NOTE: I wrote about two-thirds of this post and when I saved it as a draft, WordPress fucked up and erased all but the first line. Needless to say, I’m furious, and will do my best to rebuild it. Clearly, I need to start writing drafts offline first.
I love the classic 5×5 program. Like Pat Sherwood, I like clean, simple programming. A good training protocol and workout should have a clear, Zen-like quality about it, and I’ve yet to encounter anything in strength training that achieves that as effectively as the 5×5. Furthermore, it’s uniquely effective, which is part of the reason it’s survived a strength training staple over 60-plus years of fitness fads (its worth and merit is still being discussed by top minds today). I had personally dabbled in weight training for years before I finally started a 5×5 protocol that delivered both the strength and aesthetic growth I had been searching for.
For those that don’t know, the 5×5 program refers to the sets and repetitions used by the athlete during training workouts. So, 5×5 refers to 5 sets of 5 repetitions (SETS x REPS), giving you a total number of 25 working repetitions per lift per workout. The popularity of the 5×5 protocol is largely attributed to Bill Starr, who wrote about it in his book The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football, where he said:
“The researchers found that 4-6 repetitions of 4-6 sets, increasing the weight on each successive set, produced the most significant increase in strength. Terrific, I simplified the formula to five sets of five reps as that was the exact median and it was easy to remember.”
There are several variations of it, but the purest and most simple 5×5 has the athlete warm up thoroughly, then perform 5 sets of 5 reps at the same weight (called “sets across”). I’ve always like this best, as I feel it’s both the most challenging and the simplest, and especially in beginners, nets excellent growth. However, my personal and anecdotal experience has let me to determine this variation while effective in a caloric surplus is particularly brutal and excruciating in a caloric deficit. Given that I am on a quest to slowly and stably take myself down to approximately 10-12% body fat using flexible dieting, a caloric deficit is necessary evil. Recently, I’ve noticed increased fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and more grinding and missed reps than “normal” for me in the gym. All of these are indicators of under-recovery, that my body and nervous system can no longer take going “balls to the wall” for sets across every single workout. Thus, it’s time to re-evaluate my programming to further progress my goals of improving strength while slowly and safely decreasing body fat.
So now what? Anyone that knows me knows I am a big fan of the Wolverine character and Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of him on film. It’s taken several years and a few serious missteps, but both Days of Future Past and The Wolverine before it finally started delivering stories and action worthy of Jackman’s talent and Logan’s character, and Hugh has certainly achieved a physique worthy of the character. Like many, when stuck in a crossroads or dilemma, I look for inspiration. This time, I turned back to Hugh and his trainer David Kingsbury.
As fate would have it, Hugh’s training for both The Wolverine and Days of Future Past is a bit of a hybrid of an ascending load 5×5 and Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program. It uses the varying percentages of Wendler’s program and 3:1 load:deload cycle, while pursuing slightly higher volume overall (closer to a 5×5).
From both of these references, I started rebuilding my own 5×5 using a similar ascending load cycle. The end result?
The reality is nothing fancy. I’ve borrowed from Jim Wendler the four-day day split for the main lifts, with a rest day in the middle, as well as the increasing loads over the three week cycle. However, I’ve modified the overall volume and loads to stay within the 5×5 parameters. However, this is purely cosmetic on a lot of levels, and a program that followed the same loading but with a 4×6 rep scheme would likely achieve almost identical results (and potentially save time in the gym due to the reduced number of sets). See below:
The key points on both is staying within that 4-6×4-6 range that seems to be the physiological “sweet spot” for natural athletes not assisting with drugs, and to cycle intensity to allow sufficient recovery despite the caloric deficit. Now it’s time to get to work.