Bill Starr and the 5×5 Training Template

Two days ago we lost a legend in the Strength & Conditioning World. Bill Starr was one of the first guys to put together a systematic approach to strength training for football. His book, The Strongest Shall Survive, has influenced thousands of strength coaches over the years, including myself.starrI thought, to pay respects to the man who influenced so many, it would be great to unpack the program and show how I have built templates around the simple organization of it.

The Original Program

There have been a number of variations of the 5×5 program that have been surfaced over the years but the basic program was centered around 3 lifts – Squat, Bench Press, and Power Clean – and 3 different intensity schemes, over 3 days, using 5 sets x 5 reps for each exercise. In a nutshell, it looked like this:

Monday – Heavy Power Clean Squat Bench Notes: Perform 5 sets x 5 reps for each exercise and ramp up the weight in each set so that your last set for each exercise is as heavy as you can handle with good form.

Wednesday – Light Power Clean Squat Bench Notes: Perform 5 sets x 5 reps for each exercise using approximately 70-75% of your top end weight from Monday for each lift.

Friday – Medium Power Clean Squat Bench Notes: Perform 5 sets x 5 reps for each exercise using approximately 80-85% of your top end weight from Monday for each lift.

As you can see, nothing fancy, just stick to the basics and try and increase your max load on Monday’s by 5-10lbs.

Unpacking The Program A little Bit

The set up of the program is brilliant. Looking at it, it is pretty much daily undulating periodization before some researcher coined the phrase. Each day we see an undulation in training intensity. Additionally, looking at the set up of the week, it falls in line with what many would refer to as a “high-low” approach to training. Our three “high” days are on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and the days in between would be referred to as “low” days.

The program was truly revolutionary for the time and, in its simplicity and structure, probably better than most of what we see these days at high schools and colleges (and many professional sports teams) all over the country. Teach the athletes to perform 3 simple exercises and slowly develop them over time.

One of the best things about the program is the flexibility that the template offers the coach. We can take something this simple and begin to add other components that address physical needs for a team sport athlete. The program, by itself, is a great strength program; however, for a team sport athlete we also need to run, cut, change direction, etc. Thus, we want to take the original template and morph it into something that can address these needs without getting to far away from Bill Starr’s structure.

Addressing Exercise Selection

I am a big “keep it simple” kind of guy. I believe that you need to pick a few exercises and hammer the heck out of them. The idea that we need to constantly vary things up is crazy given the amount of variation we can apply to the exercises (sets, reps, rep tempo, etc), which will help to force new adaptations.

Other versions of the original Bill Starr program did have a little more variation with regard to exercise selection. For example, Wednesday’s workout might have used Incline Bench Press, Deadlift, and Row (or Chin Up) and Friday’s workout might have substituted the Standing Barbell Press for the Bench Press. These exercises choices are fine but certainly not the only options we have.

Lateralizations and Regressions

Last year, my friend, Charlie Weingroff, released his latest DVD series, Training = Rehab 2. In this DVD set, Charlie discusses the concept of laterilzations and regressions. Basically, taking your best program and either lateralizing the exercises to something that is more logical for an athlete given certain individual limitations or regressing the exercise to something else if the athlete is returning from injury or unable to perform a certain exercise pattern.

If we work from the template of Bill Starr’s 5×5 program as our “best” program there are a number of ways one can lateralize or regress the program given specific limitations. Remember, the goal is to improve the limitations while you concurrently develop fitness. Having a good system of monitoring what you are doing and auditing your process will allow you to know whether or not the lateralization is interfering with the athlete’s ability to improve upon their limitation and, thus, may warrant a change in exercise selection. Also, this is not an exhaustive list. This is simply a few ideas to provide examples.

Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 7.16.30 PMAny of these options will help you move the athlete along, in terms of developing strength, while you work on their limitations or work alongside a rehab professional and/or manual therapist who is helping to improve the limitation.

There are other ways to address exercise selection within the program, since you may have times where you want to change exercises and there isn’t a limitation where the athlete needs to be lateralized or regressed. For example, I generally don’t use Olympic Lifts in my programs (although I do like DB Snatches and Hang Clean Pulls). Thus, we could eliminate that exercise and substitute it with something for the upper back. For example, we could use Chin Ups or Rows and apply the same loading scheme throughout the week.

Maybe you are a person that doesn’t like back squats? How about swapping the back squats out for front squats or trap bar deadlifts?

Don’t like bilateral squats at all? You could simply change out squatting for Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats, Step Back Lunges, or Step Ups

Don’t like Olympic Lifts? You can swap out the power clean for a plyometric activity (box jumps, bounds, hurdle jumps, etc). You could use KB swings or KB snatches. You could use some sort of explosive, full body Medicine Ball Throw (Some of my favorites are – Over-the Back, Squat to Forward Chest Throw, Scoop Throw Straight Up In The Air, Squat to Chest Throw Straight Up In The Air, and Chest Throw into 10yrd Sprint).

What about working with beginners? Of course having total newbies work up to a max 5 on Monday doesn’t make a lot of sense. Maybe you want to really take some time to educate the person using exercises that apply less load? Here might be an example program:

Monday
Push Ups
Goblet Squat
1-arm Row
Notes: Use eccentric emphasis on your exercises today. Perform 5×5 with a 5 count lowering

Wednesday
DB Bench Press
Hip Hinge Work (RDL or 1-leg RDL patterning)
Chin Up
Notes: Perform 5×5 on each exercise with a comfortable load, leaving 2-4 reps in the tank. For hinge work, perform a 2-3 count iso in the bottom position to ensure that they understand what it feels like to be in the correct position before going into the concentric portion of the lift

Friday
Push Ups
Goblet Squat
TRX Row (or Supine Barbell Row)
Notes: Perform 3 sets x Max Reps for Push Ups and Rows. For Goblet Squat, perform 5×5 using a 3 count iso in the bottom to feel what the bottom position is supposed to feel like.

Pretty simple!

Addressing Other Fitness Qualities Within The Program

Because of the daily undulating model and the high-low nature of the original template, it lends itself to addressing different fitness qualities nicely. In team sports, athletes need lots of physical abilities. They need to have a solid work capacity in order to train and recovery adequately. They need to be fast, strong, and explosive. They also need to be able to move in all different planes of motion and do so effortlessly. All of these things can be addressed within the simple Bill Starr 5×5 program. I’ll briefly go through some of the ways to address these things and then put it all together into a short training program using the Bill Starr 5×5 as the template.

Warm Ups, Tri-Planar Movement, & Carries/Dragging

Tri-planar movement can be addressed in a few different ways within the program. The first, and most logical way of addressing tri-planar movement is with a good warm up. Warm ups should be progressive and move from slow to fast and simple to complex. Start first with general mobility work to prepare the joints and tissues. Move the joints in various ranges of motions in order to address any limitations you may have. Follow this up with various lunging, crawling, skipping, carrying/dragging (IE, farmers carriers, overhead carriers, rack carriers, light sled dragging/marching in different directions) and medicine ball throwing in all different directions. This should be rather extensive and last anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Oftentimes our strength training programs tend to be very sagital plane dominant (and the Bill Starr program is no different). Having the body go through multi-planar movement with lunging, skipping, crawling, and throwing helps prepare the athlete for movements and ranges of motion that they may encounter on the field of play. By starting the warm up with slower and less complex movements and progressing to something that is more dynamic and faster pace, the athlete has time to learn how their body feels and develop strategies to move in and out of all these different ranges of motion.

An additional area where tri-planar movement can be addressed within the program is at the end of the big three exercises for that day. In the original program, Bill Starr had often written in things like abdominal work or hyperextensions as accessory exercises. We can choose whatever accessory exercises we want though. Perhaps we would rather do some lateral lunges or rotational lunges with dumbells or maybe some pistol squats or slide board lunges. We could also add in things like chops, lifts, ab wheel, plank variations, carries or dragging exercises for our core work.

Speed & Explosiveness

Following the warm up we can address speed and explosiveness with sprint, bounds, and plyometrics. The volume of work you do here is dependent on where you are in your training phases. If you are focusing on heavy strength work then you are most likely doing less volume of sprinting, bounding, and jumping. If you are doing more sprinting, bounding, and jumping, you would simply lower your lifting volume. Additionally, as your training program progresses and you work closer to the pre-season period it makes sense to progress your sprinting drills into more change of direction work to ensure that the tissues are well prepared to handle the practice load that is about to take place.

Different Methods of Strength

From Zatsiorsky’s work (and later Louie Simmons of Westide Barbell) we learned about things like the Max Effort Method, Dynamic Effort Method, and Repetitive Effort Method. Using these methods within the Bill Starr 5×5 works if you break down each day with a specific goal or training target. One other approach I would throw in there is some sort of Time Under Tension method. That may be in the form of Tempo Squats (2 down-2 Up without pausing), Slow Eccentrics (5-6 count eccentric squats), Isometric Holds (3-5 count hold in the bottom of the lift), or Eccentric-Iso Lifts (3 count lower – 3 Count Iso Hold In the Bottom – Lift).

Overall Fitness & Work Capacity

Overall fitness and general work is best served for post season and/or deep in the offseason. Within the Bill Starr program, this can be addressed using a variety of methods. Here are some of the options that come to mind:

  • Tempo Runs
  • Aerobic-Extensive Intervals
  • General aerobic work (variety of modalities)
  • Extensive Medicine Ball Circuits
  • Body Weight Circuits
  • Super Sets (Upper & Lower Body)

This type of activity can be done on days in between the lifting sessions (“low” days) or on days that are scheduled lifting sessions, depending on the goals of the training phase and how the lifting program is laid out. Putting It Altogether – A Simple Template To Recap, here is the original Bill Starr Program: Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 8.30.52 PM Using that as our template, we will set up 3 training phases – (1) General Fitness; (2) Strength; (3) Speed & Power – of 3 weeks each. The program will address the qualities above and provide a framework for building our training sessions. Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 8.56.18 PMNotes: In phase 1, we use some basic learning drills for plyos on Mon/Fri, at the end of our warm ups, to help prepare for the next phase of training. The lifting sessions are rather low in intensity and we are leaving 2-3 reps in the tank (meaning that we terminate the set when we know we can get 2-3 more good reps). Friday’s session is lower intensity than Monday’s and uses a 5 count eccentric on the lifts to work on time under tension. In between the lifting days are conditioning sessions, using Tempo Runs. Monday and Wednesday’s lifting sessions are followed by Extensive Medicine Ball Circuits. These typically consist of a variety of different throws or throwing the ball out in a field and then jogging to pick it up before throwing again. The general time frame of a set during these circuits is around 2-4 minutes of movement and then the athlete takes a rest of 2 minutes (or until HR recovers down below 120 bpm). We may do anywhere form 4-10 sets. Also, while I forgot to write it into the template, the warm up or accessory work could have some form of loaded carry or light sled drag in different directions. Additionally, the light sled dragging can work well within the extensive medicine ball circuit. Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 9.18.56 PMNotes: The strength phase takes our jumping from phase 1 and progresses it on Mon/Fri to some box jumps or hurdle jumps to a box (these are written as single leg over the hurdle but could be double leg as well). NOTE: In the template above there is a typo and it says that box jumps are on Mon/Wed, but it should read Mon/Fri. Wednesday’s workout has bounding and we generally start in phase 1 with bounding (forward, anterior-lateral, and lateral) with a stick landing and then progress that in this phase to more continuous type bounds or bounds into a 5yrd burst sprint. Lifting in this phase is more intensive with Mon/Fri being the heaviest days where the individual is working at max (or near max) loads for the main exercises – using loads greater than 90%. Wednesday, instead of being a “light” day in the Bill Starr program is devoted to our explosive work in order to keep that quality in the mix before progressing to the next phase. Additionally, we are doing a low volume of sprinting in this phase before the lifting sessions on Mon/Wed. These are typically short acceleration drills or short drills with change of direction (like 10yrds out and 10yrds back). Generally the volume is low and around 4-6 reps before performing our jumps and then lifting. Conditioning in this phase takes place on Tuesday and Thursday with Saturday being a restorative day. I wrote in sled or hill sprints as they are less stressful than upright running. We typically perform reps of 3-5sec with rest intervals down to 130bpm or 60sec in length. We start the athlete around 20 reps and progress from there. Additionally, the program is not set in stone, so if the athlete is too sore or feels poor on Thursday, we can do a restorative session instead and push the sled or hill runs to Saturday. Screen Shot 2015-04-08 at 9.14.42 PMNotes: The final phase had the goal of speed and power. In this phase we have the highest volume of sprint work as well as change of direction work, which can be taxing. Because of the neuromuscular strain, the strength work is much lower volume and we have a range (2-3 sets x 2-4 reps) to allow us to keep the volume on the lowest end if need be, depending on how the athlete is doing and how the session is going. Wednesday’s workout is bounding drills, short acceleration work, and some low volume complexes. In between these sessions, conditioning is in the form of more restorative work so that all of the effort can be applied to the main training days.

Some Other Ideas About The Template

Borrowing from the Bill Starr 5×5, I wrote up a simple template using the same daily undulating approach, three days a week, and adding in other components (as well as changing the light day, in the original program, to a power day in later phases). Nothing in the program is set in stone. You can lateralize or regress exercises on an as need basis. Additionally, the idea that these sessions have to take place within 1 week or within a 3 week training block is silly. Some athletes will adapt faster than others. Some athletes may need longer in the first phase (IE, 5-7 weeks). Some athletes may need more recovery time between very intense training sessions. Taking that into consideration, don’t be afraid if your microcycle doesn’t take place in a 7 day cycle. I think we sometimes get very concerned that everything has to happen on this week long microcycle when in reality we should be more open to the fact that the microcycle will take as long as the body needs it to take. Some athletes may only be able to tolerate 2 days a week of lifting. Or, the strength and power phases may have that Wednesday session look very differently, where it is devoted more specifically to jumps and bounding. Alternatively, in that last phase, we have, at times, flipped it and done our complexes on Mon/Fri and a low volume strength session on Wednesday. Finally, the program may look very different depending on the sport. For example, some sports may require a significantly greater amount of metabolic work (harder intervals, max aerobic speed runs, aerobic power work, etc) and this should be reflected in one of the training phases by lowering the volume of something else but increasing the volume of the metabolic running exercises. There aren’t really any rules to this. In the end, create a program that is logical for the individual – don’t try and fit the individual to a program.

Training is a simple process. Have a goal, have a focus, and adjust the program along the way based on how the athlete is tolerating the training. Don’t be afraid to make changes, push workouts out a day or two to allow for more recovery, or make adjustments if the training response is not adequate. Nothing is more simple than the Bill Starr 5×5. If you simply did that and added in jumping, running, and Medicine Ball Throws you can do an incredible job. Hopefully my template approach to structuring training around the Bill Starr 5×5 makes sense and you can see the back drop of the program within what I wrote.

#RIP Bill Starr

One thought on “Bill Starr and the 5×5 Training Template

  1. Jeff Aldham

    Hi Patrick,

    Just reading this great piece that you wrote… Again!

    Great job my man. I hope to meet you soon brother.

    Jeff

    Reply

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