The Training Technique Guaranteed to Increase Strength

How Jessie Graff Became Her Own Superhero

Photography by Blake Cortes

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Nowhere is this old proverb truer than in the realm of health and fitness. Nowadays, it’s easy to get caught up in the hype of new, supposedly cutting-edge training techniques that are guaranteed to produce “amazing results in half the time,” (using a fraction of the effort of traditional methods). While there’s nothing wrong with trying new things, if you want to see real gains in strength and muscle, you have to get back to the time-proven method of intense, heavy weight training—there’s no two ways about it.

Enter 5×5 training. This classic strength-building training program has gone through more variations over the years than Madonna, but just like the Material Girl, the original elements have stayed the same.

Invented in the 1960s by three-time Mr. Universe Reg Park, 5×5 training involves performing three different exercises for five sets each, and just five reps per set. Sounds like a walk in the park, right? Well, here’s the kicker: each exercise has to be a major compound movement and performed at a weight that allows for no more than five reps per set. Still think it sounds easy? Read on to find out how you (yes, women can seriously benefit from the strength gains of a 5×5 without getting “bulky”) can adopt this program and start seeing some real results.

Why it works

The strength-boosting effectiveness of 5×5 training lies in its unique rep and weight scheme—a departure from the conventional 12-15 rep range that everybody seems conditioned to work in. “The problem with these conventional types of loads and durations is that only your slow twitch muscle fibers are recruited,” says Kaseigh Griff, a Toronto-based CPT and firefighter. Muscles are composed of two different types of fibers: the slow twitch, which are engaged during endurance moves, and the fast twitch, which come into play during explosive moves. But the 5×5 program offers the best of both worlds, explains Griff. “Lower rep ranges with heavier loads will force your body to recruit both fast and slow twitch fibers, forcing more of the muscle to work.”

Then there are the benefits that come with focusing mainly on heavy compound moves like the squat, deadlift, and bench press, all of which engage major muscle groups throughout the body at the same time in a wide range of motion. Compound moves also get your smaller muscle groups and core muscles firing in ways that isolation exercises and machines don’t. “Using numerous muscles at the same time, and training the body as one piece, is a surefire way to pack on lean muscle,” says Mike Baltren, coach and general manager at Ambition Athletics in Encinitas, California. “It also builds confidence by helping you to realize the amazing strength and power your body is capable of.”

Never heard of it?

Unfortunately, many women still have the misconception that lifting heavy will produce a bulky, masculine look, when in fact the opposite is true, says Cynthia St. Clair, powerlifting performance coach and owner of Intermix Strength in North Bergen, New Jersey. “Ironically, these women want a toned, fit appearance while remaining slim,” she says. “Well, to achieve this, a shift in body composition must occur in which muscle mass increases and body fat decreases.” The surest way to trigger this shift is through diet and an intense, calorie-burning weight training regimen. More often than not, that “bulky” look women dread is due to a high body-fat percentage that keeps dense, lean muscle obscured.

About nutrition

Any changes in the gym should be complemented by changes in the kitchen. A program of this intensity requires more healthy calories than what you’re probably used to. “Plan to be in a caloric surplus, or at least maintenance level when beginning a strength training program,” says Griff. “It is also crucial to consume adequate protein from your diet in order to support protein synthesis and rebuild muscle tissue.” The general rule for protein intake is 0.8 to a full gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. Too little protein will stymie gains, increase muscle soreness, and preclude adequate recovery.

And don’t shirk the healthy fats, either. Plant-based fats such as olive and coconut oil provide the body with energy stores and essential fatty acids, and promote healthy cell function. Avocados are also a good source of hormone-regulating B vitamins and potassium, an important mineral in the production of testosterone. “Whether male or female, testosterone is beneficial for muscle growth,” says Griff. “Don’t worry, you’ll never look too ‘manly’ from eating avocados.”

How to get started

For most isolation moves, the mechanics of the exercise are either pretty simple, or in the case of machines, almost impossible to screw up. This is definitely not the case with compound moves. Although the 5×5 program is about strength training, your three primary focuses should be form, form, and then form. “Execute each movement correctly, and gradually increase weight without sacrificing form,” says St. Clair. “Too often, novice trainers load the bar with plates even though they can’t even perform the movement using the light load.”

When starting out, an effective way to gauge how much weight to use is to forget numbers and go by intensity using an R.P.E. or “Rate of Perceived Exertion” scale. Imagine an intensity meter in which zero is resting and 10 is muscle failure. You want to be working at about a seven or an eight—a weight that is challenging, but not to the point that you are too taxed to continue your workout after your final rep. “Using an R.P.E. scale rather than muscle failure will get you used to heavier weights and intensity better than going from zero to one hundred right out of the gate,” says Griff. Finding your target intensity can take some trial and error, so be sure to track your R.P.E. as you progress over time.

Always remember that getting stronger is a process—you can’t fake it or force it. Only with consistency and dedication will you see measurable gains. Overdo it with a program as intense as the 5×5 and the only progress you’ll see is in the injury department. Start with three training days per week with at least one day of rest between workouts (for a sample starter program, see the “Beginner 3-Day Program” bar below). “Advanced lifters understand that taking time to recover will maximize strength, improve performance, and help prevent injury,” says St. Clair. If your muscles aren’t recovering properly, your next workout could do more harm than good.

Adding supplementary exercises

One of the best things about 5×5 training is that it quickly exposes imbalances and shortcomings both in strength and performance. As the weeks go by and you become more comfortable with the physical rigors of the program, supplemental exercises can be introduced on training days, after the main compound moves portion, to correct these issues. “Some form of carry such as a farmer’s or suitcase walk is great for the core, as well as overall strength and work capacity,” suggests Baltren. To bolster upper-body strength specifically, bodyweight exercises like TRX rows and push-ups never get old. For the lower body, try working in a few sets of single-leg exercises like split squats or lunges.

Beginner 3Day Program

This sample program is a good introduction to the 5×5 method. Rest at least 90 seconds to two minutes between sets. Only when you can complete five sets of five reps comfortably and with perfect form should you modestly increase the weight. As you get used to the program, introduce some supplementary moves—particularly core exercises—as needed, but be careful not to overdo it. Master the movements before expanding the workout.

DAY 1

Bench Press
5 sets of 5 reps

Barbell Squat
5 sets of 5 reps

Bent-Over Row
5 sets of 5 reps

DAY 2

Barbell Squat
5 sets of 5 reps

Weighted Pull-Up
5 sets of 5 reps

Seated Military Press
5 sets of 5 reps

DAY 3

Deadlift
5 sets of 5 reps

Dumbbell Bench Press
5 sets of 5 reps

Front Squat
5 sets of 5 reps

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