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Freak Fitness

Darren Mehling BA, CSCS

As a strongman competitor, Darren has pulled 50,000 lb trucks and dead lifted 805 lbs. As a competitive bodybuilder, he has won Provincial Super-heavyweight & Overall titles. As President & CEO of FREAK Fitness, he has coached his clients to hundreds of Novice, Provincial/State, National, and IFBB Pro titles. Having been involved in the sport of bodybuilding for over 20 years, Darren has his finger on the pulse of the local and international bodybuilding scenes, and will be keeping you informed through his column, “Freak Fitness."

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Choose your "big" multi-joint exercises and do them first.

Drive More Gains with 5x5

Dump your hypertrophy rep targets on your first exercise in favour of 5 sets of 5 reps for an unparalleled strength and growth burst. 

Too many trainers today walk into the gym and put their workout on autopilot, cranking out 4 sets of 10 reps of their favourite exercise, and then wonder why they’re still not making any gains.

Let’s fix that by way of an introduction to the 5×5 method, now more commonly known as “Heavy 5s.” At one time, it was a popular muscle-building program, but more recently, it has been forgotten. I warn you, it is not easy, but it sure is effective for getting stronger and breaking through a plateau.


The 5×5 method was first made popular by the late Reg Park, in his book Strength & Bulk Training for Weight Lifters and Body Builders, published in 1960. Reg’s program was designed to develop general size and strength, completing high-volume workouts three days a week using primarily multi-joint lifts such as bench presses, overhead presses, squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, weighted pull-ups, and power cleans. With each of those big movements, Park prescribed 5 sets of 5 reps for each, with 3 to 5 minutes of rest between sets.

Even though Reg’s program was criticized for being very tough, prescribing high-volume workouts (50+ sets) that could take up to three hours to complete, he did preach lots of rest and food to ensure recovery. Despite its drawbacks, Reg’s 5×5 program became very popular among bodybuilders for very good reason—it worked!

Later, other popular strength coaches, such as Bill Starr in 1976 and Mark Rippetoe in 2005, promoted their versions of 5×5 and designed their training programs for their strength-and-power athletes around Heavy 5s. Now, I want to take the 5×5 method one step further and help you implement this proven set-and-rep scheme into your mass-building training program.


What I like most about the 5×5 method is that anyone, from beginner to advanced lifter, can use it to increase strength and size. It’s both simple and effective. 

Aside from its simplicity, the 5×5 set-rep scheme offers other benefits. The lower number of reps per set means you’ll load up the bar with more weight than you would with your typical 10-rep set. And with more weight on the bar, the greater the stimulation is for increased strength, assuming you’re allowing yourself to recover and taking in adequate calories to support muscle repair and growth. And if you’ve been training for moderate weights, the stimulus will be an especially novel one, helping you beat a training plateau.

The set-rep scheme works best with multi-joint movements that recruit multiple muscle groups into the same movement. With more muscle mass working to perform the lift, you use substantially more energy to perform the exercise. With more of an impact placed on your body, more endogenous anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone will be produced by your body to help your body repair and come back bigger and stronger for your next workout.


Knowing how much weight to use is critical because completing all 5 sets of 5 reps the first time through shouldn’t be too easy or too hard. In actuality, you want a weight you cannot do for 5 sets of 5 so that the overload process enables you to build strength over the course of your next few workouts.

Try this: Take about 80 percent of your single-rep max (1RM) for the given movement, which is typically a weight you can do for 8 and only 8 reps. But with accumulated fatigue, you won’t be able to achieve all 25 reps. In fact, you may well be likely to reach 5 on your first couple of sets, but then see your reps drop to 4, 3, and 2 on successive sets. That’s as expected.

Your goal each successive workout with that exercise is to get closer to completing all 25 reps—and it may take you several weeks or longer to get there. But that’s how you build strength. Once you successfully do all 5 sets of 5 reps for two subsequent workouts, increase your load by 5 percent (upper-body exercises) or 10 percent (lower-body exercises) for your next workout.

Click here to see more articles by Darren Mehling.

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