The 5×5 strength training programme is said to build strength in no time – something writer and barbell lover Alice Porter is fully prepared to believe.
More women than ever are strength training, and that’s great, but there’s still a gym gap between the sexes. This is particularly the case when it comes to using barbells – a piece of equipment that we might associate with professional weightlifters and a whole load of grunting.
The truth, however, is that a barbell is an accessible piece of equipment for women with various levels of fitness, including complete beginners. Barbells can be seriously effective for building full-body strength – something fans are only too aware of. In fact, searches for the the 5 x 5 strength training programme (a regime made up of five fundamental barbell exercises) have shot up by 300% recently.
What is the 5 x 5 strength training workout?
It’s super simple: five exercises, five sets, five reps. The goal is to build strength via compound movements; barbells are too big to use on isolated muscles so by heading to the squat rack, you’re more likely to work those big power muscles (and that’s how you build strength fast).
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Hannah Ashby, a personal trainer who uses barbells more than any other piece of equipment to train her female clients, explains: “You can plan an entire workout around a barbell – even when I am in the gym and I have dumbbells and kettlebells and other various pieces of equipment at my disposal, I often choose to train only with a barbell.”
And Olympic weightlifter, Evelyn Stevenson, agrees. She’s even built a weights room at home during lockdown, centred around barbell workouts.
What is a barbell?
If you have never trained with a barbell before, then you’ve still probably seen one either in the gym or on the TV – there’s even an iPhone emoji of a woman lifting a barbell. It looks like a long bar and the Olympic barbells that Ashby and Stevenson suggest using for training are usually made out of silver metal. Don’t be scared by the name “Olympic barbell,” though – many women lift 15kg bars, which is the equivalent of lifting two 7.5kg dumbbells. As with other weights, you can go super heavy or light.
The reason the pair suggest starting out with an Olympic barbell is that you can use it on its own – without adding any plates to it – and still get a very thorough workout. But when you do start to progress, you can buy weighted plates to add to it to increase the difficulty level.
This is why barbells are a great investment; unlike when you outgrow a dumbbell or a kettlebell and have to replace them completely, you can keep adding to your barbell while also having the option to still use it on its own.
4 benefits of using barbells
Barbells are so great because they put the whole body under tension – enabling you to build muscle in more than one area at the same time through compound movements. By increasing your muscle mass in a really effective way, you’re boosting your metabolism and overall strength. Fareeha Jay, a qualified dietician, explains that “muscle mass requires more energy to maintain and burns more calories than fat – therefore, people with more muscle tend to have a faster metabolism.”
She goes onto explain that having higher muscle mass is associated with a lower risk of diabetes and improved heart health. “There have also been studies to suggest that more muscle can improve mental health, increase bone density and strengthen our immune system.”
Building muscle can also be great for your self-esteem. Lucy, 22, started training with barbells at the beginning of lockdown in January after her friend recommended it:“I’ve been going to the gym for over a year and never used a barbell because I was really worried about using one. Now, I can’t believe how easy they’ve been to incorporate in my workouts and I feel so good about how much strength I have gained from using them.”
Better body image
Stevenson explains that training with a barbell can also help you develop healthier fitness habits, focussing less on body image and more on progress, “It’s very easy to get stuck on the scales. If you’re training and you’ve got a progressive overload programme of weight, you can look at the number on the bar and how you’ve got stronger, or you can watch your reps increase.”
She continues to discuss the practical benefits of weightlifting, “Postpartum, I’ve had my child and all of a sudden I’m lifting this baby, I’m having to hold her all the time. In everyday life, you will notice a difference when you pick things up and carry things yourself from weightlifting.”
5 x 5 strength training workout: the exercises
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The 5 x 5 workout is based on the following five fundamental barbell moves – all of which are suitable for beginners.
1. Romanian deadlift
“The RDL is a hinge movement,” Ashby says. “It’s great because it works all the muscles down the back of the body – your posterior chain of hamstrings, glutes and lower back. It’s good for anyone who is working from home and it introduces you to deadlifts without overextending your back.”
- Stand with feet hip-width apart.
- Hold the bar close to your body with extended arms.
- Start to hinge from the hips to roll the bar down the front of your legs.
- Once you reach your ankles (or calves if living in a slightly tighter body), reverse that action by rolling back up slowly.
2. Back squat
“Any kind of squat is so good for when you’re first starting out with lifting,” says Ashby. “It works so many muscles and it’s a massive fundamental compound movement that you always need.”
- Lift the bar over your head (in the gym you can use a squat rack to balance the bar and lift it from there) and place it on the back of your shoulders, holding it in place with both hands.
- Start to sit back into a squat down, keeping your shoulders back and your heels on the ground.
- Engage the glutes to help you come back up.
3. Overhead press
“Starting to introduce any kind of overhead movements is really important,” Ashby stresses, explaining that it can help to engage lots of core and upper body muscles.
- Take a shoulder-width grip of the bar, palms facing away from you.
- Hold the bar in front of your chest.
- Press the bar above your head, adjusting your head position backward as you do.
- Bend the elbows to return the weight to chest height.
4. Bent-over row
Ashby explains that the bent-over row is a great exercise for people with desk jobs as it helps to realign your posture.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your knees and lean forward from the waist.
- Bend your knees but ensure your back is straight.
- Hold the bar with your hands palms-down, just wider than shoulder-width apart and straighten your arms.
- Squeeze your shoulders together to row the weight up to your chest.
- Release and slowly extend the arms to bring the weight back down.
Why not nail the bent-over row action using a dumbbell to get used to what muscles you should be feeling? Remember to really squeeze your back muscles when you bring those weights up and to slow down when you bring them back down.
5. Bench press
- Load the barbell (or simply use the bar itself), before moving your bench underneath.
- Lie on your back with your shoulders underneath the rack.
- Remove the bar from the rack, extend the arms and then retract the shoulders and bend the elbows to bring the barbell towards your chest.
- When the barbell is about an inch from your body, extend the arms to lift back into the air.
This move is such a fundamental exercise but can be tricky, so we strongly suggest trying it with the bar (without added weight) first and then, as you build strength, getting someone at the gym to spot you. They’ll be able to help you get the bar back onto the rack – which can be tricky when it’s heavy and you’re fatigued.
How to set up the barbell
Before doing anything, it’s important to have a few safety pointers in place. Filming yourself and watching videos back is a great way to check form and Stevenson also stresses the importance of not pushing through uncomfortable pain, “If it’s hurting uncomfortably – and the pain isn’t muscular – stop.”
Form aside, it might be worth using bumper weights (rubber plates that absorb the shock if/when dropped) instead of metal plates and ensuring that you always use clips to secure plates to your bar.
If you start out using an Olympic barbell with no weight, aim to work up to 12 reps of whatever exercises you choose to do (or the moves below) before adding on plates. From there, Ashby suggests working with the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. “Ask yourself how difficult that movement was on a scale between one and 10. The sweet spot is around seven. If you do 12 reps and the difficulty level is a four or five, you’re ready to add some weight, like two 5KG plates. If you’re working towards the top end of that scale then you can keep working with the current weight before you start to increase it.”
Ready to work up a sweat? Hop on over to the SWTC video library where you’ll find a range of 30-50 minute workouts, led by our very own trainers.
Images: Getty; Evelyn Stevenson; Hannah Ashby.
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