In this article I share how I’ve been adapting the famous 5×5 workout program to accommodate my (well) over 50-year-old body.
I’ll also go over the training routines of the original 5×5 programs and their popular offshoot being used today, and tell you why I need to adjust them to better suit me as an older adult.
(As a bit of background context, I am 64 and have been weightlifting & fitness training for 40 years.)
And I’ll show you the two versions of my “5×5 workout for over 50 me” I came up with that I put into use a few times a year.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science & medical resources, clinical studies, and nutritional data used in this article.
Up ahead I’ll open up my training notebook & provide the training specifics of my modified 5×5 workouts: their exercises, sets, reps, frequency, etc.
Bottom line: I think the concept of heavy weights + low repetitions — in this case, five reps — is a very effective training block for strength, muscle growth, or just maintaining muscle mass for an older weightlifter like me, male or female.
I found I could stay on my version of a 5×5 workout for 6-8 weeks at a time before I needed to take a recovery week off and then shift gears into a different lifting routine.
Before I provide my 5×5 workout routines, I also want to share a little info on the three most popular 5×5 workouts.
This is so I can point out why each of them — if I followed them exactly as they were designed — wouldn’t be the best training choice for me & my strength training goals given my age, health condition, & life situation.
On the other hand, YOU may be able to do one of these well-known 5×5 workouts even if you’re over 50.
So I’ll show you a checklist in a bit so you can assess whether or not one of them is a good fit for you.
The three well-known 5×5 workouts are of course the:
- Reg Park 5×5 – published 1960;
- Bill Starr 5×5 (1976);
- StrongLifts 5×5 (2007).
The only one of those 5×5 programs I recommend you consider doing is StrongLifts 5×5; the other two were designed for specific groups of young athletic males.
What is a 5×5 workout?
In its simplest form, 5×5 means five sets of five reps each, performed using barbell lifts.
So the traditional 5×5 workout regardless of version is one that consists of doing five sets of five reps for each of the exercises.
And most of those exercises are your basic compound exercises like the:
- bench press
- overhead press
- rows, etc.
Why compound exercises?
Compound exercises are multi-joint weightlifting movements that work multiple major muscle groups at once, while an isolation exercise like tricep kickbacks or leg curls do not.
Sports science has demonstrated that a muscle-building full body workout using compound movements can:
- burn fat;
- provide strength gains;
- stimulate muscle growth;
- improve cardiovascular fitness;
- & more.
Why only 5 reps?
Lifting heavy using lower repetitions has proven to be a better approach to increasing strength compared to going with a lighter weight & a higher rep count. (14)
The sport of powerlifting is focused more on building strength than it is on muscle appearance & size, like you see in bodybuilding.
Because of this, it is very common for powerlifters to spend much of their strength training with low reps, with “low” roughly being between five down to their one rep max. (2)
How good is the 5×5 workout for over 50-year-old people?
Research on older adults has shown that low rep/heavy weight strength training programs like the 5×5 provide a number of benefits beyond the muscle tissue growth & strength increases they experienced.
Quality of life increased as mood improved, the risk of falls declined, and balance improved as muscle tissue grew & strengthened. (11)
Consistent strength training is recommended to older adults by the medical community too.
As Harvard Medical says to adults who are, in their words, “50s & beyond”:
“Just doing aerobic exercise is not adequate. Unless you are doing strength training, you will become weaker and less functional.”
5×5 may not the best thing for all beginners
I’m not sure a traditional 5×5 workout is ideal for every brand new beginner, since proper form is so critical when lifting weights, especially heavy weights.
And learning proper form for certain exercises using free weights like the squat or the deadlift can take time.
(StrongLifts 5×5 has guidelines on form for beginners, having them use just the bar for their starting weight when they first begin the program.)
But for experienced intermediate lifters — regardless of age — I think working a low rep/heavy weight routine like the 5×5 workout into your yearly training plan is a great idea.
About the well-known 5x5s
All of the famous 5×5 training programs — from Reg Park, Bill Starr, & the StrongLifts 5×5 — were written by guys in their 20s or 30s.
I’ve read their works and can pass along that none of these workouts were specifically designed for people over 50, and that’s why I need to adapt the 5×5’s basic principles to make it work for me.
Reg Park 5×5
Reg Park has the earliest 5×5 workout I could find, and most older weightlifters who’ve been doing it a long time like me consider Reg the creator of the 5×5.
Titled Strength & Bulk Training for Weight Lifters & Body Builders, he published it in 1960 at the age of 31. (1)
When it was released, he had recently lifted 500 lb. with his bench press and had won Mr. Universe twice to that point.
Bill Starr 5×5
Bill Starr published his famous 5×5 in 1976 at the age of 37. (2)
But the more important fact is that it was written specifically for competitive football players between the ages of 15 & 25.
Starr’s original 5×5 workout was published in a book titled The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training For Football, and was geared towards high school & college athletes.
This is the most popular 5×5 workout out there these days, and is easily the most well-known of the 5×5 workouts among intermediate lifters who are half our age.
Mehdi the founder of StrongLifts 5×5 said he first published it in 2007; I think he was around 25 at the time.
It is a simplified version of Reg Park’s original 5×5, which is a good thing for casual weightlifters & recreational bodybuilders.
(I say that because Phase 2 & Phase 3 of Park’s 5×5 are very long & grueling strength training workouts.)
If you think you want to go for one of these established 5×5 workout programs, StrongLifts 5×5 is the only one I’d suggest.
Is StrongLifts 5×5 a good fit for me?
StrongLifts 5×5 is a well-structured powerlifting program, and between its app and the training guides on the website it’s easy to keep track of your progress, your starting weights, & calculate the proper weights to use.
This is very important because StrongLifts 5×5 requires you to do it exactly as he laid it out.
Given that, here’s that checklist I mentioned before for you to decide if the StrongLifts program is appropriate for you:
1. Are you healthy enough?
2. StrongLifts must be strictly followed. Here’s what its founder says: “Don’t bastardize this program. Do it as laid out or don’t do it all.”
3. Requires a barbell, free weights plates, & a power rack. So you need a weightlifting gym membership or a power rack at home.
4. Do you have the time? Powerlifting requires a lengthier warmup period & longer rest periods between sets than casual weightlifting does. As you progress in StrongLifts, your rest in between sets will be either 3 or 5 minutes each. Most workouts can easily take over an hour at that point.
5. Do you have the desire? You’ll be lifting heavy weights. Not right at the beginning, but soon enough. This kind of weightlifting requires a good level of enthusiasm & commitment in order to be successful.
6. Are you OK with no variety for months at a time? StrongLifts 5×5 consists of just five exercises, two workouts, & one set:rep volume (5 sets of 5 reps). This never varies except if/when the rare times you will plateau.
In my case I couldn’t affirm a single one of the requirements on that list, and that’s why I built my own versions of the 5×5 workout.
Detailed info on StrongLifts 5×5
Here’s the StrongLifts 5×5 schedule. With just a few adjustments here & there to fit my over 50 body & my life at this stage, the 5×5 workout has become a part of my annual training plan for the past several years.
StrongLifts workout days
* It’s 3 days per week, à la Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and you’re alternating between two workouts.
* It has a rest day following two of the workout days, and a 2-day rest following the 3rd workout day.
* There are two lifting routines, Workouts A & B.
* It takes 2 weeks to do each workout 3 times:
- Week 1: Monday A, Wednesday B, Friday A
- Week 2: Monday B, Wednesday A, Friday B
Continue repeating this 2-week cycle.
Exercises & volume
* It has only three exercises per workout and each exercise gets five sets of five reps using the same weight, except for the deadlift.
* There are just five barbell exercises used in the StrongLifts 5×5:
- Bench press
- Barbell row
- Overhead press
Workout A is squat, bench, & rows.
Workout B is squat & overhead press, with a deadlift getting just 1 set of 5 reps.
What I like about StrongLifts 5×5 workouts
* Working within a very easy-to-remember set & rep scheme simplifies the workout a lot.
* Using heavy weights and lower reps on a weekly basis keeps attention on strength gains & increasing lean muscle mass.
* Slowly bumping up the weight in small increments (aka progressive overload) is a smart way to extend the continual strength gaining period.
* 5×5 workouts focus on compound movements (even to a fault), and as we know these multi-joint barbell movements make for a great full body workout. (5)
About my 5×5 workouts
I use these low rep/heavy weight workouts to take advantage of this well-proven training program to help me get stronger, lower my body fat, & gain lean body weight.
And I also sincerely believe that you can achieve the same or greater level of fitness success than I have by putting some kind of 5×5-type workout into your overall fitness routine.
As I said, I’ve adapted the well-known 5×5 training program into something I can handle and benefit from, even though I do not do it year-round.
So the workouts I’m sharing with you below I have customized to fit me, and I encourage you to do the same for yourself if you decide not to follow any of the popular 5×5 workouts exactly as they’re designed.
5×5 workout for over 50 me
Me at 62.
In this section I’ll share what I’m doing these days, and I have been programming this low rep+heavy weight training block into my yearly plan for a few years now.
Note that I use dumbbells, since I don’t have a power rack.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve found that I can only do this heavy 5×5-ish cycle 6-8 weeks at a time before needing to skip lifting for a week & then switching gears to a lighter weight, higher rep program of some sort.
Here are two 5×5 workout plans
I wrote up a 4-day workout & a 3-day workout, and last year I did each of them twice.
Note: I stay on the same workout (either the 4-day or the 3-day) for the whole 6-8 week cycle.
These plans work fine using barbell lifts if you belong to a gym or have a power rack at home, though I’d stick to dumbbells for the isolation arm exercises I’m sharing with you.
One of my 6-8 week training blocks is on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, and it alternates a Workout A & a Workout B over the course of two weeks like the StrongLifts 5×5 does:
Monday – Workout A
Wednesday – Workout B
Friday – Workout A
Monday – Workout B
Wednesday – Workout A
Friday – Workout B
Like the StrongLifts 5×5 program this repeats itself every two weeks, so I need an even number of weeks in its training block.
3-day 5×5 exercises
- Incline Dumbbell Bench Press
- Crush Press
- Bent Over Rows (2-dumbbell)
- Concentration Curls
The other 5×5 workout uses a 4-day workout split, hitting each muscle group twice per week.
Note: I only do 4 sets of each exercise in Workout B here since the volume is higher, thanks to the extra exercise it has.
- Monday / Thursday – Workout A
- Tuesday / Friday – Workout B
So I complete a full body workout over two consecutive days, then take a rest day Wednesday & two rest days on the weekends.
4-day 5×5 exercises
- Dumbbell Bench Press
- Overhead Press
- Lying Triceps Extensions (i.e., 2-db Skullcrushers)
- Bent Over Rows (2-dumbbell)
- Incline Biceps Curls
Note: I substitute in several additional exercises for every muscle group whenever I feel like it, and I list & discuss them below.
- Sets & reps are mostly 5×5
- On strong days I’ll go for a 6th rep on a late set**
**Note: My progression plan is based on these 6th reps, as you’ll see below.
* I rest 45-60 seconds between sets.
* Weight is set so I never hit failure at 5 or less reps.
* I bump up weight once I reach 6 reps on all 5 sets**, then go back to 5-rep sets for the new heavier weight.
* When I bump up weight, I will switch to the previous lower weight in later sets if I feel I’ll hit failure at 5 or less reps.
** – Here’s a good example of where you’d adapt this to suit your goals & situation. Remember, since I have dumbbells my “weight bump up” is in 5 lb. increments per dumbbell.
The additional exercises for my 5×5 workout
As mentioned earlier I’ll swap in an alternative exercise when I feel like it, because just changing up the exercises that day whenever the spirit moves me keeps it fresh.
These additional exercises below give me a total of 20 or so to use in my 5×5 workouts, and to me that’s a better deal than having only 3 (Starr 5×5) or 5 (Stronglifts) to have to stick to.
My additional exercises include the Incline Dumbbell Press, the Crush Press, & Arnold’s Bent-Arm Dumbbell Flys from his book, Education of a Bodybuilder.
One of my alternate exercises is wide grip pull ups, since I have a doorway pull up bar.
That’s a pull up assist band you see on the bar.
Currently I have to use it on the last 2 sets because I’ll fail before 5 reps unless I resort to crappy form. The band keeps me honest…
Another alternate back exercise is to do rows but change the angle of the dumbbells.
Instead of mimicking a barbell as usual, I rotate the handles 90° upward (aka neutral grip).
So the row is sort of like the seated cable row you have in gyms, except I’m still bent over with engaged core & hamstrings.
The third additional back exercise I love doing could also be on chest day instead, and that would of course be the good ol’ dumbbell pullover.
You can shift the emphasis more towards your lats or your pecs depending on your setup & exercise form, and I go into all that in this article here: Dumbbell Pullover: Muscles Worked, Benefits, How-To’s…
The only other leg exercise I’ve been doing I’ve just been adding, versus swapping out either the squats or the deadlifts.
(I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to ever skip those…)
That additional leg move is the goblet squat, performed with one dumbbell and a wide stance with feet pointed out at 45 degree angles.
I keep the “top” half of the dumbbell touching my chest bone, and I squat low enough to touch my elbows to my quads right behind my knees.
One additional triceps exercise is to switch to one dumbbell, go heavier, and do standing triceps extensions with both hands on the dumbbell.
It’s the one where you lower it behind your neck and get that real deep triceps stretch.
And here are three other dumbbell triceps exercises I’ll rotate in & out of:
* Close grip dumbbell press (aka Crush Press, this also works your chest muscles)
* Incline dumbbell kickbacks
* Incline dumbbell overhead extensions
Chin ups with the reverse close grip is one (great) alternate biceps move, and here are three others whose technique is laid out in the article I mention below:
* Concentration curls
* Incline dumbbell curls
* Standing hammer curls
I go into correct setup & form — along with how-to videos — for all of these arm exercises in this article here:
Summary of my Over 50 5×5 Workouts
Well that’s what I’m working on, and if I modify anything I’ll come back to this article & update what’s happening.
Who invented the 5×5 workout?
Funny you should ask…
Lineage of the 5×5
Like many family trees, the origin story of the 5×5 workout is a bit cloudy, where facts collide with internet
bullsh folklore & myths are forged from wishful minds, hoping for catchy storylines.
Here’s a list of the various men you’ll see credited with inventing, using, &/or recommending the 5×5 workout, depending on what website you land on.
Mark Berry (1930s)
* First U.S. Olympic weightlifting coach and personal trainer for Mr. Universe John Grimek.
* Author of books & publications dedicated to weight training & bodybuilding.
* Two of his training books are still available that I had access to: Physical Training Simplified (which I own) and The Mark Berry Bar Bell Courses.
Neither book has any reference to a workout created around a “5 sets of 5 reps per exercise” protocol.
Reg Park (1950s – 60s)
- 3-time Mr. Universe winner
- Second man on record to bench press 500 lb.
- Idol (& later mentor) of Arnold Schwarzenegger (12)
- Starred as Hercules in a few Italian films
His book Strength & Bulk Training for Weight Lifters and Body Builders is where (I believe) the first ever 5×5 workout was published in 1960.
* Besides myself, he’s the person most responsible for getting me to start lifting back in 1982.
* Likely due to his well-known connection to Reg Park, you can find people online saying a few different things:
- Arnold used Reg Park’s 5×5 when he started lifting;
- he used it during his pro bodybuilding career;
- he recommended it to aspiring lifters.
Well……I respectfully question the factual accuracy of all three of those claims, and here’s why.
Where’s the proof of Arnie’s 5×5 connection?
I own a couple of Arnold’s books, meaning books he wrote.
I’ve owned a copy of Education of a Bodybuilder, his part-autobiography / part-muscle-building guide, for 40 years.
It’s my favorite strength training book by far: it inspired me to begin lifting & inspired me to go for it in my life.
But there is no mention of Reg Park’s 5×5 workout anywhere.
Education of a Bodybuilder
In the autobiographical Part 1 Arnold talks a lot about Reg Park’s influence on him.
And he also talks about his early training days a lot too.
But not a word about the 5×5.
In Part 2 he gives out a ton of good advice about nutrition and recommends all kinds of weight training workout specifics & programs.
But not a word on the 5×5 workout there, either.
The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding
The other book of Arnold’s I own is this one.
This monster of a book is over 800 pages long and has two very detailed chapters dedicated to training.
Set & rep ideas for every conceivable situation or goal are recommended & explained thoroughly.
I took a screenshot of my Kindle version of this book, where I searched for the term “5×5”.
The 5×5 workout isn’t talked about once.
Arnie on Reddit
Even Arnold himself said he didn’t use the 5×5.
He’s been making himself accessible to his fans over the past several years post-governor, which is way cool.
He’s done a couple of Reddit AMAs (Ask Me Anything) forums, and one was about fitness.
He was asked point blank for his opinion on the 5×5 workout, and he said he did a whole different training routine back in the day.
You can read his Reddit AMA thread by clicking on the link on the word “fitness” above.
Given all these facts, I’m pretty sure Arnold isn’t a member of the 5×5 workout family tree.
Off-topic sidebar: That cover photo of my book was most likely taken in 1976 before it was published; Arnold would’ve been 28 or 29 at the time. So that means he looked like that before he started doing steroids & over 15 years before creatine was available. Shows what just hard work & a lot of good food can do…
* Used the 5×5 set/rep combo in all sorts of ways, applying it to different training applications: sport-specific, strength training, etc.
* As mentioned earlier, he first published one of his versions of a 5×5 workout in 1976: Only The Strongest Will Survive: Strength Training For Football.
* He used many other set & rep schemes besides 5×5 as well.
Here’s more detailed explanation (only if you need it)…
…on why I did my own 5×5 thing instead of closely sticking to any of the three popular 5×5 programs.
Reg Park 5×5 – the original 5×5
You can see Reg Park’s 5×5 workout schedule here.
- Only 4 exercises in Phase 1, which lasts 3 months
- Phase 2 workouts will take over 2 hours
- Phase 3 workouts will take 3 hours
- 10 sets of squats 3 times a week
The Reg Park 5×5 workout gets too long for 6 months of its 9-month cycle, and it has 30 sets of squats a week during that time frame too.
Plus the overall training volume starting with Phase 2 that’s performed three times per week becomes too much for me to recover from properly.
Bill Starr 5×5
His original 5×5 workout has become hard to find for free, and the book it came from, Only the Strongest Survive: Strength Training For Football, is now considered “vintage” & thus expensive.
You can (sort of) see Starr’s original 5×5 written up in this article.
- Only 3 exercises
- One of the three is the power clean
- Squats 3 times per week
Bill Starr’s original 5×5 doesn’t have enough exercises to interest me, and I can’t do power cleans with dumbbells.
Besides, at this point in my life I don’t want to do any power cleans anyway.
As time went on, I heard Starr added more exercises to this, but I couldn’t find any credible workout info showing his modifications to this original 5×5 workout from 1976.
I’d have been able to do the StrongLifts program if it existed during my first 25 years of weightlifting, but it didn’t.
I’m not athletically fit enough to do StrongLifts as required, given my age. And even if I was, my life priorities have changed dramatically of late so my goals with weightlifting now are much different.
Below are a few reasons why I can’t do StrongLifts & why I ended up creating 5×5 workouts that I can do.
Keep in mind the statement made by the creator of StrongLifts 5×5:
“Do it as laid out or don’t do it all.”
1. StrongLifts 5×5 says no to dumbbells
No worries. I’ve been doing fine with them since I cancelled my gym membership 15 or so years ago.
2. It requires doing squats three times per week
I don’t want to do heavy squats three times per week, since my legs won’t recover with only one rest day between Monday/Wednesday & Wednesday/Friday.
I could make it work if I used much lighter weights, but that’s not the purpose of a 5×5 heavy weight program.
3. The recommended sets for older people is pretty low
You can read the few paragraphs in StrongLifts written for the over 50 lifter here.
(“Older” according to the StrongLifts program actually means anyone 40 & up.)
The number of sets per week suggested to an older person is really low & I don’t want to follow that advice.
His schedule for older people has only 2 workouts per week, and he cuts the number of sets for each exercise from 5 down to 3:
- Monday (A) – squat, bench, row (all 3×5)
- Thursday (B) – squat, overhead press, deadlift
4. StrongLifts 5×5 has no variation of reps or sets
* The StrongLifts program only uses five barbell movements with no variation of reps or sets.
My problem here is two-fold: I’ve been lifting for 40 years plus I get bored easily.
I need variety over the long haul, and by long haul I mean my 52-week training plan I make for myself every year.
There’s nothing in the StrongLifts workout plan that mentions ever doing anything other than 5 sets of 5 reps with those same 5 exercises.
But there’s a mountain of solid evidence showing that varying your reps can lead to great gains too.
Variety is the spice of life (& of weightlifting workouts)
Look over the workouts of past bodybuilding champions.
You’ll see that they were always changing up the reps and sets to keep their muscles from adapting.
Not a “switching it up every day” kind of thing, but a varying of their programs every so many weeks or months to better help them achieve their bodybuilding goals.
Then there’s these respected trainers and strength & conditioning coaches:
They all recommend throwing in high-rep finisher sets (AKA drop sets) into your heavy weight/low rep routine from time to time as a way to stimulate more muscle gains.
And of course there’s strength & conditioning studies that have shown that high-rep drop sets done at the end, following a bunch of low (3-5) rep sets, caused more muscle gain than doing just the low rep program. (9)
5. Limited number of exercises
There are only 5 barbell movements used in StrongLifts 5×5.
And there aren’t any isolation exercises, which I like to do for my arms some of the time.
My weightlifting inspiration came from Arnold, and he recommends doing a lot of different exercises in those two books of his I mentioned that I own (& love).
Thumbing through his recommended workouts in Education of a Bodybuilder I see where he’s commonly using 3 exercises for each of the 7 muscle groups, plus exercises for the calves.
Well, that’s over 20 different exercises per week, and some of them are isolation exercises as well.
Even medical sites that weigh in on strength training topics for older adults recommend doing more than 5 exercises.
Harvard Health says shoot for 8-10 exercises to preserve & build muscle when you’re older.
They’re no doubt echoing the same recommendations put out by the American College of Sports Medicine. (9).
6. Proper 5×5 workouts take more time than I’m willing to give
I don’t want to do long workouts anymore.
And by long nowadays I mean I’ll shut it down before the 40-45 minute mark, at the most.
Workouts between 90 minutes & 2 hours were very common for me when I was recreational bodybuilding/powerlifting in my 20s & 30s.
Not any more; I have other things I’d rather do with my time now.
StrongLifts 5×5 workouts can easily get up to an hour & beyond when you properly follow its recommended rest time lengths in between your sets.
That program is excellent for getting you stronger than you’ve ever been, but you have to honor your body chemistry & the concept of fatigue recovery between sets.
7. I like working muscle groups twice a week
In StrongLifts 5×5 each week, an exercise or two only get 5 sets of work:
- in week 1 it’s the overhead press,
- in week 2 it’s the bench press & the barbell rows.
(And deadlifts are done much less than that.)
Given the intensity of the program — thanks in large part to all of those squats — rotating exercises into a light week is probably a good idea.
But back in the 80s I learned how to lift from aspiring competitive bodybuilders who got me onto working on my muscle groups twice a week…most of the time anyway.
And it stuck with me.
There is some evidence showing two times a week works well, and I share some info on that below.
A large 34-study review involving hundreds of competitive athletes clearly demonstrated that working a muscle twice per week was better for muscle & strength gains than once a week. (6)
Note too that sports performance science has shown multiple times that more sets per week yields more muscle gain. (7)
The chart above is from an extensive review of 15 research studies led by Brad Schoenfeld, a well-respected researcher in the field of strength & conditioning. (8)
The only columns you need to check out are the first and the last where my arrows are.
You see that 10 or more sets per week per muscle helps gain muscle more than any set total less than that.
Here are answers to a couple of questions commonly asked about the 5×5 workout, including a video on the topic from the dudes at Mind Pump Show.
Does the 5x5 workout work?
The 5x5 workout is very effective at increasing strength for all your major muscle groups, thanks to its low reps + heavy weight program & the use of the best compound exercises in weightlifting.
How long does a 5x5 workout take?
For a beginner the 5x5 workout will take around an hour including proper warmup. As you advance & the weights get heavier, rest periods between sets get longer & the workouts will take 90-120 minutes.
Related articles here on heydayDo
I hope that this article sharing my “5×5 workout for the over 50 Me” is useful to you, and that the background info on the major 5×5 workouts is helpful too.
I wish you well on your fitness journey.