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The default set and rep scheme for most gym goers seems to be 3 sets of 10 reps. That’s too bad, because you’ll gain more muscle and strength with 5 sets of 5.
First popularized in the 1960s by Reg Park, a multiple-time Mr. Universe, the 5 x 5 method is one of the oldest and most effective approaches to training, partly because it’s almost impossible to screw up.
Why? It all comes down to load and volume. Low-rep sets imply pretty heavy weights, and five sets’ worth gives you enough exposure to challenging loads to drive muscle and strength gains.
How to Use the 5 x 5 Protocol
1. Choose a load that you can lift seven or eight times, which is about 80% of your of your max.
So, let’s say you’re pretty sure you can squat 100kg for one rep if your life depended on it, and you want to do a 5×5 workout. Eighty percent of 100kg is 80kg, so load 80 for your first set.
2. Pay more attention to form than you do to load.
Every rep should look crisp and smooth. Perform your first set of the 5 x 5 exercises with a weight that would otherwise allow you 8 reps. If your speed on the first two sets is fast and your form is good, go ahead and add weight on the third set (and fourth and fifth, if your technique holds up). If your reps move slowly or form breaks down, stop the set there—no matter how many reps you have left—and reduce the weight.
3. Use a barbell.
Classic compound barbell lifts such as squats, presses, and rows activate greater amounts of muscle, making your training highly efficient.
4. Rest between sets.
Rest as needed between all sets, and at least 90 seconds between sets of the 5×5 exercises.
5. Use the technique for 5 weeks.
Push yourself a little harder each week, using a Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale to control your intensity. If a 10 represents an all-out effort, do your workouts as follows:
- Week 1: 7 RPE (you should have about 3 reps left in you at the end of every set)
- Week 2: 8 RPE (about 2 reps left)
- Week 3: 9 RPE (about 1 rep)
- Week 4: 7 RPE (you’ll back off this week, gathering energy for next week)
- Week 5: 10 RPE (go for it!)
The Standard 5 x 5 Program
Use this sample program, excerpted from the Men’s Health Encyclopedia of Muscle.
Perform each workout (A, B, and C) once per week, resting a day between each session. So you might do Workout A on Monday, B on Wednesday, and C on Friday.
By Sean Hyson, C.S.C.S.