Not so many decades ago, ruggers, athletes, and sports people didn’t lift weights. The coaches of the time believed that strength training would make you slow and “muscle-bound.” Those enlightened athletes who chose to lift weights often did so in secrecy and without their coach’s knowledge.
Fast forward to the late 20th and early 21st century, and there has been a significant shift in thinking. Strength and power training are now recognized as vital for optimal sporting performance. Athletes and teams even hire strength and conditioning coaches to maximize individual and team performance.
While it’s good that most sports, and especially rugby, now recognize the benefits and importance of strength training, a lot of teams and players still use methods that are less than ideal.
They follow bodybuilding training programs that produce increases in muscle size without any subsequent boost in performance or otherwise use training systems that are not specific to the needs of the player. Not all strength training is good strength training!
One popular but potentially less effective strength training method is 5×5, the topic of today’s article.
5×5 is short for five sets of five reps. This is a very popular set and rep scheme that features in a lot of different workouts. Bodybuilders use 5×5 training to build muscle size in the off-season, while athletes appreciate 5×5 training for building strength. Five rep sets allow you to use plenty of weight but also do a moderate number of reps. This, it is proposed, is ideal for building strength and size at the same time. Five reps is near the upper end of the strength training rep range (1-5 reps) and is also near to the start of the hypertrophy training rep range (6-12 reps).
Workouts that include variations of 5×5 include:
The premise of 5×5 training is straightforward; do five sets of five reps for your main exercises. Because of the heavy loads involved, rest periods between sets range from two to five minutes. If you complete all the prescribed reps and sets for your workout, you increase the weight next time. In the early stages of 5×5, most lifters should be able to increase their working weights weekly.
Some 5×5 workouts involve using the same weight for every set, e.g.,
Other programs involve 1-3 warm-ups sets and only 2-3 work sets, e.g.,
Some 5×5 programs feature full-body workouts while others use simple splits like upper body/lower body. They all focus on compound exercises with smaller assistance exercises included to round out the program. In most cases, assistance exercises are done using lighter weights and higher reps, e.g., three sets of ten.
5×5 workouts have a very strong following. Almost anyone who has ever lifted weights will have tried this set/rep scheme. 5×5 devotees are often reticent to try any other kind of set/rep scheme. 5×5 training has been around for almost as long as barbells, and that’s a hard thing to ignore. Remember too that 5×5 has worked for a lot of exercisers. However, that doesn’t mean that you also should jump on (or stay on) the 5×5 bandwagon.
On the surface, 5×5 seems like it’s tailor-made for ruggers. After all, it ticks a lot of rugby strength training boxes:
However, while 5×5 is probably okay for novice and early intermediate exercisers, it is not recommended for advanced ruggers or long-term use.
Most 5×5 workouts state that you should increase your weights from week to week, and even from one workout to the next. Increases depend on the exercise performed, but typical increases are 2.5kg/5 pounds for upper body exercises and 5kg/10 pounds for lower body exercises.
Beginners and those who start 5×5 with light weights may well be able to do this – for weeks or even months at a time. More advanced exercisers who are nearing their genetic potential will find that strength increases are much less linear and predictable. As a beginner, you will probably be able to increase your squat and deadlift by 50kg/110 pounds over a year. In contrast, a more advanced rugger may struggle to increase their strength by 10kg per year.
Another problem with 5×5 training is that progress often plateaus. There will come a point where, despite your best efforts, you will not be able to increase your weights. While there are strategies for busting through plateaus, such as deload weeks, changing exercises, and identifying and fixing weak links, this lack of progress can be very demoralizing.
It’s also worth noting that while muscle strength often increases quite quickly, tendon and ligament strength does not. Muscles are very adaptive and have an excellent blood and nutrient supply. Tendons and ligaments are avascular and do not adapt as quickly. Increasing weights too fast can put a lot of stress on your slower-to-develop tendons and ligaments, and that can lead to injury. Strength increases should be earned and not forced.
With 5×5 training, the only variable at play is weight. Sets and reps remain constant, and workouts progression is the result of adding more weight to the bar – period. While the amount of weight you lift IS important, it is not the only training variable. In fact, relying solely on weight could lead to problems.
Let’s say you complete your 5×5 squat workout using 100kg. The first set or two felt fine, but the last three sets were real grinders. The final set as so ugly that your technique was questionable, and you only just managed to complete your final rep. You may have even cut depth on your last few reps so, in reality, you didn’t actually complete your set successfully.
Despite almost killing yourself, and maybe even cheating a bit too, the program says that, because you did all 25 reps with 100kg, you must increase the load next time. Because you are a good rugger, that’s exactly what you do this.
Unsurprisingly, your technique during your next 5×5 workout is even worse. Training quality has completely gone out of the window. You might be lifting more weight, but your workout will actually be less productive. Your injury risk will also be higher.
Your body adapts to the type of training that you do. 5×5 is good for developing muscle strength and size simultaneously, but that won’t necessarily improve your rugby performance. 5×5 utilizes heavy loads, and that means your rep speed will be relatively slow. If you lift heavy weights slowly, you’ll train yourself to move slowly too.
Rugby is not a slow sport and ruggers need to produce force very quickly – a fitness component we call power. Increasing muscle strength and size provides you with a good foundation for power, but you need to include power-specific training in your workouts to maximize this aspect of your performance.
Some variations of 5×5 do include power cleans, but that’s usually it for explosive training. Ruggers need to pay attention to power as well as strength and size. Those that do not will be no better than a bodybuilder – all show, and no go!
If you are new to strength training or are returning after a long layoff, 5×5 is a valid form of exercise. Starting light and increasing your weights gradually is an effective way to ease back into training. But, once your strength increases start to slow down, you need to get off the 5×5 train and use a more appropriate training method. Good options include:
If you do use 5×5, make sure that you never sacrifice proper exercise technique for more weight on the bar. Also, don’t increase the weight if you didn’t truly nail all the sets in your previous workout. As you get stronger, your strength increases WILL slow down, and you won’t be able to increase your weights weekly, or by such large amounts. Remember too that continually adding weight to the bar can be hard on your joints.
While any strength training is better than no strength training, if you are going lift weights for rugby, it makes sense to try and get the best results from your time and effort. 5×5 is a popular type of strength training, but it is not ideal for ruggers. Every lifter should try 5×5 at least once, but that doesn’t mean you should use it indefinitely. There are other training methods that are better suited to ruggers.