Why I Don’t Recommend 5-rep Only Programs

person about to lift the barbel

5 rep training may mean nothing to some of you, and A LOT to many of you. For those unfamiliar, it refers to a very popular, and fairly old training program.

You do either 5 sets of 5 reps or 3 sets of 5 reps on the squat, bench press, and deadlift (and sometimes powerclean). 5 rep training is very appealing in its simplicity. You train to add weight to the bar, you try to get stronger every single week, and that is it.

For many guys, it’s the first “program” they ever really follow. Subsequently, I get asked “what I think of it” ALL THE TIME. To the surprise of many, I don’t fully endorse it. Not because it doesn’t work, it DOES, or CAN at least…but because it creates a false paradigm of what constitutes progress. And it leads to inevitable plateaus.

Here is why. The 5 Major Issues with 5 rep Training:

1. People assume it’s the “Ultimate” program. It’s NOT. What happens in 90% of cases is, raw beginners discover 5×5 or 3×5, people who have never really followed a plan, and they do it, and they get stronger. Sometimes significantly so. And because they get results, they then have a confirmation bias that THIS is the way to train, and all programs get compared to it.

REALITY CHECK – Any program you follow that’s based on progressive overload will WORK. 3×5 and 5×5 just happens to be simple, and for beginners, it elicits a training effect because ANYTHING elicits a training effect in beginners. 3×5, 4×5, 5×5, 3×10, high volume, low volume, etc. The reality is that your strength will stall out, because linear progress comes to halt, because…

2. People don’t understand how muscle and strength development work. 3×5 and 5×5 train the nervous system and motor coordination far more than they do the muscles. Training with low reps is simply NOT exhausting on the muscle fibers, what gets fatigued is the nervous system. 

The volume is also LOW, and combined with the fact that these programs typically only do ONE lift per movement pattern (squat, bench, deadlift), the neurological adaptations eventually halt because the person does simply not have enough Muscle mass to get any stronger. And so long as they keep training with nothing but 5 reps, they never will build any more muscle.

It’s never going to be sufficient stimulus to get you to grow past a certain point. Most adherents to these programs have very unimpressive physiques as a result, with a middling level of strength.

The reality is that your strength is a continuum between having the coordination to express strength, and having the “hardware” the joints and muscles to handle that strength expression. This is the reason why I preach being muscular. If you have muscle, getting stronger is easy. If you lack muscle, and never focus on it, you are always going to be running into a wall.

3. People look down on other training methods. You get results and then you get arrogant about what you think you know. I’ve very often had trainees express outright disgust at the suggestion to bodybuild, because their whole world view is built upon 1 rep maximums and nothing else. They believe anything over 5 reps is a waste and doing “pump” movements are pointless.

Ironically, they usually don’t look like they lift, but that’s me being petty.

The reality is that 5 reps is a START point for being in the gym, and as you progress, it’s a programming piece to potentially build a larger program around. It’s not the only thing that exists in the world of training.

4. People Treat It Like a Cult. The proponents of 5×5, or 3×5 training especially tend to become extremely dogmatic, paradigm blind, & espouse the program as being the absolute end-all be-all of training for strength. Their extreme position and disregard for other forms of training creates a false impression in the minds of trainees as to what training is, should be, and they falsely assume to “know” far more about training than they do.

Essentially, people get very cultish about 5×5 training, which makes learning very very difficult, if not impossible.

5. It gets people injured, fat, or out of shape. Yes, people get stronger doing it, no question. But I’ve also heard from MANY many many trainees over the years who got injured because they plateaued and just kept straining against the weight, and now they don’t even lift.

Or they created lifelong issues by herniating a disc, or tearing a pec and now they are lost because all they knew how to use is the barbell.

This is not the Holy Grail of workouts. It’s to get you started, and beyond that initial 6 months, you are going to need to expand your training horizons.