X3M 5x5 Workout Program

A super effective variant of 5x5 that works even when the popular ones fail (StrongLifts 5x5, MadCow, Starting Strength, Bill Starr).



The 5x5 (5 sets x 5 reps) is a classic training system for getting stronger and building muscle. I’ve seen many different variations (with a fixed weight, ramping up to 1 to 3 heavy sets, heavy/light/medium). The most popular variants are Bill Starr’s 5x5, Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, MadCow’s 5x5 and StrongLifts 5x5.

I’m about to share with you a 5x5 variant (the X3M 5x5 Routine) that has proven to be extremely effective. I’ve gotten very positive feedback from trainees who got stuck with the other 5x5 routines.

X3M 5x5 is based on the classic idea of cycling your poundages with short 4 weeks cycles and also doing more bodybuilding style assistance work to get the best of both low rep and high rep training. The system is very flexible and you can change/choose the assistance drills.

The X3M 5x5 Split

This is a 3 workouts a week system and each exercise is performed just once a week. The main lifts are classic free weight compound exercises: Bench Press, Squats and Deadlifts. Assistance exercises are not based around the main lift for the day. Every muscle is hit 2-3 times a week, but every exercise is done just once a week.

The default training days are Monday, Wednesday and Friday, but you can change them to suit your schedule.

The split emphasizes different lifts on different days, but you can view it as two full body workouts a week and one upper body workout a week.

Monday – Day 1
Main lift: Deadlift
Assistance: Military Press, Leg Presses, Shoulder Isolation (1 or 2 arm dumbbell laterals for example), Calves

Wednesday – Day 2
Main lift: Bench Press
Assistance: Vertical Pulling (Pullups/Chinups with added weight or Pulldowns), Horizontal Pulling (1 arm DB rows)

Friday – Day 3
Main lift: Squats
Assistance: Incline Bench or DB Presses, 1 Biceps and 1 Triceps Exercise

Sets, Reps and Cycling

Here’s where things get interesting. One of the most effective ways to train for strength is to increase the working weight every workout. You start light/submaximal and increase the weights every workout until you reach your maxes and then start light again.

The 3 main lifts (deadlifts, squats and bench presses) are performed with a fixed weight and done for 5 sets of 1 to 5 reps depending on how heavy the weight is. All repetitions are performed until you hit 5 good reps or approach technical failure. Technical failure is defined as not being able to perform the exercise with good form.

Every workout you increase the weights 3% to 5% (big jumps).

The whole cycle is just 4 weeks.

Example 4 week Squat cycle (your max is 100 units of weight for 1 rep)

You start with 5 sets x 5 reps at just 75. The 2nd week you perform 5 sets x 5 reps with 80. The 3rd week the weight is too heavy for 5x5 and you just manage to do: 5x(5,4,3,3,3) - all good form repetitions.

Now every trainee arrives at this point. He cannot do the full 5 sets x 5 reps. Most will repeat the weight until they can or start GOMADding or giving up and resetting with lighter weights.

In X3M 5x5 you do the opposite: increase the working weight one more time to 90 in the 4th week. Now, you manage to do: 90x(4,3,2,2,2). If the first training cycle is well-designed, you will not be able to do 5 reps on the 4th week. At this point (reaching a weight you cannot lift for 5 reps on the first set) you restart the cycle and go back to the light weights - 75.

The whole 4 week cycle is repeated until you can do 5 reps on the first set in week 4. Then you increase the working weights for the next cycle 1%-5%.

Remember: within a cycle use bigger jumps (3-5%), cycle over cycle you can use smaller/bigger jumps (1-5%) depending on how you feel.

You should be able to do the full 5sets x 5 reps during week 1 and week 2.

Here’s a hypothetical Squat cycle (weight x sets x reps):

Cycle #1
Week #1: Squats 75x5x5
Week #2: Squats 80x5x5
Week #3: Squats 85x(5,4,3,3,2)
Week #4: Squats 90x(4,3,2,2,1) -> you cannot do 5 reps, repeat the whole cycle
Cycle #2
Week #1: Squats 75x5x5
Week #2: Squats 80x5x5
Week #3: Squats 85x(5,5,4,3,2) -> there’s progress compared to previous cycle
Week #4: Squats 90x(5,4,3,3,2) -> you can do 5 reps, you decide to increase the weight with a step of 5
Cycle #3
Week #1: Squats 80x5x5 -> starting weight is heavier
Week #2: Squats 85x(5,5,5,5,4) -> there’s progress compared to previous cycle, still couldn’t do 5x5
Week #3: Squats 90x(5,4,4,3,2) -> there’s progress compared to previous cycle
Week #4: Squats 95x(4,3,2,2,1) -> felt super heavy, repeat cycle with the same weights. If you did just 3 reps on the first set, then decrease the weights for the next cycle.

Sets and Reps on Assistance Exercises

The cyclical 5x5 weights are used only on the main lifts (Bench, Deadlifts, Squats). Everything else is treated as assistance including Incline Bench Presses and Military Presses.

For all assistance exercises do 3 to 5 sets of whatever reps you feel like works best for you. I prefer lowish reps (4-8), but you might be different.

Don’t train to failure

I cannot stress this enough! Don’t train to failure on any exercise. Leave at least 1-2 reps in the tank and don’t do ugly reps. Stop the set well before form is about to get ugly or totally fail. Let the volume and intensity do the work, not the failure. Treat all assistance training as "easy volume" - just adding good form repetitions staying as fresh as possible (2-4 reps from failure).

If you start training to failure on X3M 5x5, you will not be able to recover and you will burn out and may get injured.

How to choose your assistance exercises?

Experiment to find which ones work best for you. When you feel you’re not progressing on an assistance drill switch to another one. Sometimes you just need to change grip width or hand pronation-supination.

What to do when progress stalls?

If you can’t progress in weight or reps for 2 whole cycles, your best options are to lower all weights on the main lifts by 10% and change your assistance drills. If this doesn’t work move to another program. NOTE: If you are skinny and lean, you would need to gain weight.

Why it works?

But Hristo, I've heard cycling and linear periodization are outdated. And it doesn't work.

The key to cycling, imo, is to use short cycles and bigger weight jumps.

First, with a long cycle you'll spend a lot of time on light weights and your strength will go south. Second, if the cycle step is too small (you barely increase the weight from workout to workout), you'll spend too much time with heavy weights and you'll burn out.

Remember: short cycles, big weight jumps to allow light and heavy sessions, do every exercise just once a week, and use bodybuilding assistance drills on the other days.

Long cycles can work, if you treat them as a sequence of small cycles where each next cycle is slightly heavier. Basically - wave cycles :)

Questions & Answers

Q: Why are assistance exercises not based around the main lift of the day?

Because that allows you to train each muscle more frequently. The key here is staying away from failure.

Q: Why isn't the barbell row included in the program?

The barbell row is a great compound exercise. However, it taxes the lower back considerably and is difficult to fit in with the squats and deadlifts. All things considered, it is better to do dumbell rows or horizontal rowing on a machine with the X3M 5x5 training routine.

Q: Isn't the 4th week too intense?

The 4th week of every cycle is quite heavy. Again, the key is performing repetitions with good form before technical failure ("treat strength as a skill"). Doing so decreases the working weight compared to what's possible with ugly form. The around 90% intensity in the 4th week is not based on a true max, but on a max effort using good form.

Q: Can I use X3M 5x5 when dieting to lose fat?

Yes, provided your calorie deficit is small (10%-20% below maintenance). You can lose fat without cardio.

Q: What makes X3M 5x5 better than other 5x5 routines?

First, it lets you train with the heaviest possible weights with good form (4th week) and that is important for making progress when you are out of the beginner phase. It is impossible to reach these weights without sacrificing some repetitions (going below 5 reps on some sets). Other 5x5 workouts don't allow you to increase the weight and that limits progress.

Second, increasing the weight every workout in short cycles is a very effective training principle. It waves both volume and intensity, eliminates stagnation and provides "same but different" stimulation.

Third, bodybuilding assistance exercises are welcomed. You can build muscle and work on weaknesses. While the basics stay in the program, the extra assistance exercises allow variety and experimentation and kills training boredom.


Hi. My name is Hristo Hristov.
I am the creator of Fitness Assistant. It is a PC software app that makes it easy to create and track workouts, count calories, log diet and nutrition.

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