Bill Starr’s Beginners 5×5 Workout

Updated June 11, 2020

While Mark Rippetoe may have made the 5×5 program famous, the original creator is a guy called Bill Starr. He created the program in his 1976 book “The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football”. If you’ve ever followed a strength training program, then you have seen Bill’s principles at work. The 5×5 strength training program is the most direct way to build strength you could ask for.

Over the years there have been several variations of the 5×5 program, with Mark Rippetoe making an excellent version, but there’s something special about the original. It uses just five different exercises: Power cleans, squats, bench press, incline bench press, overhead press. The program requires just three days of training, and works on a heavy, light, medium rotation.

The five sets of five on each exercise also vary in weight, starting with a lighter weight for the first set of five reps, and increasing the weight slightly each set so that your final set is your heaviest. The next week you increase the weights 2.5% so that the amount you lift for each set is slightly heavier. You keep increasing the total weight lifted by 2.5% each week for ten weeks.

For example:


Week 1 (Heavy)

  • Set 1 = 50kg
  • Set 2 = 60kg
  • Set 3 = 70kg
  • Set 4 = 80kg
  • Set 5 = 90kg

Week 2 (Heavy)

  • Set 1 = 55kg
  • Set 2 = 65kg
  • Set 3 = 75kg
  • Set 4 = 85kg
  • Set 5 = 95kg

Week 3 (Heavy)

  • Set 1 = 60kg
  • Set 2 = 70kg
  • Set 3 = 80kg
  • Set 4 = 90kg
  • Set 5 = 100kg

And so on. Please note that these numbers are just examples, not instructions. They are just here to give you an idea.

As you can see, the amount of weight lifted is only going up very slightly each week but by the tenth week you will be lifting substantially more than you were in week 1. For this reason the Bill Starr 5×5 program is seen as excellent for intermediate or advanced lifters. However, beginners should probably avoid it.

This is because the increases will be too much to cope with and your body won’t be as efficient in recovery – or even in technique just yet.

Any beginner looking to follow a 5×5 program should avoid the weight increments, at least for the first ten weeks or so. Concentrate on your technique and prioritise recovery afterwards.


The Exercises

Most lifters feel that if you’re following the Bill Starr 5×5 program then you should really follow the exact exercises he mentions. But not everyone can perform the same exercises with the same level of competence. The Powerclean is an example of an excellent exercise that may be too technical for your average gym goer to complete.

If you have an instructor showing you perfect Powerclean technique then by all means continue with it. But if not, you could consider replacing the Powerclean with a deadlift. Some people replace it with a barbell row, as there isn’t much back activation in the original program.

If you have a shoulder injury, then an overhead barbell press may not be the best idea. Replacing it with a neutral dumbbell press (either seated or standing) might be worth considering.

You could also swap regular squats for front squats if you want. If you really wanted to annoy a strength coach you could replace squats with leg press, but you’d better have a good excuse!

Warming Up/Cooling Down

The 5×5 program doesn’t really worry about your warm up or cooling down, the initial sets are treated as a form of warm up by most strength coaches. However, some mobility work might be a good idea before beginning. You could also add in some very light practice sets of each exercise before beginning.

Should I Add Anything?

Adding exercises to a 5×5 program feels wrong on many levels, but it should be pointed out that the 5×5 program is very light on upper back exercises. Pull ups, barbell rows, seated cable rows etc … might be a good exercise to add in. They aren’t necessary though, you could get an excellent workout from the five exercises alone.

The Bill Starr 5×5 Program

Day One (Heavy)

  • 5 sets of 5 Squats
  • 5 sets of 5 Powercleans
  • 5 sets of 5 Bench Press

Day Three (Light)

  • 5 sets of 5 Squats
  • 5 sets of 5 Incline Bench Press
  • 5 sets of 5 Powercleans

Day Five (Medium)

  • 5 sets of 5 Squats
  • 5 sets of 5 Overhead Press
  • 5 sets of 5 Powerclean

The author

Steve Shaw
Steve Shaw is the original founder of Muscle and Brawn, an experienced powerlifter with over 31 years experience pumping iron. During competition he’s recorded a 602.5lb squat, 672.5lb deadlift and a 382.5lb bench press.

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