The ’5X5′ Approach

There are no shortage of set and rep schemes on the internet, so much so that it’s downright confusing. One of the most recognizable of these schemes is reffered to as the ’5X5′ approach. This method was used by some of the best body builders of their time, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. What exactly is all the hoopla over the 5×5? I’ll take you on a physiological tour of what this scheme does. Let’s break down adaptations into two categories: neural and muscular.

Your Brain Must Be In the Game


Strength is largely determined by your nervous system. As much as people don’t equate brain power with picking things up and putting them down, it’s a scientific truth that your brain governs movement. It doesn’t organize things haphazardly, otherwise you would look like a complete spaz while buttoning your shirt or trying to walk down the street. There is a logic and order to the sequence of events.

  • The brain recruits muscle fibers in increments of what scientists call motor units.
  • Muscle fibers are recruited in ascending order. The little ones get called to the playground first, then the bigger kids join in on the fun.
  • The recruitment of motor units is called spatial summation.
  • Strength or force can also be determined by the speed of which a muscle fiber moves- called twitch.
  • It’s suspected that twitch becomes more important after all motor units are called into play. Look at it this way, you have all your troops lined up, now its time to make them work double time.
  • Brief recap: the nervous system controls movement by temporal and spatial summation. This accounts for the wide range of movements the body can produce.

Are There Limits To Maximum Strength?

The long and the short of it is yes. Your brain and muscles have built in protective mechanisms to make sure you don’t destroy yourself. What might account for the difference in maximal voluntary strength and absolute strength still remain somewhat of a mystery to modern day science. I will however point you to the work of strength coach Christian Thiebadeau. He uses the terms absolute strength and limit strength. Absolute strength is the total max force that your muscles can produce while limit strength is the amount of force you can voluntarily generate. If you subtract your limit strength from your absolute strength, you arrive at what is referred to as your strength deficit. A smaller deficit means your nervous system is good at muscle fiber recruitment. A larger one means just the opposite. There are ways of evaluating this, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

So what does all this have to do with the 5×5? Well, you get a lot of neural adaptation from this type of scheme. The nervous system, like your muscles has the ability to adapt and rewire itself to facilitate movement. No matter the set and rep scheme, going towards the heavier end of the spectrum will place more of a demand on your nervous system. The ’5X5′ will definitely give your brain a run for it’s money. The long term effect is that you will better at recruiting more muscle no matter the workout plan. One thing to be aware of however, is that if you’re just getting into lifting ANY program that you do will generate these adaptations as well, not just the ’5×5′

Bring In The Big Guns

I’m going to throw this one out there, if muscles didn’t grow because of lifting, then no man alive would bother with the gym. All incentive to take punishment would go right out the window. Now, to the ladies in the audience, I want to make something very, VERY clear. You should also be interested in bigger muscles. Lifting like a man will not turn you into a man. No matter how long you’ve held onto this belief, ditch it, quash it, squash it, just put it from your mind. Big muscles have a whole host of physiological benefits. However, that’s a soapbox for a different day, I digress.

Back to the main point: muscles will get bigger. It’s part of their adaptive nature. Let’s assume that your brain is awesome at recruiting muscles. After a while your brain will only go so far with it’s plasticity or potential. That’s when muscles pitch in on their end and begin to grow. This process is called hypertrophy. Bigger muscles can produce greater force. It’s as simple as that. If someone asked you if you wanted a hand gun or an assault rifle before being tossed into a fire fight, which would you pick?

Not All Muscle Fibers Are The Same

It’s important to understand that not all of your muscle is created equal. Much like the  employees within the same company have different skills, so too do your muscle fibers. Modern day science has categorized muscle fiber types into slow and fast twitch. Think of slow twitch muscle fibers as your everyday movers. They do the ho-hum stuff like walking, etc. Fast twitch are your power players, they come in when you need to do some serious moving. You might think that these types are set in stone. That actually isn’t true. Muscle fiber types can change depending on your training. It’s important to point out that everyone’s muscle fiber make up is genetically determined. You may have more of one type and less of another or vice versa. The good news is that you can use this to tailor a program to your needs, again topic for a different day.

That Was Intense…

There is intensity and then there is scientific intensity. You don’t actually have to know this to get the effects out of a scheme like the ’5X5′ but it does help to keep this information in the back of your mind. Intensity, by a scientific measure is determined by your 1RM, or one repetition maximum. It’s the max weight you can lift once and only once. Intensity is determined by percentages off of that max. Let’s say you could life a hundred pounds once. 80% of that would be 80lbs. It’s that simple, but it’s not entirely pragmatic for the gym. Just pick a weight that barely lets you finish the last rep per set. It’ll keep you on target with intensity.

Should You Go For The ’5X5′ ?

It depends on how long you’ve been lifting and what your out to accomplish. While its a great way to add mass, it can be grueling. Also, if you have other physical stuff on your plate for the week it might be tough to do both. If you’re already lifting you might want to do one day of a 5X5 and see how you feel after. If it’s something you can tolerate you can try a four week block of 5X5 and see how your results go.


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