What is the 5x5 workout method? Personal trainer reveals why this strength training routine is best for women

This 5 set, 5 rep workout is the answer to building strength and reducing injury, this master trainer says

Woman bending down to pick up barbell from the floor as part of the 5x5 workout
(Image credit: Getty Images)

There are a lot of workouts worth ignoring out there but the 5x5 workout isn't one of them. This strength training program has long since been the choice of those looking to start from scratch, get stronger and fitter in the gym or at home, using a selection of weights - and for good reason. 

Sometimes it can be difficult to know where to start when you want to pick up strength training for the first time. There are so many different types of workouts around, like CrossFit and weightlifting, strength-focused Pilates, HIIT, circuit training, and so on. The great thing about the 5x5 workout is that you can use all its principles to go on and try other options, now you've got the basics down, or just continue making progress. 

Want to know more? Here, we speak to a certified personal trainer who specialises in strength training and gym work to reveal all you need to know about strength training with the 5x5 workout.

What is a 5x5 workout?

The 5x5 workout is a straightforward strength training programme aimed at helping those who want to get stronger, explains personal trainer Lucie Cowan, who works with Third Space London. "The core principle behind it is to perform five sets of five repetitions for each exercise, hence the name '5x5'," she says. "This approach emphasises lifting heavier weights with fewer reps, which can lead to excellent results in strength gains."

The workout is made up of five key lifts, she tells woman&home

  • Squat: There are many types of squats you can do. They are often done with a barbell, kettlebells, dumbbells or just your body weight, this is a classic strength training exercise. "It's a foundational move that works the lower body, especially the quads, hamstrings, and glutes."
  • Bench Press: "Focusing on the chest, shoulders, and triceps, this exercise is excellent for upper body strength," she says. It can be done with dumbbells or a barbell. 
  • Barbell Row: "Targets the upper back and biceps, enhancing posture and upper body strength," says Cowan. Likewise, you can do this with dumbbells, a barbell, or even resistance bands
  • Overhead Press: Best done with a barbell or dumbbells, but you can do this one with a kettlebell too. It's "a shoulder and triceps exercise that also engages the core for stability."
  • Deadlift: "Deadlifts engage nearly every muscle group in the body, with a primary focus on the back, legs, and core," says Cowan, and you'll need to know how to use a barbell effectively for this one. 

As the name suggests, the 5x5 workout involves five sets of five repetitions for each exercise, which is more sets and fewer repetitions than many other strength training programs around. 

"This format encourages you to progressively increase the weight as you become stronger, which is key to building muscle and strength effectively," says Cowan. "Starting with a weight that challenges you but allows you to complete all five sets and gradually increasing it is the key to progress." 

The 5x5 is all about helping you get stronger, rather than being a strength training for weight loss programme. 

If you've never done a workout like this before and you want to start strength training from scratch, it'll always be best to seek out help from a personal trainer or fitness coach. When it comes to using barbells and heavier weights, the chance of injury goes up. However, many of the best workout apps also offer in-app coaching if one-to-one is a little out of your budget right now. 

Lucie Cowan, Master Trainer at Third Space
Lucie Cowan

Lucie is master trainer for classic group exercise at Third Space London. She developed her knowledge and skills in the fitness industry over a number of years alongside working in the science sector and holds three medical science degrees, a Bachelors (BSc), a Masters (MSc) and a Doctorate (PhD). Her role as Master Trainer combines her love for teaching classes, whilst supporting and training other instructors to excel at their passion and inspire their own class members. 

Is the 5 x 5 workout effective? 

Yes, absolutely. "One of the primary outcomes of a 5x5 program is significant gains in strength as, over time, you can progressively increase the weight you lift and expect to see improvements in your ability to lift heavier loads."

Not only that, the trainer says, the workout offers loads of other health benefits:

1. Improved muscle tone

This might not be a specific workout for losing weight but you're bound to notice some changes to your body after sticking to the 5x5 for a couple of weeks. 

"The compound exercises in 5x5 workouts target multiple muscle groups simultaneously, which can lead to a leaner and more toned physique as you'll reduce excess body fat and muscles become more defined," says the trainer.

In fact, this is one of the main benefits of strength training overall. As studies linked to the Karolinska Institute and Sungkyunkwan University School of Medicine reveal, those who have more muscle burn more calories at rest (when not working out) through simple daily movements like walking around the house as muscle weighs more and can help speed up our metabolism. 

As Cowan says, "Building lean muscle mass through strength training, as promoted by 5x5 workouts, can boost your metabolism. This means you may burn more calories at rest, contributing to weight management and fat loss." 

Woman doing a squat with barbell as part of the 5x5 workout

Squats are a key movement in the 5x5 workout.

(Image credit: Getty Images)

2. 5x5 workout can help you break out of your plateau

If you find yourself dieting but not losing weight or just seem to be unable to improve your fitness any more, then you may have hit a plateau. This is where your body gets used to the calories you're consuming or the exercises you're doing and it just stops adapting. It's annoying - but it happens to everyone. 

"Transitioning to a 5x5 workout in this case can help you break through it as the emphasis on progressive overload challenges your muscles in new ways," says Cowan. Simply put, progressive overload is when you change something about your workout to make it harder, so your body is forced to adapt again. 

3. You'll get better at other sports

For most people, strength training isn't the only workout they do. Unless you're a CrossFit enthusiast or love weightlifting, you probably also do something else like running, cycling, or swimming as your primary activity. 

The 5x5 workout will be hugely effective in improving your performance in whatever other activity you do, says the trainer. "Athletes often incorporate 5x5 workouts to improve their power, strength, and agility, which can translate into better performance in sports." 

Strength training for running is also essential if you're looking to stay injury-free, especially if you're going for regular runs or doing high-impact activity regularly. 

4. Better posture

"5x5 workouts often incorporate exercises that engage the core and improve posture, which can lead to better overall stability and reduced risk of injury," says Cowan. 

These exercises will also target the smaller muscles around the back, hips, and legs, which are often left untouched by other workouts. Although they may be small, these can play a huge role in our stability and reduce the chance of injury during other workouts you might enjoy, like running or cycling. 

Woman setting up to do a chest press on a rack with supportive personal trainer behind her for help

A chest press can be done with dumbbells or a barbell. 

(Image credit: Getty Images)

5. Improved bone density

One of the key troublesome symptoms of menopause is a gradual loss of bone density, which in turn can lead to other health issues like osteoporosis. 

However, resistance training programs like this one can stimulate bone growth as they are put under pressure from the weight. "The 5x5 workout focuses on compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, which target multiple muscle groups simultaneously. This is vital for women over 40 as it helps preserve lean muscle mass and promotes bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis," Cowan says. "This is essential for maintaining bone health, especially as you age."

But, like everything else when it comes to health and fitness, it's all individual. "Results can vary widely based on factors such as genetics, diet, sleep, and overall lifestyle. Moreover, specific goals, whether it's primarily strength, muscle size, or overall fitness, will influence the outcomes you experience," says Cowan. "Consistency, proper form, and a proper, sufficient, balanced diet also play crucial roles in achieving the desired results from a 5x5 workout program."

How to do the 5 x 5 workout

The fundamental essential in the 5x5 workout is maintaining proper form. "Bracing the core really is the best tip and is the crucial element in injury prevention when lifting weights as it protects the spine and provides stability." 

What does this really mean? "The simplest way to explain it is this: Standing tall, imagine someone is about to punch you in the stomach - and you're ready, core tight to receive the blow. Your rib cage should be down, your pelvis tucked up. There's your neutral spine and this feeling is what we need to maintain to protect the lower spine through any lift."

This is another reason why it's a good idea to get the help of a personal trainer or one of the best strength training apps before you start - whether it's the 5x5 workout, Pilates for strength training, or any other type of lifting. 

In the meantime though, here's some tips for getting started with the 5x5 workout from Third Space's Lucie Cowan:  

1. Squats

  • Keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Lower your body by bending at the knees first, hips back second.
  • Keep your back straight, ribs down and chest up.
  • Ensure your knees do not go beyond your toes.
  • Maintain a neutral spine position throughout the movement.
  • Push through your heels to stand back up.

2. Deadlifts

  • Begin with your feet hip-width apart and the barbell over the middle of your feet.
  • Bend your hips and knees slightly to grasp the barbell with a grip slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  • Keep your back flat, chest up, and shoulder blades squeezed together.
  • Lift the barbell by straightening up through your hips.
  • Keep the bar close to your body as you stand up.

Woman bending over to do a deadlift with a barbell as part of the 5x5 workout

(Image credit: Getty Images)

3. Bench press

  • Lie on the bench with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Grip the barbell slightly wider than shoulder-width, keeping your wrists straight.
  • Arch your back slightly to maintain a natural curve.
  • Lower the barbell to your chest in a controlled manner, keeping your elbows at around a 45-degree angle.
  • Press the barbell back up, extending your elbows without locking them.

4. Overhead press

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Hold the barbell at shoulder height with your palms facing forward.
  • Keep your core engaged and maintain a slight arch in your lower back.
  • Press the barbell overhead while keeping it in line with your head.
  • Fully extend your arms without locking your elbows.
  • Lower the barbell back to shoulder height with control.

5. Bent over row

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a barbell with an overhand grip.
  • Bend at your hips to bring your torso forward, keeping your back straight.
  • Keep your knees slightly bent.
  • Pull the barbell towards your lower rib cage, squeezing your shoulder blades together, keeping elbows into the side of the body.
  • Lower the barbell back down with control.

How long do I need to do the 5 x 5 workout for? 

To see progress, evidence suggests you should stick to one routine for between four and six weeks and then change it up. In terms of individual sessions, that'll vary from person to person, warns Cowan. "On average, a full session typically takes around 45 minutes to an hour but it's important not to rush through the exercises, as proper form and technique are crucial to prevent injury and maximise results.

Grace Walsh
Health Channel Editor

Grace Walsh is woman&home's Health Channel Editor, working across the areas of fitness, nutrition, sleep, mental health, relationships, and sex. She is also a qualified fitness instructor. In 2024, she will be taking on her second marathon in Rome, cycling from Manchester to London (350km) for charity, and qualifying as a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach. 

A digital journalist with over six years experience as a writer and editor for UK publications, Grace has covered (almost) everything in the world of health and wellbeing with bylines in Cosmopolitan, Red, The i Paper, GoodtoKnow, and more.