Trying to decide on a strength programme? This Stronglifts 5×5 review is going to take you through the pros and cons, as well as cover common mistakes, how to maximise your progress, and frequently asked questions.
- So here’s what I like about Stronglifts:
- And here’s what I don’t like about Stronglifts:
- My overview of Stronglifts:
- Stronglifts Mistakes
- Coaching, Training Partners and Maximising Progress on Stronglifts
- Stronglifts Versus Starting Strength
- Stronglifts 5×5 Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
Okay so quick intro time. Stronglifts 5×5 is a programme popularised and marketed by a guy called Medhi. The programme looks something like this:
Workout A – Barbell Squat – 5 sets of 5 reps
Bench Press – 5 sets of 5 reps
Barbell Row – 5 sets of 5 reps
Workout B – Barbell Squat – 5 sets of 5 reps
Shoulder Press – 5 sets of 5 reps
Deadlift – 5 sets of 5 reps
So it’s a really simple layout.
Also, before we continue, you might be interested to know that I’m a professional strength & conditioning coach, and I’ve worked with dozens of elite national and international athletes, so I’m not just some internet random giving his opinion. (I’ve also put together a free 40 minute video training all about “How to Get Stronger, Look Great & Learn Perfect Lifting Technique,” which you can check out here.)
Now, if you’ve ever googled ‘Strength workout’ then Stronglifts is probably the first programme you’re going to come across. The website and the information is all very much designed with the strength beginner in mind. A few cheeky name drops of Arnold’s mentor Reg Parker later and most strength enthusiasts will be pretty excited to get started.
To help you out, I’m going to give you my experience running the programme for 5 months myself, as well as my thoughts as a qualified strength and weightlifting coach.
So here’s what I like about Stronglifts:
- The programme is really easy to follow, just two alternating workouts and only 5 different movements. This keeps things really simple and easy to record. Plus all of these movements are free weights based, which is great for developing stabiliser muscles.
- The progression is also really simple, you’re just aiming to add 2.5kg to each lift every workout. This means progressive overload is applied consistently and you WILL get stronger.
- It uses big, compound movements and encourages plenty of eating. (Both big winners in my book)
- The 5 sets of 5 reps weight scheme is a nice hybrid, offering strength with a bit of size as well.
- Unlike lots of other strength programmes, Stronglifts comes with spreadsheets, apps, a sizeable online Q&A section and plenty of other tools to help you along the way and clear up any confusion.
And here’s what I don’t like about Stronglifts:
- The idea of starting the programme with an empty barbell is ridiculous. For an average size male trainee with even a small baseline of strength this simply won’t offer enough stimulus to generate any muscular adaptation. Starting so low is only really advisable if you’re completely new to the gym, or completely new to free weights and need to focus on technique.
- You’ll eventually start having to de-load lifts more often, slowing your progress. As you get stronger you will hit plateaus more frequently. It’s not so bad at first but I found it got quite demotivating.
- The programme’s simplicity is also a drawback as it can get really boring after a few months. I know some people are fine repeating the same workout over and over again, but as a coach I do think that motivation is a training variable for many people.
- There is no accessory work, meaning there’s no way to focus on certain aspects of your lifts and get rid of sticking points. This also means there’s not much potential for adding muscle size, which can end up limiting long term progress.
- Being a strict ‘cookie cutter’ programme means there’s no room for individualisation or auto-regulation. So if you feel battered you’re still expected to hit the same weights as when you feel perfectly fresh.
- Complete reliance on bilateral movements means that muscle imbalances can occur. Some of you may never have this problem, but I personally found that the dominant right hand side of my body always got a little bit more work! A little unilateral work could sort that right out!
- As the weights get heavier and you approach your true 5 rep max the session will be taking an awful long time. 15 sets per workout with an average rest of 4 minutes means a 1 hour and 15 minute session not including general warm up, warm up sets, cool down, stretching or any core work. With all those things (which almost every coach will recommend) you’re looking at 1 hour 40 minutes and more. Personally, I began to find that as the sessions got longer I struggled to hit each lift with the same focus and intensity.
My overview of Stronglifts:
As strength routines go, Stronglifts is a good bread and butter, cookie-cutter programme designed to introduce you to the major lifts with a good amount of frequency and volume. It was the first strength programme I used and I made some good progress with it. Simple is effective.
However, there’s nothing magical about Stronglifts. My honest review is that you would do equally well on a programme like Starting Strength or Greyskull, and on starting strength you only have to do 3×5.
Fundamentally this programme is a good start to strength training, but there will come a point when it stops being as effective. I found that my progress slowed after a few solid months of training. I also found that I wanted a programme with a bit more flexibility that could address my weaknesses as a lifter.
My advice to you is to run Stronglifts, Starting Strength or Greyskull for as long as possible, as this is the fastest progress you’re ever going to see as a lifter.
For most people, this will be 3-8 months.
After that, you’ll want to start looking at intermediate programmes that allow you to recover better, as well as develop some muscular size and build your strength potential.
You’re probably thinking that 3-8 months running stronglifts is a big range, and to be fair it is. There’s a huge array of factors that will impact your performance on the programme, some of which are based in genetics. With that said, there are often 3 major mistakes that people make that limit their progress.
1) Not eating enough whilst doing stronglifts
Linear progression programmes like stronglifts have you aggressively adding weight to the bar every workout. To sustain this for as long as possible you need to be in a calorie surplus, ideally of at least 300kcal per day.
2) Not getting enough sleep
Sleep is essential for recovery, and you’ll start missing reps pretty quickly if you’re not getting at least 7 hours of sleep per night. For optimal progress, I really recommend aiming for 8-10 hours of sleep per night.
3) Not following the programme properly
People often make silly changes for no good reason. Follow the stronglifts programme as written. Take your prescribed deloads as recommended. Take your 4+ minutes rest between heavy sets as recommended.
These mistakes might sound obvious, but you only need to read a few forums, FB pages or Reddit threads to learn that thousands of people are making these same mistakes! Don’t be one of them.
Coaching, Training Partners and Maximising Progress on Stronglifts
One of the best ways to increase your rate of progress on stronglifts run the programme with a training partner or coach. Obviously having a coach on hand is ideal to dial in technique and make adjustments on the fly. But I also realise that not everyone’s budget stretches to that. In those situations, a reliable training partner can be the next best thing.
You can push each other, increase motivation for hard workouts, and keep an eye on each other’s lifting technique.
Stronglifts Versus Starting Strength
I could, and likely will write an article all about this. For the most part, the programmes are very similar. They use similar exercises, similar technical models and similar progression schemes, so you’ll be fine with either.
The major difference is that starting strength uses 3×5 whilst stronglifts uses 5×5. Personally, being that both programmes seem to make people stronger at the same rate, I would probably go with starting strength. Less work for the same results seems like an easy win.
With that said, I have seen a few lifters, especially people with higher volume tolerance, see slightly better results on 5×5. Typically, this seems to be the case for smaller female lifters.
Stronglifts 5×5 Frequently Asked Questions
Is stronglifts 5×5 effective?
Yes, absolutely. If you’re a strength beginner, you can expect multiple months of great progress.
Can you get ripped doing 5×5?
Well, technically yes, if you ran 5×5 in a calorie deficit, but practically that would be really dumb because it would massively limit your progress and you’d run into recovery issues pretty fast.
It would be much smarter to run 5×5 for as long as possible in a calorie surplus, then afterwards follow a more bodybuilding style programme for 8-12 weeks whilst in a calorie deficit.
Is 5×5 the best for Mass?
No. Whilst you can, and likely will, add some muscle size on stronglifts, I wouldn’t describe it as optimal for adding mass. If mass and hypertrophy is your goal, check out this article all about hypertrophy sets and reps instead.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…
1) Get in the gym and start working through the stronglifts programme or something similar like starting strength. Get stronger every session for as long as possible. Then come back and read my article on what to do after stronglifts 5×5
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching, you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.