Bill Starr's Advanced 5x5 Workout
This program and variants have been making the rounds on the internet for a few years. Variations have been made for specific lifters, it’s been rehashed and re-explained by various people ranging from your standard guy who had a lot of success with it all the way to some fairly high level coaches in multiple sports using it on their athletes or using it to illustrate periodization. This is a tweaked version more accessible to the variety of people using a program like this for the first time. All that said the real origins stretch back fairly far but for practical application there are three primary sources who are responsible for it’s popularity over the most recent 30 years: Bill Starr, Glenn Pendlay, and Mark Rippetoe.
This program is very effective at increasing strength and lean body mass. It focuses on the core lifts that drive full body hypertrophy and getting those lifts up as quickly as possible. There is little isolation work and what is generally used is targeted and specific. The idea is you do a few things and get systematically better at them over time, don’t try to do everything all at once. Focus on what matters most and remove all the garbage so you can do it a lot and get really good.
People have had a lot of success using something like this while cutting. I have seen a number of reports of people keeping body weight constant, losing body fat, and increasing in most relevant measurements (chest, thigh, arms) so that says something. If you are close to a weight class limit you’ll need to be very careful. All that said, this program will make you strong but if you want to put on muscle there absolutely must be caloric excess.
This program has gotten results for 30 years and still continues to get excellent results from bodybuilders, strength athletes, or those looking for better performance. There is more to training than simply going into the gym, getting under a bar, and working hard hoping to come back better. So by running this program one gets gains and learns at the same time.
This program should be tailored to the experience level of the trainee. This version is presented for the experienced lifter who’s familiar with the core lifts and is beginning periodization. For most people unfamiliar with this style of training, which is a lot more taxing than doing a bunch of isolation work, it’s a good starting point. Some might find that they can be more aggressive with the weights and load harder, some might need more volume, some might find themselves doing really well in the volume phase and realizing that a single factor program with more emphasis on frequency and the core lifts is what might work best as significant strength increase during the initial phase would be a good indicator that linear progress is still available but programming must be improved (i.e. you don’t need periodization, you need a good training program).
If you’re going to time to a program, please take 10-15 minutes to actually read this page and understand it.
Before beginning it is useful to know your real 5 rep max in each lift. You can base your 5×5 max off your 5 rep max just by cutting back a bit. If you don’t know this – it might be useful to test your lifts first or start light so you can make adjustments on the fly as you ramp the weights.
Volume/Loading Phase – Weeks 1-4:
5×5 is 5 sets of 5 reps with working set weight (warm up to the target weight for the week and proceed through 5×5 with that weight).
1×5 is ramping the weights upward each set to a target set weight for a single set of 5 (it’s still 5×5 but each set gets heavier and your target set is the top set of 5). The exception is the Wednesday squat for 5×5 using somewhere between 10-20% less than the working weight on the Monday 5×5 workout.
What you are doing is gradually increasing the target weights week to week so you wind up performing record lifts in the final two weeks of the volume phase (weeks 3/4 in this case). If you miss a weight, hold it constant for the next week by carrying it forward.
Keep in mind that you have separate targets for 5×5 and 1×5 even though they are the same lift. The ramping is set separately for these and they are treated separately. It’s a good idea to start conservatively as this gets fairly backbreaking and you’ll be begging for week 5.
The most common mistake is people starting too high. It’s useful to start light and then be flexible either adding an extra week to the ramp up or moving your targets a bit as you feel your way. This is far easier in the intensity phase because you already have a reference – likewise the next time you run this workout, it’ll be a no brainer.
The main point in this phase is the volume. Lower the weight if need be but get the sets and reps in. If you fail on an exercise just carry the target weight forward into the next week. Some people who are new to this might find it easier to run this phase for 6 weeks starting much lighter and building slowly. If your working weights for the deadlift are 2x bodyweight it’s probably a good idea to do lower the volume on that lift to 3×5 in this phase.
The easiest way to set this up the first time is to put current personal records (PRs) in week 3. Your 5 rep max (RM) can be calculated and just drop off a given percentage for your 5×5RM (try 7.5% maybe) you get a week 3 figure for those lifts. Now back down to week 1. A conservative number to start with might be 80% of your Week 3 PR lift then split the difference for Week 2.
If you are really strong and jumps are large, you might need more weeks to ramp up. What you don’t want to do is start too high, you can always tack on another week but if you start too high you blow the progression.
Week 4 lifts are a margin above week 3, maybe 5%. Plan it out but be flexible, adjust where need be so that you culminate with the 2 final weeks. If that means starting lighter and running for 6 weeks that’s fine. If that means you thought 4 weeks was fine but you were unexpectedly stronger (or got stronger during this phase) and need to add an extra week to avoid a big jump, that’s okay too.
Your first time through you’ll feel pretty beat up after the last week, that’s okay. If you are beat up entering the 2nd to last week, that’s something to watch. Sometimes you’ll encounter a performance deficit and not be able to set PRs (very common for advanced athletes loading hard). You don’t want to push it too hard and overdo it.
OPTION 1 – Deload and Peak 3×3:
This option provides for deloading in the middle weeks and working toward new PRs in the final weeks. This makes it a bit harder to handle, especially for first timers. You might need a light week or two before moving back into another loading period.
Deloading – Week 5:
On week 5 drop the Wednesday squat workout, begin using the Deloading/Intensity set/rep scheme, and keep the weight the same as your last week in the Volume Phase. In reality the whole intensity phase and this week are the same thing, I just break this week out because there is no weight progression so in reality after the volume phase the whole thing is deloading/intensity which for the purposes of this workout are synonymous. Also my 3x per week layout tends to get pretty aggressive as many find themselves fatigued again by the end so it kind of makes logical sense to break this period separately. Largely semantics.
Intensification Phase – Week 6-9:
The important aspect of this phase is the weight increases. If you are burned out and you need an extra day here and there that’s okay. If you can’t do all the work that’s okay too. Just keep increasing the weight week to week. It might also help to keep the first week in this phase just incrementally higher than the Deloading Week to provide for extra recovery if needed.
During this phase you’ll be ramping the weights from your deloading week to your 3×3 and 1×3 records in the final 2 weeks. In this 3x per week pattern, start light once again and get a breather. Taking extra days or cutting out volume isn’t encouraged but if you need extra recovery do it and then adjust your future training plans accordingly.
If you don’t get an adequate deload first (that 1 week may not be enough) you will cripple your gains. Better to get 90% out of a training cycle than 10%. You’ll learn a lot about your tolerance for volume loading and unloading here – there is no need to try to be a hero. Get some experience and the next time you run this you’ll be spot on but you wind up feeling your way to a degree the first time.
OPTION 2 – Pure Deload:
This is designed to get you recovered without too much hassle or worry. Frequency is dropped to 2x per week and the Friday workout is dropped. The Wednesday workout can be moved to Thursday if desired. This phase can be run as long as needed to recover. Maybe that’s 1-2 weeks for some people to build enough steam to jump back into a loading phase. Maybe that’s 4-5 weeks if someone feels they are really getting a lot out of it.
Week 5 and on switch to 3×3 and drop the Friday workout altogether. Week 5 weights are the same as the final week of loading. Over the following weeks increase the weight workout to workout if you get all 9 reps. If you don’t get all the reps, keep the weight constant.
You’ll likely be able to move straight back into another volume phase after this is complete. As for the increases week to week, probably best to use a percentage but to make it easy for first timers maybe add 5lbs to benches and rows then 10lbs to squats and deads.
OTHER PERTINENT INFORMATION
Time Between Sets:
Use a natural rep speed and take what you need between sets. Don’t be lazy but don’t rush. You can’t be doing rapid fire sets of big compound lifts. Maybe on the lightest warm-ups you take a minute but most sets will be 2-5 minute range with 2 being between fairly easy sets and 5 being after a heavy set in preparation for another very serious major effort that drains you.
If you’re trying to gain muscle, caloric excess must be present. More people, particularly bodybuilders, go wrong here. If caloric excess is present and training stinks, you will get fatter. There’s nothing any program can do if you won’t eat.
For the purposes of gaining muscle or getting big and strong it’s better to eat McDonalds and KFC all day long than not eat enough.
Learning about Your Tolerances/Setting Up Your 2nd Training Cycle:
If you are really loading hard, performance will decline towards the end so setting records and actually getting the lifts may not be possible.
The other lifts 1×5, 3×3, 1×3 are similarly adjusted based on previous records.
Also, people’s tolerances vary widely at every level. As you go, you’ll learn all about what you need, what you can handle, and what is too much. Eventually, you’ll be able to tailor this program or an entire 6 month training cycle to your individual specs and requirements.
It’s absolutely essential not to screw with the squats, they are the foundation of this program. If you want to sub inclines or push presses for military that’s okay. Do not sub machines. If you can’t chin due to bodyweight, pulldowns are okay.
Core work is always fine.
Cardio is fine.
For a lifter with some experience, it is not enough to go in and work hard – you need a program that properly regulates volume and intensity.
An advanced lifter might start their ramps much closer to their record weights. As your weights increase the volume can also be spread over 4 days rather than 3 to accommodate the fatigue from the heavier weights.
These lifters might also compress the training cycle into 2-3 weeks of loading and 1-2 weeks of deloading once they are geared up and training hard. This routine is for someone who has spent some time doing this type of work and will overload just about anyone besides an accomplished seasoned lifter. You apply more volume when you need it, not as an ego thing. This will destroy or drastically limit your gains. Don’t do this unless you’ve run many dual factor training cycles and are absolutely sure you need it.
Here’s a downloadable Excel file that calculates your relevant lifts and plots out what this program might look like over 9 weeks. It makes a lot of assumptions that might not be right or near optimal for any given lifter. Understand that this is just a reference for what it might look like.
TWO VERY IMPORTANT POINTS
1. When running this for the first time, be realistic with your expectations and make changes as needed to bring you up and time things correctly.
2. After you have run this even once, don’t rely on the spreadsheet. You will do better with your experience, a pencil, and your brain.
Some of the assumptions for those interested: