Short answer: Theoretically, 5×5 routines are not inherently bad for building an aesthetic physique. But the poor nutritional advice, the unnecessary hype, the elitist attitude, the false claims, the egos of the coaches, the broscience and the needless glorification of barbell strength surrounding the 5×5 method often play a number on people who don’t know better. Many gullible bros end up with the physique of a fat centaur as a result of following 5×5 dogma.
The Origin of the 5×5 Method
Many people attribute the 5×5 system to the strength coach Bill Starr and his book The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football, but the first man who popularized the 5×5 blueprint was the British bodybuilder Roy “Reg” Park.
Reg Park’s 5×5 plan was published in 1960 in his manual Strength & Bulk Training for Weight Lifters and Body Builders. The resource contained three phases depending on one’s level of advancement.
Duration: 3 months
Frequency: 3 times a week
Rest between sets: 3-5 minutes
|45-Degree Back Extension||3||10|
|Barbell Back Squat||5||5|
Duration: 3 months
Frequency: 3 times a week
Rest between sets: 2 minutes
|45-Degree Back Extension||3-4||10|
|Standing Barbell Shoulder Press||5||5|
|Standing Barbell Calf Raise||5||25|
Duration: 3 months
Frequency: 3 times a week
Rest between sets: 2 minutes
|45-Degree Back Extension||4||10|
|Standing Barbell Shoulder Press||5||5|
|Bent-Over Barbell Row||5||5|
|Behind-the-Neck Press or One-Arm Dumbbell Press||5||5|
|Lying Triceps Extension||5||5|
|Standing barbell calf raise||5||25|
Apart from the first phase, the entire routine is an inferno of compound exercises and volume even though only the last three sets are done with work weights.
The training sessions are long enough to exhaust anyone’s adrenal glands. Yet many professors of muscle construction praise it to this day and “wish they’d found it earlier.”
I’m going to tell it like it is – that blueprint is highly impractical. I’d rather do a bro split than drain my CNS with front squats, back squats, deadlifts, barbell rows…etc. done in the same workout three times a week.
The only way to complete the above and respect the rest in-between sets is to lift light weights. But when you do that, the routine instantly mutates from a strength and mass builder into a barbell circuit.
The actual value of the program is its foundation. One can derive the following useful principles:
- Focusing on compound movements.
- Building a base before adding “superficial” exercises.
- Following a progression mechanism. (The lifter is supposed to increase the weight upon completing 3 sets of 5 with the selected poundage.)
- High frequency
In 1976, Bill Starr released his most famous book, The Strongest Shall Survive. It contains routines founded on similar mechanisms. Below is the beginner version:
Bill Starr’s 5×5 Beginner Workout
|Monday – Heavy||Wednesday – Light||Friday – Medium|
|Squats – 5×5||Squat – 5×5||Squats – 5×5|
|Bench press – 5×5||Bench press – 5×5||Bench press – 5×5|
|Deadlifts – 5×5||Pull-ups – 5×5||Rows – 5×5|
Starr wasn’t a fan of sets across. He recommended training in a pyramidal fashion (ramping sets) to one top set. In other words, only one of those 5 sets is done with a work weight.
Starr’s beginner routine gave birth to modern 5x5s such as StrongLifts 5×5, Starting Strength [3×5], IceCream Fitness 5×5…etc. They are all based on the same engine with a few minor tweaks here and there.
Personally, I did Starting Strength about a decade ago and gave my entire soul to the program. I followed it as originally written and even did power cleans despite the weird looks coming my way.
The Fundamental Flaws of 5×5 Training
1. Psychological Attacks on Noobs
To understand the marketing approach of the 5×5 promoters, you have to be familiar with the “good cop/bad cop” routine. This is a classic negotiating tactic relying on contrast attitude to extract information from a subject or trigger a reaction.
The “bad cop” displays unapologetic antipathy towards the subject and is not afraid to make unconcealed allegations, offensive comments and even threats.
The “good cop” shows sympathy and complete understanding – a move designed to win trust. If everything goes according to plan, the subject accepts the good cop as a savior and cooperates to receive the directly or indirectly promised protection.
Despite the opposing behavior both cops are on the same side and see the subject as a resource up for extraction.
Here’s how the 5×5 crew deployed this strategy in the muscle world.
Step 1: Create a bad cop.
The standard bodybuilding routines found in muscle-building magazines were demonized. They were presented as manipulative and effective only if one is on massive amounts of drugs. Isolation exercises were labeled as a moron’s choice.
The minions doing endless sets of cable crossovers looked back at their lack of results, recognized the truth in the statements and enthusiastically pivoted towards the old-school programs.
Step 2: Create a good cop.
5×5 routines were marketed as natural bodybuilding’s missing link. Images of Reg Park and company were used to advertise the muscular gains that 5×5 can produce; the barbell back squat was presented as the most anabolic movement on the planet.
“Squads & deads release an obscene amount of testosterone and growth hormone. Even your arms will grow,” screamed the megaphones. “Squat your way to big arms.”
The kids, heavily disappointed by their previous bodybuilding routines, saw 5×5 as their partner against the lying industry and chained themselves to the squat racks, hoping to build an ultra-muscular physique naturally. 5×5 quickly became the common man’s anabolic ally.
Many men did their squats and even followed the ridiculous GOMAD diet (one gallon of milk a day) to bulk up and become strong, “useful human beings”. But the partnership wasn’t nearly as fruitful as promised. A large number of lifters got fat as hell.
For example, in 2010, Rippetoe took his student Zack Evetts from around 164lbs/74.5kg to 242lbs/110kg. (source) Many were praising Zack’s “progress”, but the enlightened souls realized that a huge percentage of the gains were pure lard.
2. Crazy Claims
One of 5×5’s strongest marketing pillars is the belief that the bodybuilders from the 40s and 50s relied on similar methods to build their physiques and didn’t take roids because there were none at the time.
I have news for you – testosterone propionate was available in Europe in 1937 and the U.S. in 1939. To learn more about this topic, check out the post 1930s: The Birth of Synthetic Testosterone. It explains in greater detail the conception of testosterone as a drug.
But even if you don’t want to bother with the details, I encourage you to do three exercises.
Ex1. Search for pictures of Reg Park and Arnold competing together. You’ll find many of them. Notice that both men are practically the same size. And while people have no problem accepting that Arnold and his bodybuilding friends weren’t natural, the crowd still thinks that the likes of Reg Park were ultra-natural.
Ex. 2 Assume for a second that Reg Park was 100% natural and got his body from the magic of 5×5. It’s been said that in his peak his arms were 20 ½ inches. If he built those arms 100% naturally, how big would they be on gear? 25 inches?
Ex. 3 Take a tape measure and wrap it around your arm. Set it at 20 ½. Then ask yourself this – can you fill the empty space without getting fat?
3. Needless Glorification of Squats
The 5×5 promoters had no choice but to overhype the squat. After all, it’s the cornerstone of the 5×5 method. It had to become a superhero.
The naive kids bought all the nonsense about squats releasing copious amounts of testosterone and growth hormone and began squatting.
The results showed the truth. People were reporting unsatisfactory development.
4. Unhealthy Obsession with Strength (let’s get fat to lift more)
One of 5×5’s selling points is that strength equals muscles. While that’s true, to a certain extent, doing everything in your power to lift more is a dangerous game, especially when you’re a natural who wants to look good.
In 2012, an article entitled Eating Through the Sticking Points appeared on the Starting Strength website. (source)
The philosophy in it revolves around a quote from Hugh Cassidy – “You have to eat your way through the sticking points”.
Hugh Cassidy is a former powerlifting champion who bulked his way from 185lbs/84kg to 300lbs/136.36kg by slamming calories.
M. Reynolds, the author of the piece, is telling you that bulking is fundamental to strength development. He even talks about a guy who ate one cake a day for weeks to gain weight and break plateaus.
Reynolds’ article contains an interesting quote:
“Virtually every guy from the beginning of this article who told stories about the ridiculous amount of food he ate to gain weight, had, after accomplishing that goal, cut back down to 10% bodyfat or lower, and usually in less than 3 months. Only now, the lifters are 240 pounds with single digit bodyfat instead of 160 pounds with single digit bodyfat.”
Here’s a question – can you be 240 pounds with a single-digit body fat naturally? In case you don’t know, that’s bigger than Arnold in his prime.
A sane brain should decode the absurdity of the bulking propaganda instantly, but the obsession with muscle construction does wild things to a man’s sanity. Kids are eating cakes as we speak to reach new squat PRs.
Bros, I have more news for you – many of the guys advising you to bulk up are not natural.
Natties have a highly limited muscle-building capacity and gain an enormous amount of lard when dirty bulking. Enhanced guys who bulk up add fat to their frames too, but unlike natties, they also build a whole lot of muscle mass to compensate.
But the perils of natural permabulkers do not end here. They are also weak for their bodyweights. Sure, you can bulk up to 250lbs if you want, but when you are also 30%+ body fat, your strength to bodyweight ratio will always be deplorable.
A trained 250lbs man carrying 15% bodyfat is stronger than a permabulker who is also 250lbs but super-fat. Muscle > Fat.
5. Ignoring Skinny-Fat People
Many promoters of 5×5 routines completely ignored the existence of skinny-fat people.
Who are those?
Thin dudes who weigh little but have a high body fat percentage. When the experts hear that someone is 6’1”/185cm and weighs 68kg/150lbs, they immediately assume that the person is a cancer survivor in need of immediate fattening while completely disregarding the actual body composition of the individual.
When those skinny-fat ectomorphs bulk up, they get from skinny-fat to skinny-fatter to real fat.
The concept of force-feeding yourself into growth is and will always be flawed for naturals and even non-naturals who want to obtain aesthetic lines.
6. Squatting + Bulking = Centaur Physique
Squats are the heart of 5×5 training. You are doing them as an initial exercise three times a week. As a bonus, you are also performing deadlifts – another hip dominant lift.
The results? A centaur physique – big lower body and nothing up top.
But the pain does not end here. A lot of that lower body mass is fat too because the legs and the hips are among the top spots to store lard. Yet many bulking clowns think that their thighs are getting huge.
“I can no longer fit in my jeans, bro. My legs are getting crazy,” says the dreamer.
Sure, bro. Keep going.
7. Strength Shaming
The people who don’t satisfy the strength quota are ridiculed for “not following the program”.
And while a certain degree of criticism towards the spoiled kids who expect everything to be easy is justifiable, many individuals do everything in their power to improve but still fail to meet the criteria.
To “fix” this problem, the dedicated souls embrace a stupid bulking diet to “get through the sticking points” only to end up fat and weak for their bodyweight.
8. Elitist Mindset
Arguing with 5×5 fanatics is a waste of time. They see their programs as superior and will push the same notions forever as they have a strong incentive to do so.
9. “This is not a hypertrophy routine, bro. It’s a strength program.”
When the 5×5 followers began complaining about the lack of aesthetic muscular gains, the professors told them that 5×5 routines are designed for strength rather than hypertrophy.
This is a hypocritical response because many coaches advertised 5×5 as a blueprint leading to superior natural growth. Suddenly, they’re saying that we should’ve known better.
What to Do If Aesthetics Are Your Goal
1. Don’t deny the useful principles of 5×5.
The main virtues of 5×5 will always be beneficial. Those are:
- Basic lifts done with good technique
- Avoidance of junk exercises
A simple 5×5 routine is not a bad choice for a beginner if you adjust your expectations and don’t buy into the hype.
2. Don’t do mad bulks.
Bulking is detrimental and the number one reason why 5×5 routines produce centaurs. If your goal is to look good, it’s better to squat 200lbs and have visible abs than squat 315lbs and be 25%+ body fat.
3. Focus on the upper body if you’re a male.
Hate it or love it, males are judged by their upper bodies. Big arms, shoulders, chest and back produce more external admiration than a set of legs hitting each other.
Once you know how to do the basic lifts, it makes more sense to invest your focus and recovering capacity in an upper-body focused routine than to dedicate your life to the squat.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t train your legs, but they can take the back seat.
4. Don’t forget that the mirror doesn’t ask you how much you lift…nor do women.
Here’s a red pill fact – a man who does push-ups, pull-ups, dips and runs on the weekends while following a good diet could have a more aesthetic physique than many of the bulking pupils killing themselves in the gym squatting.
The guy in the video does half-rep pull-ups, swims and runs and is more aesthetic than many permabulkers. He is also 61 years old in the clip.
Strength is important, but being its slave leads to heavy aesthetic losses.
Good job. Can you write simmilar article of life of a “chad”
and life of durty bulker.Something simmilar where you write about Craig and Mark in your article : Similarities between nice guys which dont get bitches.I think it will be fantastic read.Thanks
I can think of something in the future.
Where do I start
Test was not commercially available in the 30s or 40s
I’ve tried the reg park routine
It was available in the 40s.
I think it was about 1938…definitely in the 50’s
A good natural program for guys with over 10 years in the gym more interested in looking good than obsessing over legs and ‘complete physique’:
Mon: push; pull; curls; side raises; rock carries.
Wed: legs (thighs) ; push ups; pull ups; rock carries.
Fri: pull; push, curls, side raises, rock carries.
Ive been following this program for about a year from my last one of four days a week.
Aesthetic? Naturals dont have what it takes to fulfill this ideal. It’s toxic af. Even the natty with good genetics and structure, broadness, lats, cut waist, etc. who may catch particular attention, elicits an impotent effect, compared to the “aesthetic” brahs popping pills like candy. “Aesthetics” just hinder the already compromised growth and progress in the gym of naturals as we chase this nonexistent dream. I figured it out pretty quick, but still wasted too much time starving myself and overtraining abs and delts to realize I was duped.
I understand what you’re saying. But by aesthetic, I don’t mean some tren brah. I’m talking about someone who is fairly lean with some muscle.
That’s a hot program. And it’s more “functional” than 5×5. I was thinking about doing log carries, but it’s not possible where I live at the moment.
Its a great “pin ball” con game. Average guy gravitates to bodybuilding to attract women, it doesn’t work (either for muscles or women), gets shamed into RealManTM training which doesn’t really “work” for the original goals either, but it’s “more practical” you see and provides many numbers to fuss over and a built in excuse not just for being fat (tremendously unhealthy just on its own), but confusing fatness with progress! Plus generous use of shame can keep a guy in the cult until he’s injured or his self respect finally kicks in.
Plus it’s become an article of faith that deadlifting for example is practical (“you’re picking something off the floor! What’s more practical than that?!”) even though practically no one ever lifts anything off the ground like a deadlift and certainly not in deadlift numbers. Meanwhile bipedal movement, you know, running, is viewed as sorcery that will deplete your testosterone and turn you into a wimpy manlet.
Legit. As they say, most powerlifters are failed bodybuilders. Anyone who says that they don’t want big arms, or lean abs is a liar most of the time.
The criticism of 5×5 routine in the article is aimed more towards what accompanies the routine, then the routine itself.
I say that 5×5 is a great way to introduce a novice to training in the gym. It will allow him tp build a strength base and to learn to preform basic compound barbell movements.
Later he can explore other rep ranges and other exercises, there is no nedd to be a slave to 5×5 dogma. It has it uses, but it’s not be all end all of strength training.
“Here’s a red pill fact – a man who does push-ups, pull-ups, dips and runs on the weekends while following a good diet could have a more aesthetic physique than many of the bulking pupils killing themselves in the gym squatting.”
Also if you wanna impress the normies with strength doing body weight exercises is far more impressive. I mean if a 75 kg person rep 10 handstand pushups everyone will be mirin, compared to if you do 10 reps of 50-60 kg OHP. Same with push ups, dips, pull ups, muscle ups.
I think the only bodybuilding lift that normies are impressed with is the bench press, because almost everybody at some point tryied to test his bench.
Jeff seid is the definition of aesthetics and he was natural till before the prep for mr olympia believe it or not, yes elite genetics but still, i think you can be aesthetic natural
He was on shit at 17, and that’s being generous. U must be stupid
Eh, looking at his physique at like 14, he already looked better than most guys ever do, so his progression kind of makes sense. Do I believe he’s a lifetime natural? No. Do I think he’s on everything under the sun? Also no. It actually doesn’t matter, though. He’s a 1-in-500 million type freak. Nothing he says or does should be taken as good advice if you’re using his physique as his merit. He was just born to be more muscular than anyone you will ever know.
How do you know he wasnt taking steroids at 14?
Were you there watching his every move when he was 14? Next to his bedside table?
Kids have done worse. Some kids in gangs have committed murder at 10 years of age. Taking testosterone at 14 isn’t so unrealistic.
I’m 39 and have lifted pretty seriously since I was about 15. My uncle owned/owns the local gym where I’m from, so got started early. From about 2006-2009 I lived way out in the country in a little cabin. Didn’t want to drive into town every day to lift weights. So I took up running and doing body weight stuff like dips pull ups push ups out on my porch. Now I always had pretty good genetics and people could tell I hit the weights. But nothing spectacular. However during this time of running and doing body weight stuff on my porch and not really eating much for 3.5 years. I lost about 20lbs and got pretty ripped up. Could see my abs really well. I remember going out to the lake to party with friends and people that hadn’t seen me in a while were like dude what are you taking? It was funny. I was actually smaller/weaker muscle wise but the muscle I did have was so defined they all thought I was using.
just look at his photos when he was 12 years old, he is a genetic freak, also his progresion makes sense, and i think he only took very small amounts of drugs for the mr olympia.
I claim that 99% of women prefer the surfer/beach-boy body over any bodybuilder/powerlifter/strongman type of physique. That is a tall frame, broad shoulders, visible abs, V-taper, decent arms, chest, and shoulders. Nothing crazy in terms of muscle mass, being lean is more important. A handsome face, a nice haircut, and good skin are also very important traits that a good physique can’t compensate for.
I also claim that most young men would feel best and most confident looking like that.
Yeah…but a huge bank account beats that for sure!!!!
I have a question about genetics: Some people have a small frame and other a bigger frame.
Bigger bones means capable to build bigger muscles (or already have them) from what I understand from the articles.
But does this count for drug based bodybuilders too?
I have seen progress pictures of (female) profesional bodybuilder who look first fit, but normal and in a 5-year-later picture their shoulders look twice as big.
If the muscle size you can build, depends on the size of the bones you have, how then can a regular person turn into a buildozer? Or does the ‘muscle-development-depends-from-your-bones’ only count for real naties?
I doubt it. Everything that restricts the natty (frame, bone size, natural strength, hormones, etc) is by passed. Now it purely comes down to how much synethtic drugs your body can handle before packing in.
If you re natty..and are more than happy with your physique you will not consider using any kind of steroids. It is only the ones that think more is better that move on.
The key is to recognise this fact. More is not better. There is a window in size/leannes where it is good enough and you have to accept this and move onto other things.
I guess it is an addiction…
An average guy with average genetics for lean mass will get to 22.5-23.5 FFMI at around 10% body fat depending on with side they lean towards genetically.
Guys with above average genetics will get to 24 FFMI at 10%, guys with great genetics will get to 25 FFMI, and genetic freaks can get to 26+ FFMI.
So there is no need to worry for anyone, statistically you are more likely to fit into one of these groups than the poorer genetics displayed by the under 22 FFMI group.
If you are natty and get down to 10% or even less B.F (which i do not recommend after say 40 as you look too thin) i think most are surprised how light they have to go.
Most people when told what hey should weigh even to come it under 15% think it is far too light and they will lend up looking like a starving prisoner…That’s at 15%
One thing is for sure..if you do manage to get down less than 12% B.F (congat’s) you better have as much muscle mass as you can get (naturally) or you will probably not like the results.
Hence why a lot of older women that keep slim end up looking frail later on. It’s a fine line.