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Bill Starr's 5x5 routine

Bill Starr's Original 5 x 5 Training Routines

Perhaps the most influential book ever written on the subject of strength training for sports is Bill Starr's "The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football" written in 1976.

Since then, seemingly endless variations of Starr's original 5x5 routine have sprouted up all over the Net and for good reason - it is possibly the most perfect strength routine ever devised.

His routine focused on bench presses, squats and power cleans, done on a Monday - Wednesday - Friday rotation with heavy, medium and light days. Bill Starr popularized the "5x5" routine - each exercise was done following a protocol of five sets of five reps.

Table of Contents

Starr's original 5x5 routine used the three exercises which Starr referred to as "the big three", quoting Starr:

"These are 3 basic exercises used by weightlifters to increase their strength....the football player (and you can insert Martial Artist, Fighter, whatever there) must work for overall body strength as opposed to specific strengthening exercises....In other words the athlete should be building total leg strength rather than just stronger hamstrings. He should be seeking overall strength in his shoulder girdle rather than just stronger deltoids....the program is fast, simple and, most importantly, effective. It requires very little space and a minimum of equipment...." 

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Build raw power with deadlifts! - Image Credit: iStock

Bill Starr's 5X5 Routine In Its Original Form

Monday - Heavy (85%)

Power Clean - 5 sets x 5 reps
Bench - 5 sets x 10 reps + 1 set x 10 reps with weight used on 3rd set
(add 10 rep sets after 8-12 weeks on program)
Squats - 5 sets x 10 reps + 1 set x 10 reps with weight used on 3rd set
(each of the five sets increase the weight by 10%)

Wednesday - Light (65%)

Power Clean - 5 sets of 5
Incline Bench - 5 sets x 10 reps
Squats - 5 sets of 5

Friday - Medium (75%)

Power Clean - 5 sets of 5
Overhead press - 5 sets x 10 reps + 1 set x 10 reps with weight used on 3rd set
Squats - 5 sets of 5

The Bill Starr Power Routine

Monday – Heavy Day

Squat – 5 sets of 5 reps
Bench – 5 sets of 5 reps
Power Clean – 5 sets of 5 reps
Weighted Hyperextensions - 2 sets x failure
Weighted Sit-Ups - 4 sets x failure

Wednesday – Light Day

Squat – 4 sets of 5 reps
Incline Bench – 4 sets of 5 reps
High Pulls – 4 sets of 5 reps
Sit-ups- 3 sets x failure

Friday - Medium

Squat – 4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3, 1 set of 8
Bench – 4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3, 1 set of 8
Power Cleans – 4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3
Weighted Dips- 3 sets of 5-8 reps
Triceps and Biceps - 3 sets of 8 reps 

performing sumo deadlift
Sumo deadlifts are a great choice for some lifters! - Image Credit: iStock

Bill Starr's Beginner 5x5

Monday (Heavy Day - 85%)

Back Squats 5 sets x 5 reps Ramping weight to top set of 5 reps across 5 sets
Bench Press 5 sets x 5 reps Ramping weight to top set of 5 reps across 5 sets
Deadlifts 5 sets x 5 reps Ramping weight to top set of 5 reps across 5 sets

Wednesday (Light Day - 65-70%)

Back Squats 5 sets x 5 reps using 60% of Monday's weight
Bench Press 5 sets x 5 reps using 60% of Monday's weight
Pullups 5 sets x 5 reps Ramping weight to top set of 5 reps across 5 sets

Friday (Medium Day - 70-85%)

Back Squats 5 sets x 5 reps using 80% of Monday's weight
Bench Press 5 sets x 5 reps using 80% of Monday's weight
Rows 5 sets x 5 reps Ramping weight to top set of 5 reps across 5 sets 

The Bill Starr Strength Factor Routine

Monday (Heavy Day)

Back Squats 5 sets x 5 reps ramping to limit
Bench Press 5 sets x 5 reps ramping to limit
Deadlifts 5 sets x 5 reps ramping to limit or Bent-Over Rows: 5 x 5 ramping to limit
Incline Dumbbell Press 2 sets x 20 reps
Calf Raises 3 sets x 30 reps

Wednesday (Light Day)

Back Squats 5 sets x 5 reps using 50 lbs less than Monday or Lunges: 4 x 6 ramping to limit
Good Mornings 4 sets x 10 reps or Stiff-Leg Deadlifts: 4 sets x 10 reps
Standing Overhead Press 5 sets x 5 reps ramping to limit
Dips When you can do 20 reps, start adding weight and drop the reps back to 8
Curls 3 sets x 15 reps

Friday (Medium Day)

Back Squats 5 sets x 5 reps using 20 lbs less than Monday
Incline Bench Press 5 sets x 5 reps ramping to limit
Shrugs 5 sets x 5 reps ramping to limit or Clean High Pulls 5 x 5 ramping to limit
Straight Arm Pullovers 2 sets x 20 reps
Chins: 4 sets to failure 

Bill Starr's "Big 3" Program

Monday – Heavy Day

Power Clean – 5 sets of 5 reps
Bench – 5 sets of 5 reps
Squat – 5 sets of 5 reps

Wednesday – Light Day
Power Clean – 5 sets of 5 reps
Benchpress – 5 sets of 5 reps
Squat – 5 sets of 5 reps

Friday - Medium
Power Clean – 5 sets of 5 reps
Benchpress – 5 sets of 5 reps
Squat – 5 sets of 5 reps

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Bill Starr's training routines were among the first adopted by football teams strength and conditioning coaches - Image Credit: iStock

Beyond Bill Starr: Madcow and Mark Rippetoe

By far of all of the variations of coach Starr's original routines, the two of them that are the most used and advanced in term of principles are those ones by an Internet poster from the early 2000's named "Madcow" and Mark Rippetoe, author of "Starting Strength".

Madcow' variation isn't one routine, it features several based on the trainer's needs and uses deloading phases, dual factor training, and hypertrophy phases. 

Mark Rippetoe's "Starting Strength" Novice 5x5 Routine

Workout A

Squat – 3 sets x 5 reps
Bench Press – 3 sets x 5 reps
Deadlift – 1 set x 5 reps

Workout B

Squat – 3 sets x 5 reps
Overhead Press – 3 sets x 5 reps
Power Clean – 3 sets x 5 reps

All the sets shown (3 sets of 5) are all working or "live" sets, not counting warmup sets. Additional supplementary exercises can be added, but very sparingly. In the case of arms, the biceps/triceps already get enough growth stimulation from heavy presses, rows and chins.

Abdominal work can be used as a cool-down. Grip work can be added to the end as needed too. Workouts A and B alternate on 3 non-consecutive days per week.

Proof of concept that Rippetoe's novice routine works isn't only found by the five star rating that "Starting Strength" receives regularly on Amazon.com, but also in numerous threads like this one on the Net.

More proof that these variants work on the vast majority of the population can be found on the excellent "StrongLifts" website which features its own variant of Bill Starr's 5x5. (note: the site also has a vibrant community found on their forums) 

Mark Rippetoe's Practical Programming Novice Program

Monday
Squat - 3 sets x 5 reps
Bench press / Press (Alternating) - 3 sets x 5 reps
Chin-ups 3 sets to failure or add weight if completing more than 15 reps

Wednesday
Squat - 3 sets x 5 reps
Press / Bench Press (Alternating) - 3 sets x 5 reps
Deadlift - 3 sets x 5 reps

Friday
Squat - 3 sets x 5 reps
Bench Press / Press (Alternating) - 3 sets x 5 reps
Pull-ups 3 sets to failure
(add weight if completing more than 15 reps) 

Mark Rippetoe's The Advanced Novice Program

Week 1, Day 1

Squat - 3 sets x 5 reps
Bench press - 3 sets x 5 reps
Chin-ups - 3 sets
(weight added so failure occurs at 5 to 7 reps)

Week 1, Day 2

Front Squat - 3 sets x 5 reps OR Light Squat 2 sets x 5 reps (80% 5RM)
Press - 3 sets x 5 reps
Deadlift 1 sets x 5 reps

Week 1, Day 3

Squat - 3 sets x 5 reps
Bench press - 3 sets x 5 reps
Pull-ups - 3 sets to failure, unweighted

Week 2, Day 1

Squat - 3 sets x 5 reps
Press - 3 sets x 5 reps
Chin-ups - 3 sets to failure, unweighted

Week 2, Day 2

Front Squat - 3 sets x 5 reps OR Light Squat 2 sets x 5 reps (80% 5RM)
Bench press - 3 sets x 5 reps
Power clean - 5 sets x 3 reps

Week 2, Day 3

Squat - 3 sets x 5 reps
Press - 3 sets x 5 reps
Pull-ups - 3 sets, weight added so failure occurs at 5 to 7 reps 

Madcow Intermediate 5x5

Monday – Heavy Day
Squat – 5 sets of 5 reps
Bench – 5 sets of 5 reps
Barbell Row or Power Cleans – 5 sets of 5 reps
Weighted Hyperextensions - 2 sets of 10 reps
Weighted sit-ups - 4 sets x failure

Wednesday – Light Day
Squat – 4 sets of 5 reps
Incline Bench or Standing Press – 4 sets of 5 reps
Deadlift – 4 sets of 5 reps
Sit-ups - 3 sets x failure

Friday - Medium
Squat – 4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3, 1 set of 8
Bench – 4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3, 1 set of 8
Barbell Row or Power Cleans – 4 sets of 5, 1 set of 3, 1 set of 8
Weighted Dips - 3 sets of 5-8 reps
Triceps Extension and Biceps Curl - 3 sets of 8 reps each

Judging by how enduring and influential Bill Starr's book and routine have been for over a generation, this sound routine lays the fundamentals for anyone developing their strength to intermediate levels and beyond.