If your training is based on random impulses, meaning that you tend to walk into a gym every day and perform the exercises you feel like performing until you faint, you might experience a promising progress in the beginning but you are most likely to run out of luck pretty soon and wind up injured or stuck in a rut. That’s why bodybuilders put so much effort into planning their routines in terms of factors such as training splits, intensity and volume, and there’s no going around the fact that continuous progress can only be achieved through a very intelligently organized training approach.
That being said, one of the simplest, yet most effective muscle and strength building workouts available today is StrongLifts 5×5, and thousands of people have already used it to transform their physiques. Given its popularity, it’s only natural that you’re willing to finally give it a shot. But can you tell whether StrongLifts 5×5 is the best strength program for you? We’d like to offer some insight and help you make the most out of it – read this article to find out if 5x5s are worth your time.
With StrongLifts, you train three times per week and each workout consists of three compound barbell lifts for 5 sets of 5 reps, with the exception of the deadlift, which is only 1 set of 5 reps. The list of exercises is pretty short but straight to the point, including only the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press and barbell row. The program employs an A/B split, meaning that there are two different workouts alternated throughout the training week.
On Day A, you have the squat, bench press and barbell row. Day B consists of the squat, overhead press and deadlift. The primary goal of the program is to increase the weight. At first you train with light weight and focus on lifting with proper form and technique, then start adding 2,5kg/5lbs for each exercise on a weekly basis for as long as you can. None of the 5 working sets are taken to failure. As the weight increases, your body is forced to get stronger and bigger. On StrongLifts, you are challenged to demand more from your muscles at every training session and push your body to adapt to any overload. Muscles don’t grow without having a good reason for it; it’s your job to provide it.
To determine your starting weight, first you need to establish your 5-rep max and then use 50% of that. If that sounds like too little, don’t worry – as you’re going to add weight each week, soon enough you will be screaming for help. For the squat, bench press, barbell row and overhead press, you will add 5lbs for each lift, which is 2.5lbs per side. On the deadlift, however, you will add 10lbs, or 5 per side (remember, you’re doing only 1 set of deadlifts).
If you fail to perform 5 reps with proper form with a given weight, you will use the same weight for the next workout. But if fail to do this on three consecutive workouts, you’ll have to take a deload week and decrease the weight by 10%. Keep in mind that this applies only for the next workout; then up the rack you go again.
One of the best things about StrongLifts 5×5 is its simplicity. First of all, it’s really cool that you don’t need much any fancy machines or accessories to do it – any regular gym has the basic equipment required for the workouts.
Furthermore, all of the exercises are tried-and-true bodybuilding classics that have been in the game for decades and train multiple muscle groups at the same time. Also, by focusing on a limited number of exercises, you will be able to perfect your form relatively quickly. And the set and rep pattern is no rocket science either. This makes the program especially useful for beginners, who often tend to bite more they can chew by adopting too complex regimes too soon.
What is less known is that the lifting world has been flirting with the 5×5 protocol since the 60’s, when bodybuilder Reg Park wrote about it the first time, although it was Bill Starr’s 1976 book “The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football” that really made it popular. Naturally, the fact that athletes have been successfully using 5x5s to build astonishing strength and sculpt impressive physiques for decades makes this program even more attractive for modern newbies and seasoned lifters alike.
However, Simplicity Isn’t for Everyone
Although simplicity can help propel great progress in the case of beginners, more advanced lifters are very unlikely to benefit as much from it. As weightlifting experiences grows, so does the need for a greater training complexity and variation of training stimuli, which StrongLifts can’t offer. The straight-forward overload progression in 5×5 workouts simply doesn’t work for every bodybuilder category over the spectrum.
Furthermore, muscle building in the later stages is directly linked to training intensity, which basically means advanced lifters need more volume to keep making gains. And regardless of what some ignorant internet fitness gurus think about it, training to failure can be a true key to impressive muscle growth.
No hard feelings, but every training protocol that claims it’s perfectly suited for everyone should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism – no matter how hard we want it to be true, there are simply no “one-size-fits-all” types of shortcuts to greatness in bodybuilding.
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In this perspective, we strongly recommend StrongLifts 5×5 for beginners, but we’d advise the intermediate and advanced lifters to look for a program that’s better fitted for their level of experience in the iron game.