The 5x5 strong lifts training plan is one of the most popular training plans available. The 5x5 training plan already has progressive overload worked into it, we are going to look at how the programme uses progressive overload and how to prevent stagnation over the long term.
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Progressive overload is the training principle that consists of increasing the physiological stress placed on the body over time to create a physical adaptation. This principle is used in all different types of physiological training to create effective adaptation, you should be using it in your training to make sure you’re getting the most out of your time, including if your doing the strong lifts 5x5 protocol.
Progressive overload is simply the manipulation of training variables to increase the amount of stress placed upon the body. To understand which training variable we can manipulate, lets first review these training variables and then look in more detail about how they are manipulated in the 5x5 training plan.
Volume is the amount of working sets completed, this can be framed as in a workout, in a week or in a training cycle. A simple way to think about it is the amount of work done in a movement pattern within a time frame. As most studies indicate the most important volume landmark is the total amount of sets done in a week.
Intensity is the difficulty of a set or repetition. It’s the difference between a warm up set and a working set and it can be manipulated in many ways including exercise selection, weight manipulation or tempo manipulation.
These are important terms to understand because they are the toggles in which we can turn to use progressive overload for all movements including full body workouts.
The 5x5 training programme was popularise by the strong lifts app. It consists of using the compound lifts and doing 5 sets of 5 on them. Each session will consist of 3 movements where you will perform 5 sets of 5, apart from the deadlift which will use a 1x5 as it is more taxing on the body.
The barbell movements involved are:
The programme involves two sessions.
The goal being to perform 3 sessions a week so the weekly structure might look something like this:
Then next week we would start the week with workout 2. Essentially we are just alternating between these two sessions.
The guidance for 5x5 is to increase the weight by 2.5kg or 5kg every workout and starting very light (50% of your 1RM). So the progressive overload is built into the training using a very simple linear periodisation model. This simplicity is great for beginners and intermediate trainees as it makes it easy to follow allowing for excellent training consistency. However after 6-8 months of very effective strength training intermediates can run into issues, we simply can’t just keep linearly adding weight, we will hit a point where the periodisation needs to become more nuanced.
If the only increase in the work done is the weight lifted, the progression is extremely simple. Here is an example of how a squat might be progressed over 4 weeks. The starting weight guidance is 50% so in this example we will take someone who has a 1RM of 80kg and use a progression rate of 2.5kg
Week 1 - 5x5 - 40kg
Week 2 - 5x5 - 42.5kg
Week 3 - 5x5 - 45kg
Week 4 - 5x5 - 47.5kg
This same sort of progressive overload would be used for all the lifts, building over time.
Doing the 5x5 protocol is a very effective training plan for those looking to get strong in the barbell lifts. Especially for beginner and intermediate practitioners who already have good movement patterns and lots of beginner gains yet to capture.
However for more advanced individuals it will be tough to make good progress long term with this programme as the progressive overload structure lacks any sort of nuance. It lacks any sort of emphasis or acknowledgment of what we know about hypertrophy and how to use progressive overload to induce hypertrophy. If your advanced then something like the Juggernaut or Juggernaut 2.0 training plan will be much more suitable for your training needs or even better the Juggernaut AI training app.
I think doing the programme as written is important, but understanding whats actually going on and how your body is adapting is also very important. We are just progressing the intensity through adding more weight each week, creating more and more adaptation. Once you hit a wall with this style of linear periodisation, using some undulating periodisation can be a very effective way to get through plateaus.
This may include doing some training cycles that don’t put so much emphasis on strength but more on hypertrophy (muscle growth). This will allow the body to build some new muscle and eventually help with the even greater strength adaptations. One good protocol maybe to perform the strong lifts training programme for a few months, then switch to doing some heavier work, like heavy doubles or singles. Then going from here into a block of hypertrophy for muscle gain and eventually coming back into the 5x5 strong lifts. The most important thing is that your lifting weights on a regular basis and strong lifts provides a very simple and easy to execute way to do this for beginners and intermediate lifters, give it a try and see what you think!
For a beginner build muscle is extremely easy, any sort of resistance training will result in good levels of muscle growth if enough protein and calories are being consumed. When progressive-overload and a relatively rational plan like 5x5 is added into the equation muscle growth can be expected. That being said, this programme isn’t built to get stronger, its built to gain strength. If you’re looking for hypertrophy training, you will want to increase the rep range and the total volume of training done.
The suggested weight on strong lifts is to start with 50% of your 1RM. This is a little arbitrary but again it helps with the simplicity of the programme. Strength adaptations will not start to occur until you’re using around 80%of your 1RM, so you may be wasting valuable training economy. That being said, for beginners, this can provide some skill learning aspects, but this is only for people who are still learning the movement patterns. The advanced barbell lifts are rarly perfected by beginners, so I wouldn’t recommend this programme to a true beginner, there are other ways to target the movement categories of the squat bench press, deadlift, press barbell row etc that don’t need a complex barbell movement. To lift heavier weight on the baryou’ll need strength adaptations in the big barbell lifts, the stronglifts 5x5 programme can provide this, but maybe consider starting around 60-70%of your 1RM if your an intermediate so you don’t waste valuable training time.
Eating plenty of protein can help you build muscle faster, especially if done in conjunction with a structured strength training program. Eating around 1gram per pound of body weight is the go to guideline for consistent recovery from any training program.
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This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.