I am curious what the science is behind strength gains on the dead lift and when it is ideal to stop working on 5x5 rep scheme and switch to something lower, as low as perhaps 1x5.

Currently I can dead lift 325 5x5 and still put in the work on the other parts of my weekly routine. When I add weight however I end up dropping down to 5x3 with my last working dead lift set reaching 355 lbs x2. I am curious if it would help me with my strength goals to switch to singles or doubles for 5 sets, or is it physiologically better to switch work a pyramid, say 5x5x4x3x2x1RM. Thanks.


There's a few things to consider. First is where you are on the strength spectrum. A novice doing "5x5", while probably not the smartest idea in the world, isn't nearly as damaging as an advanced athlete doing "5x5". The stronger you get the more damage you can do to yourself and, as a result, the longer it takes to heal.

But even in the popular StrongLifts 5x5 novice program, deadlifts are limited to 1x5:

These are the sets and reps you do on every exercise except Deadlifts. Deadlift is only one set of five reps (1×5) because doing more would beat you up.

But even when in StrongLifts he refers to his program as 1x5 for deadlifts, and something like Madcow (Bill Starr modified) 5x5 says "5x5" for deadlifts, it's effectively the same: you are ramping up through 4 warmup sets to your 5 rep max.

Some realities to consider:

  • Anyone with a big 5 rep max (5RM) would never, and won't for long if they do, walk up and and rack on their 5RM weight and go to town for 5 sets. If they do, they most likely aren't that strong, that's not really their 5RM, or are going to get hurt soon. Remember, a 5RM means there's no way you could do a 6th.

  • Some programs (like SL 5x5) don't include the warmup sets in their rep count, which is why you see 1x5.

  • Some programs do include the warmup (ramping) sets, which is why you'll see 5x5.

You didn't list your weight, but if you're pulling 325 5RM you should see where you are on the strength spectrum. Consider saddling up with a solid program (I'm a big fan of Bill Starr's / Madcow, but there are others) to get to the advanced levels if that's where you're headed.

  • My weight is 190 currently. I don't however think 325 is my 5rm. I've got a few years lifting experience but have been on and off as life schedules changed so I am in a cycle of trying to get back up to my all time max at 405 DL. My thing is at what point do I want to lower the rep scheme to allow to maximum strength gain while also not killing my CNS. – chamburger Aug 28 '15 at 21:01
  • @chamburger If you're intermediate or better, you really need to follow a proven training program if you want to make progress. It's just too hard to wing it even if you know your body well. The stuff you can get away with two years ago doesn't fly anymore. I tend to stick with a progressive overload program for ~8 weeks, then go into maintenance mode for weeks/months. That tends to fit my life well and let me be somewhat normal while still making numbers and getting stronger. I can keep my strength up with 2/days a week; Rippetoe talks about it Practical Programming. – Eric Aug 28 '15 at 21:05
  • I just looked at the fitness chart and am indeed on the intermediate scale. I would like to get to the advanced levels of course, but I am concerned with optimal rest gain balance. I feel like I can continue to do my DL at 5x3 for a bit more weight but is it perhaps too much for my CNS given the other lifts? I don't mind taking other prgrams words for it I woudl just like to know why a warmup then a 1x5 is better than say a 5x3 – chamburger Aug 28 '15 at 21:08
  • Those programs are put together but pro-trainers and coaches who are trying to squeeze every ounce of gains out they can while not blowing out their athletes. I'm actually headed to the gym in a few minutes, and a big thing on my mind is about what I'm doing as it affects my ability to increase next week. The programs did the math on that already, and they work. I think you should really read Practical Programming. It's hundreds of pages going through exactly the kinds of questions you're asking and laying out the math. – Eric Aug 28 '15 at 21:12
  • amzn.to/1EnELzw ; additionally, all of the major programs (Texas, Mad Cow, etc) are listed in there and the authors go into detail about what they do, how they do them, and where you can wiggle on the numbers and where you shouldn't. – Eric Aug 28 '15 at 21:13

Currently I can dead lift 325 5x5 and still put in the work on the other parts of my weekly routine.

Great. No problem there.

When I add weight however I end up dropping down to 5x3 with my last working dead lift set reaching 355 lbs x2.

That indicates a problem.

I am curious if it would help me with my strength goals to switch to singles or doubles for 5 sets

Simply using singles or doubles won't help you achieve your strength goals. Lifting heavier will help you work towards your strength goals. The idea is to add weight to the bar. If you need to change your set/rep scheme in order to do that, then that's the solution.

But there's no need to do 5 sets, and there's no need to do singles or doubles. 5x2 could work fine, but so could 1x5, or 10x1, or 3x3. The relevant factor is lifting heavier weight while keeping the stress this causes in check with regards to your recovery and the rest of your training.

  • I think you contradict yourself a bit here by saying that doubles won't help achieve his strength goals, but 5x2 (or 10x1) could work fine. Aside from the 1x5, I feel like the other rep-schemes (5x2, 3x3, 10x1 - maybe) are quite a bit better for just achieving strength goals, as they allow one to lift heavy and still achieve a volume that is going to require the body to adapt to the stimulus. – Alex L Aug 30 '15 at 12:00
  • @AlexL I think the paragraph containing the sentence you reference stands as a coherent thought on that matter. Doubles aren't the relevant variable, mass on the bar is. Singles and doubles and 1x5 and other set/rep schemes are merely tools to manipulate the relevant variable. Personally I think that since he's taken 5x5 to 325 he should switch to 1x5 and see how far he can go. In my own training, singles & doubles work but require a different kind of recovery and attitude towards training sets. – Dave Liepmann Aug 30 '15 at 18:16

The greater the weight, the greater the gains to strength and power.

Alwyn Cosgrove in 'The New Rules of Lifting' recommends switching between strength and hypertrophy programs every 8-16 weeks. E.g.

  1. Strength program with a 3x5 program for 12 weeks
  2. Take a week off
  3. Hypertrophy program 4x8 for another 8 weeks
  4. Another week off
  5. Repeat

Many trainers find that lifting your 3-rep max for 3-reps gives the greatest strength-gains.

Here's the classic Rep-scheme guide from Mark Riptoe:

  • Thats what I've been toying with but its hard to find many science sources for this while trying to navigate through all the different programs. I am considering dropping to a 5x3 and sticking until the weight stops going up I am just concerned with CNS fatigue hurting other important lifts. I currently dropped my squat to 5x3 as well. I do a hypertrophy rep scheme with 70% of my working weight on serparate days but the two days are strength – chamburger Aug 28 '15 at 21:02

Long answer short: Always. Deadlifts are very hard on the body, not to mention exhausting. I'd say only to deadlift once or at most twice a week, with 1X5. The bright side of this is that you can usually deadlift a whole lot of weight, a person who never lifted might be able to even start with 135, which isn't exactly advanced but far beyond a true beginner's level for other lifts. Intermediates(for deadlifts, of course) should be in the 185-225 range and if you're doing 250 or over you can qualify as advanced.

  • Your 'standards' are a bit off and don't seem to take body weight into consideration. – Alex L Sep 3 '15 at 2:27
  • 250 is advanced? You mean kilograms, right? Also, while I stay relatively low-volume with deadlifts (e.g. 1x5), the idea that they're impossible to do more than once or twice a week is overblown. That's true if we're talking 200+kg, but not so much for 225lbs. Deadlifting frequently has worked well for me and lots of people who are deadlifting <2xBW. – Dave Liepmann Sep 3 '15 at 5:22
  • @Dave Liepmann You can do as you wish, but I personally believe deadlifts to be a very dangerous exercise if overdone or done wrong. – Rob Sterach Sep 3 '15 at 13:13

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