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Get Big and Cut: The Five-by-Five Workout

By Duke Greenhill

In the past, when it came to adding quality mass, the pros always prescribed a heavy load and low reps. The governor of California (that's Arnold Schwarzenegger to you and me), made famous a workout of five sets with five reps per set for just that purpose. That's the basis of the five-by-five workout.

But for those who wanted to get ripped—snake-like veins, Bruce Lee cuts, and all—it was high reps, low weight. How to compromise? Well, for people like Arnold, who actually got paid to workout, it was okay to spend half the year getting bigger with low reps, and the other half getting lean with high ones. For us, the everymen who just want to look good in our swimsuits, there's not enough time for all that nonsense. Isn't there a way to get leaner and bigger at the same time? Yes! I've got an updated version of the five-by-five workout that combines the best of both worlds—the best mass and cut-up workouts—to give you the body you want without the hassle and complexities that you don't. One word of caution: It's not easy... but nothing worth doing ever is.

The Not-So-Average-Joe Workout
The genius behind this workout is that it uses both heavy weight (to get you mean) and many reps (to get you lean). In fact, you're going to be doing 100 reps. But don't be afraid of that double-goose-egg number. It won't feel as bad as it sounds. Here's how it goes.

Supersets: For each major muscle group, you'll do two supersets̬—a series of two exercises for a single muscle group, performed back-to-back with little or no rest in between. Each superset is two exercises, with five sets of five reps for each exercise, for a total of 50 reps per superset. Put the two supersets together, and you've got your 100 reps; but since those reps are split up among the sets and different exercises, you'll still be able to use heavy weight, and you won't feel the overkill of the 100 reps.

The key to the supersets is choosing the right exercises. To devise your two supersets, decide which muscle group you want to work. Now, pick two compound movements and two isolation movements that work your chosen muscle (some examples of these two types of movements are in the list below). Compound movements are multi-joint and multi-muscle exercises, even though one muscle will be primary; isolation movements are single-joint and single-muscle exercises.

Begin with the first compound movement and do five reps to failure. Without resting, head right into five reps of an isolation movement. After the second exercise, rest 120 seconds before moving on to your next pair of exercises, again beginning with a compound movement and then moving to an isolation movement, and all the while staying within a single muscle group. Do this five times through and you'll have completed a five-by-five superset. For your next superset, you'll pick two new exercises. Juxtaposing the two types of exercises without rest wrings the last bits of strength out of your muscles by challenging them in different modalities. And keeping your weights high and reps low brings you to failure quickly. Both of these help you to build mass.

Here are examples of compound and isolation movements for each major muscle group, to give you an idea of how to proceed:

Muscle Group Compound Movement Isolation Movement
Chest Bench Press Flat Bench Dumbbell Flys
Biceps Standing Barbell Curls Preacher Curls
Shoulders Dumbbell Military Presses Dumbbell Lateral Raises
Legs Barbell Squats Lying Leg Curls
Triceps Triceps Bench Dips with Feet on Floor Triceps Single-Arm Kickbacks
Back Gravitron Neutral Grip Pull-ups Wide-Grip Lat Pull-downs
Once you've paired a compound and an isolation movement for a single muscle group, you can build a superset. Your superset will look like this:
Exercise Sets Reps Rest
Compound Movement (like Bench Press) 5 (alternating with isolation movement) 5 None before isolation movement
Isolation Movement (like Chest Flys) 5 (alternating with compound movement) 5 120 seconds before starting compound movement again
Plan to do two such supersets per muscle group, using a total of four exercises (two compound and two isolation). But, to get the most out of this workout, you can make a couple of other simple changes. Start by modifying your tempo.

Tempo: "Tempo" is a term often used by pros. It is simply how quickly or slowly you raise and lower the weight. To get the most out of this workout, you should do your compound exercises at a regular tempo, but your isolation exercises much slower, taking about six seconds to lower the weight. Again, the idea here is to challenge the muscles in different ways; don't let them get complacently accustomed to a particular rhythm. And, on isolation movements, you should have sufficient control to slow down a bit.
Exercise Tempo
Compound Movement Regular: About 2 seconds to raise weight, and 2 seconds to lower it.
Isolation Movement Slow: About 4 seconds to lift weight, and 6 seconds to lower it.
Weight: With all these supersets, you've definitely got a way to keep the reps high even as you keep changing things up. But while that's important, keeping the weight heavy is even more so. Your compound exercises offer the opportunity to do this, because you are not going to change your tempo on those movements. So, for your compound exercises, make sure your weight is heavy enough that you reach failure at five reps—it's okay to go up or down a couple pounds between sets to achieve this. Because they are done at a slow tempo, your isolation exercises depend less on weight an more on the quality of your movement, so chose weight that allows you to maintain perfect, controlled, slow form.

Split it Up
Because this workout is not for the faint of heart, you're also going to need to rethink your splits. In fact, for this type of workout, you should work each muscle group only once a week. A good split is as follows:
  1. Monday: Chest and Back
  2. Tuesday: Legs
  3. Wednesday: Off
  4. Thursday: Arms
  5. Friday: Shoulders
  6. Saturday/Sunday: Off
As for designing your workout for each muscle group, it's easy. Just remember: It's a compound movement and an isolation movement put together and done back-to-back five times to make a superset. For each muscle group, do a total two supersets. For the second superset, pick two new exercises. To give you an idea of how to design your own workouts, here's what one for the chest might look like. It may not look like a lot, but when you do it, you'll see how well it works. Try one with every muscle group, and watch yourself grow leaner and meaner in no time!
Superset 1 Sets Reps Tempo/Rest
Bench Press (Compound) 5 5 Regular/None
Flat Bench Dumbbell Flys (Isolation) 5 5 Slow/120 seconds
Superset 2 Sets Reps Tempo/Rest
Stability Ball Dumbbell Press 5 5 Regular/None
Standing Cable Chest Flys 5 5 Slow/120 seconds