, look no further than Bill Starr’s 5×5. Sometimes the best thing for you is a brief but brutal stint with simplicity.
- Wood PP, Goodwin JE, Cleather DJ. Lighter and heavier initial loads yield similar gains in strength when employing a progressive wave loading scheme. Biol Sport. 2016 Sep;33(3):257-61. doi: 10.5604/20831862.1201912. Epub 2016 May 12. PMID: 27601780; PMCID: PMC4993141.
- Glover, I. S., & Baker, S. N. (2020). Cortical, Corticospinal, and Reticulospinal Contributions to Strength Training. The Journal of Neuroscience, 40(30), 5820-5832. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.1923-19.2020
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