A 5x5 Workout Helps You Build Strength for Better Runs

Here’s how to use this programming technique.

5x5 workout
Trevor Raab

When it comes to a weight room workout, it can seem difficult to determine not only what exercises to do, but also the ideal reps and sets for building strength. That’s where the 5x5 workout comes into play.

A favorite among athletes, the 5x5 workout gives you the freedom to choose between moves but encourages you to stick with five reps and five sets of each exercise in a three-exercise workout.

Here’s everything you need to know about the 5x5 workout and how to incorporate it into your weekly or monthly strength-training routine.

What is a 5x5 workout, exactly?

The 5x5 workout is also known as the “strong lifts 5x5” or the “Bill Starr Program”—named after the Olympian who helped craft the strength concept. It breaks down to practicing three weightlifting exercises for 5 sets of 5 repetitions each.

The 5x5 workout allows you to lift heavy loads at a lower volume so you can zero in on building strength, Nick Rodriguez, a NASM-certified trainer at Valley Wellness Fitness Center in Allentown, Pennsylvania tells Runner’s World. “You’re keeping the reps low because you’re lifting heavy weights and you’re doing five sets just so you break them out,” he explains. “You’re not doing three sets of 15 reps, because once your rep range gets too high, you’re training a different muscle system.”

There are five moves you can include in the 5x5 workout: row, back squat, overhead press, chest press, and deadlift. You’ll typically perform these with a barbell, but if you’re working out at home or don’t have access to a bar, you can also use heavy dumbbells.

Because you’ll choose three of these moves for the main lifts of your workout, feel free to mix and match to target specific body parts on different days. Or mix it up by practicing the bench press and the row on the same day for an agonist and antagonist workout (or opposing muscle groups), Rodriguez says. To create a more well-rounded routine, you can also incorporate core, conditioning, or accessory work into the 5x5 workout (as shown below).

As for weights to use for the 5x5 workout, go for those that hit between 50 to 75 percent of your one-rep max (or how much weight you can lift for just one rep) for beginners and up to 85 percent of your one-rep max for more advance lifters. As you continue with a 5x5 program, you should increase your weight load so you continue to progress your strength. (It’s helpful to write down how much weight you lift in each session, so you know where to start or what to increase the next time you do your 5x5 workout.)

To test for your one-rep max, load a barbell with weights and complete as many reps as possible—gradually increasing the amount of weight you lift each set—until you can only complete one rep of a certain weight. This is your one-rep max.

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The Benefits of a 5x5 Workout

No matter what distance you run, you can gain advantages from doing a 5x5 workout. If you’re a sprinter you can improve power from this strength training routine by practicing it more frequently, Rodriguez says. And if you’re a long-distance runner, lifting heavy periodically will allow you to strengthen your muscles so they can withstand the impact of all those miles. But most importantly, Rodriguez says, this workout will help you sidestep injury thanks to the resiliency it builds in your body.


5 Moves for Your 5x5 Workout

Here, the five moves you can choose from to form your 5x5 workout and how to do them with strong form.

Deadlift

Why runners need it: Practicing the deadlift directly trains your glute muscles to propel you forward as you drive your foot into the ground and create force, Rodriguez says.

How to do it: Holding two dumbbells or a barbell with both hands about shoulder-width apart, stand with feet hip-width apart, chest tall. Bent knees slightly and pack shoulders down your back. Slowly send butt back, hinging from the hips while keeping back straight and abs tight. Engage hamstrings and glutes to resist the downward pull of gravity as the weight lowers toward to the floor. Lower as far as you can until you feel tension along the backs of legs. Then drive feet into ground to stand back up. Repeat.

Chest Press

Why runners need it: The bench press will help you strengthen your chest muscles—and having a strong upper body can help with running efficiency by fighting fatigue and boosting endurance, according to research.

How to do it: Lie faceup on the floor with a dumbbell in each hand or on a bench, holding a barbell with both hands about shoulder-width apart. Palms should face away from you and arms should be straight, weights over chest. Place feet flat on the floor. With control, bend elbows about 45 degrees away from torso, lowering the weights toward chest. Pause, then press back up. Repeat.

Overhead Press

Why runners need it: The move will help you stay strong, run tall, and maintain power, Rodriguez says.

How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding dumbbells or a barbell in both hands, at shoulder height. Palms should face away from you and elbows should bend so arms form a W shape. With core engaged and back straight, press the weight straight up overhead, biceps by ears. Slowly lower back down to shoulders. Repeat.

Bent-Over Row

Why runners need it: The row is a hinge movement that will target your back muscles and strengthen your lats, which can help improve your arm drive on the run, says Rodriguez.

How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a barbell or dumbbells down in front of you with both hands, placed slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and palms facing you if you’re holding a barbell or palms facing each other if you’re holding dumbbells. Hinge at hips by sending butt straight back and keep back flat with knees slightly bent. Pull the weight up and back toward torso, while squeezing shoulder blades together. Slowly lower the weight back down until elbows fully extend. Repeat.

Squat

Why runners need it: Overall, Rodriguez says, the squat is one of the best strength-building exercises you can do because it targets multiple muscle groups at a time (quads and glutes included), while helping improve your core stability.

How to do it: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly out. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, at shoulders, or a barbell behind your head, resting lightly on shoulders with hands wider than shoulder-width apart. Send butt down and back, bending knees to lower into a squat (just like you’re about to sit in a chair). Go as low as you can without feeling discomfort in joints, dropping chest, or lifting heels off the floor. Pause, then push through feet to stand back up. Repeat.


The Best 5x5 Workout for Runners

For beginners, Rodriguez suggests practicing this workout no more than two times a week to avoid overtraining. You can start with light weights to help focus on technique and then slowly progress to heavier weights overtime, he says. For experienced lifters, it’s safe to implement this workout routine three times a week.

Keep in mind, “the goal is to hit 5 reps and 5 sets, so you want that fifth rep to be on the tougher side. But you don’t want that second rep to be too heavy,” Rodriguez says.

For this particular 5x5 workout, Rodriguez included the squat, row, and overhead press because they’re moves that pair well together, while targeting the upper and lower body muscles. (You can sub in the deadlift or chest press on other days.) He also added the kettlebell swing to assist with glute strength and power on the run, as well as a Pallof press to help stabilize your core.

How to use this list: For this workout you will need a barbell or set of heavy dumbbells, a kettlebell, and a resistance band. An exercise mat is optional. Each move is demonstrated by Monique LeBrun, associate health and fitness editor at Runner’s World, so you can follow proper form. (Check the above videos for the squat, overhead press, and bent-over row.)

Complete all reps and sets of each move before moving onto the next exercise. You’ll do 5 reps and 5 sets of the squat, overhead press, and bent-over row. Rest for two minutes between sets of these three moves. (This rest period should allow you to continue to lift heavy for all 5 sets.)

For the kettlebell swings and Pallof press, follow the reps and sets below. Rest for about 30 seconds between sets of these two moves.

Kettlebell Swing

Start standing about an arms-length distance away from the kettlebell with feet a bit wider than hips-width apart. Hinge at the hips, and reach arms forward to grab the bell with both hands on the handle, keeping back flat and arms extended. Maintaining a neutral spine, draw the kettlebell back until it is between and behind your legs. Immediately squeeze glutes and drive feet into floor as you send hips forward and swing the kettlebell up to chest level. Let the kettlebell guide you back down into the hinge position. Repeat. Do 3 sets of 12 reps.

Pallof Press

At about chest height, loop one end of a large resistance band around a pole, squat rack, or other steady anchor. Standing with the left side of body facing the anchor, grasp the end of the band with both hands at chest height. (Make sure you’re far enough away from the anchor so that there’s resistance on the band.) Engage the core and push the band directly in front of the chest, using midsection to resist rotation. Bring the handle back to your chest. Repeat. Do 3 sets of 30 seconds each.

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