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When I say 5×5 method, everyone thinks about squats, bench press, and deadlifts. They might think about the Starting strength program or StrongLifts, which are pretty well-known 5×5 programs.
In this article, I’m going to change that – I’ll be discussing how you can make great gains with 5×5 in other areas. I’m going to focus on things like using this method for building bigger biceps and triceps, as well as some other applications you might want to use it for!
This article is intended for beginners/early-intermediates or advanced lifters who have lagging arms. It’s a way of getting into good habits and better-understanding your training to improve your results and add another great training method to your overall toolkit.
We will see what the 5×5 training actually is and why and how its philosophy can take you to another level with smaller muscles like biceps and triceps.
Table of Contents
A word for total beginners
If you are an absolute beginner, this article can help you out. It’s not where I recommend starting, but it is a good thing to keep in mind as you develop.
I would recommend that you get used to training first. That means getting used to the movements, adapting mechanically and neurologically to training, and spending a few weeks/months developing with lighter weights and higher reps.
These help you get familiar with the movement and strengthen the tendons and joints – which is where most injuries happen. Keeping yourself safe and staying consistent with training should be every beginner’s top priority!
A word for intermediate and advanced lifters
Many intermediates have lagging arms despite having a good frame. Arms are notoriously stubborn and take real training to grow. Maybe you get good results on your shoulders and chest, legs and back, but your arms are missing something. They aren’t being treated the same way other muscles have been treated, with a focus on strength, power, and progression.
Most people put “fluff” at the end of their workouts for the biceps and triceps and expect them to grow. This isn’t going to work because these are the times when you’re exhausted and your mind is going to quit before you actually put in hard work for your biceps and triceps.
That is why some intermediates and advanced lifters manage to get good results almost everywhere else, they bench press for their chest, they overhead press for their shoulders, they squat for their legs, they deadlift for their back…
…but when it comes to biceps and triceps, they don’t have these big exercises that “they’re ok to go heavy with”. They’re stuck with a very small amount of stimulus, compared to everywhere else!
They’re confused and stick to pumping sessions, poor exercises, with no intent to progress and go heavier overtime. It’s common and it’s understandable – because of how the fitness industry and culture have portrayed arm workouts!
What is the 5×5 training principle and how does that philosophy can help you build bigger arms?
The 5×5 gym technique is simply doing 5 sets of 5 repetitions. It’s a popular method for building strength and size with compound exercises due to programs like Starting Strength making it popular.
Why do I suggest this weird idea of a 5×5 method for arms? Isn’t it just for big lifts?
Mainly because the 5×5 is a good way for novices to start getting familiar with going heavier and implementing some strength in their bodybuilding journey. It’s not really the 5×5 as numbers that you need to think about but what’s behind it – the kind of training and mindset it produces.
5×5 is popular with strength training – and that’s what I’m recommending for your arms. It’s a moderate amount of volume and intensity for the muscles – with 5×3, there is not much time under tension and perhaps weights are too heavy to still be engaging hypertrophy. But the 5×5 method is a good mix between strength and hypertrophy. You start to implement strength as a beginner without neglecting an interesting range of volume with 5 sets of 5 repetitions. It is a non-brutal way of getting into strength and can be loaded up more easily, over time
The 5×5 technique is a good tool for beginners. Beginners usually get stuck doing too many reps and not “forcing” enough overload to develop. We have to stop the 15 minutes “crappy” end of session arm workout. We are not here to pump it up on the cables because:
- You’re going to be too tired to get anything of real value done at low weight
- We’re natural – and we need more intensity and weight than steroid users
- This mindset lets us put too little effort into getting our arms big and strong!
At the same time, the goal isn’t just to get stronger. One thing that is motivating as a beginner is to build some muscle, too. The 5×5 protocol is also plenty of volume to start developing the arms – especially when used most session for the biceps and triceps alike. It’s a good method that can be adapted to combine high- and low-weight training – something we will discuss more later on.
Now, you might tell me, if that is a great tool for beginners, why should intermediates and advanced lifters do the 5×5 for arms?
Well, if you’re intermediate or advanced but your arms are still far behind, you still have beginner arms. It’s even more of a concern since your arms may be limiting your strength and development elsewhere – as well as being aesthetically underwhelming. Nobody wants to look smaller and weaker than they are.
What kind of intensity to expect from the 5×5?
The problem with the 5×5 might be that you use the same weight from the 1st set to the last and start to think that the intensity won’t be high. If you can get 5 sets at the same weight, then you’re certainly thinking that the first set will be easy and last set barely harder.
Personally, I used to do a strength cycle involving 5×5, 5×4, 5×3 for chest, and I got great results from it. I’ve also used this method for biceps and intensity was good. When I explain to do a 5×5 in this article, I’m talking about a 5×5 of great intensity. If you’re only using 5 reps, they need to be challenging and you need to be deliberate!
A 5×5 which is hard from the first set and very hard on the 5th set. A 5×5 where you’ll probably have to take a bit more rest after each sets by fear of not making it to 5 reps on the next set. If you’re not struggling to finish the set every time, you need to adjust the weight up – it should be doable, but only just!
Otherwise, that’s the issue we see: people doing an easy 5×5 starting at 60% intensity and barely having a hard time on the last set. Of course that doesn’t work, because there’s no challenge to it – the muscles aren’t forced to develop.
First three sets are really hard, and the last two you’re almost at maximum intensity. If you have to adjust the weight down from the first set to the last set, that’s okay too – as long as you’re working with weights that challenge you.
Now if you’re a beginner and a first timer of the 5×5 method, you can of course do your first 5x5s with lower intensity to get familiar with this new way of training first. But the goal is to get used to handling heavy weights, safely, as soon as possible.
The 5×5 method is just a principle
The 5×5 article was also interesting to write to me, because to be honest, you could be doing a 4×6 and get the same type of results. 5×5 isn’t some magical rep scheme that has better results than 4×6 or 6×6. Try to understand what’s behind the numbers: does it result in strength work, hypertrophy work, both?
It’s the principle – the hard work with heavy weight – that matters. You could apply a 6×6 or 7×5 structure, too, if you wanted more hard work and more results. The point is that you’re changing how you train your arms towards a more urgent, overload-intensive type of training.
For beginners and intermediates, it’s important to grasp the importance of training to progress as often as possible. The 5×5 system is perfect for that because jumps are easy early on and only slow down after a while, providing time to develop and become stronger.
It is the perfect example to why beginners who don’t totally neglect strength start building muscle and escape the stagnation phase. It is also fine if you want to do higher rep ranges (e.g 4×15), as long as you are not fully ignoring strength training to help you get stronger.
It’s also entirely possible to perform a 5×5 for the biceps and triceps before lowering the weight and using ‘normal’ arm workouts – sets of 8-12 for the hypertrophy work. This works best after heavy weights since it increases muscle cell hydration, which can be a contributor to growth!
Warm up is very important
Although I mentioned to treat your arms like other muscles, these are also smaller muscles and not well-adapted to heavy weights straight away. They’re not as well-supported as muscles in the back or legs, and they have more exposed tendons that need protecting.
Be careful with your warm-up for the development of the arms on a 5×5 program. They require more stability and care than you might think. Also make sure you’re using exercises that can be failed safely and don’t put too much pressure on your elbows – that means not using 5×5 preacher curls (or unless you’re definitely advanced and know what you’re doing!)
When bench-pressing, you get help from your shoulders, your triceps, your legs and hip. Compound exercises are great for tolerances: “there’s more room for mistakes”. You don’t have this luxury with the arms, where you’re primarily stressing the muscles of the arm and the elbow tendons. That means that you have to warm up with a focus on control and good form in the arms to keep them safe and healthy.
Start prioritising your arms in your weekly routine
It is important to start prioritising your arms more if you want to see them grow. If you get nothing else from this article, just remember: training your arms with purpose and a focus on overload is key.
I wanted to give some numbers of how much beginners, intermediate and advanced lifters usually train their arms on average.
How much should you work on your arms as a beginner?
If you’re a beginner, focus on your arms by focusing on the best exercises. Stick to basics. For beginners, I feel like doing biceps after back or triceps after chest is pretty good. I wouldn’t give this advice to advanced lifters but you don’t have to train biceps or triceps as much when you’re a beginner.
Also, having warmed up your biceps by training your back before or warmed up your triceps through chest before offers a smooth transition. An overall volume of an hour a week for your arms should be enough. For example 30 minutes on biceps after a back session and 30 minutes of triceps after your chest session, focusing on basic effective exercises. You can also add a bicep/tricep superset on a 3rd day if you feel you need more arm training.
How much should you work on your arms as an intermediate?
You can start implementing full arm days or more serious arm sessions after muscles like chest/back.
Focusing on what you want will help you get what you want faster.
Training biceps and triceps on a full day dedicated to them can help a lot but does require some smart planning of your workouts. That’s my recommendation. One hour and a half to two hours of arm volume a week is good as an intermediate.
How much should you work on your arms as an advanced?
At an advanced level, it really becomes essential to have arm days to grow your arms bigger. If you’re looking to be a bodybuilder, this kind of bodypart split could involve a “big” exercise for both pushing and pulling on chest and back days, then a full-arm day where you give all your attention to your biceps and triceps.
If arms really are your priority you want to start paying them great attention. Two hours of overall arm volume a week or more is a good range for most late-intermediate and advanced lifters.
What to do if you’re intermediate or advanced but were never taking arms seriously?
If you’ve been neglecting your arms, you should treat them like you’re a total beginner. It’s important to give them the same smooth progression that you’ve seen elsewhere to get the most muscle and strength possible.
This also helps you reduce the risk of injury since you’re not making a huge jump from neglecting your arms to high-volume, high-intensity training. Your arms will continue growing and developing anyway, and you’ll get plenty of gains rapidly, since you’re not near your maximum potential yet.
How to program your routine for bigger arms?
Let’s talk about the strategy for building big arms.
If your number 1 priority is to grow your arms, then you want to build your workout plan around that goal. You’re going to have to train arms enough and train them in a smart way.
You don’t want to do back the day after your biceps workout if you want to grow your arms, biceps need to recover. Doing back the day before biceps is not the best solution either. Same if you do your triceps the day before chest, it’s not very smart.
The solution is to ensure that you’re training both sides of the arm regularly and with a mixture of heavy compounds and isolations. As we said above, one of the best methods is to get some arm volume from pressing and rowing and other movements on chest/back/shoulder days, then add an arm day.
You see very clearly that when you want to focus on certain areas, this means focusing less on other muscles. It’s a trade-off. You still want to be able to train the rest of your muscles and improve on them, perhaps just not as fast as what your priority is – arms.
As you can see, we tried to separate back workout sessions from arm related workouts to allow muscle recovery. This type of program could work for intermediates, especially, where the volume is higher but recovery is still smart and regular!
Should you train your triceps more than your biceps?
We always hear that triceps are ⅔ of your arms and that you should really insist working on them to have bigger arms. The truth is, they are rather 3/6 of your arms. Your triceps have 3 portions then there is the biceps made of two portions and the brachialis. People usually forget about the brachialis when they talk about arms. Triceps are big and shoud not be neglected, but you should not particularly pay more attention to them.
How do you go on about working out your triceps and what type of exercises?
Again, we have to find the best exercises and make sure our training is effective. There are many exercises for triceps which aren’t great, such as kickbacks, which don’t have a stretching portion and should only be used as a finisher.
They are better with cables but still not as good as exercises like skull crushers or tricep extensions which offer a stretch. Not only is this scientifically proven to help improve gains, but the long head of the tricep requires this long range of motion and stretch to get the best activation.
There are not hundreds of exercises when it comes to triceps, and again, what we want is specificity. Better do more sets on one exercise rather than a few sets split across 10 exercises – the 5×5 method works best when we’re clear on what we’re using and get the best bang for our buck!
Skull crushers are a basic and great triceps gym exercise. They offer a powerful stretch, plenty of weight, and they work the whole tricep. You can even do them on an incline bench with your elbows further behind your head for further stretch. Close grip bench press is also an interesting pressing movement for your triceps but is going to fatigue you for chest and shoulders – so be careful.
Warming up very carefully and preparing yourself to do each of these sets is very important. When you’re loading heavily, you need to make sure you’re taking care of your body and allowing it time and lighter movement to help recovery.
What kind of main movements should you perform for your biceps?
If we talk about good exercises, we have to look for exercises which offer a good stretch and that are easily scalable – that you can improve on overtime without limits. The best exercises will also be the ones that can suit your body-morphology best and keep you safe.
If your biceps are short, you might want to train them differently than if they are long. Let’s say your biceps are long and you want to find good exercises dedicated to working on your brachialis (to improve your peak).
For that example, we can use barbell curls as a first:
Your session could look like:
- 5×5 barbell curls
- 3×8 neutral grip pull-ups
- 3×8 hammer curls
Now let’s say you want to work on your biceps and not the brachialis. Your session could look like:
- 5×5 inclined curls
- 5×8 supinated grip pull-ups
One 5×5 on one exercise is enough, if you’re using the appropriate weight. It’s about effort – and then you can move on to other exercises at lower weight. No need to implement this method to all the exercises you do – variety is good.
If your biceps are short, you might also want to play with the inclination of the bench and not be too inclined so you’re not overtstretching your short muscle on inclined curls.
No more than two exercises for your biceps portions workout session?
It comes back to the principles of specializing which I’ve mentioned before. Once you’ve found a great exercise targeting one area, why bother adding another one which will just do the exact same work? It’s better to do 10×5 at good weight with an exercise you really like and benefit from than diluting the workout with less effective exercises.
You’re just wasting some time when you could instead do 3 more sets of the same exercise and have your full focus on that one! As you get more advanced, it’s ok to do similar exercises targeting the same area, because you’ll be spending more time on each body part per week. As a beginner or intermediate lifter, you don’t need to worry about how many different types of curl you’re performing – you just need to do more reps and more weight.
In this example of two exercises for your biceps, doing a 5×5 for supinated pull-ups followed by a great biceps exercise like inclined curls is perfect. You can add an exercise for your brachialis to finish up, if you wish.
Is it safe to perform a 5×5 on such isolating movements like inclined curls?
Some people might feel like the 5×5 on straight curls isn’t that much of a big deal, but what about isolation movements like inclined curls? Incline curls is one of the best exercises with dumbbells you can do, no doubt about it. The stretch incline curls give you is unbelievable. And if you thought isolation movements were only for high reps, you might want to think otherwise.
For some people, however, it’s easy to see how using big weights on small muscles might be dangerous. Some people are scared to use heavy weights and they don’t want to stretch their muscles with heavy weights. It’s a bit of a trope, but people still think that the weight is the issue by itself!
You just really have to follow the right steps of a good physical and mental preparation. Warm-up slowly, gradually, on your way to the heavy sets. Incline your bench the right way in the case of inclined curls. For example, do not over incline it if you have short biceps, and the stretch is uncomfortable during your warm-ups.
Gym isolation movements can be used to go pretty heavy. I am not telling you to max out but a 5×5 can be done on an isolation movement. It’s also important to remember you should be using heavy weights – but not weights you can’t handle.
You need to be practicing with good form, and if you’re using ego-lifting weights, then the injury is your fault. Not the weight’s! Build up your 5×5 isolations patiently and don’t rush to put on more weight than you can handle.
Don’t lose sight of progression
You have to improve over time. You have to see your 5×5 get better with the weights you use. Same goes for the rest of your workout. If you use a good program and you follow the right principles of nutrition, you will improve.
There is not much to do about the 5×5: you just need to make sure you’re being responsible about the weights and focusing on form. Then you need great recovery between sessions – it’s an intense way of improving but it will reward you heavily just for training hard and eating/sleeping well.
Try to make your 5×5 at a certain weight feel easier sessions after sessions. Once it feels too easy you can increase the load you use.
Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t exactly reach a 5×5. If it results in a 5,5,5,4,4, it’s perfectly fine. Try and get to a complete 5×5 but don’t be “too serious” with this training method. If you need to stop the set and pause briefly before getting that final rep, you’re still lifting the weight. Your muscles won’t know the difference.
Conclusion: Listen to yourself, but don’t under-train
Start slowly if you’re a beginner. Don’t jump into a one hour biceps workout if you’ve never done that before.
It’s better to do less and gradually improve than do too much at once. If you’re going to go heavier on your biceps and triceps as this article suggests with the 5×5, just make sure to warm up well and gradually.
Getting familiar with a heavy 5×5 – or similar – to start your arm workout is a great way to get some heavy training done and improve the effects of everything you do afterwards.
Last tip, don’t under-do it. This article might sound a bit brutal but sometimes you have to force your progression to improve faster. Never compromise safe form but be willing to try hard! It’s where all the best things come from!
It doesn’t have to be either/or. I recommend combining 5×5 protocols with lower-weight, hypertrophy higher-rep training afterwards to really max out the benefits to your growth and development!
Thanks for reading this article. Feel free to leave any comments in the section down below!
You might also be interested to read about how to train your forearms to complete your arms training.