One of the most popular workouts during the past half-century is Reg Park’s 5x5 System. Not to be confused with the version developed by strength coach Bill Starr that has proven to be especially effective for football players, Park’s workout is designed to develop a physique that is as strong as it looks. It’s still a great workout, but to get the most out of this classic program may require a few modern twists.
There have been many variations of the 5x5 training system, but the source can be found in Reg Park’s book, Strength and Bulk Training for Weight Lifters and Body Builders, published in 1960. It was a workout that helped Park become not just a bodybuilding legend and one of the strongest bodybuilders in his time, but also a movie star.
Park played Hercules on the big screen in five movies, his first being Hercules and the Captive Women in 1961. In the days before CGI, if you wanted an actor to look like Hercules, that actor had to pack on a lot of muscle in the gym. Park had done just that, building a balanced physique that included 20-inch arms.
Park’s first major bodybuilding competition was the Mr. Britain in 1946, where he placed forth, winning the title in 1949. In the amateur NABBA Mr. Universe competition in 1950, Park placed second to Steve Reeves, another bodybuilder who played Hercules in movies. Park won the overall title in the amateur NABBA Mr. Universe in 1951, and the pro divisions in 1958 and 1965. He placed second to Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1970 by just ½ point, and again placed second in 1973! Very few professional athletes have stayed at the top of their game for nearly three decades, which is why there has been considerable interest in how Park trained.
Park believed that one of the benefits of using a 5x5 protocol in a weight training exercise is that it could develop tremendous strength. Many years later Starr said he used 5x5 for his workout because the available research at the time suggested that the optimal range of reps to build strength was between 4-6. For Park this was certainly true, as he was the first bodybuilder to bench press 500 pounds. He did this lift in 1953, long before the creation of the supportive gear used today by many powerlifters. Consider too that the first man to bench press 500 pounds was Canadian weightlifter Doug Hepburn. Hepburn outweighed Park by 60 pounds and accomplished this milestone lift just 10 days before Park matched him.
Getting into the details of Park’s workout, although you can use this set/rep protocol with any exercise, it is usually reserved for core exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. In Park’s original workouts, he would use 5x5 for these core exercises but use much higher reps for isolation exercises such as calf raises and triceps extensions.
The basic goal of Park’s workout is to perform two progressively heavier sets of 5 reps of an exercise, then three sets of 5 reps using the same weight. When you can complete all three sets with the heavier weights, increase the weight on all five sets by 5-10 pounds. Supersets were not performed in Park’s system so that you could focus on putting the maximum effort into each set.
The problem with this system is that when an individual reaches a higher level of strength, more warm-up sets are needed. If someone can squat 350 pounds for five reps, performing one set of let’s say 135x5 and one of 300x5 may not be enough warm-up to perform 350 for sets of 5. Squatting is a skill, and two warm-up sets is probably not enough work to prepare especially strong individuals physically and mentally to lift maximum poundages. Further, at the higher levels of strength, more volume (total reps) of maximum weights is often required to make optimal progress.
A modern twist of Park’s program for an advanced trainee on major exercises would be to perform 4-5 warm-up sets of 5 reps, followed by 5 sets of 5 reps with a primary weight. Let’s see how this program can be used for the bench press.
Let’s assume your best result in this lift is 200 pounds for 5 reps. Warm-up with four sets using these weights: 45, 95, 135, and 185. Now put 200 pounds on the bar and try to complete five sets, resting 3-5 minutes between sets. If during your first workout you could only perform an average of 2 reps per set with the primary weight, the weight is too heavy as you should be able to complete at least a total of 14 reps. To get you back on track, for your next workout back off to 190 pounds and start the cycle again.
Now let’s say you completed the following reps for each set with 200 pounds: 5,4,3,3,3. That’s 18 reps, so stay with that weight for your next workout but try to add at least another rep to each set. If you fall short, use 200 pounds again for your next workout. If you get all 25 reps, then increase the primary weight to 205 pounds.
Park recommended performing a 5x5 workout 3 times a week. If you were to increase the volume of training with the variation described here, you would probably be better off only using it twice a week (with at least two days rest between workouts), depending on the exercise.
Reg Park’s contributions to the Iron Game were considerable and his achievements as an athlete were remarkable. For these reasons you should consider trying some variation of the 5x5 method if you want to pack on slabs of quality muscle. For a bodybuilder it’s great to be big, but it’s better to be big and strong!