Heavy Does It

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Exercise in Focus: Leg Press
Just because you’re doing five reps on an exercise doesn’t mean you necessarily have to do five sets of it. Sullivan has you doing 5x5 on barbell squats, but because he’s ever mindful of overtraining, leg presses get only three sets of five reps. 

Conventional training wisdom always seems to err on the lighter side. Technique is flawed? You’re going too heavy. Not as shredded as you’d like to be? Go light and do higher reps. 

Enough. It’s about time people stop taking weight off the bar and start piling it on (within reason, of course). Because, first of all, high reps don’t make you shredded; building muscle does. And if you want to build muscle, you need to get strong, too. 

There’s nothing wrong with the popular, tried-and-true schemes that call for moderate weights and reps — 3x10, 4x8, 10x10. But if you want to maximize strength and the appreciable size gains that come along with it, try erring on the heavier side with another classic method that might just trump them all: 5x5.



  • Do no more than two of these workouts per week. “Don’t perform 5x5 training every week for every bodypart,” Sullivan says. “This heavy style of lifting will quickly drain your central nervous system and will lead to overtraining. Choose two major bodyparts each week to apply 5x5 to.”
  • For all exercises in all workouts, increase weight on every set, whether it’s a warm-up or working set. 
  • On warm-up sets, the weight/effort should be light to moderate; for 5x5 sets, each set should be at or approaching failure. 

Exercise in Focus: incline dumbbell Bench Press
In this workout, incline dumbbell presses come before flat benches. Feel free to vary exercise order from workout to workout. If your upper pecs are a weak area, do inclines first, when your muscles are at their freshest. Otherwise, alternate flat and incline every other time you train chest — if you did flat first last workout, do inclines first the next.

The Power of Five

The 5x5 protocol has been around for at least a half century, so it’s nothing new. Iconic bodybuilder Reg Park, a three-time Mr. Universe in the 1950s and ’60s (and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s boyhood idol), swore by the method and is considered a pioneer of 5x5 training. (Training guru Bill Starr lent scientific legitimacy to 5x5 when he published his 1976 football training book The Strongest Shall Survive.) Park, at 6 feet 1 inch and about 225 pounds, was considered one of the bigger bodybuilders of his time, so anything he was doing in the gym was believed to be effective at building muscle, not just strength.

The 5x5 system is what it sounds like: five sets of five reps for a given exercise. It entails using a relatively heavy weight and typically employing ample rest periods between sets. The five-rep count is seen as a “tweener” that falls within the well-established eight- to 12-rep range ideal for building size and near the one- to three-rep range favored by powerlifters who aren’t as concerned with hypertrophy as bodybuilders. So the question is: Are sets of five reps better for size or strength? Through anecdotal and empirical research, the answer is unequivocally both. 

“The five-rep range has been proven to be the most beneficial range for a mixture of mass and strength,” says Ryan Sullivan, a competitive natural bodybuilder, personal trainer and owner of Sci-Unison Fitness in North Babylon, N.Y. (sci-unisonfitness.com). “Going with higher reps will be only hypertrophy based and then eventually endurance based. Lower than five reps begins to creep into strength only, with major demands on the central nervous system. The 5x5 helps with both worlds. It helps to build a solid strength foundation that enables one to lift heavier weight in the higher, more hypertrophy-based rep ranges.”

What’s so magical about the number “5” anyway? According to Starr, nothing really. In his book, he cites research that showed that four to six sets of four to six reps delivered optimal results, so he just simplified things by meeting in the middle and calling it five sets of five reps. If you think about it, though, not only does a rep count of five represent a crossover between strength and size, but five sets — as opposed to 2x5 or 3x5 — also ensures adequate volume, a requirement for maximizing hypertrophy. 

Exercise in Focus: Pulldown
Pulldowns aren’t an exercise typically done for low reps with heavy weight. Just remember, range of motion is key. If you can’t reach the bar all the way to your upper chest on a majority of your reps, you’re going too heavy. Even when doing 5x5, it’s important to squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of each rep.

Heavy Stuff

Sullivan designed the following 5x5 workouts, paying careful attention to reducing the risk of overtraining. This style of training isn’t just a matter of doing five sets of five reps on every exercise of every workout; rather, you pick one or two exercises for a muscle group to subject to 5x5. And don’t get too stuck on the No. 5 — you don’t have to do exactly five reps on every set. 

Exercise in Focus: Hammer Strength Shoulder Press
Machine exercises allow you to really overload the target muscle because stabilizers aren’t relied on as much as they are with free weights. Take this opportunity to pile on some weight. With seateddumbbell shoulder presses, having a spot is essential — not so much on Hammer Strength presses because you can fail on a rep and the weight will be safely caught by the machine.

“The goal is to select a weight that will yield failure in and around the five-rep range,” Sullivan says. “Completing five sets of five reps is more of a target than a requirement. Let’s say you’re doing 5x5 with the bench press. You finish your initial warm-up sets and are ready to go. You may end up with six reps on your first set, five on the second, four on the third and fourth, and only three on your fifth set. Don’t be discouraged — this is part of the game. Now the next time you do 5x5 for chest, you’ll try to build on these numbers.”

Once you’re able to perform an exercise for five reps to failure for all five sets, Sullivan says, it’s time to increase the weight the next time you do that exercise. “Completing a 5x5 isn’t something you’re going to jump right into and complete,” he says. “If you do, the weight was too light in the first place.”

Exercise in Focus: Dip
Weighted dips not only will help pack on size to your triceps; your shoulders and chest will be worked, too. Other good triceps exercises for which to use 5x5 include close-grip bench presses (provided you have a spotter) and lying triceps extensions (with a straight or EZ-bar), aka skullcrushers. The latter move provides slightly better isolation of the triceps than dips and close-grip bench.

Muscle & Performance Dip

Most proponents of heavy lifting recommend you balance 5x5 training with higher rep ranges in the same week and same training session. In a given week, perhaps the first two to three workouts are heavy days and the last two to three sessions are light. And within the heavy workouts, follow your heavy exercise(s) with higher rep work. (In Sullivan’s workouts, 5x5 moves are followed by sets of 12 to 15 reps.) This not only will keep nervous-system demands in check but also will expose the muscles to varying hypertrophy-inducing rep ranges. Because, after all, heavy weight and low reps isn’t the only way to build muscle — it’s just one of the best. 

“It’s key to strike a balance with your training,” says Sullivan, who recommends 5x5 training for individuals of all levels, from newcomers to professional bodybuilders. “Alternate your standard-style workouts with 5x5 routines each week.”

Exercise in Focus: Barbell Curl
For isolating and adding size to the biceps, nothing beats the classic barbell curl. Maintaining good form is important, but a small amount of cheating is OK on the last rep or two of an occasional set. When cheating, lean back just enough to get the bar moving upward, then lift it the rest of the way up using only your biceps.