There are plenty of 5x5 lifting programs out there, promising to deliver muscle growth and strength gain.
But, should you follow one if you’re skinny fat, and want to get fit?
Let’s find out.
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What Does It Mean to Be Skinny Fat?
Being skinny fat means having low muscular development but carrying large amounts of body fat.
As a result, you appear thin, possibly even fit, while wearing clothes, but you lack muscle definition.
You could also be at a healthy weight (according to the BMI scale), but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy (1).
Skinny fat men typically have man boobs and love handles, whereas skinny fat women usually store more fat around their lower back, hips, buttocks, and thighs. Here are a couple of photos of a skinny fat man and woman:
Most skinny fat folks struggle to set fitness goals because they don’t know what nutritional path to take: bulk, cut, or do a body recomposition.
In most cases, I recommend a body recomposition (building muscle and losing fat simultaneously). Beginners are in a unique position to pursue both goals and can see fantastic results in as little as a few weeks.
Let’s now go over the 5x5 programs and see if they would fit you well.
What Is a 5x5 Lifting Program?
As the name suggests, a 5x5 lifting program prescribes 5 sets of 5 reps on various exercises. There are several versions of the program, with the classic coming from the late Bill Starr––a true pioneer in the strength world.
His program laid the foundation for several notable versions of the 5x5 approach, including:
StrongLifts 5x5 is a beginner training program based on five core lifts: the squat, bench press, deadlift, barbell row, and overhead press. The program features three weekly workouts and leverages linear progression.
Many people new to training make good progress on the program because it provides a solid overload and enough training volume.
Unfortunately, the progression is aggressive (weight increases from workout to workout), which makes it unsustainable in the long run.
Madcow 5x5 is a similar training program, but it is designed for intermediate-level lifters. It is also based on the core barbell lifts but includes some extra exercises.
Progression isn’t as aggressive, and trainees must be more systematic with their load selection.
Is a 5x5 Lifting Program Beneficial For Fixing The Skinny Fat Physique?
To answer the question, we have to take a brief look at the training factors required for gaining muscle:
- Adequate training volume - doing enough weekly sets per muscle group (2)
- Optimal frequently - training each muscle group two to three times per week (3)
- Overload - increasing the amount of work you do from week to week or month to month
- Variety of movements - training your muscles from various angles
- Effort - pushing yourself close to failure (4)
Many other factors play a role in what results you can expect from your training, but the above are crucial in any workout plan.
A 5x5 lifting program can be suitable for fixing the skinny fat physique. StrongLifts 5x5 is an excellent program for beginners, and running it for a few months can lead to decent muscle growth and strength gain.
You’re doing enough sets, training your muscles frequently, and progressing every time you’re at the gym. The program also features several fantastic exercises, and you must push yourself hard enough to cover your 5 sets of 5 reps.
Still, it’s important to note that 5x5 programs are challenging. You’re training three times per week, but each session is demanding and hides dangers you must avoid.
The Potential Dangers Of a 5x5 Lifting Program
1. Technique Breakdown
The biggest danger of a 5x5 program is technique breakdown. You’re doing challenging compound exercises and pushing yourself to increase the weight you’re using all the time.
Getting tired can impact your technique and prevent you from training optimally.
You might begin to shorten the range of motion, swing your body, or use momentum to complete your sets of 5 reps. Doing so makes each set less beneficial and puts you at higher risk of an injury.
To avoid these risks, it’s best to take some time and master the five compound lifts:
- Barbell bench press
- Barbell back squat
- Deadlift (sumo or conventional)
- Bent-over barbell row
- Barbell overhead press
You should also film some of your training sets to see yourself from the side and look for glaring (or subtle) errors in your technique.
For example, as you start squatting more weight, you might notice that you’re not descending to parallel. Awareness can help you fix the issue by reducing the weight and emphasizing proper technique.
The second danger of 5x5 lifting programs is overtraining. Doing only heavy barbell exercises can be challenging to recover from and lead to problems. For instance, the StrongLifts 5x5 program has you do three barbell exercises each workout. That’s a total of 15 sets.
The risk of overtraining will be higher for people in a calorie deficit for fat loss or a body recomposition. These programs work best with a high-calorie diet for weight (and muscle) gain.
3. Getting Burned Out
The third issue with 5x5 programs is the high risk of burnout. Burnout is similar to overtraining, but it isn’t the same thing.
Instead of suffering from extreme muscle soreness and seeing your performance drop, you can’t handle the psychological stress of the program.
As discussed above, 5x5 might seem simple enough, but do 15 heavy sets of barbell exercises and get back to me. You can do it for a few weeks, but you might start feeling overwhelmed eventually.
Is 5x5 The Optimal Approach For Skinny Fat Women?
While 5x5 training can be good for men looking to build muscle and get stronger, I don’t recommend the approach to women.
First, the approach is quite demanding, and it can be intimidating. Women new to weight training likely won’t feel comfortable lifting such heavy weights on complex exercises.
Second, women’s physiology predisposes them to higher repetition training with lighter weights. There are numerous reasons why:
I recommend checking out the following guide for a more in-depth explanation.
Related: Skinny Fat Girl Workouts You Need to Shed Fat And Tone Your Body
Other Considerations For Taking Full Advantage of 5x5 Training
1. Take Care of Your Testosterone
Testosterone is the primary sex hormone responsible for physical development, muscle growth, male characteristics (body hair, deep voice, etc.), bone mineral density, athletic performance, and much more (8).
Fixing the skinny fat physique and making the most of any training program requires optimal testosterone production.
Low levels of the hormone contribute to muscle loss, fat gain (especially around the belly), loss of athletic ability, and a whole host of other issues (9).
Skinny fat men often start with lower testosterone levels due to various lifestyle factors, so taking active measures to resolve the issue early is essential. Good tactics for doing so include:
You can read more about testosterone and how to optimize it in the guide I wrote.
2. Consider Certain Supplements
Fitness supplements are by no means necessary for getting fit. Your training, nutrition, and recovery will always be the most critical pieces of the puzzle.
Still, certain products can support the process and help you reach your goals slightly quicker. Three good supplements to consider are:
- Protein powder - a good product that offers a concentrated dose of protein, allowing you to reach your daily goals without stuffing yourself with high-protein foods
- Creatine monohydrate - an organic acid that supports energy production in the body, boosting your training performance and offering some health benefits (12)
- Caffeine - a nervous system stimulant shown to promote athletic performance and alertness (13)
You can read more about my thoughts on these supplements and why I recommend each.
3. Make Use Of The Equipment You Have
Getting fit can be challenging for people with no access to a good gym. Luckily, that doesn’t have to mean you’re doomed to fail.
Even simple equipment like dumbbells can allow you to have good workouts and leverage the 5x5 principles.
For instance, if you don’t have access to a gym, you can use dumbbells to perform the five lifts from the program: squats, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and row. Instead of these, you can do the following:
- Dumbbell deadlift (or Romanian deadlift)
- Goblet squat
- Flat dumbbell bench press
- Standing dumbbell overhead press
- Bent-over dumbbell row
You don’t have to do 5 sets of 5 because that would be challenging, and you might not have dumbbells that are heavy enough.
You can instead modify the program and do sets of 8, 10, or 12 reps to train your muscles and promote overload.
Before you go...
Download my free guide on fixing the skinny fat look in the next 6 months. Implement step one today!
The classic 5x5 lifting program has been around for decades, and the two notable versions are StrongLifts and Madcow.
StrongLifts is well-suited for beginners with enough movement proficiency to perform the five core barbell lifts.
Madcow is more advanced and better suited for intermediate-level trainees looking to increase their strength further.
A 5x5 program can work for skinny fat people, but you must be aware of the potential drawbacks.
Nothing stops you from trying it for a while to see how it goes. There are plenty of alternatives if 5x5 doesn’t work well.
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