5×5 Muscle Building Workout

A 5x5 workout offers not only physical benefits but psychological ones as well. Read on to find out how to get into shape and begin a healthier lifestyle, just in time for the new year.
Muscle building workout - woman doing squats with a barbell

If you have reservations about trying a “muscle building” workout because you don’t want to look bulky or think you’re not interested in building muscle, you should reconsider. Women have traditionally liked the softer-sounding phrase “toning muscle” rather than building muscle, but the concept of toning muscles is a myth. It’s not possible to “tone” your body. Muscles can either grow or shrink, not get firmer or softer. In fact, the concept of “toning” was created as a marketing term to appeal to women. Let’s celebrate the fact that, as women, we too can grow our muscles and change the appearance of our physiques to leaner and more athletic. This whole concept of firmer and more toned arms, legs, and abs…it’s ALL MUSCLE. To get results, you must grow muscle!

The 5×5 Workout Explained.

As the name implies, a 5×5 workout usually involves 5 sets of 5 repetitions. Traditionally, the 5×5 workout utilizes a barbell that allows the loading of plate weights where you can easily raise or lower the amount of the weight. The goal is to build strength in compound movements by adding weight every time you do the workout. This practice was originated by the late Olympic weightlifter and coach Bill Starr, a legend of the world of strength training. The original form of this workout has been used since the 1960s largely in the world of high school and college athletics. The workout was simple and utilized these basic movements:

  • Power Clean
  • Bench Press
  • Squats
  • Weighted Sit-Ups
  • Incline Bench Press

These heavy-resistance workouts do seem suited to young, strong athletes. So, how do we adapt this weight training philosophy to our training routine? How can we use “lifting heavy weights” to benefit our health and physique as women and as we age?

Benefits Of The 5×5 Workout

Psychological Benefits

Lifting as heavy as you possibly can while keeping good form and not risking injury is a wonderful thing! There’s nothing to fear in this type of training. In fact, challenging your muscles feels amazing. Thanks to endorphins, your feel-good chemicals are released when lifting weights. This eases your body during the physical strain of weightlifting. A 2018 study in the National Library of Medicine found that strength training was linked to improvements in depressive symptoms, such as low mood, a loss of interest in activities, and feelings of worthlessness. Weightlifting improves overall well-being, improves cognitive function, eases depression, boosts mood, reduces anxiety, and raises self-esteem. Not only will a 5×5 workout offer all these psychological benefits, but the physiological benefits are also incredible.

Physiological Benefits

You will improve your muscle strength, which will protect your joints from injury. You’ll also experience improvements in your muscle appearance, which you’ve often heard referred to as “toned.” Again, remember that this isn’t muscle toning; it’s building muscle. You will maintain flexibility and balance, which can help you remain independent as you age. Resistance training (lifting heavy weights) will also provide a method for weight management and an increased muscle-to-fat ratio. As you gain muscle, your body burns more fat when at rest.

Step-By-Step 5×5 Muscle Building Workout

I have included one alternate exercise in this workout, so my list includes a total of 6 movements that you will use:

  • Sumo Deadlift (or semi-sumo deadlift)
  • Bench Press
  • Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press
  • Single Arm Bent Over Dumbbell Rows
  • Barbell Squat
  • Single Arm Landmine Squat To Press (alternate for the barbell squat)

In other workouts that I’ve provided for Prime Women, I am careful to suggest exercises that can be done in a gym or at home. This means that I usually suggest adaptable exercises that use body resistance activities like push-ups or use dumbbell weights rather than a barbell. That’s because more people have access to dumbbells, whether at home or in the gym. However, for this 5×5 workout, you will most likely want to have access to a gym that will give you more options for workout equipment. This includes a barbell and access to a variety of weights so that you can raise or lower the amount of weight to maximize your 5×5 workout.

1. Semi Sumo Deadlift

The sumo deadlift utilizes a wide stance. Sumo deadlifts are great for women because they require more leg strength than back strength. Low hips and wide legs, plus a low center of gravity, make sumo deadlifts an excellent hip, glute, and leg workout.

How To Do The Semi-Sumo Deadlift:

  • Align feet into a comfortable position outside of shoulder width. In this demonstration, I am showing a semi-sumo deadlift, which I believe makes a great starter exercise compared to the wide stance sumo deadlift.
  • Position the barbell over midfoot.
  • Bend slightly at the knees, pushing them outward.
  • Grab the barbell with the over-under handgrip, with the arms going straight down.
  • Engage hips, bringing them closer to the barbell.
  • Straighten and tighten the back (do not curve your spine).
  • Lift straight up. Push your feet into the floor while simultaneously pulling the bar straight up, keeping it close to your body.
  • Thrust hips slightly forward at the top of the movement.
  • Repeat 5 times.


2. Bench Press

The bench press is an exercise that most people are familiar with, but I think it can seem intimidating for a lot of women. If you are new to the bench press, keep a couple of things in mind. First, it helps with confidence to have a spotter, who is someone there to help coach you through lowering and raising the bar. They can also help relieve some of the weight on the bar if you find you’re struggling when returning the bar in the middle of your lift.

Secondly, if you’re new to the bench press, you can press the bar without adding extra weight. The Olympic-size barbell found in most gyms weighs 45 pounds before you add plate weights. So, you’re still getting a good amount of resistance, and it’s a great place to start!

How to Do The Bench Press:

  • Get into position on the bench. Lay face up on a horizontal bench, with your butt on the bench and your feet flat on the ground.
  • Grip the bar.
  • Brace your body.
  • Lower the weight.
  • Press the weight back up.
  • Repeat 5 times.


3. Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press

Most times in a gym, people will use a weight bench to do a seated dumbbell press. If you’re familiar with a gym setting, you’ll know that the weight bench might be hard to come by, especially during peak gym hours. In my demo below, I’m using a Plyo Box. It doubles well as a seat, and a lot of the time, they are more readily available than the weight benches. Remember that you can be creative! If there’s a piece of equipment that is not available when you want to do a particular exercise, there’s always more than one way!

How To Do The Seated Dumbbell Shoulder Press:

  • Sit up straight, and keep your back straight.
  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand at the shoulders with an overhand grip.
  • Raise the weights above the head in a controlled motion while exhaling.
  • Return the dumbbells to the shoulders while inhaling.
  • Repeat 5 times.


4. Single Arm Bent Over Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row is an excellent movement to follow the seated dumbbell press because you can rapidly move from one exercise to the next. This will keep your heart rate up and give you the challenge that you need throughout this 5×5 workout.

How To Do The Single Arm Bent Over Dumbbell Row:

  • Hold a dumbbell in your right hand.
  • Bend over and place your left hand on the box.
  • Extend and angle your right leg and foot to counterbalance the weight in your right hand.
  • Extend your arm holding the dumbbell towards the floor without allowing your torso to rotate or your shoulder to move towards the floor.
  • Pull the weight back toward your body while keeping your elbow close to your torso.
  • Repeat 5 times.
  • Switch the weight to the left hand and repeat 5 times.


5. Barbell Squat

Plan on taking the barbell squat to the next level! Start out with the amount of weight that is comfortable for you. In my demonstration, I chose a smaller, stationary barbell, but you can also use an Olympic-sized barbell with plate weights. The stationary barbell is easier to manage when you’re new to this exercise.

How To Do The Barbell Squat:

  • Get into position by placing the barbell over your head while bracing it on your shoulders.
  • Brace your body.
  • Take your stance.
  • Squat down.
  • Rise.
  • Repeat 5 times.

You may not want to do a traditional barbell squat if it’s too much strain on your lower back. If this is the case, I have included an additional exercise as an alternative to the traditional barbell squat.


6. ALTERNATE EXERCISE: Single Arm Landmine Squat To Press

I became familiar with this exercise about 12 years ago when my oldest son was training with his high school football team. I watched him get to his leanest weight and develop the best muscles when he trained during football season. So, I took some cues from how he trained. The landmine press and landmine squat became two of my favorites. The landmine squat also serves as an excellent alternative to the barbell squat, but you should avoid it if you have lower back issues or injuries.

How To Do A Single Arm Landmine Squat to Press:

  • Prop a barbell into the “landmine” – the hinged device you’ll often see on the floor of your gym.
  • Pick up the barbell from the floor and hold the weighted end of the barbell with your left hand.
  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Lean towards the barbell slightly and tighten your core muscles.
  • Press the weight up by extending at your elbow.
  • As you extend your arm, press the weight straight forwards so that it stays in line with your shoulder.
  • Slowly lower the weight back towards your shoulder and keep it there while you squat down to parallel and pause for a moment.
  • Push yourself back up, still holding the weight in the original position.
  • Press the barbell back up over your shoulder.
  • Repeat 5 times on each side.


Read Next:

Step-by-Step Fat-Shredding Workout

3 Tips to Lose Fat Without Gaining Muscle

Muscle Up: Why MUSCLE Matters as We Age


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