3x10 vs. 5x5
3x10 vs. 5x5
There was a time when the standard advice given to any beginner at the gym was to go for 3x10 – in other words, to perform 3 sets of 10 reps in each exercise. And the number of exercises per muscle group would most often be recommended to be 1-3. This concept was so often given as the beginner’s routine that even people who had never set foot in the gym knew about it. It was what one would call common knowledge”.
Today the gym crawls with beginners going for a totally different approach: low reps and compound movements are the current trends. People everywhere talk and write about the benefits of lifting heavy and performing compound movements, sometimes referred to as the “big lifts”.
Many aim for the renowned 5x5 workout. The exercises that are prioritised by the users of this approach are almost always to be found among the following six: the bench press, the deadlift, the squat, the weighted pullups, the bent over barbell rows and the military shoulder press.
This has become the new “common knowledge”, that you should prioritize the “big lifts” and that 5x5 (or some other similar low reps scheme) builds both strength and muscle mass. You can´t spend much time reading about fitness, be it online or in magazines, without stumbling upon the (by now rather old) mantras about why these exercises are superior to isolation exercises and why “old-school” high volume are out-dated.
So, which approach is truly the best? Are the currently trendy advice better than the old ones?
My answer, and I’ll tell you why, is that the classic 3x10 approach is superior, especially for beginners and often also for more advanced lifters – at least if he or she is aiming to gain muscle mass and achieve visible changes in their physique.
This will come as a surprise to many, simply because they have read tons of articles which claims the opposite.
The reasons for this opinion of mine are the following:
The empirical evidence.
First and foremost: let us not forget that it is old-school bodybuilding that lays behind all the most famous physiques of our time. This was true in the 70s – and it is true today. And 3x10 provides a far better schooling in the art of old school bodybuilding.
Better technique and less risk of injury.
As a beginner you should try to master the different exercises. You don’t want to heave heavy loads with imperfect technique. In other words: you don’t want to get injured. The risk of injury increases as the weights go up and the reps numbers go down.
Better pump and muscle contact.
An advanced lifter can get a good pump from a few heavy reps – but as a beginner you are more likely to experience the great feeling of having a pump if you go for the classic 3x10 approach. Is this important? Yes, if you want to achieve maximum visible results and if you want to make sure that you fall in love with the gym experience in a way that, in turn, makes it unthinkable not to make it a consistent part of your future life.
Variation, customisation, sustainability and fun.
As a beginner your most primary concern is to make the gym part of your lifestyle. You want to fall in love with the gym experience. You want to come back, day after day, week after week. This is the only road to true and lasting results. And the chances of you doing all this are significantly higher if you try many different exercises and several different ranges of repetition. Don’t get stuck with the “big lifts”. Don’t get stuck with the low reps. There will be a time and a place to incorporate sets of 5, for sure, but as a beginner you shouldn’t let your routine become stalled already from the start. In short, with the classic 3x10 approach you are more likely to train in accordance with the principles that ensures results at the gym.
Strength comes in many shapes and forms.
There is a strange notion that high reps training doesn’t build strength. This is wrong. It sure does. The fact is that as a beginner both your strength and your muscle mass size will gain from all reps ranges, from sets of 1 to sets of 30 (provided, of course, that you are properly engaged and concentrated throughout your workout sessions). Furthermore, this doesn't change as you get more advanced. You can build both strength and size with both low and high volume training. Technique, engagement, concentration, intensity, nutrition - there are numerous factors that are equally or more important than the difference between doing sets of 5 and sets of 12.
Fat burning and conditioning.
Many people who buy a gym membership do so because they want to lose fat. If you are one of those people, the 3x10 is vastly superior to the 5x5 approach. It is higher in volume, which means you will spend more energy, hence burn more fat and get better conditioning. If you are one of the many that enters the gym with the somewhat vague goal of “getting in shape”, then 3x10 and other high volume approaches will serve you far better than any low reps scheme, the 5x5 included.
You need isolation exercises to build a great physique.
Compound movements have benefits. But they are not enough. Not if you have advanced goals. Not if you want a visually impressive physique. Not if you are inspired by any of the most famous physiques, be it golden era bodybuilders or present day movie stars. You absolutely need isolation exercises. And don’t let the macho talkers that says otherwise impress you. It is not harder to do 5x5 of squats than it is to do 6x12 of biceps curls, leg presses or lateral raises. On the contrary, more often than not you will find the high reps routine more demanding. It will have you spending more energy and it will require more will power.
Better suited for the long run.
If you intend to stick with your program for any longer period of time the 3x10 approach will last longer in terms of results and progress. You have to be a truly skilled and advanced lifter in order to get the 5x5 approach to be as rewarding as a routine higher in volume.
So, to sum this duel up, I find the classic 3x10 advice to be vastly superior to the trendier 5x5 approach. This goes for beginners – but also for more experienced lifters, at least if you want to prioritise looks before 1 rep max power.
All this having been said, I still wouldn’t call 3x10 the ideal beginner's program, I have merely referred to it in order to make an important point as clearly as possible. I would recommend my own beginner s month program. This will let you fall in love with the gym experience. It consists of 4 very different workout days and it will grant you fast and qualitative results.