The 5 x 5 training programme is not optimal for hypertrophy. In this article I will outline why this is the case and why 5 x 5 should be used for strength training instead.
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No. The 5 x 5 training plan is not optimal for hypertrophy.
Before we can say it is not optimal for hypertrophy we have to outline what we are talking about. The 5 x 5 training plan consists of performing 5 repetitions for 5 sets on multiple barbell exercises per week. It’s a very old training programme, with a history going back to the body builder who inspired Arnold, Reg Park . Then this original programme was adapted by Bill Starr and it has been adapted multiple times since. There are actually a wide variety of 5 x 5 training programme with the key principle concept being 5 sets of 5 repetitions at a challenging load close to failure.
B) Bench Press
C) Barbell Row
B) Overhead Press
Monday: Workout 1
Wednesday: Workout 2
Friday: Workout 1
Monday: Workout 2
Wednesday: Workout 1
Friday: Workout 2
So in the coarse of a two week period we complete workout one and two three times each.
Squat - 15 sets per week
Bench Press - 7.5 sets per week (average)
Overhead Press - 7.5 sets per week (average)
Barbell Row - 7.5 sets week (average)
Deadlift - 1.5 sets per week (average)
These numbers show us that 5 x 5 is predominantly a squatting strength training programme. It may also cause strength gains in the bench press, overhead press and barbell row depending on the individual. Some individuals will find this enough volume to make strength adaptations for strength gains, others will find this not at all enough.
The physiological process of strength training is different to that of hypertrophy and understanding the difference is important for understanding why 5x5 is not a hypertrophy training plan.
Strength training adaptations are where the amount of contractile muscle increases through increasing the amount of neurons within a muscle, this means that there are neurological adaptations within the current muscle that allow for more contractile force, therefore improving strength (force production) without inducing hypertrophy.
Whereas hypertrophy is where mechanical tensions (through lifting weights) causes an increase in muscle muscle mass (increased myofibril size and myofibrillar number). This is a highly reductionist explanation, but it gives you an idea that physiologically strength and hypertrophy are very different.
Now we have a rough understanding of the physiological adaptations of training, we need to look to the literature to see how we can create these adaptations.
Time under tension is what causes hypertrophy adaptations therefore increasing the amount of time under tension will increase the amount of muscle mass gain (to a point of diminishing returns).
“When the rest of the variables remain constant, increases in volume will necessarily increase the overall time-under-tension” (1)
So if volume and time under tension are crucial to making muscle gain then performing a high number of sets (10+) with high repetitions (8+) at loads between 55-70% is the key to a successful hypertrophy training plan. So working back from optimal and assessing the 5 x 5 strength training plan we can see that according to the current literature it is not optimal for hypertrophy.
5 x 5 is a very good strength training programme for increasing the strength of the squat and potentially increasing the strength of the other lifts within the programme. Strength training includes lifting loads of between 70-95% for between 1-6 repetitions. There is also a dose response relationship , where an increase in volume results in an increase in strength training adaptations, this also has a point of diminishing returns.
So how many sets are effective for strength training adaptations on a weekly basis according to the current literature? The literature suggest from 8-20 sets per week for optimal strength gains, these will be heavily impacted by individual differences such as training age, life stress, maximal recoverable volume and will also change for each lift for each person. However they act as a good guide when it comes to building a broad outline of a successful training programme.
Therefore we can see how we came to the conclusion that 5 x 5 is a great way for people to increase their squat (15 sets per week) with potential increases in the other lifts (bench press, overhead press, barbell row) and potential maintenance of the deadlift (1.5 average sets per week, this may not be enough to maintain strength).
Yes. The body doesn’t work in black and white like we sometimes make out, yes we can design something that is optimal, but strength training will also cause hypertrophy and visa versa. This is especially true in beginners, who can make extremely good gains with almost any sort of regular training programme (as long as it is performed with good technique).
Find a different hypertrophy based training plan if your goal is hypertrophy. The 5 x 5 training protocol is far from optimal for inducing muscle gain. If you love simplicity and want to get strong then it can be a great programme for you to try out.
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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.