As a bodybuilder, these days I am a big believer in simplicity. For years I banged out fancy-shmancy routines taken from newsstand muscle mags that featured numerous how-to photos of larger-than-life professional bodybuilders whose–ahem!–“supplement routines” consisted of far more than branched-chain amino acids and Hydroxycut. Anyway, I “bombed and blitzed” my biceps and triceps, pre-exhausted my quads, cranked out pulldowns like each rep added a month to my life, and followed a chest routine with more angles than a geometry textbook. Year after year I never got stronger, and each year I did nothing about it.
After I began competitive natural bodybuilding in 2009, I knew I wanted to add size and thickness to my genetically poor physique. At the suggestion of those far more knowledgeable than I, during my 2010-2011 off-season I discarded my usual approach in favor of Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program, and my body exploded with the best strength gains of my life. Within 15 months my top squat went from a lowly 225 x 6 to 287.5 x 4, my deadlift from 285 x 5 to 335 x 5, my bench from 200 x 1 to 200 x 5, and my overhead press from 95 x 4 to 115 x 4. The crossover to my bodybuilding goals was obvious, as my physique got noticeably thicker and denser (and my living room was soon cluttered with far more attractive trophies).
For my 2011-2012 off-season I wanted to both stick to what had worked as well as give my body a change, so I designed a workout routine that used the same basic principles of 5/3/1 (starting off “too light”, adding weight in small increments over an extended period of time, and working off a percentage of my one-rep max on each of the “big four” exercises mentioned above) while giving me a tad more volume and variety. It’s a take-off on the older-than-dirt 5 x 5 routine, and can be adjusted for pretty much anyone’s needs. While I think 5/3/1 is the better routine (a notion certain to be shared by its thousands of adherents), my current scheme has been working very well for me, and I’m making further gains than I did last year. Granted, I’m not suggesting it’s for everyone.
If your current routine has you getting bigger and stronger, by all means continue doing what you’re doing; I’m far from the world’s best or most knowledgeable bodybuilder. But if you find yourself cranking out set after set of seemingly innumerable exercises each week but not getting any stronger, and if you’re blessed with patience and can keep your ego in check, then you might find this routine a welcome change. Shall I delve into details? Here’s an eight-step “how to” guide for anyone that would like to try it.
1. Learn the exercises. If you don’t know how to properly squat below parallel, deadlift from the floor, bench press, and overhead press, hire a qualified powerlifting coach for a session or three. At the very least, search YouTube for Mark Rippetoe videos.
2. Determine your maxes. Use a one-rep max calculator to figure out your (you guessed it) one-rep maxes on each of the four main exercises the routine employs: the below parallel squat (in which the crease of your hip joint drops lower than the top of your knee), straight-bar deadlift, bench press, and overhead press.
Whatever you do, don’t bull***t yourself on your maxes; I assure you, absolutely no one else cares. If in doubt, shoot low. Heck, shoot low anyway; remember, starting off “too light” is an important part of the routine. From there (and the importance of this cannot be overstated), multiply each of those one-rep max estimates by 0.9, and use those as your “training maxes” while on the program (that means your “training maxes” will be 90% of your true maxes).
3. Split the four exercises into two different workouts. “Workout A” will feature squats and bench presses; “Workout B” will feature deadlifts and overhead presses. Not including warm-ups, perform five work sets of five reps for squats, bench presses, and overhead presses. For deadlifts, just do one work set of five. You’ll hit the weight room three non-consecutive days per week (i.e. Monday, Wednesday, Friday), alternating workouts. So, your schedule for the first week will be A-B-A, the next week B-A-B.
4. Determine your training percentages. For the first two workouts, use 65% of your training max (not your one-rep max) on each of the “big four”. For the next two workouts, use 75% of your training max. For the two after that, 85%. Thusly, your schedule over the course of two weeks will look like this:
Monday – Workout A, 65%
Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps at 65% of training max
Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 reps at 65% of training max
Wednesday – Workout B, 65%
Deadlift: 1 set of 5 reps at 65% of training max
Overhead Press: 5 sets of 5 reps at 65% of training max
Friday – Workout A, 75%
Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps at 75% of training max
Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 reps at 75% of training max
Monday – Workout B, 75%
Deadlift: 1 set of 5 reps at 75% of training max
Overhead Press: 5 sets of 5 reps at 75% of training max
Wednesday – Workout A, 85%
Squats: 5 sets of 5 reps at 85% of training max
Bench Press: 5 sets of 5 reps at 85% of training max
Friday – Workout B, 85%
Deadlift: 1 set of 5 reps at 85% of training max
Overhead Press: 5 sets of 5 reps at 85% of training max
5. Choose assistance exercises. For each workout, choose 2-3 assistance exercises to perform in addition to your staple lifts, selecting primarily multi-joint movements. You’ve got a lot of freedom with assistance exercises (you can go heavy, moderate, high-rep, low-rep, train to failure, pyramid or reverse pyramid your weights, use some “intensity techniques”; whatever), but I wouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Just choose exercises you know will help make you stronger, assist the main lifts, and build muscle.
Don’t ever put a higher priority on the assistance exercises than the “big four”, and don’t choose exercises that will each “isolate” the same muscle group. In other words, don’t have a “back and bis day”, “chest day”, or what have you. We’re not looking for a big pump or soreness that lasts for several days; we’re looking to gain strength incrementally. To provide an example, my A and B workouts normally look something like this:
Squats: 1-2 warm-up sets, 5 sets of 5 reps
Bench Press: 1-2 warm-up sets, 5 sets of 5 reps
Glute-Ham Raise: 3-4 sets of maximum reps
Chin-ups: 4-5 sets of whatever
Pulling exercise of choice: 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps
Deadlift: 1-2 warm-up sets, 1 set of 5 reps
Overhead press: 1-2 warm-up sets, 5 sets of 5 reps
Trap-bar Deadlift: 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps
Incline Dumbbell Presses: 1 warm-up set, 3 sets of 6-8 reps
Chin-ups: 4-5 sets of whatever
As I get closer to my contests this year I plan to add a bit more direct arm and ab work, but otherwise I don’t get too fancy.
6. Increase training poundages incrementally. You’ll complete a cycle every two weeks, and at the beginning of each new two-week cycle will bump up your poundages just slightly. Once you’ve come back around to the 65% workouts, add a small amount of weight to your training poundages on the big four exercises–no more than 5 pounds on the bench press and overhead press, and no more than 10 pounds on the squat and deadlift–and repeat the cycle (be conservative when adding weight, as the goal is to bump up by very small increments over the course of several weeks and months; myself, every two weeks I increase by only 2.5 pounds on the bench and overhead, and five pounds on the squat and deadlift).
For example, if your initial “training max” on the squat was 200 lbs., during the first two-week cycle your squat poundages would have been 130 pounds during your 65% workout, 150 pounds on 75% day, and 170 pounds on 85% day. During the next two-week cycle, a smart progression would be 135 pounds on 65% day, 155 on 75% day, and 175 on 85% day. Again–and I cannot stress this enough–you’re far better off adding what will feel like “not enough” weight than too much. The goal isn’t to use a huge amount of weight and “max out” every time you’re at the gym; rather, the goal is to add a small amount of weight each cycle so that several weeks or months down the line you’ll be using substantially heavier weights. Each workout is a link in the chain to the next cycle, and tacking on too much weight from one cycle to the next will create a very weak link, and your chain is likely to break down much faster than it would have, otherwise. This is not the routine for someone hoping to add 50 pounds to their bench press in eight weeks.
7. If you’d like, go crazy on the last set. When performing squats, deadlifts, bench presses, and overhead presses, use the same weight on all five sets, and stop at five reps! During the first few weeks, the first few sets of each should feel pretty light (this will be particularly true on 65% and 75% days). Use this time to perfect your technique and prime your body for the heavier workouts to come (strength is a skill that needs to be practiced).
However, if you’d like, you can go nuts on the fifth and final set, banging out as many reps as you please (during the first few weeks, you’ll probably be able to do up to 20 reps on this final set); this is a fun way to add some intensity and high-rep work, trying to break personal records along the way. The exception to this is deadlifts; I’m not a huge believer in high-rep sets of deadlifts, and wouldn’t recommend taking your one work set to failure. Rather, focus on five perfect reps, or just a few more.
8. Repeat the cycle ad nauseam, and be patient. If you know for a fact you’re not going to be able to stick to a particular workout routine for more than 2-4 weeks, or if you can’t stand not using the heaviest weights you can manage each time out, then please, I insist, don’t try this routine.
If, however, you’re like I was and hadn’t seen strength or thickness increases in years, and are blessed with patience and some meticulous record-keeping skills, I really, truly believe in the logic of looking forward several months rather than a week or two when trying to add strength. Besides, you can always go as hard and heavy as you’d like on assistance exercises, provided those never become your main focus.
That’s pretty much the routine! If you do decide to give this 5 x 5 plan a whirl, I’d love to hear how it works for you.
Ken Banks is an amateur bodybuilder and frustrated Red Sox fan living in Brewer, Maine. He is currently 20 weeks out from his first bodybuilding competition of 2012, and recommends Jim Wendler’s “5/3/1: The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength” for your reading pleasure.