One of the most popular workouts for building total body strength is Bill Starr’s 5x5 program. There are many variations of 5x5 workouts, but Starr’s program is one of the first and is primarily designed for athletes.
The program was introduced in Starr’s book, The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football, first published in the 70s and now in its eighth printing. Starr was an international-caliber weightlifter and one of the industry’s first strength coaches. He was also one of the Iron Game’s most prolific writers, having been an editor at Strength and Health magazine and a contributor to numerous popular bodybuilding magazines.
One of the primary appeals of Starr’s program is its simplicity: it focuses on three lifts and one set/rep protocol. Let’s take a closer look.
Regarding sets and reps, Starr decided on a protocol of 5x5 because he said that the available research at the time determined that the optimal range of both sets and reps to develop strength was between 4-6. Starr said that he used the 5x5 formula because it “…was the exact median and it was easy to remember.”
In his book published in 1960, Strength and Bulk Training for Weight Lifters and Bodybuilders, British bodybuilder Reg Park outlined a 5x5 training program to build muscle mass. For the primary exercises in this workout, the trainee would do 2 warm-up sets of 5 reps of the primary exercises followed by 3 sets of 5 reps at maximum effort; for smaller muscle groups, such as the calves and forearms, more reps would be performed but only for 2 sets. One of the major differences between Park’s workout and Starr’s was the use of percentages.
Starr would have athletes perform each lift three times a week using a heavy/medium/light percentage system. More specifically, the heavy weight would be a 100 percent effort, the medium 90 percent, and the light 80 percent. All heavy lifts could be performed on the same day, with medium weights the second day and light weights the third. However, to ensure quality work for every exercise, many strength coaches would have their athletes perform only one heavy lift per workout, such as with the following example:
Exercise 1: Heavy (100%)
Exercise 2: Medium (90%)
Exercise 3: Light (80%)
Exercise 1: Light (80%)
Exercise 2: Heavy (100%)
Exercise 3: Medium (90%)
Exercise 1: Medium (90%)
Exercise 2: Light (80%)
Exercise 3: Heavy (100%)
For the 100% series, not every set is taken to failure, but rather each set should be progressively heavier until a 5-repetition maximum (5RM) is used on the last set. If an athlete could bench press 200x5, a heavy workout might look something like this: 5 reps x 135, 155, 175, 190, 200. In turn, a medium workout would finish at 180x5, and a light workout at 160x5.
As a general guideline, a 5-repetition max could be converted by determining 85 percent of a 1RM. There are also several spreadsheets available for free on the Internet that will perform these calculations for you (see reference section). These spreadsheets progressively increase the top end weights each week, which in turn increases the weight during the medium and light workouts. This is key: to ensure progress, the trainee should attempt to progressively use heavier poundages for nearly every sets, every week. As for rest intervals, Starr said the rest time should be brief, but 3-5 minutes rest can be taken before the heaviest set of the day to ensure maximum effort.
For his core lifts, Starr decided on the power clean, bench press, and back squat. He had wanted to use the overhead press rather than the bench press as one of his “Big 3,” but decided not to for several reasons. The lift was controversial because the overhead press performed in weightlifting competition at the time was known to cause lower back problems. He thought the incline press would be a good compromise, but when he wrote the book incline benches were rare. Since most high schools and colleges had flat benches, this is the pressing exercise he settled on. However, in this book Starr says substitutions can be made, such as using the deadlift rather than the power clean, and additional exercises can be added for several sets but using higher reps (such as dips for 3x5-8 reps and hyperextensions for 2x8-12 reps).
Using our outline above, here is what a weekly workout could look like for the core exercises:
Power Clean: 115 x 5, 135 x 5, 145 x 5, 155 x 5, 165 x 5 (heavy)
Bench Press: 135 x 5, 150 x 5, 160 x 5, 170 x 5, 180 x 5 (medium)
Squats: 135 x 5, 150 x 5, 160 x 5, 170 x 5, 180 x 5 (light)
Power Clean: 115 x 5, 115 x 5, 115 x 5, 125 x 5, 135 x 5 (light)
Bench Press: 135 x 5, 155 x 5, 175 x 5, 190 x 5, 200 x 5 (heavy)
Squats: 135 x 5, 155 x 5, 175 x 5, 190 x 5, 205 x 5 (medium)
Power Clean: 115 x 5, 125 x 5, 135 x 5, 145 x 5, 150 x 5 (medium)
Bench Press: 135 x 5, 145 x 5, 155 x 5, 160 x 5 (light)
Squat: 135 x 5, 165 x 5, 185 x 5, 205 x 5, 225 x 5 (heavy)
For more advanced athletes, Starr offered variations in the number of repetitions and sets performed. Rather than 5x5, he might prescribe a total of 7 sets, as follows: 5-5-5-3-3-3, with a back-off set of 6-10 reps. Here is an example of this system provided by Starr: 135x5, 175x5, 225x5, 275x3, 305x3, 315x3, 255x6-10.
The simplicity of Starr’s 5x5 program make it an effective system to use with a large number of athletes, and it was the go-to program for numerous high school football programs in the 70s and 80s. You are probably not trying to prepare for the gridiron, but Bill Starr’s 5x5 workout may be a good basic program to try if you want to get stronger fast.