Why sets of five are best for strength

In this video, we apply simplicity, logic and reason to the optimal sets and reps for strength. We address one of the very fundamental building blocks of programming: Reps.

First, let’s define some terminology. The number of reps is the number of times you perform that lift without stepping away from the exercise. Sets would then be the number of times you do that. So if you do three reps of squats then take a 5 minute break and do that again, you would have done two sets of three reps.

The Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression (along with a few other protocols) relies heavily on the use of 5’s. We really like to use 5’s with most of our novices and will come back to 5’s frequently even in later stages of a lifter’s career. 5’s form an excellent foundation for someone interested in strength. But WHY?

Think about the number of reps that you could do in the weight room as a continuum.

The least number of reps that you could do would be 1. Not 0 because that wouldn’t actually be completing a rep. When you are training heavy singles, this is an excellent display of strength. It requires that you recruit as much muscle mass as you can and lift the heaviest load possible for just one time. A true “one rep max” (1RM) might take 7 or 8 seconds to fully lock out. This type of event is about maximum force production. What kind of athlete would do this type of training? Well, powerlifters and olympic weightlifters certainly come to mind since their sport is all about 1RM events.

Now, what would be on the other side of the rep continuum? What is the most number of reps that you could do and still actually be productive in the weight room? Probably around 20 reps. That’s because if you get past 20, the difference between doing something for 20 and 25 becomes so negligible that their outcomes are about the same. At this end of the spectrum, the outcome is more endurance-based. Not cardiorespiratory, like running a marathon, but local muscular endurance. Fighting through reps as the Ph level of your muscles continues to drop and then keep on fighting. This is a very different situation than a 1RM. What kind of athlete might train in this spectrum? Probably one that is only interested in muscular size since there is, by comparison, much less force production happening here.

For the novice, we want to get the best stimulus for being generally strong. This means being towards the middle of the spectrum when it comes to both max force production and local endurance and muscle size. For that we use 5’s.

Now, we know what you are thinking. Why not 10? 10 seems to be in the middle of 1 and 20. And while that is true mathematically it’s not very true physiologically. The difference between doing a weight that you could only do for 1 (your 1RM, remember 7 seconds of grind) and making somebody do a second rep is potentially life altering (and probably not in a good way). However taking a load that someone can just scratch out for 20 and with a few more breaths under the bar doing another rep (after all you’ve done 20, what’s one more?) now that’s a far more feasible scenario.

So the bottom line is, the further we get away from singles the strength requirements drop off faster and faster. We like 5’s because they are heavy enough to get stronger but having to do it for 5 reps also means there is a little bit of a conditioning component and certainly a muscular hypertrophy or size component. Could it be that we are wrong and that literally thousands upon thousands of data points got it wrong, and maybe 4’s are the magical number or 6’s? Maybe…? The point is we have been doing 5’s for many MANY lifters across many MANY years. And it works. And it seems to generally, work better than anything else, particularly for novices.

So do your fives!

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