StrongLifts 5×5 is the simplest, most effective workout to build muscle, gain strength and get ripped. Thousands of people worldwide have used it to change their bodies and lives. It’s the most popular strength and muscle building program on the internet because it’s simple and works.
On StrongLifts 5×5 you workout three times a week. Each workout you do three barbell exercises for sets of five reps. The five exercises you’ll do on StrongLifts 5×5 are the Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, Overhead Press and Barbell Row. Together they work your whole body.
The goal on StrongLifts 5×5 is to increase the weight. You start light, lift with proper form, and add 2,5kg/5lb each workout. This progressive increase in weight triggers your body to get stronger and build muscle. It’s the simplest and most effective way to get results.
StrongLifts 5×5 is most effective for beginners new to lifting weights. This is the definitive guide to the StrongLifts 5×5 workout program.
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Program
- 3 Plateaus
- 4 Recovery
- 5 Assistance Work
- 6 Cardio
- 7 Equipment
- 8 Common Mistakes
- 9 Popular Questions
- 9.1 Will StrongLifts 5×5 work for me?
- 9.2 How long does it take to see results?
- 9.3 What’s the science behind this program?
- 9.4 Does StrongLifts 5×5 build muscle?
- 9.5 Can I gain mass with StrongLifts 5×5?
- 9.6 Can I lose fat with StrongLifts 5×5?
- 9.7 Does this program work for guys over 40?
- 9.8 Does StrongLifts 5×5 work for women?
- 9.9 Can teens do StrongLifts 5×5?
- 9.10 Will this make me slow for sports?
- 9.11 Isn’t Squatting 3x/week too much?
- 9.12 Can I do 5×5 Deadlifts?
- 9.13 What’s the best time to workout?
- 9.14 Should I workout if I’m sick?
- 9.15 What about stretching?
The StrongLifts 5×5 program consists of two workouts…
Do three workouts per week. Never train two days in a row or do two workouts in a day. Wait one day before doing your next workout. This gives your body time to recover, get stronger and build muscle so you can lift heavier next workout. Alternate workout A and B each time you train.
Most people train Monday, Wednesday and Friday. This gives you one recovery day between each workout, and two recovery days before your next workout on Monday. What also works is to train Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday… or Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday.
Start StrongLifts 5×5 by doing workout A. Go home, eat and sleep. Two days later do workout B. Another two days later do workout A. Your first week will look like this if you train Mo/We/Fr…
|StrongLifts 5x5 Week 1|
|Monday - workout A||Wednesday - workout B||Friday - workout A|
|Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5|
|Bench Press 5x5||Overhead Press 5x5||Bench Press 5x5|
|Barbell Row 5x5||Deadlift 1x5||Barbell Row 5x5|
Start week two with workout B because you finished week one with workout A. Then keep alternating the workouts each time you go to the gym. Your second week will look like this if you train Monday, Wednesday, and Friday like most people…
|StrongLifts 5x5 Week 2|
|Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5|
|Overhead Press 5x5||Bench Press 5x5||Overhead Press 5x5|
|Deadlift 1x5||Barbell Row 5x5||Deadlift 1x5|
Keep alternating workouts A and B. Week three and five will look like week one. Week four and six will look like week two. If this doesn’t make sense, signup to my daily email tips to get spreadsheets – you’ll get an overview of your first 12 weeks. The app also auto-alternates workouts A and B.
Start light so your body can get used to Squatting, pressing and pulling three times a week. If you’ve done these exercises before, with proper form, start with 50% of your five rep max. You can enter your best lifts in the spreadsheets or the apps, and they’ll calculate your starting weights for you.
If you’ve never done these exercises before, haven’t done them in years, or you’re intimidated by free weights then start with the lowest weights possible. This way you can build up your confidence and practice proper form. Here are the recommended starting weights if you’re new to lifting…
- Squat, Bench Press, Overhead Press: 20kg/45lb (the empty Olympic barbell)
- Deadlift: 40kg/95lb (the empty bar with a plate of 10kg/25lb on each side)
- Barbell Row: 30kg/65lb (the empty bar with 5kg/10lb on each side)
5×5 means you do five sets of five reps with the same weight. Squat 20kg five times, rack the weight, and rest 90 seconds. Then Squat 20kg for five reps again. Repeat until you’ve done five sets of five (5×5). Then move to the next exercise. On Deadlifts only do one set of five reps (1×5).
Increase the weight every workout on each exercise where you completed five reps on each set. Add 2,5kg/5lb on those exercises. On Deadlift add 5kg/10lb. So if you’re new to lifting and started with the recommended starting weights, your first two weeks will look like this…
|StrongLifts 5x5 Week 1|
|Monday - A||Wednesday - B||Friday - A|
|StrongLifts 5x5 Week 2|
|Monday - B||Wednesday - A||Friday - B|
|Overhead Press |
|Bench Press |
|Barbell Row |
All weights include the bar because you lift it. So Squat 5×5 27.5kg/60lb means you put 3.75kg/7.5lb on each side of the 20kg/45lb Olympic bar. You need small plates of 1.25kg/2.5lb to do this.
The first weeks will feel easy. But the weight will increase fast. Within four weeks you’ll be Squatting 30kg/60lb more, pressing 15kg/30lb more and Deadlifting 30kg/60lb more. Start with the bar and you could be Squatting 100kg/220lb for 5×5 in 12 weeks. That’s more than most people.
Your goal is to add weight every workout for as long as you can. You won’t be able to do this forever. Eventually you’ll struggle to get five reps and fail (there are ways to get around that). But most people are surprised by how long they can add weight each workout with such a simple program.
Your results depend on your age, gender, weight, technique, nutrition, sleep, experience, consistency, effort, etc. Many people have doubled their Squat to 300lb, gained 24lb and lost 12lb in a year on this program. But these results are atypical for older lifters or females with less testosterone.
The typical result you can expect if you do StrongLifts 5×5 as laid out is an increase in strength and muscle mass. The magnitude of the gains and time it takes varies. But I’ve never met someone who didn’t improve with this program. Do it by the book and here’s what you can expect…
- More Strength. You’ll gain strength on every StrongLifts 5×5 exercise. You’ll quickly lift more than other people. Your strength will transfer to physical activities outside the gym. Picking up heavy objects, carrying groceries or walking up stairs will be easier.
- More Muscle. Your muscles will become stronger and bigger to lift the weights. If you’ve never done a proper training program like this one before, you can gain up to 24lb of lean muscle in a year. You’ll also regain lost muscle and stop muscle loss from aging/dieting.
- Less Fat. The heavier the weights, the more energy you’ll burn. You’ll also burn more energy post-workout for muscle recovery. Your metabolism will be higher. Eat right on top of lifting weights and you’ll lose fat. Your waist and body-fat will decrease – without doing cardio.
- More Sex. A muscular body is more attractive than a fat one. Your clothes will fit better. Your posture will improve. Your testosterone levels will increase. You’ll look and feel better, and this will increase your success with the opposite sex. You’ll get laid more. Really.
- More Endurance. Your muscles will last longer before they get tired because they’re stronger. It will take them less effort to do things like walking or running. Many people have been surprised to find out they can suddenly run three miles despite never actually running.
- More Power. Stronger muscles can do more work in the same amount of time. Increasing your strength will therefore make you more powerful and explosive for sports. You’ll be faster on the field, harder to tackle and hit harder. You’ll be tougher to beat.
- More Fitness. Your heart muscle will get stronger like every other muscle. Daily activities will take less effort because they’ll put less demand on your stronger heart. Your blood pressure and heart rate will decrease. Your cardiovascular fitness will increase.
- More Flexibility. Your hip mobility will increase because Squatting three times a week moves your legs through a full range of motion. Your shoulder flexibility will increase from holding the bar on your upper-back – this opens your chest and improves your posture.
- More Health. Your testosterone will increase. Your cholesterol, blood pressure and stress will decrease. Your glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity will improve. And so on. All of this will make you feel healthier and younger. You’ll have more energy than before.
- Less Injuries. Your bone density will increase and balance improve. Your joints, spine and the muscles around them will get stronger. They’ll give them more support and protection. This makes you less likely to get injured and may even eliminate nagging pains.
- More Confidence. People will notice your new body and strength. Some will compliment you. A few might ask for advice. This positive feedback, the respect you’ll get, and the changes you’ll make will make you believe in yourself more. You’ll become more confident.
- More Toughness. Adding weight every workout is hard work. But this strengthens your mind as well as your body. It increases your pain tolerance, pain treshold and mental toughness. This makes it easier for you to work hard because you become tougher.
- More Time. Only three workouts per week. Each takes 45 mins the first 12 weeks, max 80mins after that. So you’ll spend max four hours in the gym each week. The other 164 hours you can spend-guilt-free on family, friends, hobbies, etc. You’ll have a life outside the gym.
- More Money. You won’t need expensive supplements to get results (most don’t work anyway). You also won’t need a lot of equipment. You can easily build a home gym and train from your garage as I did for ten years. This saves money on gym fees.
For best results guys need to increase the main lifts to 140kg/300lb Squat, 100kg/220lb Bench and 180kg/400lb Deadlift. Anything below that isn’t enough to see dramatic improvements. Your focus should therefore be to increase the weight until you reach these minimum targets.
Warning: this program looks easy, but isn’t. You’re adding weight every workout. This triggers your body to gain strength and muscle to lift heavier the next workout. It’s the most effective way to train but it’s hard work. Some people don’t have the mental fortitude for it. If you do, you’ll gain.
StrongLifts 5×5 is a full body training program. Every exercise works several muscles. Together, these compound exercises work your whole body. This is what makes this program so time-efficient – you can train every single muscle by doing only three exercises per workout.
This can be hard to believe if you’re used to train one muscle a day by doing a dozen of exercises per workout. But you don’t need to train your muscles directly for them to grow. They actually grow better with compound exercises because you can lift heavier weights. This triggers more growth.
This is why more strength is more muscle. The stronger you are, the heavier the weights you can lift, and thus the more muscular you’ll be. Your muscles must grow bigger to lift the heavier weights. It’s therefore not the quantity of exercises you do that matters most. It’s the intensity.
The intensity is higher on compound exercises because you can use heavier weights. StrongLifts 5×5 uses the five best compound exercises – “the big five”. Here are all the muscles you’ll work by doing the Squat, Bench Press, Overhead Press, Deadlift and Barbell Row every week…
- Chest. Your whole chest works to push the bar away from you when you Bench Press. Your upper-chest works to lift the weight when you Overhead Press.
- Shoulders. Your whole shoulder girdle (front, side, rear) works to raise your arms when you Overhead Press. Your front shoulders also work to raise your arms when you Bench Press.
- Arms. Your biceps pull the weight to you when you Barbell Row. Your triceps push the weight when you Bench/Overhead Press. Your arms contract on every exercise to hold the bar.
- Forearms. Your forearms keep the bar in your hands on all exercises. They work very hard on Deadlifts to keep your hands closed against gravity so you don’t lose the bar.
- Abs. Your abs work on every exercise to support your spine. They keep your lower back from rounding on Deadlifts, Squats and Rows. They keep it from arching on the Overhead Press.
- Calves. Your calves work to straighten your ankles when you Squat and Deadlift the weight up. They also stabilize you when you Overhead/Bench Press and Row.
- Traps. Your traps work to keep your shoulders in place when you Deadlift and Barbell Row. They transfer power to the bar. They also contract at the top of your Overhead Press.
- Thighs. Your quads, glutes and hamstring straighten your legs and hips when you Squat and Deadlift. They also keep you stabilized when you Overhead/Bench Press and Row.
- Back. Your lower back keeps your spine from rounding on Deadlifts, Squats and Row. Your upper-back pulls the weight back on Rows. It also keeps the bar close on Deadlifts.
You can’t make the mistake of favoring body-parts on StrongLifts 5×5. The compound exercises work your whole body. So you won’t turn into a captain upper-body with only chest and arms but no back and legs. Instead you’ll build a balanced, well-proportioned physique.
In fact, the upper/lower-body distribution is almost even. Over two weeks you do 150 Squat reps (lower), 150 Bench/OHP reps (upper), 15 DL reps (lower) and 75 Rows reps (upper). That 43% lower-body vs 57% upper-body work. This creates a balanced body development.
Keep in mind StrongLifts 5×5 is not a bodybuilding program. You will build your body. You will build muscle. A lot of muscle. But you won’t turn into a bodybuilder. You’ll build a muscular and athletic body instead. One that doesn’t just look strong but actually is strong too.
The key is to increase your strength. Don’t expect the chest development of a 100kg/220lb bencher if you only bench half that. Don’t expect legs like a 180kg/400lb Squatter if you can’t even Squat two plates. Aim for that 140kg/300lb SQ, 100kg/220lb BP and 180kg/400lb DL.
Why This Works
According to the legend, Milo from Croton trained for the Olympics by carrying a calf each day. The calf grew bigger which increased the weight he carried. This triggered his body to gain strength and muscle. It turned him into the best wrestler of his time. Milo won the Olympic Games 6x.
It’s just a legend, but there are many lessons here. He started light. He added weight slowly. He added weight every workout. He lifted a heavy object that worked his whole body. He lifted it frequently. He balanced it himself. His program was simple. But it was hard work. And it was effective.
StrongLifts 5×5 doesn’t use a calf. But it works the same way. And that’s why it’s so effective.
- Free Weights. Machines balance the weight for you. Free weights force you to balance it. So they engage more muscles, improve balance and build strength that transfers outside the gym. The movements are also more natural and safer because you control how the bar moves.
- Barbells. You can lift heavier weights with barbells than dumbbells or kettlebells. Barbells therefore trigger your body harder to gain strength and muscle. And you only need one to do all StrongLifts 5×5 exercises. This makes building a home gym cheap and easy.
- Compounds. You can lift heavier on compounds like Squats than isolation like leg curls. Squats use more muscles – you can lift heavier and thus build more muscle. And since compounds work several muscles you don’t need gazillions exercises. Three is plenty – saves time.
- Squats. The Squat is the backbone of the program. It works your whole body, with heavy weights, and over a long range of motion. Squats are the best exercise to gain strength and muscle. You’ll hate them because they’re hard, love them for the results they deliver.
- Light Start. StrongLifts 5×5 starts with light weights. This prevents soreness. It gives your body time to adapt to lifting more frequently. It prevents plateauing too early. It forces you to focus on lifting with proper form. And it prepares you for the heavy weeks later.
- Intensity. The workouts are short but intense. Each exercise works several muscles at the same time, and the weight is heavier. But you’re only doing three exercises so you don’t lose focus. By the time you’re getting really tired, you’ve finished your workout.
- Progressive Overload. Increasing the weight progressively triggers your body to get stronger. Your body arms itself to better handle the load next time. So your muscles get bigger, bones denser, and tendons stronger. Not lifting heavy makes you lose muscle and strength.
- Frequency. Squatting three times a week is better than once because you trigger your legs 3x more to grow muscle. You also get to practice proper form three times more. This improves your form which helps you lift more and triggers even more muscle growth.
- Fives. You can lift more weight if you do five reps than eight, ten or twelve. Your form is better because the set is over before fatigue sets in. The total amount of sets is the same whether you do 5×5 or 3×8 (25 vs 24). The weight is just heavier which stimulates more growth.
- No Failure. Training to failure gets you pumped and sore. Soreness prevents you to train the muscles again the same week. Yet training more frequently triggers more strength and muscle gains. You therefore don’t try to hit failure on StrongLifts 5×5. You try to add weight.
- Rest. Every workout stimulates strength and muscle gains. It makes you stronger. But it also tires your body. You need rest between workouts so your muscles can recover, grow stronger, and lift heavier weights next time. StrongLifts 5×5 gives you four rest days a week.
- Plan. Failing to plan is planning to fail. Most people have no plan in the gym. They do what they feel like or see someone else do. StrongLifts 5×5 gives you a plan every workout day. It gives you a simple way to progress. You’ll know what to do and expect. You’ll be confident.
- Adherence. The best training program is the one you actually stick to. It’s easier to stick to StrongLifts 5×5 because it only takes three workouts a week. And each workout takes less than an hour the first 12 weeks. You’ll skip less workouts and be more consistent.
- Objective. StrongLifts 5×5 is free of subjective BS like “feeling your muscles” or how you look in the mirror. You know if the program works by looking at the weight on the bar. If it goes up over time – and it will – you’re gaining strength and muscle, period.
- Fun. Many people get addicted to adding weight each workout. You’ll get curious about how far you can get on StrongLifts 5×5. For the first time you’ll look forward to going to the gym and lift more than last time. Your motivation will go through the roof.
- Simple. You don’t need a PhD to understand StrongLifts 5×5. It’s just two workouts with three exercises each. You do sets of five and add weight every time. Done. It’s even simpler when you use the app as it will do all the thinking for you so you can focus on lifting.
StrongLifts 5×5 is based on common sense. If you’re a logical thinker like me, this program will make sense to you. It will be obvious that this program is far more effective than the one muscle a day high rep isolation split routines so many people still waste time and effort on in 2017.
Here are two videos in which you can see me doing the two workouts of StrongLifts 5×5. I’m lifting the weights that you’ll be lifting in weeks 8/9. I’m also completing each workout in less than thirty minutes. Watch both videos and listen to me answering common questions.
Origins of 5×5
StrongLifts 5×5 is based on the 5×5 routine. I didn’t invent 5×5 – I just wrote a definitive guide on it in 2007 and created apps for it in 2010. It’s not clear who invented the 5×5 routine but it seems to have been around for almost 100 years now. Here’s a short history on its origins…
In Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors, Randy Roach wrote that Milo Steinborn brought the Squat to the USA from Germany in the 1920s. Power Racks didn’t exist yet so he put the bar vertically and then dropped it on his upper-back. Milo could Squat 250kg/550lb for reps like this…
The American lifters were floored and soon started to Squat too. Weightlifting coach Mark Berry gained 50lb body-weight by Squatting. By the late 1930s he was telling everyone to Squat in his magazine Strength. He seemed to have been the first one to write about the 5×5 routine.
Two decades later in the UK, Reg Park was 3x Mr Universe. He could Squat 600lb, Bench 500lb and Deadlift 700lb. In 1960 he put everything he learned in his book Strength & Bulk Training for Weight Lifters & Body Builders. His main program was a 5×5 routine revolving around Squats.
Reg Park later became Arnold Schwarzenegger’s lifelong mentor. His biographies Total Recall and The Education of a Bodybuilder reveal that Arnold did a lot of heavy lifting. He was a competitive olympic lifter and powerlifter before turning bodybuilder. Reg Park most likely had Arnold do 5×5 too.
Meanwhile the Canadian weightlifter Doug Hepburn won Gold at the 1953 Olympics. He was big on 5×5 and could Squat 760lb, Bench Press 580lb and Deadlift 705lb. Interestingly, Hepburn trained in Ed Yaricks gym in California which Reg Park visited in 1949. They might have met…
Many people consider Bill Starr the father of the 5×5 routine. In 1976 he popularized it in his book The Strongest Shall Survive. Starr called his program “The Big Three” – aimed at football, it was centered around the Squat, Bench Press and Power Clean for five sets of five reps.
I discovered the 5×5 routine in 2003 on the Internet. There was a forum poster “John Smith” writing about it (he turned out to be weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay). And there was Madcow who talked to Pendlay and wrote about 5×5 on the now defunct Geocities. Their writings sold me on 5×5.
In 2007 my mentor told me to start a website about lifting. I didn’t want to at first, but then went for it. In June that year I wrote a definitive guide on the 5×5 routine. People found it helpful, started to call it StrongLifts 5×5, and somehow it became popular. In 2010 I created the first app for 5×5.
But I didn’t invent 5×5. The routine and its principles have been around long before I was born. And it will be around long after I’m gone. Many training programs come and go. But the 5×5 routine has stood the test of times. The reason should be obvious – it’s simple, and actually works.
StrongLifts 5×5 triggers strength and muscle growth in your whole body using two workouts A and B. You Squat every workout as first exercise because that’s the backbone of the program. The next two exercises change based on whether you do workout A or B. The workouts…
- Workout A: Squat 5×5, Bench Press 5×5, Barbell Row 5×5
- Workout B: Squat 5×5, Overhead Press 5×5, Deadlift 1×5
Do one workout per day. If this doesn’t feel enough then the weight is too light. Be patient or increase the weight. Once the weight is heavy you won’t be able to do more than three exercises without losing strength. Bench tires your shoulders for OHPress, and Rows tire your back for Deadlifts.
Alternate workout A and B every time you train. Start with workout A today, do workout B in two days, then do workout A again. This means some weeks you’ll do A/B/A, some B/A/B. If you don’t get this then download the spreadsheets, or use the app as they alternate workouts for you.
Wait at least one day between two workouts. This gives your body time to recover, get stronger and build muscle to lift heavier next workout. Don’t workout two days in a row – the weight will be harder to lift and you’ll miss reps because your muscles aren’t fully recovered yet.
Do three workouts a week. Most people train Monday/Wednesday/Friday but Tu/Th/Sa or Su/Tu/Th works too. As long as you wait at least one day between two workouts, it’s fine. Try to train the same days and times each week. This creates a habit that will increase your consistency.
You could do four workouts a week. You still have that day off inbetween but progress will be slightly faster. Most people like having two days off in a row though. And those who start with four usually switch to three later. So stick with three. Your training schedule will be more consistent.
If you miss one or two workouts, continue where you left off. Let’s say you train Mo/We/Fr and miss Friday. Do that workout on Saturday. No need to lower the weight, you don’t lose strength that fast. The continue on Mo/We/F the week after. Again, use the app, they take care of all of this.
Note that these three workouts a week are a full training program. You can’t do StrongLifts 5×5 on top of another program. It would hurt your recovery and prevent you to add weight each workout. You’d miss reps, plateau and get nowhere. Do this program or the other – not both.
On StrongLifts 5×5 you do five exercises – the Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, Overhead Press and Barbell Row. Every workout starts with Squats. The other exercises alternate each workout.
- Squat. The backbone of the program. Squats strengthen your legs and everything else with heavy weights. The bar moves through a longer range of motion than any other exercise.
- Bench Press. The upper-body equivalent of the Squat. The Bench strengthens your chest, shoulders and arms. The weight is heavier than on any other upper-body exercise.
- Deadlift. Trains pulling heavy weight from the floor with a neutral spine. Strengthens your grip, legs and entire back. The weight is heavier than on any other exercise on this program.
- Overhead Press. Trains lifting weights overhead. Strengthens your shoulders and everything under the bar. Hardest lift of all five, you’ll lift the least amount of weight here.
- Barbell Row. Trains pulling weight towards you, like rowing on a boat. Strengthens your whole back and arms. Rows are assistance work for the other four exercises.
You do these five exercises because they let you lift the heaviest weight. You can Squat heavier than you can Front Squat. Squats therefore trigger more strength and muscle gains, and so they’re in the program. Every exercise lets you lift the heaviest weights to work your major muscle groups.
Use a barbell for every exercise. You can lift the heaviest weight with a barbell. It’s therefore the best tool to trigger your body to build strength and muscle. It’s also the best tool to progress because you can start light with just the bar, and add weights as low as 0.5kg/1lb each workout.
The barbell must move freely. It can’t be attached to a machine because that takes work away from your muscles. You have to balance the weight yourself, not let a machine do it. You also need total control over how the bar moves – a machine can’t be determining the bar path.
So don’t do StrongLifts 5×5 on the smith machine. Its fixed bar makes your muscles work less since you don’t have to balance it. It also forces you into unnatural movements that can cause pain and injuries. Even the newer 3D smith machine has the former problem so it’s no good either.
Dumbbells also don’t work for this program. You can’t Squat or Deadlift heavy because holding the weights is the limiting factor. And most dumbbells go up by 2kg/5lb. They force you to use bigger increments of 4kg/10lb per workout. You’ll plateau earlier and more often than with a barbell.
Kettlebells don’t work for similar reasons. I can Squat 180kg/400lb with a bar. The heaviest kettlebell is 48kg. And holding one in each hand is harder than Squatting it so you’re not challenging your legs. Plus kettlebells go up by 4kg. They’re great for cardio but don’t substitute a barbell.
Safety concerns usually makes people prefer the smith machine or dumbbells. But you’re not the first one to think about your safety. Many strong lifters lift heavier weights than we’ll ever lift. Failing their weights could kill them. Yet the rate of injury is low because they’ve already solved this problem…
- Lift in the Power Rack. Rock climbers use a rope to catch them if they fall. StrongLifters use a Power Rack to catch the bar if they fail. I’ve lifted mostly alone for over 10y in my home gym. Failed plenty but never got stuck under the bar because I lifted in the Power Rack.
- Start light. You don’t put four plates on the bar because you read I can Squat that. You learn to walk before you try to run. Start with the empty bar and add a little weight each workout. As the weight increases so will your experience, comfort and confidence with the weight.
- Use proper form. It prevents injuries, improves efficiency and increases strength and muscle gains. Keep your spine neutral to avoid lower back injuries. Keep your thighs and feet aligned to avoid knee injuries. Don’t flare your shoulders. Read my exercise guides.
Your gym may not have a Power Rack or even a bar. I don’t have a magic wand to make one appear. Either go to a real gym or build a home gym. Otherwise you’re stuck doing an inferior program with what you have. But don’t bastardize this program. Do it as laid out or don’t do it all.
Substituting any exercise will make the program less effective. You’ll introduce exercises that trigger less strength and muscle gains because you can’t go as heavy. Or you’ll use machines where you don’t balance the bar. There are no better exercises than these fives. They’re the best.
The key is to use proper form by using a complete range of motion. A half Squat will not build legs like a proper Squat will – your muscles are only working half the movement. Same with benching half reps – it doesn’t work your chest muscles well. Read the guides so you do the exercises right.
Use the same range of motion on every rep, set and workout regardless of the weight. Don’t shorten the ROM when you start struggling just so you can get your reps. Otherwise you don’t know if you can lift more because you got stronger or because you’re just cheating the ROM. Keep it constant.
The exercise order of StrongLifts 5×5 is not random but on purpose. Stick to it.
Always start with Squats. They’re the hardest exercise and the backbone of the program. If you Squat second or last you’ll make them harder because you’re already tired. So you’re more likely to skip them (especially if you hate Squats). Squat first so you can’t rationalize your way out.
Bench or Overhead Press next. This gives your legs and lower back rest before you need them again on Barbell Rows and Deadlifts. If you reverse the exercise order you’ll struggle on those exercises. Your lower back and legs will be tired from Squats. You need them for Rows and Deadlifts.
Starting with Deadlifts tires your lower back for Squats. Squats tire it for Deadlifts too. But you only Deadlift for 1×5 after Squats. Squatting for 5×5 is hard, and Squatting for 5×5 after Deadlifts is even harder. You’re going to be tempted to cut your Squats short or skip them alltogether.
Sticking to the same exercise order every workouts also makes it easier to track improvements. If you keep everything constant except the weight, then you know that when you can lift heavier, it’s because you got stronger. Not because you did this exercise first today and were more fresh.
Squatting first makes you tired for the Bench/OHP. But your goal isn’t to show strength. Your goal is to build it. Besides, powerlifters Bench/ Deadlift after Squats too in competitions. Get used to it.
Don’t Squat one set, Bench one set, Row one set and then go back to Squats. Do five sets of five on one exercise before moving to the next one. Stay focused on one exercise instead of rushing from one to the other. You’ll have better technique which will help you lift heavier weights.
The Power Rack may not be free when you arrive in the gym. Or the Bench might be taken when you’re done Squatting. I encounter these situations all the time but never change the exercise order of my workout. Just ask how much time he has left. You’ll get one of these replies…
- Usually he’ll tell you he only has one or two sets left. Great – you just wait. Gather your plates and stuff. Warmup for Squats maybe with a few stretches. He’ll be done in five minutes so then it’s your turn. Good you didn’t change the exercise order.
- Sometimes he just started or still has many sets to do. Waiting would take too long. Ask if you can join and do your sets while he rests inbetween. I’ve never been refused once in 18 years of training. In fact this is how I met my early mentor. Don’t be shy, do it.
It doesn’t matter if you lift less than the other guy. I’ve lifted with people who could Squat 700lb. They didn’t mind. As long as you help loading the bar for their sets, don’t complain and don’t waste time, they’ll be cool. This is the best way to make friends in the gym. Again – do it.
Sets & Reps
5×5 means five sets of five reps with the same weight. So Squat 5×5 90kg/200lb means you Squat this weight for five reps on all five worksets. 1×5 means one set of five reps – not five sets of one rep. So Deadlift 1×5 140kg/300lb is one heavy workset where you pull 140kg/300lb for five reps.
5×5 Deadlifts after 5×5 Squats doesn’t work. Deadlifts use more muscles. The weight is heavier and each rep starts from a harder dead stop. Pulling heavy for 5×5 is brutal. Instead of accelerating your progress, you’ll slow it by missing reps more. Deadlift only 1×5 – it’s enough.
StrongLifts 5×5 uses sets of five reps – not eight or ten reps like on 3×8 or 3×10. That doesn’t mean doing eight or ten reps is worthless. But it’s not effective for people who haven’t build basic strength, muscle mass and technique first. Here’s why five reps work better:
- Heavier Weight. Five reps keep your sets short. They’re over before you’re tired. So you can lift heavier with fives than eight or ten reps. Heavy weights trigger your body more to gain strength and muscle. It has to get stronger and build muscle to lift the bigger weights.
- More Progress. You can add 2.5kg/5lb each workout more easily when doing five reps because you can lift heavier. This means you can apply progressive overload longer without plateauing. You’ll lift heavier, get stronger and thus build more muscle mass by doing fives.
- Better form. The shorter set makes it easier to stay focused on lifting with proper form. And since it’s over before you’re tired, you can keep that proper form longer. This increases your lifting efficiency and safety. You can lift heavier weights without getting injured.
The total reps is the same on 5×5 and 3×8 – 25 vs 24 reps. But the weight is higher on 5×5. Let’s say you Squat 100kg for 3×8. You can Squat at least 105kg if you do 5×5 instead. That’s why 5×5 makes more sense – you’re working your muscles with heavier weight. This triggers more growth.
Five sets also give you almost double the form practice than three sets. The more you practice proper form, the more efficient you become. This increases how much you lift and decreases injuries. The 1×5 Deadlifts give you less practice but you can fix that by doing fives on your warmup sets.
Rest as long as you need between sets to get five reps on your next set. The first weeks of StrongLifts 5×5 you don’t need much rest time because the weights are light. But as your work weight increases and becomes more challenging, you’ll need to rest more. Here’s what I recommend…
- 1min30 if you easily completed five reps on your last set
- 3min if you struggled to get five reps on your last set
- 5min if you failed to get five reps on your last set
Rest times matter because ATP is your primary energy source for lifting. Each set depletes your ATP stores. It takes three minutes for them to recover 80%. Rest five minutes and you have 95% back. So resting longer between sets gives you more ATP for your next set. It helps you lift heavier.
Short rest times make you sweat more and cause more pump. But they limit how heavy you can go by forcing you to lift with depleted ATP stores. The goal of StrongLifts 5×5 is to lift heavy because that triggers maximum strength and muscle gains. Rest longer so you can go heavy.
The drawback of longer rest times is that it makes your workouts take longer. You can fix that by only resting longer when needed. You don’t need to rest between exercises or light warmup sets – just set the equipment, add weight and go. Keep longer rest times for your hard work sets.
One way to know if you’re ready for your next set is by paying attention to your breathing. Your heart rate will be elevated after a hard set and you’ll be breathing heavily. When both go back to normal, it usually means you’re ready for your next set. Don’t start a set still breathing hard.
My app has a built-in rest timer to guide you. It tells you how long to rest between work sets, warmup sets and exercises. It suggests different rest times if your last set was easy, hard, or if you missed reps. It also pings you when it’s time to do your next set. Download the app here.
Stay focused between sets. You can sit on a bench, but I like to stand. Review your form if you just taped yourself. Look at your training history in my app. Maybe visualize yourself doing your next set with perfect form. But avoid too much socializing as you’ll lose focus and track of time.
Use the lifting tempo that lets you lift the heaviest weights with proper form. Lifting slow is no good because it wastes strength. But lifting too fast makes it harder to control the bar and lift with proper form. You must be in control of the bar at all times. Just don’t be slow.
The first weeks of StrongLifts 5×5 you’ll have to lift more slowly so you can practice proper form. But as you gain experience you can start accelerating the bar on the way up. This recruits more muscle fibers and helps you lift heavier weights. It’s not cheating but more effective.
Always lower the bar under control. Don’t lower it slowly because that wastes strength. But don’t drop the bar either. Control it on the way down so you can maintain proper form. The bar should go down faster than it moves up. And the bar path should be as close to vertical as possible.
Lifting slow causes more pump and fatigue. But it also limits how heavy you can go. The goal on this program is to lift heavy. You can lift heavier when you lift fast. That’s why lifting fast recruits more muscle fibers – the heavier weight forces more muscles to get involved to lift it.
Lifting fast doesn’t mean the bar will actually move fast. Your lighter warmup weights will move fast. But your heavy work sets won’t always do. The bar can sometimes move slowly on hard reps aka grinders. The point is that you put all your strength into the bar by trying to accelerate it.
Take your time between reps. Rest a second before doing the next rep so you can get tight and take a big breath. This will also give you some recovery. Don’t rush your reps or you’ll lose focus and lift with bad form. But don’t wait too long either or the next rep will be harder.
- Deadlift/Barbell Row. Lower the weight to the floor and wait for the bar to be still before pulling the next rep. Use this rest to reset yourself – neutral spine and chest up. Then take a big breath and pull. This shouldn’t take longer than a second so you don’t lose the stretch reflex.
- Squats/Bench Press. Squat the weight up and lock your hips and knees. Bench the weight up and lock your elbows. Then rest a second to get tight for the next rep. Squeeze the bar, raise your chest and take a big breath. Then do your next rep.
- Overhead Press. Lower the bar to your chest. Rest a second to get your forearms vertical to the floor and raise your chest. Then take a big breath and press the next rep.
An advanced technique that works well on the Bench and Overhead Press is to press several reps with one breath. Not exhaling means you don’t lose tightness. But you must be able to hold your breath for 2-3 reps for this to work. Try this later when you’re more experienced.
Do three StrongLifts 5×5 workouts per week. Wait at least one day between two workouts. If you lift Mon/Wed/Fri, you’ll have four rest days a week on Tue, Thu, Sat and Sun.
Rest days are crucial to get results on this program. The weight stresses your body every workout. This triggers it to get stronger and build muscle mass so it can better cope with the weight next workout. But your body needs time to recover, gain strength and add muscle.
Workouts also cause fatigue. They increase your strength, fitness and endurance in the long-term. But in the short-term they tire your body, muscles and mind. You need rest days to start your next workout fresh. Otherwise you can’t lift more weight than you did last time.
Doing two workouts in a row therefore doesn’t work. Your legs will still be tired for Squats, shoulders still tired to press, back still tired to pull. Worse, you could still be sore from your last workout if it was hard. This will make you struggle to lift more weight. You’ll miss reps and plateau.
Your schedule may force you to workout two days in a row. Once in a while is fine but every week will hurt your progress. If it’s the only way, spread the workouts as much as possible – one early in the morning, the other late in the evening the next day. This gives your body more recovery time.
Rest days doesn’t mean bed rest. You can do any physical activity as long as it doesn’t hurt your recovery by causing more fatigue. A walk or light jog is fine. A marathon is not. Avoid high intensity activities where you go all out. Give priority to the weights and you’ll make better progress.
This means if you’re used to go by bike to work, it’s probably okay to keep doing it even on your rest days. Your body is already used to it. Your legs might actually recover faster because this flushes blood and nutrients in your legs. If you never biked to work, probably a bad idea to start now.
Increase the weight on every exercise where you did five reps on every set last workout. So if you Squatted five reps with 100kg/220lb on all five sets, then Squat 102.5kg/225lb next workout. It doesn’t matter if you failed on other exercises. You did 5×5 Squats. So add weight to it.
Here are the increments to use:
- Squat: 2.5kg/5lb – that’s one plate of 1.25kg/2.5lb on both sides of the bar.
- Bench/OHP/Row: 2.5kg/5lb. But smaller increments of 1kg/2lb work even better. Especially if you’re small or female. You’ll progress longer without missing reps and plateauing.
- Deadlift: 5kg/10lb – that’s 2.5kg/5lb on both sides of the bar. Deadlifts use big muscles so you can handle more. Once you Deadlift 100kg/220lb, switch to 2.5kg/5lb per workout.
Some gyms don’t have small plates of 1.25kg/2.5lb to add 2.5kg/5lb each workout. Ask them to get a pair or buy your own set. Put it in your gym bag and take it with you every time. Small plates take no space and weigh little. They’ll help you progress longer without hitting plateaus.
What doesn’t work is to add 2.5kg/5lb only on one side of the bar. This shifts the center of gravity. You’ll have to adjust your grip to make up for it, then adjust it again when the bar is loaded evenly. This is asking for bad form, uneven loading of your body, and injury. Just get small plates.
What also doesn’t work is to add 5kg/10lb per workout (2.5kg/5lb per side). It works for a while on SQ/DL but not long. And it only works a few workouts on Bench/OHPress. The jump in weight is too big so you’ll quickly miss reps, plateau and get frustrated. Compare:
- Adding 5lb to a 500lb Squat is a 1% increment
- Adding 5lb to a 200lb Squat is a 2.5% increment – 2.5x more
- Adding 5lb to a 100lb Overhead Press is a 5% increment – 5x more
- Adding 10lb to a 100lb Overhead Press is a 10% increment – 10x more
- Adding 2.5lb to a 100lb Overhead Press is a 2.5% increment
- Adding 1lb to a a 100lb Overhead Press is a 1% increment
The less weight you lift, the harder to add 5kg/10lb each workout. You can do it on SQ/DL for a while because they use big muscles (legs, back). The weight is heavier as a result. But Bench/OHP use small muscles (chest, shoulders, arms). The weight is lower which makes big jumps harder.
This is why dumbbells don’t work for this program. They usually go up by 2kg/5lb. This forces you to add 4kg/10lb per workout since you hold one in each hand. Moving from 50lb to 60lb dumbbells is a 20% increase. This is too much, too soon. It makes you miss reps and plateau.
It’s easier to progress without hitting a plateau than to have to break one. Small plates delay plateaus. So get a pair of 1.25kg/2.5lb. Then get fractional plates of 0.5kg/1lb too so you can microload on the Bench/OHP by adding only 1kg/2lb per workout. The lighter you are, the more you need this.
The program progresses faster when using kg than lb. This is because the default increment of 2.5kg equals 5.51lb. So if you use kg like me, you’ll Squat 7.5kg/16.5lb more in 12 weeks than the guy using lb. This is fine for SQ/DL. But you’ll need to microload sooner on Bench and OHPress.
The first two weeks you can add 10kg/20lb on SQ/DL, 5kg/10lb on BP/OHP/Row. This accelerates your progress when the empty bar feels too easy to start with. But lower the increments before you struggle to get your reps. Remember avoiding plateaus is easier than needing to break them.
Some workouts will be so hard it will seem impossible to get 5×5 next time with more weight. But remember each workout makes you stronger. So stick to the progression and increase the weight anyway. You’ll be surprised how often the next workout turns out to be easier.
Start light so your body can get used to Squatting, pressing and pulling three times a week. Focus on lifting with proper form meanwhile. This will prepare you for the heavy weights later.
Starting too heavy will cause soreness. You’ll feel like skipping your next workout which is usually the beginning of the end. One skipped workout often turns into two skipped workouts. Now you have to restart and lost a week. This ruins your motivation and usually ends the program.
Starting too heavy also causes plateaus. If you start with your five rep max today, you can’t lift more two days later… and another two days later. You’ll miss reps, get sore and end stuck. Your starting weight must be light so you have room to easily add weight for several workouts.
The misconception is thinking light weights don’t build strength and muscle. Of course lifting heavy is better. And you’ll work towards that with StrongLifts 5×5. But lighter weights trigger your body to gain strength and muscle too. You don’t need to lift your absolute max every time.
The other issue with starting too heavy is that it encourages bad form. Instead of practicing proper form with easy weight, you must lift it at all costs to get your reps. This builds bad technique habits which will cause plateaus and injuries later when the weight gets even heavier.
Starting heavy is trying to accelerate your progress. You think it will make you stronger faster. But it doesn’t because you end up missing reps, getting sore, skipping workouts and having to restart with lower weights. You’ll think the program doesn’t work and feel like quitting.
Remember the fable of the rabbit losing the race to a turtle. You don’t want to be the rabbit who starts heavy, gets sore/stuck, and then has to restart. You want to be like the turtle – starting light, adding weight steadily, and getting there faster by avoiding soreness and plateaus on the way.
- If you’ve done these exercises before, with proper form, then start with 50% of your max. So if you can Squat 5x100kg/220lb, start with 50kg/110lb. This will be easy but within two months you’ll be Squatting 110kg/245lb for 5×5 – more than you started with.
- If you’ve never done these exercise or haven’t lifted in years, then start with the empty bar. You may look ridiculous for a while, but the weight will increase each workout. Within three months you’ll be Squatting 100kg/220lb for 5×5 – more than most people.
Deadlift and Barbell Row you don’t start with the empty bar. You can’t do these exercises with the bar in the air. Each rep must start from the floor. Start with 40kg/95lb on DL and 30kg/65lb on Row (bar weight included). Use full diameter plates so the bar starts at your mid-shin on each rep.
If the empty bar is too heavy to start with, then use a lighter bar. This is a common issue with females who have less upper-body strength. Use the 5kg/10lb bar or two light dumbbells. Add weight each workout. The program will get you stronger. Switch to the bar when you can lift 20kg/45lb.
If the starting weight is too light, you can fix that by using bigger increments for a couple of workouts. Instead of adding only 2.5kg/5lb, add 5kg/10lb or maybe even 10kg/20lb on SQ/DL. Switch back to the recommended increments once the weights becomes more challenging.
Understand you gain little by starting heavy since the weights increase fast anyway. What you lose is time spent working on proper form with lighter weights. This turns into a huge advantage when the weights get heavy. So be conservative with your starting weights.
Do several lighter warmup sets before your heavy work sets. Warmup with the empty bar. Add 10-20kg/25-45lb and do your next warmup set. Repeat until you reach your work weight.
Warming up increases how much you can lift while decreasing the risk of injury. The warmup sets raise the temperature of your muscles and lubricate your joints. They also give you form practice before lifting heavy. And they prepare you mentally for the heavy weights to come.
Never jump into your heavy work sets without warming up first. The weight will feel heavier and you’ll miss reps more. Worse, you can injure yourself because your muscles are cold and you didn’t get to practice proper form. Always warmup by doing several lighter sets first.
Cardio pre-workout isn’t enough. It raises your body’s temperature but doesn’t let you practice proper form. You must still do lighter warmup-sets. Also, too much cardio pre-workout will pre-exhaust your legs for Squats. Skip the cardio and do lighter warmup sets – it will save you time.
The proper way to warmup is to start with two sets of five with the empty bar. Add 10-20kg/25-45lb and do your next warmup set for 2-3 reps. Keep adding weight until you reach your work weight. Don’t rest between warmup sets to keep your workouts shorts. Only rest after the last one.
If your work weight is the empty bar, then you don’t need to warmup yet. The weight is too light to get injured plus doing extra sets could tire you out. If you insist on warming up, then do 2×5 body-weight Squats first. For BP/OHP you can warmup by doing 2×5 with a lighter bar or two dumbbells.
Deadlift and Barbell Rows need less warmup because they’re the last exercise. You’re already warmed up by that point. Plus the starting weight can’t be the empty bar because the weight has to start from the floor. So you’re never warming up with the empty bar on Deadlift and Barbell Row.
The StrongLifts app has a built-in warmup calculator that gives you the exact sets, reps and weights to warmup with. It gives you this for every exercise and weight. You need to unlock the Power Pack to gain access to it, but you’ll see that this feature alone is worth the price.
Or you can use one of those free warmup calculators online. But they all suck. The mistake they make is to make you do five warmup sets regardless of how heavy your work weight is. Weaker people end up doing too many warmup sets while stronger people don’t get enough. Examples…
- 100lb Squat – 5x45lb, 5x45lb, 5x45lb, 3x60lb, 2x80lb, 5×5 100lb. Terrible – you lifted 1015lb before you even started. Too many sets, too close weight jumps. This wastes strength. My app – 5x45lb, 5x45lb, 3x65lb, 5×5 100lb. That’s 41% less volume yet you’re warmed up fine. Don’t be surprised to fail on Overhead Press from doing too many warmup sets.
- 300lb Squat – 5x45lb, 5x45lb, 5x120lb, 3x180lb, 2x240lb, 5×5 300lb. Too big jumps of 60-75lb, too little sets. 300lb will feel heavy because you’re not warmed up properly. My app – 5x45lb, 5x45lb,5x95lb, 5x135lb, 3x185lb, 2x225lb, 1x265lb, 5×5 300lb. More sets but you’re stronger so you can take it without getting tired. Smaller weight jumps. Try it.
This means the warmup calculator in my app is different. It gives you less warmup sets if your work weight is light so you don’t get tired for your work sets. But it gives you more warmup sets if your work weight is heavy so you don’t end up taking too big jumps. This is more effective.
Warming up makes your workout longer. The stronger you are, the heavier your work weight, and the more warmup sets. Keep your workouts short by not resting between warmup sets. This will give you a good sweat without getting you too tired since the warmup weights are light.
The only exception is your last warmup set. Rest before doing your first work set. This way you have full ATP available before doing that heavy set. On your other warmup sets, just add weight and go. Use the warmup rest timer in our app – it tells you how long to wait so you can focus on lifting.
Respect your warmup sets by lifting them like your heavy sets. Your workout doesn’t start when your 5×5 weight is on the bar. Your workout starts with your warmup. Put the same focus and effort into them. If you do it right. your heavy work sets will feel easier.
If 1×5 Deadlifts doesn’t feel enough, warmup by doing sets of five reps instead of 2-3 reps. This gives you more reps to practice proper form. It also increases how much Deadlifts you do. But it avoids the stress of doing 5×5 Deadlifts with heavy weight on each set.
You don’t need to take a rest week every 12 weeks. StrongLifts 5×5 includes plenty of breaks already with the four rest days a week. You also get breaks from lifting heavy when you deload after hitting a plateau. All of this takes care of your recovery. So keep lifting and adding weight.
That said, if you train three times a week, 45 weeks a year, then a week off here and there won’t hurt. This is the 80/20 rule aka Pareto’s Principle. I usually take a week off training when going on holiday with family or friends. It never hurts my gains because I’m consistent the rest of the year.
You don’t lose much strength if you eat properly and stay active during your break. You can actually come back stronger from the extra rest. You should be able to continue where you left off. But don’t hesitate to lower the weight by maybe 10% to ease back into things and avoid soreness.
Different case if you spent a week partying, drinking alcohol, eating crap and barely sleeping. It will suck when you come back – talking from experience. Lower the weight more to make it easier on yourself. Or maybe not… to teach yourself a lesson and not do it again next time…
It’s crucial that you get back to the gym as soon as possible after your break. If you come back from holidays on Sunday, you should be back in the gym on Monday. You already had a week off. You don’t want it to take another week as it makes your come back harder. Don’t think about it, just go.
I usually train between Christmas and New Year. But if your gym changes its opening hours, you can either do your workout in advance or skip it for once. Again, what you do between Christmas and New Year doesn’t matter. It’s what you do between New Year and Christmas that does.
Travelling a lot for work is tougher. You’ll have to train or you’ll miss too many workouts. I usually go to the local Crossfit gym. Every city has one and they have all the equipment you need. Just pay the open gym drop-in fee. Don’t bother with hotel gyms, they usually suck.
By the way – skipping a workout is not a break. Breaks you plan in advance – “I have a holiday coming up, I won’t train”. Skipping a workout usually happens in the moment – “I don’t feel like it today, screw it”. Regular breaks are fine. Skipping workouts isn’t – it’s rationalizing laziness.
Note that the StrongLifts app will tell you how much weight to start with after your break. It keeps track of how long you haven’t trained and then recommends appropriate weight reductions. This prevents missed reps and soreness after your break. Download it here.
Goals give you direction. They remind you of what you need to do to get where you want to be. They eliminate distractions by keeping you focused on what matters. Set SMART strength goals…
- Specific: no vague “get stronger” but specific exercises – Squat, Bench, etc
- Measurable: no vague “increase my Squats” but the exact amount – 300lb Squat
- Achievable: you can’t gain 30lb muscle in three months, the natural limit is 2lb/month
- Realistic: don’t expect to look like Arnold and break world records after only six months
- Time-bound: set a deadline for your goals (birthday, end of the year, competition, etc)
Here are some SMART strength goals you should set…
|Beginner||Intermediate I||Intermediate II||Advanced|
|Time-frame||1-6 months||4-12 months||6-18 months||1-2 years|
These goals are all one rep maxes aka 1RMs. Powerlifting and weightlifting competition use 1RMs to compare strength between lifters and determine winners. Your 1RM is about 20kg/45lb heavier than your 5×5. You can test it every six months if you’re curious but don’t have to.
You can reach the beginner level with StrongLifts 5×5. All it takes is going to the gym three times a week and doing the work. You can also reach the Intermediate I level with StrongLifts 5×5. But you’ll usually have to switch to 3×5/3×3/1×3 to break through plateaus and get there.
Beyond that most people need to switch to more advanced training programs like Madcow 5×5. You also need more dedication – eating right, eating plenty, sleeping enough, perfecting technique, being consistent, etc. Not everyone is willing to put in the time and effort, so not everyone gets there.
This doesn’t mean you should switch to a new training program when you reach these strength goals. You switch program when your current one stops working. As long as the weight increases over time, keep going – even if you’ve reached these strength goals. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Age and body-weight impact time-frames. Young guys progress faster – more testosterone. Big guys progress faster too – they have bigger muscles. Old guys progress slower because of their slower recovery. Females progress slower due to less testosterone and smaller body-weights.
Just try to improve. Most guys can easily reach the intermediate I level in 12 months. This will make you stronger than 80% of people. The strength you’ll build will add muscle mass to your frame at a rate of 2lb/month on average. So that is an extra 24lb of lean muscle in a year.
Note that you’re unlikely to have constant lineair progress. In the beginning you will. Yet as the weight increases you’ll eventually hit plateaus. Everyone does or we would all Squat 500kg. But some people hit plateaus sooner than others. This explains the range for the time-frames.
Break your goals into mini-goals. Before you can Squat 400lb, you first have to Squat 350lb, 300lb, 265lb and 220lb. Focus on your next step instead of looking at the top of the mountain. Your main goal will look easier to achieve and you can check your progress on your way. Some ideas…
- Relative Strength. Set multiples of your body-weight as goals. Let’s say you weigh 80kg/175lb. 1xbw = 80k5/175lb Squat, 1.5x = 120kg/260lb. You can aim for 1x, 1.5x, 2x, 2.5x, 3x, etc.
- Plates. Set “big boy plates” as goals. One big plate 20kg/45lb plates on each side of the bar on the Squat first. Then two big plates, then three and then four.
- Total. Squat 350lb, Bench 220lb and Deadlift 430lb to join the 1000lb club. Squat 140kg, Bench 100kg and Deadlift 160kg to join the 400kg club. Create your own clubs.
- Consistency. Three workouts a week for 12 weeks. Check the calendar in the app. Aim for three red circles every week on the same days for as long as possible.
I recommend you set the Intermediate I goal by this day next year. Set the Beginner goals for within the next six months. Set the consistency goals too. Now print this and hang it somewhere you’ll see your goals daily – on your fridge, bathroom, home gym, whatever. Then do the work.
Failure is part of the game. You can’t add weight every workout forever. Everyone plateaus eventually or this would be too easy. Failing reps isn’t the end of the world, and doesn’t make you a failure.
Sometimes you fail reps because you’re having a bad day. You didn’t sleep well last night. You didn’t eat enough today. You had a long day at work. Your mind isn’t into it. You feel sick. It happens. What matters is that you show up anyway. Do your best today, you’ll do better next workout.
Sometimes you fail reps because you’ve been making mistakes for a while. You got away with it when the weights were light. But now that they’re heavier they’re making you fail. The usual mistakes are rushing through your workouts, trying to accelerate progress, and not recovering properly…
- Short Rest Times. Not recovering fully from the last set == more fail.
- Big Increments. Adding too much weight every workout == more fail.
- Bad Warmups. Doing too little warmup sets, too many, or none at all == more fail.
- Bad Form. Bad bar paths and not engaging maximum muscle mass == more fail.
- Skipped Workouts. Can’t trigger growth if you don’t lift consistently == more fail.
- Doing Too Much. Overdoing cardio/assistance hinders recovery == more fail.
- Lack of Sleep. Sleeping too little hours hinders recovery == more fail.
- Lack of Food. Eating like a bird hinders recovery == more fail.
Some people start looking for a new program when they fail reps. They think this one must be broken. The ones who get the strongest don’t give up on a program that easily. They also take their technique, nutrition, and sleep more seriously. They consider it part of their training – because it is.
This is a lot of work. But unless you’re a genetic freak or on drugs, you’re going to have to work hard. In fact, the stronger and more muscular you want to be, the more time and effort you have to put into this. If you don’t, you’ll fail reps… and then your lifts, strength and muscle mass can’t increase.
So if you’ve been eating one meal a day, sleeping five hours a night, doing cardio six times a week, adding 5kg/10lb per workout, resting only 30sec between sets, not warming up properly, and skipping workouts… then don’t be surprised to fail reps. Fix all of that instead of switching program.
Anyway, the first thing you do when you fail a set is to rest longer. Rack the bar and wait at least five minutes before doing your next set. Your ATP stores must be fully recovered otherwise you’ll fail reps again. This is not cardio but strength training. Rest longer so you can lift heavy.
Use the built-in rest timer in my app. Let’s say you missed the third rep on the third set. Mark it as two reps done by tapping on the set circle several times in a row (the reps will decrease). The app will recommend you to rest longer before doing your next set so you get fives this time.
Double-check your equipment is set to catch the bar if you fail on the Squat or Bench Press. You don’t want the weight to be even harder by worrying about injury during your set. Squat and Bench in the Power Rack. Set the safety pins at the proper height so they can catch the bar if you fail.
If you’re afraid of failing, practice it a couple of times. Rock climbers make beginners drop off the wall so they feel the safety of the rope. You want to feel the safety of the Power Rack. Squat down, come back up, then fail mid-way. Let the pins catch the bar. This builds your confidence.
Failing reps ends the set. If you miss the third rep on the third set, don’t try to get the fourth and fifth reps later. Rack the weight, rest five minutes and then do your fourth set. Then rack the weight again, rest, and do your fifth set. It doesn’t matter if you fail to get five reps – you do five sets max.
The only exception is if you failed because you lost focus or balance. Let’s say this made you miss the third rep on your third set. But then on your fourth and fifth set you get 5 reps. Here you can do a sixth set of five reps to replace your failed set where you only got two reps.
Never lower the weight mid-workout to get five reps more easily. You’ve already lifted that weight for sets of five last time. You can already do it. You now want your body to lift heavier weight. You need to lift that weight for that. So stick with it and try again.
Don’t cheat when you fail reps. Don’t start doing half Squats and half Bench Presses. Keep the range of motion the same on every rep and set. The weight can only increase because you got stronger. Not because you moved the bar over a smaller distance than before.
Same idea on the other exercises. Don’t start using your knees on the Overhead Press – that’s a Push Press and takes work away from your shoulder muscles. Don’t start bouncing on Deadlifts and Rows either – it also takes work away by using the rebound of the plates against the floor.
Don’t let your form deteriorate to get the five reps at all costs. Maybe you can get the rep if you let your back round, your elbows flare or your knees cave in. But you’re increasing the risk of injury. And you’re building bad technique habits. Your form should be 80% perfect on your heavy sets.
Switch to smaller increments of 1kg/2lb per workout on the Overhead and Bench Press well before you start failing. Get small plates so you can microload and avoid plateaus. Same on Squats – don’t add more than 2.5kg/5lb per workout or you’ll fail reps sooner.
Repeat the weight next workout for every exercise where you failed reps on. So if you only got three reps on the last two sets of Squats with 100kg/220lb, you Squat 100kg/220lb again next workout. You don’t increase your Squat weight because you didn’t get five reps on all five sets.
You do increase the weight on every exercise where you did get five reps on every set. Let’s say you fail on the Squat but don’t on the Bench Press and Barbell Row. Don’t increase your Squat weight next workout – repeat it. But add weight on Bench and Rows since you got 5×5 there.
If you don’t get it, just use my app. It tells you how much weight to lift next workout when you fail. It repeats the weight on the exercises you fail only while increasing it on the exercises you succeed. If you get 5×5 next time, it then starts adding weight again. Download it here.
You’ll first fail on the exercises that use smaller muscles. Overhead Press first, then Bench Press, then Squat, and finally Deadlift. If you fail in a different order, your form is off. If you fail reps during the first 12 weeks, you started too heavy, you’re adding too much weight, resting too little, etc
Deload if you fail to get five reps on every set for three workouts in a row. Lower the weight by 10% on that exercise next workout. Then add weight every workout again. It will take several workouts to get back to the weight you got stuck on. But this time you’ll succeed thanks to the deload.
Example – you failed to Squat 100kg/220lb for 5×5 three workouts in a row. You missed reps on one or several sets for three workouts. Next time you Squat don’t try to get 5×5 with 100kg/220lb again. Deload instead. Lower the weight by 10% on Squats and do 90kg/200lb for 5×5 next workout.
Only deload on the exercise you failed. So if you fail to Squat 5×5 but did 5×5 on Bench and Row, then only deload on Squat. And if you fail three workouts in a row on Squat, but only failed one workout on Bench, then deload on Squat but repeat the weight on the Bench Press.
You can also deload if you have bad form. If you can’t improve it at the current weight, and adding weight continues to make it worse, then take a step back. Deload 10% to work on your form.
Add weight every workout after the deload. It will take five workouts to get back to that 100kg/220lb Squat. During those two weeks the weight will feel easy. Take your deload seriously though – lift the weight as if it was 100kg/220lb. When you get back to that weight, you’ll get your fives this time.
If you’re confused about how to deload, just use my app. It automatically deloads the weight for you when you fail three workouts on an exercise. This saves you having to figure this out and maybe do it wrong. Let the app do the thinking and focus on lifting the weights instead.
Deloads work by giving your body extra rest to get stronger for the next weight. There will be times on StrongLifts 5×5 where the weight will stress your body more than it can handle. You’ll fail because you won’t be recovered in time for the next workout with heavier weight. Deloads fix that.
Deloads also prevent mental plateaus. Instead of keep hitting against that brick wall, you stop trying after three failed workouts. Lower the weight instead and work your way up again. The weights will be easy for several workouts. This will build momentum and bring your motivation back.
What deloads don’t solve is failed reps caused by undertraining or bad recovery. Failed reps mean you’re not strong enough for that weight yet. There are two reasons why this could happen…
- Undertraining. You’re not stressing your body enough to trigger it to get stronger. Example: you’re skipping workouts or exercises. Your lifts can’t increase if you barely do them. The stimulus has to be there for your body to gain strength and muscle.
- Overtraining. You stressed your body more than it can handle (by starting too heavy or adding too much weight). Or you’re not recovering well between workouts – if you barely eat or sleep, your body can’t recover from that stress. So it can’t get stronger and lift more.
Do your workouts and exercises consistently to trigger your body to get stronger. Take small weight jumps so your body can handle the stress. And get enough food and sleep so your body can recover from that stress. If you don’t, the deload won’t be effective – you’ll keep failing.
Switch to three sets of five reps (3×5) when progress on 5×5 stops. Switch to three sets of three reps (3×3) when progress on 3×5 stops. Switch to one heavy set of three reps followed by two lighter back-off sets (1×3) when progress on 3×3 stops. Don’t do endless deloads so you can stick with 5×5.
5×5 doesn’t work forever. Nothing does. The stronger you get, the heavier the weights you can lift, and thus the bigger the stress of each 5×5 workout. That stress eventually becomes too big for your body to recover from by the next workout. You don’t get stronger in time so you fail reps.
Deloads give you extra rest to break plateaus. But they don’t decrease the bigger stress from lifting bigger weights. This is why no one can do 5×5 forever. The heavier the weights you can lift, the more stress on your body, the more recovery needed. Your training must change to handle this.
In this case, deload and switch to 3×5. The last two sets on 5×5 are the hardest ones. You’re already tired from doing three sets. Doing two more sets of five is grueling once you’re lifting heavy weights. That’s when you drop those sets and do 3×5 instead – three sets of five reps.
By switching to 3×5 you can increase the weight every workout again. You no longer have to repeat the weight or deload because you’re not failing on the last two sets anymore. Your body recovers better with those two grueling sets gone. And your workout takes less time again.
This is one way to know if it’s time to switch from 5×5 to 3×5. If your workouts are taking two hours because you have to rest 10mins between sets to get 5×5… you’re probably overdoing it. Don’t get stubborn about sticking with 5×5. Switch to 3×5 so you can continue to make progress.
The workouts will be easier after you switch to 3×5. It will feel like a long deload. But the weights will increase every workout. So you’ll run into the same problem eventually. The stress from the now even heavier weights at 3×5 will be too much for your body to handle again. You’ll fail to get five reps.
Deload and switch to 3×3 – three sets of three reps. You can’t get five reps on every set anyway so just do three. Then add weight every workout again. It will be easier since you stopped failing. Plus the exercise stress is lower so your body recovers better between workouts.
Eventually you’ll fail on 3×3 too. Deload and switch to 1×3 – one heavy set of three reps followed by two lighter back-off sets with 5% less weight. You’ll be able to add weight every workout again until you get stuck. That is when it’s time to switch to a different training program.
Use my app – it will tell you when to switch to 3×5/3×3/1×3. Basically, if you fail three workouts in a row at 5×5, deload. Fail three workouts in a row again, deload + switch to 3×5. Three fails in a row at 3×5, deload + switch to 3×3. Three fails in a row at 3×3, deload + switch to 1×3.
3×5/3×3/1×3 doesn’t apply to Deadlift because it’s only 1×5. Plus most people get stuck on Squats before Deadlifts – so you’re unlikely to need to change strategy here. On Barbell Rows switching to 3×5 can make sense but 3×3/1×3 probably not as it’s more assistance work.
Madcow 5×5 is the training program after StrongLifts 5×5. It uses the same exercises and principles like progressive overload. The difference is the weight increases every week not every workout. When you’re no longer making progress on StrongLifts 5×5, switch to Madcow 5×5.
People often ask if I do StrongLifts 5×5. I did years ago but can’t now. My lifts are too heavy for it. I’ve Squatted 147.5kg for 5×5. This is almost twice my body-weight. There’s no way my body can recover in time to Squat 150kg for 5×5 two days later… and then 152.5kg another two days. I’d fail.
I wish I could still add weight every workout. But I need a slower progression to get stronger. I need to add weight every week. This gives my body more time to recover from the heavier weights stressing it. It gives it a week to get stronger and build muscle to lift heavier next time.
This the principle of diminishing returns. Most people can take their Squat from 0 to 100kg/220lb in three to four months. But taking it to 400lb usually takes one to two years. At first you have newbie gains. But the stronger you become, the slower gaining additional strength is.
This also means that what takes your Squat from 0 to 100kg usually won’t take it to 180kg. Nothing works forever, not even StrongLifts 5×5. As your strength increases and body changes, the only way to keep progressing is to move to a different training program – in this case Madcow 5×5.
Switch when you’re stuck on StrongLifts 5×5. Deload and switch to 3×5/3×3/1×3 first. Be consistent, use proper form, warm up properly and rest enough between sets. Get plenty of sleep and food. Once you reach a point where you’re not lifting more than last month, it’s time to switch.
Some want to know the exact weight to reach first. Can’t say. It depends on your weight, age, form, nutrition, sleep, etc. Many people get their Squat over 140kg/300lb before switching to Madcow 5×5. You should be able to get your Squat over 100kg/220lb at the very least.
Don’t switch to make it easier. Adding weight every week is easier than every workout. But it becomes hard too. Besides, this is meant to be hard. You need to stress your body for it to get stronger. That’s hard work. But if you stick with it you get used to it. Working hard gets easier.
Don’t switch because you read crap about changing programs every 12 weeks to confuse muscles. StrongLifts 5×5 confuses your muscles by using a different weight each workout – a heavier one. Changing programs all the time only confuses you because you don’t learn what works.
Some people get bored doing the same five exercises. The fun should be in the journey of improving yourself. But if you need variety – do one or two assistance exercises at the end your workouts here and there. Get your variety that way instead of changing programs.
The main reason to not switch to Madcow 5×5 is because progress is slower. It’s silly to add weight every week when you could do so every workout. Add weight on the bar every workout as long as you have the ability to do so. For most people that is until they can almost Squat 140kg/300lb.
Many people never get to Madcow 5×5. They do StrongLifts 5×5 six months, usually from January to August. Then they quit for the winter. In January they start StrongLifts 5×5 again to regain all the strength and muscle lost. Not what I’d do but if you’re happy, fine.
You don’t need to get sore to get results on StrongLifts 5×5. Soreness aka DOMS may happen. Pump may happen too. But they don’t mean you’re gaining more strength and muscle from your workouts. The only thing that matters is that the weight on the bar increases over time.
You’ll get sore if you start too heavy. Squats can cause leg soreness that lasts up to a week. It doesn’t matter if you run a lot or play soccer. Those aren’t Squats. Muscles must get used to new exercises. The best way is to ease them in by starting light and slowly adding weight
Don’t skip your workouts if you’re sore. This will only make the soreness last longer. It will be worst two days after your workout, and can last up to seven days. If you wait for the soreness to be over, you’ll miss a week of training. Bad start. Plus it hurts every time you move meanwhile.
Instead, stick to your training schedule and do your workouts. The warmup sets will hurt. But by the time your work weight is on the bar, you’ll hardly feel the soreness anymore. And your muscles will feel better after your workout. Don’t believe me – give it a try next time you’re sore.
The reason this works is because lifting again moves blood into your sore muscles. Blood contains nutrients that accelerate recovery. This gets rid of the soreness faster. So if your legs are sore, try to do light Squats with the empty bar the next day. They’ll feel better afterwards.
Any other activity that moves blood into your sore muscles will also help – a good massage, a hot bath, sauna, hammam, etc. Make sure you also eat properly and drink plenty of water so you get all the nutrients to help with muscle recovery. And get your eight hours of sleep in.
If your legs continue to be sore, lower the weight and work your way back up. This will give them a break so they can adapt to the frequency. And quit doing anything else that stresses your legs until the soreness is gone – temporarily drop the cardio, running, sports, etc. Do less.
I rarely get sore from lifting. If I get sore it’s because I did a new exercise. If I don’t lift for two weeks, resume, and try to lift what I did before the break, I’ll get sore. But outside of that it’s rare. You’re not training to failure on StrongLifts 5×5 so soreness should be minimal.
Your body converts food to energy – calories. It burns these calories to lift the weights, and recover from your workouts. Most guys need at least 3000kcal/day to gain strength and build muscle on StrongLifts 5×5. Skinny guys with fast metabolisms may need to eat even more.
Here’s why: building muscle is low on your body’s priority list. If there’s a shortage of food, your body will use it for critical tasks first. So you can’t recover well on a caloric deficit. And if you can’t recover well, you can’t add weight next workout. You miss reps which means you can’t progress.
Eating maintenance calories is better but not ideal. You’re not trying to maintain your situation on StrongLifts 5×5 after all. You’re trying to improve it by gaining strength and muscle. Eating over maintenance ensures there’s no food shortage that hinders recovery between workouts.
Good calorie calculators will suggest guys 16kcal/lb for maintenance. If you weigh 75kg/165lb that’s 2640kcal. But again, you’re not trying to maintain but improve. And adding weight every workout is hard work. It therefore makes sense to eat more. This brings us to 3000kcal/day.
If that number scares you, remember forms follows function. Your body changes in response to the work you do. It gets skinny, fat, and weak from a sedentary lifestyle. And it gets strong, muscular, and fit from lifting heavy… BUT ONLY IF you give your body the food it needs to train hard and recover.
I know you don’t want to get fat. Unfortunately it’s hard to build muscle without gaining any fat. You have to eat more to build muscle. But you need to eat less to lose fat. These goals contradict. If you try doing both, you’ll either end up eating too little to build muscle, or too much to lose fat.
This is why bodybuilders traditionally alternate muscle gaining and fat loss phases. They eat more food during the bulk, but less food during the cut. This is the simplest way to build muscle without gaining fat that actually works… if you’re not obese, haven’t trained before, and don’t use drugs.
Obese guys can indeed build muscle while losing fat when they start lifting. Their bodies use their fat reserves to build muscle. They build strength and muscle faster without needing as much food. And since muscle is denser than fat, they end up looking slimmer at the same body-weight.
People who have lifted before can also build muscle while losing fat. Thanks to muscle memory you can regain lost muscle and strength faster after a long break. If I quit lifting and resume a year later, I’d rebuild strength and muscle faster than it took the first time – while leaning out.
And if you use drugs or have great genetics, then you can do things that naturals and mere mortals can’t. But most people who try to build muscle while losing fat end up spinning their wheels. They don’t progress because there’s too much food to lose fat but not enough to build muscle.
You can get away with eating a caloric deficit the first weeks of StrongLifts 5×5. If you start light, the weights will increase and you’ll gain some muscle. But the heavier the weights get, the bigger the stress, and the bigger the recover need. You’ll need to eat more to keep progressing.
You won’t like eating more if you’re an ex-fatty who worked hard to lose fat. You’ll be afraid to gain it back. Same if you have six pack abs – you’ll be afraid to lose it if your body-fat increases from eating more. Unfortunately you can’t have it all at the same time. You have to choose.
Choose muscle. You can easily lose 1lb of fat a week later. But you can’t gain more than 2lb of lean muscle a month. And you need to lift heavy to gain that much muscle. This requires eating a lot food. Besides, a low body-fat is useless if you don’t build muscle mass first – you just end up skinny.
Dedicate the next year to building strength and muscle. Your body-fat will decrease if you started out obese. If you started skinny with single digit body-fat, it will increase to lower double digits. But you can easily decrease it in one year after you’ve added 24lb of lean muscle and Squat 300lb.
You might actually not even need to decrease your body-fat later. I don’t have single digit body-fat levels. Neither do most athletes. Yet my abs are visible. Bigger muscles stick out further. They can push through the fat under your skin. So they can show despite a higher body-fat percentage.
Eat quality, nutrient-dense food. You need the vitamins and minerals to help recovery. The occasional junk meal is fine. But you should eat mostly quality food. Don’t eat junk food all the time – it builds bad habits that will make you fat if you quit lifting. And it’s bad for your health.
You’ll need to eat three to four meals a day to get your calories. For most people working 9 to 5 and training around 6, that will be breakfast, lunch, dinner and an extra pre-workout meal. Dinner is your post-workout meal. If you train in the morning, eat first so you can train harder.
Every meal should have vegetables. A lot of vegetables. Think half a plate. The rest should be a good source of protein with carbs and good fats. Example is chicken with broccoli, tomato, avocado and a big potato. Eat a fruit for desert and you’ve hit all your macro and micronutrients to gain.
Protein is the main muscle building nutrient. Your body uses protein to build new muscle. It also uses protein to repair damaged muscle tissue after your workouts. For best results, you need at least 2.2g of protein per kilogram bodyweight (1g/lb). That’s 175g if you weigh 80kg/175lb.
The USDA recommends only 0.8g of protein per kilogram per day (0.36g/lb). But this advice is aimed at sedentary people who don’t do a hard training program like StrongLifts 5×5. You do. So you need more protein to recover properly and add weight every workout.
If you’re obese, your daily protein requirement will look too high with that formula. Use your lean body mass instead (without the fat). If you have a normal weight there will be little difference between your body-weight and lean body mass. Just use the 2.2g/kg (1g/lb) rule in that case.
Note that plant proteins don’t digest as well as animal proteins. So if you’re getting your protein from plants like soy, rice, and beans, you’ll need to get even more protein. An 80kg/175lb vegeterian/vegan will probably need closer to 200g of protein a day to maximize strength and muscle gains.
Protein shakes can be tempting. They take less time to prepare, and are cheap. But they don’t keep you full long. And real food contains tons of micro-nutrients on top of just the protein. You need the minerals and vitamins to help recovery, as well as fiber to improve digestion.
Most of your protein should therefore come from real food. If you eat like an omnivore this is easy. Eat some meat, chicken, fish or eggs with every meal. A 250g/8oz steak for lunch will provide you with 50g of protein, which is almost a third of your daily required intake.
Your body uses water to cool you down through sweat during workouts. It also uses water for muscle recovery from your workouts. About 70% of your body is water. Your body uses it for every process. Not drinking water is therefore like not putting oil in your car – it can’t function effectively.
Dehydration causes strength loss, joint pain, stiff muscles, tiredness and constipation. Headaches are a common symptom. Think of hangovers the day after drinking alcohol – it dehydrates. Many people get headaches because they’re dehydrated. Drinking more water often fixes that.
The usual advice is to drink 8x8oz or 3 liters of water a day. But this is aimed at the average sedentary joe. You lift weights and sweat. You need to drink more to replace the water lost during workouts. And the warmer the season or place where you lift, the more water you need to drink.
Remember you don’t just want to avoid dehydration. You want to optimize for maximum strength and muscle gains. Your body has more critical uses for water than your muscles. An abundant intake of water ensures that you recover well between workouts and function effectively.
Waiting until you’re thirsty is usually too late. Better is to pay attention to the color of your urine. It should be clear through the day (unless you take vitamin B). You’ll pee more at first but your bladder will adapt to drinking more. Plus going to the toilet will stop you from sitting for hours non-stop.
I start my days by drinking two glasses of water. I always take a bottle of water with me to the gym, and sip on it during my workout. When it’s hot, it’s usually empty by the end of the workout. I drink at least four liters of water a day – that’s on top of the water I get from tea, fruits, vegetables, etc
You may have a hard time with the taste of water, because you’re used to soda. Stick with it to get used to it. You can add pieces of lemon to give the water taste if you want.
Your body releases muscle building hormones like testosterone and growth hormone when you sleep. They help you recover from your workouts. Sleep eight hours a night to maximize recovery.
Many people only sleep six hours a night. But this makes it harder to train hard. You feel more tired and less motivated. The weight feels heavier and more challenging. Getting through your workouts takes more out of you. You fail reps more which slows or stops your progress.
Lack of sleep also hurts your recovery. You go through five stages when you sleep. Each cycle lasts about 90 minutes. Your body releases growth hormone during stage three and four. You get less cycles if you sleep six hours than eight. More cycles is more hormones is more recovery.
Lack of sleep weakens your immune system. You’re more likely to get sick and skip workouts. It also causes hunger and sugar cravings that make you fat. And people who sleep less are more likely to be obese – one simple reason is less time sleeping is more time you can spend eating.
You can get away with sleeping less than eight hours some nights. I’ve hit PRs on five hours of sleep. But the more nights you don’t get enough sleep, the bigger the negative effects. Eventually you have to repay your sleep debt by sleeping an hour extra for every hour you didn’t sleep.
Keeping a sleep diary helps. I use the iPhone health app and bedtime alarm. Set your wake and bedtime so you have your eight hours of sleep. Your phone will notify you when it’s time to sleep. Then track your average sleeping time in the health app. I’m getting close to eight hours.
Some other tips to help you improve your sleep so you recover better from your workouts…
- Dark Bedroom. Your brain has a built-in clock that regulates your sleep. It’s influenced by light. Get black-out curtains or a good eye-mask to tell your brain it’s time to sleep.
- Stop Blue Light. TV, computers and phones emit blue light that keeps you awake. Don’t use them in your bedroom. Enable nightshfit on iPhone and f.lux on your computer.
- Quiet Bedroom. Noise in the middle of the night disrupts your sleep and wakes you up. Shut your ears by wearing ear plugs. You can also use a fan or white noise generator.
- Cool Temperature. Your body’s temperature drops when you sleep. Get your room to 18C/60F to help this. Turn off the heather and use blankets if needed instead.
- Good Mattress. Invest in quality – you’re using it every day for hours. Mattresses usually wear out and sag after ten years. Renew them so you don’t wake up with lower back pain.
- Good Pillow. Same idea – invest in quality stuff since you’re using it every day. Get a good one that supports your neck so you don’t get neck pain when you wake up.
- Avoid Coffee and Alcohol. Caffeine is a stimulant that keeps you awake. Avoid coffee, tea and chocolate before bedtime. Avoid alcohol too as it helps falling asleep but hurts sleep quality.
- Don’t Drink Late. If you drink too much water before going to bed, you’ll have to wake up to pee. Stop drinking two hours before you go to bed.
- Consistent Sleep. Avoid staying up late on weekends and then waking up early on weekdays. The is like getting a jetlag every Monday. Wake up at the same time each day.
- No Big Meals. It takes about three hours to digest food. Don’t eat big meals before bedtime or you’ll struggle to fall a sleep. Move dinner time earlier and eat light before bed.
If you can take a nap before doing your workouts, do it. Especially if you had little sleep the night before, you’ll feel more energized after the nap. But dont’ nap after 5pm or for longer than 30mins. Otherwise you’ll struggle to fall a sleep at night, and get tired again for the next day.
And relax. Psychological stress adds on top of the physical stress you get from lifting weights. Being anxious about the weights you’re going to lift today ends up making that workout harder. Take several deep breaths before you do your set to calm yourself down.
Assistance exercises target small muscles which grow more slowly like your arms, abs and calves. Some people like to add accessory work for these muscles on StrongLifts 5×5.
Assistance work isn’t necessary. StrongLifts 5×5 works every muscle by using compound exercises. Your arm muscles work to pull the weight on rows and push it on presses. They hold the bar on every exercise. Meanwhile your abs support your spine. And your calves stabilize you.
You therefore don’t need to add exercises to work these muscles directly. The 80/20 rule dictates that 80% of your results will come from Squats, Bench, Deadlifts, OHPress and Rows. These lifts work a lot of muscles with heavy weights. They therefore trigger overall muscle growth.
But most people don’t lift heavy. They try to make up for a lack of intensity with quantity. Thing is, the only way you can do 5-7 assistance exercises after the main ones is if you lift light. If you lifted heavy you’d be too tired to do more than 1-2 extra exercises max.
Besides, the more assistance exercises you do, the longer your workout takes. This makes it tempting to take shorter rest times between sets. But that makes it harder to lift heavy as already discussed. It ends up hurting your progress on the main exercises that trigger most growth.
If you insist on adding assistance work, then at least wait until you’ve done StrongLifts 5×5 for eight weeks. Focus on increasing your strength on the main exercises. Chances are that you won’t even want to do assistance work after that. Because you’ll be happy with the muscle gains.
Where’s the arm work on StrongLifts 5×5? It’s everywhere if you can think past the absence of biceps curls and skullcrushers. Consider this…
- Biceps. You pull the weight to you on Barbell Rows. Your arms bend like when doing curls. But your biceps lift heavier weights because they get help from your back muscles.
- Triceps. You push the bar away on Bench/OHPress. Your arms straighten like on skullcrushers. But your triceps lift heavier weights by getting help from your shoulders and chest muscles.
- Forearms. Your hands hold the bar on every exercise. Your forearms grip the bar hard so you don’t lose it on Deadlifts. This works your forearm muscles with the heaviest weights.
Your arm muscles also contract isometrically during Squats and Deadlifts. This is similar to how your lower back muscles contract during these lifts to keep your spine neutral. Your arms and back don’t move but contract to keep the position. This makes them stronger and more muscular.
That’s why the guy who can bench 100kg/220lb five times has bigger ams than the one who can only bench 40kg/95lb. His muscles had to become stronger and bigger to lift the heavier weights. And since his arms hold and press the bar, they had to get stronger and bigger too.
Now I’m sure you can find someone who’s strong but has skinny arms. You can also find guys with man boobs and girls who are flat-chested. But most women have bigger boobs than men. And most strong people have bigger muscles than weak people. You’re unlikely to be the exception.
Even if direct arm work was better, curling 100lb works your biceps muscles harder than 50lb. So if you strengthen your arms by doing heavy compound exercises, you’ll be able to do those curls with heavier weights later. That allows you to work your biceps harder than before.
The best assistance exercise for your biceps is the Chinup. It works them more than Rows because you grip the bar with your palms facing up. Your elbows start straight and bend like on biceps curls. But you also bend at the shoulder to pull your arm down – this engages your back.
Chinups work more muscles than curls. That’s why you can lift heavier weight on Chinups. Every rep forces you to lift your own body-weight. This is easily double what you’d lift on a biceps curl. Chinups trigger more arm growth because they uses more muscle with more weight.
Dips are the best assistance exercise for your triceps. Your arms straighten to lift the weight, like on skullcrushers. But you can engage your chest muscles. More muscles working is more weight you can lift. Dips trigger your triceps muscle to grow more than skullcrushers do.
If you want extra arm work, add Dips to workout A and Chinups to workout B. Three sets is enough since the main exercises already work your arms. Your program will look like this…
|StrongLifts 5x5 with Arm Work|
|Monday - workout A||Wednesday - workout B||Friday - workout A|
|Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5|
|Bench Press 5x5||Overhead Press 5x5||Bench Press 5x5|
|Barbell Row 5x5||Deadlift 1x5||Barbell Row 5x5|
|Dips 3x10||Chinups 3x10||Dips 3x10|
If you can’t do a single Chinup or Dip, do three sets of as many reps as you can (don’t use machines). Once you can do 10 reps, switch to 3×5 and add 1kg/2lb each workout. My app will show you how to progress if you unlock the Power Pack. Use it to save yourself having to think about all this.
Give your body time to get used to the extra arm work before adding more. This way you can also see the impact adding Chinups and Dips has on your arm development. A good strength goal to aim for on Chinups and Dips is five reps with a big plate 20kg/45lb hanging from your waist.
After that you can add direct arm work if needed. The best isolation exercises for your biceps and triceps are Barbell Curls and Skullcrushers. Barbell Curl with the same Olympic bar you use for the Squat and Deadlift. You can use the EZ bar for Skullcrushers but not for curls.
Two sets is enough with all the work your arms already get. Eight reps is fine to get that pump you might be looking for (plus you’ll get 16 reps total, close to the 15 on chinups/dips). It will also stop you from lifting too heavy – these are small muscles, and they’re getting at ton of work already.
Progress will be hard since these are isolation exercises and you’re doing high reps. Just focus on doing the exercise correctly, with proper form, moving your muscles over the full range of motion. Straight arms at the bottom of curls, touch your nose with the bar at the top. Feel the muscle.
|StrongLifts 5x5 with More Arm Work|
|Monday - workout A||Wednesday - workout B||Friday - workout A|
|Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5|
|Bench Press 5x5||Overhead Press 5x5||Bench Press 5x5|
|Barbell Row 5x5||Deadlift 1x5||Barbell Row 5x5|
|Weighted Dips 3x5||Weighted Chinups 3x5||Weighted Dips 3x5|
|Skullcrushers 2x8||Barbell Curls 2x8||Skullcrushers 2x8|
That’s five exercises per workout now which increases your gym time. DO NOT train your arms on rest days! They need to recover from your last workout so you can press and pull heavier next workout. If you tire them further on your rest days, they can’t recover and you’ll fail reps next workout.
The only rest day you could dedicate to arm work is Saturday if you train Mo/We/Fr. This gives your arms Sunday to recover and get stronger for your workout on Monday. Chinups and Dips first because they’re compound exercises – you need to go heavy. Isolation at the end.
|StrongLifts 5x5 with Extra Arm Day|
|Monday - workout A||Wednesday - workout B||Friday - workout A||Saturday - workout C|
|Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5||Chinups 3x5|
|Bench Press 5x5||Overhead Press 5x5||Bench Press 5x5||Dips 3x5|
|Barbell Row 5x5||Deadlift 1x5||Barbell Row 5x5||Barbell Curls 2x8|
Don’t be surprised if your legs turn bigger than your arms on StrongLifts 5×5. They’re supposed to. Your legs are large muscles. They’ll grow faster and turn bigger than your arms. Don’t get confused by the captain upper-bodies in your gym with big arms but skinny legs. They’re the abnormal ones.
Arm work is by itself not enough to get 45cm/18″ arms. Let’s say you’re 60kg/135lb at 1m85/6’2″ – where’s the meat to increase the girth of your arm? Unless you’re over-weight, you’re going to have to eat up. Most people need to gain 5 to 7kg/10-15lb to gain an inch on their arms.
The main function of your abdominal muscles is to support your spine. They contract to keep your spine neutral when you stand, move, Squat, Deadlift, etc. The heavier the weight you lift, the harder your abs must work to keep your spine neutral. This triggers your ab muscles to grow.
Your abs may not be visible if a layer of fat covers them. Most guys need to lower their body-fat to 10% before they can see their abs. Endless situps and crunches does not burn fat locally. You have to lower your overall body-fat to see your abs. You do this mostly by improving your nutrition.
But a low body-fat is useless if you don’t have abs to show for in the first place. You have to build your ab muscles first. Better, lifting heavy can make your abs so strong and muscular, that they stick out more. They can then be visible even though you have more than 10% body-fat, like in my case.
Keep in mind that there is no such thing as lower abs. Your lower and upper abs contract as a whole. If your lower abs are bulging out, it’s either just fat or you have bad posture – standing with excess arch aka hyper-lordosis, usually from sitting too much. Learn to stand properly.
Extra ab exercises aren’t necessary on StrongLifts 5×5. But if you want to add some, do hanging knee raises and prone bridges. Add one to each workout. Two sets of eight on the former. Sets of 30-60sec for the latter. Unlock the Power Pack in my app and it will show you how to progress.
Squats and Deadlifts work your calves – the muscles contract to straighten your ankles when you lift the weight. The range of motion is limited though compared to doing standing or seated calf raises. So it can make sense to add these exercises to give your calf muscles extra work.
But it can be a waste of time if you have high calf muscle insertions. My calves muscles hang high in the top third of my lower leg. The bottom two thirds is all tendons and bones. The muscle bellies are strong and muscular. But nothing can make them hang lower. This creates a skinny look.
If you choose to add assistance exercises for your calves to StrongLifts 5×5, go hard and heavy. Your calves are used to a lot of stress from walking every day. You’ll have to stress them harder than other muscles to trigger growth. Make sure you go heavy with the weights.
And be realistic. If you have high calves like me, the muscles are unlikely to ever stick out from every direction like some guys. Heck, I’ve dated a skinny girl who weighed only 45kg but had bigger calves than me despite not training. Like they say, if you want big calves, choose better parents.
Best thing in that case is to get over it. If anyone sees you in shorts and makes fun of your calves, pull your shorts up and squeeze those big quad muscles you’ve built with Squats. It will shut them up.
Cardio helps fat loss by increasing the amount of calories you burn. Your body burns calories to fuel your cardio. But it also burns more calories for up to 48 hours after your cardio if you do HIIT. If the total calories you burn is higher than the calories you eat, you lose fat.
But lifting weights is always more important than cardio. Many people try to lose fat by doing cardio only. They usually lose a ton of muscle and end up skinny-fat. Lifting weights prevents muscle loss and builds muscle. It makes you look better. It therefore has priority over cardio.
Nutrition is also more important than cardio. Most people can’t out-train a bad diet. One Big Mac has 540kcal while 30min cardio only burns 300kcal. Unless you can train for hours like an athlete, you can’t burn enough calories to lose fat. You have to improve your nutrition as well.
In fact, you don’t need cardio to lose fat. You can create a caloric deficit by eating less while lifting weights. Cardio just allows you to eat maintenance calories while creating a deficit. Or it can create a bigger deficit to speed up fat loss. But you can get lean without doing any cardio. I don’t do it.
Some people insist on doing cardio anyway, so here are your options…
- HIIT. High Intensity Interval Training. Alternate intense exercise with easy rest periods. Heart rate goes over 85% during intense bouts. Metabolism increases for up to 48 hours after HIIT. But it’s hard to do it more than 20mins. Example of HIIT: interval sprints.
- LISS. Low Intensity Stead State cardio. Heart rate stays constant, between 60-85% max. You can do LISS longer because of the lower intensity. But your metabolism doesn’t increase much afterwards. Example of LISS is riding the stationary bike for 45mins.
- Low Intensity. Anything where your heart rate stays below 65% of its max – like walking. It can be relaxing but it burns less calories due to the lower intensity. You can make up for that by walking longer but most people don’t have the time for it. And there’s no afterburn.
LISS burns more calories. The intensity is higher than when walking. But it’s lower than on HIIT so you can do it longer. The issue is that 45mins of LISS after lifting is hard – you’re tired. And you can’t do it on your off days because that’s for recovery. So you probably won’t do more than 30mins.
HIIT is therefore better. It’s hard to do it more than 20mins. But you burn more calories through EPOC aka the afterburn – your metabolism is higher for up to 48 hours after the cardio. Add a 5min warmup and 5min cool down and you have 30mins total, burning just as much as with 30mins LISS.
The only problem with HIIT cardio is that it’s hard. You have to push yourself to get the most out of it. This also makes HIIT cardio harder to recover from. If you try to do this every day, it will hinder your recovery. You won’t make good progress on StrongLifts 5×5 – you’ll miss reps and plateau.
Do the minimum amount of cardio you need to get results first. This way when you get stuck (and you will, everyone does), you can add more cardio to get unstuck. If you do 6x cardio per week from day one, you can’t do more later when you get stuck. More isn’t better – less is more.
Only competitive bodybuilders trying to get to low single digit body-fat level need cardio six times a week. Most people don’t. And if you do it anyway, you’ll add so much extra stress on top of the lifting that it will hinder your recovery. Best case you plateau, worst case you get an overuse injury.
Best is to start with two HIIT cardio sessions a week first. Monday because you’re fresh from the two days off. Friday because you’re about to get two days off. After a few weeks you can add cardio on Wednesday too if needed. This gives you four rest days a week to recover.
|StrongLifts 5x5 - HIIT Cardio Post Workout|
|Monday - workout A||Wednesday - workout B||Friday - workout A|
|Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5|
|Bench Press 5x5||Overhead Press 5x5||Bench Press 5x5|
|Barbell Row 5x5||Deadlift 1x5||Barbell Row 5x5|
|HIIT Cardio||HIIT Cardio|
Don’t do cardio pre-workout. It will pre-exhaust your legs for Squats and limit how heavy you can go. Lifting weight is more important than cardio as already explained. Do your cardio at the end. Yes this is hard. Suck it up or don’t do it. But don’t give cardio priority over lifting.
Cardio on your rest days is a terrible idea. When does your body recover for your next workout if you train five days in a row? Never. If you’re not fully recovered between workouts, then you can’t get stronger and lift more weight next time. If you can’t lift more, then the program can’t work.
The only exception is Saturday. If you train Monday/Wednesday/Friday, then HIIT cardio on Saturday works. You have Sunday to recover before the next workout on Monday. You can add the second HIIT cardio session on Wednesday so they’re spread apart. Like this…
|StrongLifts 5x5 - Cardio Day|
|Monday - workout A||Wednesday - workout B||Friday - workout A||Saturday|
|Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5||Squat 5x5||HIIT Cardio|
|Bench Press 5x5||Overhead Press 5x5||Bench Press 5x5|
|Barbell Row 5x5||Deadlift 1x5||Barbell Row 5x5|
The simplest way to do HIIT cardio is on the stationary bike. Warmup five minutes at a low intensity. Then pedal as fast as you can for 30 seconds. Go back to an easy pace for 90seconds. Repeat for five rounds and cool down with 5min at a low intensity. This will take you about 20mins.
The key is to push hard during the intensity bout. Increase the resistance so you can pedal fast and hard. You should be out of breath within ten seconds. Give it everything you have otherwise you won’t get most out of this. This should be hard – you shouldn’t want to do this more than 20mins.
I don’t do much cardio but when I do I like to swing the kettlebell. 200 reps in 10mins. Do sets of 20 reps and take as much rest as you need to make it. Start with 16kg if you’re a guy and work up to 24kg. Use good form by engaging your hips. Be warned this will get you sore the first time.
Lifting weights is good for your heart. It decreases your heart rate and blood pressure. My resting heart rate has been around 50 for years despite never running and barely doing cardio. Doctors are usually surprised by this as the main thing I do is lifting heavy weights several times a week.
StrongLifts 5×5 is not the typical routine where you do isolation exercises like curls with light weights. The people who do such routines need to add cardio. We do compound exercises that work our whole body. We increase the weight progressively. And we reach high training intensities.
We’re actually doing cardio if you think about it. You’re Squatting heavy for a set of five reps – it takes about 20 seconds. Your heart rate increases and you get out of breath. After resting three minutes, you do your next set. This like high intensity interval cardio – it trains your heart and lungs.
Everything under the bar gets stronger when you Squat heavy – muscles, joints, bones. Your heart is a muscle. It gets stronger like every other muscle. It has to so it can pump blood to your muscles and the rest of your body when you lift heavy weights. This strengthens your heart muscle.
It works like this: your muscles contract when you lift weights. They compress your blood vessels which increases your blood pressure. Your heart must pump harder against this resistance to deliver blood. This strengthens it – your left ventricle increases in strength and muscle size.
Your blood pressure comes back to normal after your set is done. But it also decreases over time. Lifting heavy weights strengthens your muscles. Stronger muscles are more efficient – it takes more effort to tire them. Stronger muscles therefore also put less demand on your heart.
As an example, think of walking up stairs. Each step is like a single leg Squat. Double your Squat and your legs get twice as strong. Each step now takes your legs half the effort. So they puts less demand on your heart. Stronger muscles basically makes your heart more efficient.
The point is that your cardiovascular fitness will improve if you do StrongLifts 5×5, and work to that 300lb/140kg Squat. It will become above average level, and things like walking up stairs or even short runs will become easier. There’s no need to do extra cardio to make your heart healthy.
Stronger muscles last longer. It takes longer before they get tired because every movement takes less effort than before. So the stronger your muscles, the longer you last and thus the further you can go. Increasing your strength with StrongLifts 5×5 increases your muscular endurance.
Think about it – marathon runners rarely have to quit running because they got out of breath. They quit running because their legs are tired. Today’s athletes and teams understand getting stronger makes you last longer. That’s why they all have STRENGTH and conditioning coaches.
Now of course, if you want to be good at long distance running or cycling, you have to run/cycle long distances. Just like you have to Squat to become good at Squatting, you have to run to be good at running – at the minimum to improve the skill of running. To get more efficient at it.
The challenge is that it’s hard to get good at both. Strength training makes weak endurance runners better at long distance running. But long distance running doesn’t make weak lifters stronger at lifting. Instead it hurts strength gains by making you less explosive and hindering recovery.
Strength and endurance are at opposite ends of the spectrum. There are freaks who manage to get good at both. But most people can’t become an elite powerlifter and elite long-distance runner at the same time. What you need for strength is different than what you need for endurance.
Long runs will tire your legs for Squats. Hard 5×5 Squats will tire your legs for running. You need to make a choice and decide which one you’ll give priority for the next year. Otherwise you’ll spin your wheels and get good at neither. Worst case you get an overuse injury from doing too much.
If you’re weak, choose strength. You can get fit faster than you can gain strength. People who are already strong can get fit in a matter of weeks. But weak long distance runners who never lifted weights need months to increase their Squat to 14okg/300lb. So prioritize lifting.
You can do one long run on Saturday if you train Monday/Wednesday/Friday. This gives your legs a day off before the Squats on Monday. Then maybe add a HIIT session on Wednesday. But watch out with doing too much. Your body needs to recover from all that stress in order to progress.
You don’t need bulky machines to do StrongLifts 5×5. You also don’t need much equipment. All you need is a barbell, bench, plates and Power Rack. That means you can do the full program at home in your garage, basement or backyard if you have the space. It costs about $1000.
I bought a home gym in 2004. I put it in my parent’s garage since I’ve always lived in apartments. I lifted for 12 years in my home gym, mostly alone. Here are the benefits I found…
- Freedom. Some gyms don’t have Power Racks, and forbid Deadlifts/chalk. And you depend on the opening hours. With a home gym you’re free to lift any way you want, with the music you want. You can train late at night after a long day, in the early morning or on holidays.
- Save Time. You never have to wait for the Power Rack or showers to be free. You don’t waste time travelling to the gym and back. You don’t need to pack your gym bag and all that. You just walk to your garage or basement – your equipment is there waiting for you.
- Save Money. You don’t waste money on gym fees (I saved well over $5000 in gym fees over 10 years). You also don’t waste money on fuel to drive to the gym and back.
- Save Ego. You’re not concerned about others. You don’t lift heavier than you should to impress people. You’re lifting for yourself without getting distracted.
- Best Equipment. Athletes train with the best equipment. Yet gyms often have cheap and bad bars. Most people don’t know the difference and they misuse the bars anyway by dropping weight. With a home gym you can buy the very best equipment on the market.
The main drawback of having a home gym is that you need space. You need a garage, basement or backyard shed big enough to put everything in. Ceiling must be high enough for your rack to fit and to Overhead Press inside. The place must be at least 3m wide so you can put plates on your bar.
This is why I sold my home gym in 2016. My parents moved to a new house which has no big garage. I live a simple life and travel a lot. I don’t want a big house just to have a private gym. And gyms are better today than 10 years ago. So since 2016 I train in gyms again. Home gym drawbacks…
- Space. You need about about 10m²/110 sq ft to put all your equipment. Your ceiling needs to be high enough for your Power Rack to fit. It also needs to be high enough to Overhead Press (otherwise you have to press outside or do it seated on a bench).
- Cost. You save money on gym fees in the long run. But there’s a bigger investment of about $1000 upfront. And there’s also the real estate cost of the extra 10m²/110 sq ft to own your private home gym (which you only use three times a week for four hour max…)
- Noise. The neighbours will not be happy from the noise you make when doing heavy Deadlifts and Rows. You may have to build a solid platform with big rubber mats. It may not be enough so you might have to talk to your neighbours or train at specific hours.
- Lonely. There’s no-one to help you when you fail. So you need to set the safety pins of your Power Rack at the proper height on each set. There’s also no-one to motivate you when you have a bad day or keep you accountable. Discipline is more important.
- Distractions. You no longer get distracted by other people in your gym. But the people you live with may now distract you by coming to talk to you while you train, or asking you to help with something. You’ll have to teach them this one hour of gym time is your private time.
The home gym years were great though. I trained with better equipment than I could have ever found in gyms close by. I saved a ton of time too. And I saved a lot of money. The resale value is great if you buy quality equipment. And it lasts a lifetime – my brother still has my barbell.
If you have the space, do it. Your garage, basement or backyard shed will do fine if the floor is solid concrete. Some people have even turned a room in their apartments into home gyms. If the place is too small for a Power Rack, consider a small Squat Rack or Squat Stands with saw horses.
And buy quality. You don’t want there to be any fear during your heavy lifts that your equipment might not be secure. Buy the best equipment you can get. This way you also don’t have to buy equipment again later. Quality equipment lasts a lifetime and the resale value is great as I said.
The Power Rack has four vertical supports. It has two to four J-hooks to set the bar in position for the Squat, Bench Press and Overhead Press. It also has two lateral, horizontal safety pins to catch the bar if you fail. You need a Power Rack to lift heavy and safely on StrongLifts 5×5.
You can’t Squat heavy without Power Rack. You need one to get the bar on your back. You could pull the weight from the floor on your shoulders. But that wastes strength and is a Front Squat. With the Power Rack you can unrack the bar from the J-hooks on your upper-back.
You also need the Power Rack so you don’t get stuck under the bar. If you fail on the Squat or Bench mid-set, the horizontal safety pins will catch the bar. This increases safety but also confidence – you know you’re safe if you fail. So you can go all-out, get more reps and make better progress.
I lifted weights for 12 years in my home gym. I was usually alone, without spotter. I failed reps many times with heavy weights. But I never got stuck under the bar because I Squatted and Benched in the Power Rack. The safety pins always caught the bar when I failed. Here’s an example…
Even if you have a spotter, best is to Squat and Bench in the Power Rack anyway. He might not pay attention or react fast enough when you fail. The Power Rack is more reliable – it catches the bar every single time, whatever happens. All it takes is setting the safety pins at the proper height.
You don’t need the Power Rack for the Deadlift and Barbell Row. Each rep starts on the floor and you can’t get stuck under the bar. If you fail, you can return the weight to the floor. Unless you have limited space, it makes no sense to Deadlift and Row in the Power Rack. Just do it outside.
You don’t need the Power Rack for safety on the Overhead Press either. If you fail you return the bar to your chest. But the Power Rack helps you getting the bar on your shoulders for each set. It saves you having to clean it from the floor since you can take it from the J-hooks.
Most Power Racks come with a pullup bar. You can use it to add chinups as assistance exercise for extra arm work… or for hanging knee raises for ab work. You can usually also get dip bars for your Power Rack so you can add Dips as assistance work for your triceps if needed.
Your Power Rack must handle 350kg/700lb so it doesn’t buckle during heavy Squats. The safety pins must be adjustable so you can set them at the proper height to catch failed reps. And it should have outside J-hooks to take the bar out for OHPress (unless the rack is tall enough to press inside).
Here are some Power Racks I recommend…
- Rep Fitness. 700lb capacity, pullup bar, and adjustable safety pins with outside J-hooks. No dip bars though so you’ll need to buy that separately. I’d probably get this Power Rack.
- Titan T2. 700lb capacity, pullup bar, adjustable safety pins and dip bars. Cheaper than Rep Fitness. Comes with dip bars but no outside j-hooks. Great reviews.
- PowerLine PPR200X. 600lb capacity, pullup bar and safety pins with J-hooks. No dip bars.
- Body-solid Pro. 1000lb capacity, pullup bar and adjustable safety pins. Similar to what I had.
You can build your own Power Rack if you’re into DIY. Many people have done it from scaffold or even wood. It takes half a day’s work plus 100$ material to save 300$. If you earn more than that per hour, it’s smarter to buy than build. But your milage may vary. You can find plans on the Internet.
If your gym has no Power Rack, go to another gym or build a home gym. StrongLifts 5×5 doesn’t work without Power Rack. You can’t lift safely without one. If you can’t lift safely, you can’t lift heavy. If you can’t lift heavy, you can’t get stronger. You can’t get stronger, can’t gain muscle.
I understand switching gyms can be inconvenient. The gym can be further away and cost more. But this is what I would do. I’ve lived in different countries and cities. I also travel a lot. Never do I end in gyms where I can’t lift heavy, safely. I only train in real gyms because this is important to me.
For example – I go to Hong Kong quite a lot. The best gym there is Pure Fitness. They have Power Racks, Eleiko bars, platforms, chalk. Heaven. But it’s about $300/month and almost $50 per drop in. I’m frugal and hate paying that much. But I’ve done it many times so I can train properly.
Do you want to get real results? Is this really important to you? Or are you fine wasting time and effort on a BS routine in a fake gym with shit equipment? It’s not hard to get results with StrongLifts 5×5. But you need the right equipment. If you really want this, you’ll do what it takes.
If you’re stuck with a one year membership, try to get out of it. Get it cancelled or resell it. If nothing works then accept your loss and move on. Your time is more valuable. You can earn the money back later but you can’t get your time back. Cut your loss and go train in a real gym.
Squat Racks are open Power Racks. They also have J-hooks to get the bar on your back for Squats. But they’re usually shorter and have no pullup bar. Some Squat Racks have safety pins, some not (which makes them unsafe). I used one the first five years of my training career.
Squat Racks with safety pins are usually not adjustable. The pins are fixed. If they’re too low for your build, you’ll need to Squat deep to reach the pins. This will stretch your hips hard and can cause your lower back to round. You can fix that by raising your feet (stand on plywood).
If the safety pins are too high for your build, you’ll hit them on the way down. This will throw you off balance and mess with the next rep. Cutting your depth short is not an option because you have to break parallel. The only solution is to Squat outside the rack without safety.
This means you’ll need to ask for a spot on your heavy Squat sets. If he knows what he’s doing, he can stand behind you and grab you by your sides to help you lift the weight when you can’t. Two spotters on each side of the bar is even better – but they have to know what they’re doing.
Squat Racks usually can’t be used for the Bench Press because the safety pins are too high. So you’ll have to use the regular bench and ask a spotter for help when the weights get heavy. You can use the Squat Rack for the Overhead Press though to get the bar on your shoulders.
Power Racks are better than Squat Racks because of the adjustable safety pins. But if your gym only has a Squat Rack then use it to get the bar on your back (and ask for a spotter). If you have limited space in your home gym, this looks like a great Squat Rack…
- Rep Squat Rack. 1000lb capacity, adjustable safety pins, pullup bar, supports dip bars.
Squat Stands consist of two vertical supports. Each one has J-hooks to help you get the bar on your upper-back for Squats. Olympic weight lifters usually use Squat Stands. It allows them to Squat the weight and then lift it overhead if they want to. I’ve used them quite a bit in Crossfit gyms.
The main drawback of Squat stands is that they don’t have safety pins. Weight lifters drop the bar on the floor if they fail. But this takes practice. It also takes the right equipment – without bumper plates you break the bar and floor. Bumper plates cost more and take more space.
If you train in a gym, you’ll need to ask for a spot on your heavy Squat sets. If you train alone in your home gym as I used to, best is to get a pair of sturdy saw horses to catch the bar if you fail.
Squat stands take less space than Power Racks. They’re more mobile too since you can move them away when done. If you want to do assistance work like Pullups, raise the j-hooks and hang from the bar. If it’s too short, get a doorway pullup bar or pullup station (this does takes more space).
You can use Squat Stands for the Overhead and Bench Press too. Just watch out when you rack the weight – they can tip over if you rack it too hard into the J-hooks. I prefer the Power Rack as I don’t need to ask anyone for a spotter. But if you’re limited on space, this looks good…
- Valor Fitness BD-9. 500lb capacity, mini safety pins (I wouldn’t trust those)
The smith machine is not a Power Rack. Don’t use a smith machine for StrongLifts 5×5.
The bar moves freely in the Power Rack. But with the smith machine it’s attached on rails. That means you don’t decide where the bar goes. The smith machine does. It will force you into fixed, unnatural movements. This can hurt your knees, back, shoulders, wrists, elbows and shoulders.
There are newer 3d smith machines that attempt to fix that by allowing horizontal bar movement. But the bar is still attached on rails. So the machine is still balancing the weight for you instead of letting you balance it yourself. This takes work away from your muscles and is thus less effective.
The smith machine looks safer since the bar is attached on rails. But it has no horizontal safety pins to catch the weight. If you fail, you have to quickly rotate your hands to rack the bar. It’s easy to miss the pins. If you do, you’ll get sandwiched between the bar and the floor – like this guy.
One common mistake is to start with the smith because you can’t balance the bar. But this doesn’t teach you to balance it since the machine does it for you. When you switch to free weights later, you’ll still have trouble balancing the bar. You’ll have to take weight off to train your balance.
This is like using training wheels to learn how to ride a bike. Sooner or later you have to remove them. And when you do, you still have no balance because you didn’t practice it. You’re just building bad habits. This is why kids now use balance bikes instead of training wheels.
The only way to learn how to balance the bar is to practice it from day one. You do this best using the tool you want to get good at balancing. Use the bar, start light, add weight each workout. Set the pins of the Power Rack to catch failed weight. Fail on purpose a few times to build confidence.
If your gym only has a smith machine but no Power Rack, switch to a real gym or build a home gym. Don’t risk injuring your joints by forcing your body into fixed movements with heavy weights.
The best bar for StrongLifts 5×5 is a powerlifting bar. It will give you the best comfort and security to lift heavy weights with confidence without hurting your joints. If you’re building a home gym, get the best powerlifting bar you can afford. You’ll use it on every exercise so don’t be cheap on this.
Powerlifting bars are 2m20/7.2 feet long and 20kg/45lb heavy. If your bar is shorter, it’s probably not a powerlifting bar. If it tips over when you put a plate of 20kg/45lb on one side, it probably doesn’t weigh 20kg/45lb (stand with it on the scale in your gym to check). Powerlifting bars have…
- Rotating sleeves. The outer parts of the bar where you put plates on are 50mm/2″. They rotate independently from the bar. This reduces stress on your wrists, elbows and shoulders.
- Knurling. The bar is covered with knurling to improve grip. The center has knurling so the bar doesn’t slide off your upper-back during heavy Squats. The part that touches your shins when you Deadlift has no knurling. It’s smooth to avoid shin scraping.
- 28-29mm thickness. Thinner bars make your thumbs overlap your fingers more when you hold it. This improves your grip for Deadlifts, especially if you have small palms or short fingers.
- Stiffness. The bar doesn’t bounce around when you Squat heavy. It should be stiff for proper form. It should also handle up to 450kg/1000lb without breaking in two.
Many gyms use cheap bars to save money. Most people don’t know the difference anyway because they don’t lift heavy or focus on form. Unlike Power Racks, it’s not a program deal-breaker if you only have access to cheap bars. But it can give you trouble in the long run.
Cheap bars often have no middle knurling, so they can slide down when you Squat. The smooth part can be larger and thus harder to grip for Deadlifts. Or the whole bar can have knurling and scrape your shins for Deadlifts. Cheap bars usually bend more easily which can cause fear of it breaking in two.
Some cheap bars have fixed sleeves. The bar can’t rotate independently from the plates. The plates will spin on every rep and stress your wrists, elbows and shoulders when you Squat and Press. Some gyms have fixed weight bars which makes it impossible to add weight in small steps each workout.
Your gym might have a powerlifting bar hidden in a corner. I’ve lifted weights in gyms like that. The advanced lifters were fighting for the best bars and coming in earlier, while the rest didn’t get what the big deal was about. Ask the gym manager – you never know.
Note that powerlifting bars are different from weightlifting bars. Olympic lifters use bars that are less stiff. They bend aka “whip” which creates momentum – it helps them Squat more after they clean it, and lift more overhead. For heavy Squats this is a bad idea as the bar moves too much around.
The sleeves of weightlifting bars also spin faster. This helps Olympic lifters get under the bar faster without releasing their grip. But it makes the bar harder to grip on Deadlifts as it rotates more. It will roll down your back during Squats as well, especially since these bars have no center knurling.
If your gym only has weightlifting bars, then use it. It’s not ideal and takes getting used to. But it’s better than nothing. If you’re building a home gym, get a powerlifting bar. These are good…
- Rogue Ohio Bar. After giving my first bar to my brother, I bought this one. Great bar.
- Cap OB-86PBCK. 28.5mm, center knurling, 1000lb capacity, black finish.
- Xmark XM-3817. 28mm, center knurling, 700lb capacity. Quite cheap.
- Troy Texas Power Bar. 28mm, 1500lb capacity, center knurling.
Good powerlifting bars are expensive. They can cost more than your Power Rack. Save money on the plates, but not on the bar. Again, you’ll use this on every single exercise. You want something that feels secure and comfortable so you can lift heavy with confidence.
Dumbbells or kettlebells are no replacement for a barbell as already explained. You can use heavier weights with a barbell. Heavier is more stress on your body, and thus bigger strength and muscle gains. Db and kb are fine as assistance, I use them. But they don’t replace barbells.
Put collars on the bar so plates can’t move while you lift. Your barbells can have slippy sleeves. Or you press some reps uneven. Or you hit the safety pins by mistake when you Squat or Bench Press. All of this can make the plates move while you lift, and distract you from lifting with proper form.
Some people prefer to Bench Press without collars. If you fail mid-set, you can then tilt the bar to one side. The plates will drop on the floor so you can get away from under the bar. You can’t get pinned by the weight, but the gym won’t like you dropping weight on the floor like that.
Best is to lift inside the Power Rack with the safety pins ready for maximum safety. Then collar the bar so the plates don’t move and distract you while you lift. You don’t want to have to change your form mid-set to prevent moving plates to drop off the bar.
- Spring Collars;. I use these. You have to squeeze the springs to collar the bar. This works your grip like a gripper. They can be hard to remove at first, but your grip strength will improve.
- Clamp Collars. Easier to put on than spring clips since no gripping is required. It uses a simple click system instead. But this means you don’t get grip training between sets.
Make sure you buy 50mm/2″ collars so they fit on your powerlifting bar – it has 50mm/2″ sleeves.
Start with about 120kg/260lb worth of plates. Together with your bar, this will keep you busy for up to six months. The plate holes must be 50mm/2″ holes to fit your bar. The biggest 20kg/45lb plate must have 45cm/17″ diameter for proper form on Deadlifts and Barbell Rows.
The best plates are round and made of solid cast iron. They’re also the cheapest – some brands sell them for only $1 per pound. And they make that old school sound when you lift heavy weights. Here’s the plate setup I recommend you start with:
- KG – 4x20kg, 2x10kg, 2x5kg, 2×2.5kg, 2×1.25kg.
- LB – 4x45lb, 2x25lb, 2x10lb, 4×5lb, 2×2,5lb (4x5lb to OHpress 85-90lb).
That’s 137.5kg/320lb if you include the bar. You’ll run out of plates after a couple of months, first on Deadlifts. Just get an extra pair of 20kg/45lb to keep progressing. Recommended iron plates…
- CAP OP. 2″ holes, 17″ diameter, cheap
- Rogue Olympic Plates. 2″ holes, 17″ diameter, probably higher quality.
When you shop around for plates, you’ll find several other types and materials. I recommend you stick with iron plates. But here’s an overview…
- Grip Plates. These plates have grip holes. They’re easier to carry because you can hold them like a bar, with your thumb overlapping your fingers. But you don’t get grip work from carrying the plates. I hate them. Let the plate work your grip instead of making them easier to hold.
- Hex Plates. These plates have 12 sides. They’re meant to prevent rolling but don’t. The plates will land on the corners when you Deadlift and Row. The bar will roll and cause bad form. Hex plates are made for machines. Don’t use them for StrongLifts 5×5.
- Rubber Coated. These plates are covered with rubber. They don’t make noise when the plates cling when you lift. But they make noise when you drop heavy weight. Plus they cost more. Just collar the bar tight to reduce noise and get a rubber mat for your floor.
- Bumper Plates. Made of solid rubber. Crossfitters use these so they can drop the bar on the floor during Olympic lifts. You’re not doing that on this program. Plus bumper plates are twice as thick as iron plates. They take up more space, and are more expensive.
If you start with less than 60kg/135lb on Deadlifts and Rows, then get a pair of full diameter plates. Buy two bumpers of 5kb/10lb that are the same diameter as 20kg/45lb iron plates. The bar will start at the same height on the lighter weights. You’ll practice proper form from the get-go.
And get a weight tree with 50mm/2″ holes to keep your plates organized.
You need small plates aka fractional plates for StrongLifts 5×5. Fractional plates weigh 0.25-1lb each. You use them for microloading – to increase the weight by 1kg/2lb on the Bench and OHPress. This makes you fail less and progress more, especially if you’re weak, small or female.
Many gyms don’t have plates smaller than 1.25kg/2.5lb. Some only have 2.5kg/5lb plates. This forces you to add 2.5kg/5lb or even 5kg/10lb per workout. But this doesn’t work on the Bench and OHPress as already explained – the increment is a too big percentage. You’ll fail and get frustrated.
The solution is to use fractional plates. Tell the gym manager to get a set so you progress better. Or buy your own set and put it in your gym bag – it doesn’t take much space or weigh much. Don’t add weight only on one side. This shifts the center of gravity and causes bad form.
- 44 Sport Fractional Plates. .25, .5, .75, and 1lb.
- Ader Fractional Plates. .25, .5, .75, and 1lb.
- CFF Fractional Plates. .25, .5, .75, and 1lb.
Fractional plates are more expensive per pound. This is normal because it costs more to make plates which are more accurate in weight (bigger plates are often off by a pound or two). We’re not looking for accuracy here though but slow increments. The weights will average itself out over time.
You can also microload by puttting a small chain of 0.5kg/1lb on each side of the bar.
Returning the bar to the floor on Deadlifts and Rows makes noise. Even if you control the weight and don’t drop it, heavy weight always makes noise. Don’t try to reduce it by lowering the weight slowly or keeping it in the air between reps – it’s bad form and bad for your lower back.
Deadlift and Barbell Row on rubber mats instead to reduce the noise. This will protect your floor against impact too. Just don’t expect miracles – it’s weight.
- Rubber Mat – I had one like this in my home gym
- Rogue Deadlift Platform – great if you have the space
You can also build your own platform using horse mats and plywood. Here’s an example.
You need a bench to Bench Press every workout A. You don’t need a bench with uprights. Just get a flat bench and put it in the Power Rack. This saves space but it’s also safer – you have safety pins to catch the bar if you fail. Make sure the bench is centered before doing your set.
Your bench should be sturdy and handle at least 250kg/600lb. Keep in mind that the bench capacity usually includes your body-weight. So if the bench has a capacity of 300lb and you weigh 200lb, that means it can only handle 100lb. This is not enough on StrongLifts 5×5.
Don’t take risks by buying a cheap bench with low capacity. The legs can bend under the weight and potentially kill you. If you need convincing, read what happened to this guy.
The bench should be 30cm/12″ wide. This gives you good upper-back support so you can press from a strong base. The pad should be firm for good power transfer. It should also be non-slippy so your upper-back can’t slide while you Bench Press. It should help you stay tight.
To engage your legs, the bench should be 45cm/17″ tall. A shorter bench will put your knees higher than your hips when you setup. This makes it harder to use your legs. On the other hand, if your legs are short, you can raise your feet by putting a plate under it. Good benches…
- Rep Fitness Flat Bench. 1000lb capacity, 17.5″ tall, 12″ wide. I’d get this.
- Adidas Flat Bench. 600lb capacity, 17″ tall, 12″ wide.\
You don’t need an adjustable bench to do incline or decline. Your whole chest works when you Bench. Your upper-chest works when you OHPress. Plus adjustable benches often have gaps where you put your glutes. This makes it harder to setup properly and bench heavy when putting it flat.
You also don’t need leg attachments. Squats work your legs harder. Abs you can work separately by doing hanging knee raises from the pullup bar. Leg attachments just get in the way of your legs when you setup for the Bench Press. Keep it simple and get a regular flat bench.
Chalk is white powder that improves your grip for lifting. You put it on your palms to absorb sweat and increase friction. This stops the bar from moving around when you have sweating hands. You control the bar more, lift with better form, and hold the bar longer (this is crucial on Deadlifts).
Chalk also decreases callus build-up from lifting. It creates a smooth surface for the bar by filling up your skin folds. Less skin gets trapped under the bar as a result. You get less and smaller calluses from lifting weights. You also stop tearing calluses when you Deadlift heavy.
Babypowder is not chalk. That’s talc and decreases friction. Powerlifters put babypowder on their legs when they Deadlift so the bar goes up faster. But they never put it on their hands because that makes the bar slippy and harder to hold. Babypowder worsen your grip instead of improving it.
Board chalk is also not the same as gym chalk. Board chalk is made of calcium sulphate. Gym chalk is made of magnesium carbonate. It’s the same white powder rock climbers and gymnasts use. You can find chalk in most rock climbing shops. Or you can order it online, links…
- GSC Gym Chalk. Eight blocks for a total of 1lb. This should last you several months. Break one in peaces into a bucket. Then put it on your palms so it fills up your skin folds. It’s normal to have to re-apply chalk on your next set by the way.
- Primo Chalk Bucket, 1lb chalk in a convenient bucket. Double the price but higher quality. I’ve had eczema from chalk in the past. This one seems to be easier on the hands.
- Beasty Liquid Chalk. Liquid chalk leaves no traces. The chalk is dissolved in alcohol. Put it on your palms like hand sanitizer. After 10sec the alcohol evaporates and your hands are chalky. Use this if your gym doesn’t allow chalk – it leaves no dust and works better than gloves.
You won’t need chalk the first weeks of StrongLifts 5×5. But once the weights get heavy, you’ll need chalk for Deadlifts to hold on the bar. If it’s hot in your gym or you easily get sweaty hands, you’ll also need chalk on the other exercises so the bar can’t move around and cause bad form.
Wash the chalk off your hands after your workout. Chalk dries out your skin – that’s how it works. Your skin can get beat up in the winter if you leave it on too long. My skin is prone to eczema’s so I always wash it off quickly when I’m done. Consider moisturizing your hands to prevent dry skin.
The best shoes for lifting have hard soles. They can’t compress under the weight. This improves your balance, power transfer, and technique. You can lift heavier without hurting yourself.
Running shoes are terrible for lifting. The soles have air or gel filling to absorb impact when you run. They compress differently on every rep you lift. But you can’t predict how and thus can’t control the bar. Lifting with running shoes causes bad form. It’s like lifting weights on a trampoline.
Lifting barefoot is better but not ideal, Your foot can slip when you Squat or Bench because you have no traction. Your arch also gets no support, which can be a bad idea if you’re flat footed like me. And many gyms don’t allow barefoot lifting because it’s unclean and unsafe.
Best is to wear shoes with soles made of hard plastic or dense rubber. Thin soles put you closer to the floor. They shorten the distance the bar travels when you Deadlift, helping you pull heavier. Flat soles help you involve your posterior chain more on Squats and Deadlifts. Check these…
- Chuck Taylor. I lifted in these for 10 years. Flat soles, good traction, cheap. But the sole is made of rubber so it compresses a little. They’re also narrow which can be uncomfortable if you have wide feet like me (the reason I stopped using them eventually).
- Reebok Lite TR. Similar to Chuck’s but wider and with better ankle support. They’re bulkier, more expensive and can get hot. I lifted in these for three years.
- Reebok Nano. My current shoe for lifting weights – version 6. Hard sole, fairly flat, strong Kevlar canvas. Light and take little space for traveling. Look great.
Olympic lifters use weightlifting shoes. They have hard soles made of wood or hard plastic that don’t compress. The heels help them reach parallel more easily by putting their shins more incline. And the metatarsal straps running across the shoe keep their foot from moving around.
Some powerlifters also use weightlifting shoes. I Squatted with rogue wins for a while but didn’t like them – they made me lean forward. My friend Mike Tuschcherer who Squats 700lb had flat soles put on his weightlifting shoes. This gives him the stability of the metatarsal strap but without the heel.
It seems like your build will determine if weightlifting shoes work better for you. Weightlifting shoes are expensive though. Best is to start with a simple shoe first and take it from there.
Belts help you lift heavier weights by increasing lower back support. They give your abs a surface to push against. Your abs contract harder which increases pressure in your trunk. This creates support for your lower back and spine. You can easily Squat/Deadlift 20kg/45lb more by wearing a belt.
Wearing a belt isn’t cheating. You’re not taking work away from your abs. You’re making them work harder by lifting heavier. This is similar to how chalk improves your grip – your forearms work more not less because the weight is heavier. Same with your abs when wearing a belt.
Some people think belts make your abs weak. They can’t be weak because they’re keeping your spine neutral against a heavier weight. In fact, the more you can lift with belt, the more you can lift without. And you’ll train your abs both ways anyway by only using the belt on your heavy sets.
But belts don’t protect your spine against bad form. Pulling with a round back can cause injury despite wearing a belt. The injury could be worse if you lifted heavier because you thought the belt made your back bulletproof. Always use proper form. Don’t wear a belt to cover up back pain.
You don’t need a belt the first weeks of StrongLifts 5×5. The weights are light, and you should focus on proper form first. But once it becomes harder to add weight every workout, start wearing a belt. It’s most useful on the Squat, Deadlift and Overhead Press. I rarely wear it on Bench and Rows.
Your belt should be the same width in the front and back. Bodybuilding belts are no good because they’re usually smaller in the front. The point is to give your abs a surface to push against. Turn the belt around or get a proper belt that is 3-4″ wide across.
Single prong belts are easier to put on/off than two prongs. Belts with prongs are easier to adjust than lever belts. If you wear your belt looser/tighter on some exercises, you’ll need a screwdriver to adjust a lever belt. With prong belts you just move the prong to the next notch.
Get a 10mm thick belt unless you’re a really big guy. Check these…
- Ader Powerlifting belt. 10mm thick, 4″ wide, single prong. Good price.
- Flexz Powerlifting belt. 10mm thick, 4″ wide, single prong
- Bestbelt Athlete Belt. Many people like these belts, quality.
- Inzer Forever Belt. I have this one. 10mm, 4″wide, single prong.
Most belts will be stiff at first which can feel uncomfortable. You have to break it in like with a new pair of leather shoes. Roll and unroll the belt on itself a couple of times to accelerate the break-in.
Always warmup without belt. Put it on for your last warmup sets and heavy sets only. And remove your belt between sets – don’t walk around with it like the captain upper-bodies. It looks silly.
First the stuff you don’t need, and should stop using…
- Mirrors. They only show you the front view. They can tweak your neck if you turn your head to check the mirror aside of you. And they cause bad form. Athlets don’t check their form in a mirror in soccer, football or tennis. They learn to listen to how their body moves. If you want to check your form, get a gorilla pod instead and tape yourself with your phone.
- Gloves. They make the bar thicker and harder to hold. They stink like old socks after a couple of workouts. They wear out quickly and add an unnecessary expense. Use chalk instead to improve your grip and reduce calluses. And shave your calluses of with a pumice stone.
- Straps. Using straps on every exercise and set will weaken your grip. Let your grip get stronger instead of covering it up with straps. Use chalk, grip the bar hard, and mix grip on deadlifts.
- Bar pads. Useless with heavy weights. If the bar hurts when you Squat, you’re holding it wrong, Fix your form. Start light so your upper-back can toughen up like the skin on your hand does.
This stuff you can consider…
- Dip Belt. This is a belt with a chain to attach weight for chinups and dips. You should do these exercises like every other compound exercise – heavy. Get a dip belt to add weight once you can do them without weight. Don’t do endless reps or you just train endurance.
- Knee Sleeves. They lubricate your joints by trapping heat around your knees. This makes them less likely to get injured. Knee sleeves can also give you the confidence to Squat if you have bad knees. If you’re a bit older best is to wear knee sleeves. But use good form.
- Wrist Wraps. They can give small wrists extra support (I never used them though). But make sure you grip the bar properly on Squats and presses first – straight wrists, no bending.
Starting Too Heavy
The biggest mistake on StrongLifts 5×5 is starting too heavy. It doesn’t give your body time to adapt to Squatting three times a week and get stronger. You get sore and want to skip workouts instead. You miss reps and get demotivated. You think the program doesn’t work and want to quit.
Most people want to start heavy to accelerate their progress. But they usually get the opposite. If you barely get your reps on your first workout, you can’t lift 2.5kg/5lb more two days later. If your legs get extremely sore from the first workout, you can’t Squat again two days later. You fail prematurely.
Starting heavy also shifts the focus away from practicing proper form. If you struggle to get your reps early on, you’ll be tempted to lift with bad form so you don’t fail. But this builds bad technique habits. It will make you hit a plateau, or worse, get injured as the weights keep increasing.
It’s not a waste of time to start light. Yes, lifting heavy is better. But you must learn to walk before you can run. Let your body get used to Squatting three times a week first. Focus on lifting with proper form while the weights are light. This work will pay off once the weights become heavy.
And the weights become heavy fast. You’re adding 30kg/60lb to your Squat each month, 15kg/30lb to your presses, and 60kg/120lb to Deadlifts. But everyone’s progress slows after while. So you end up at the same place in one year whether you start with an empty bar or 60kg/135lb.
Strength training is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t win this game by trying to go as fast as you can. You win by sticking to it as long as you can. It takes time to get stronger and learn proper form. And you can’t gain more than 2lb of a muscle a month. Patience is therefore key.
The people in the gym don’t care about the weights you lift. They’re focused on themselves. And they’ve been beginners too. If anyone laughs at you for starting light, let them laugh. 12 weeks from now, you’ll be Squatting two plates. Their laughter will turn into amazement.
Don’t start with your five rep max. Start with an easy weight so you can focus on form and build momentum. If you miss reps the first week or even month, you started way too heavy. Back the weight down to give your body time to recover and get stronger.
This advice applies to any program, StrongLifts 5×5 but also Madcow 5×5 later.
Changing The Program
The typical mistake here is substituting exercises – Front Squats instead of Squats, Sumo Deadlift vs Deadlifts, Incline Bench vs OHPress, etc. Or changing the sets and reps by doing three sets of eight reps vs 5×5 to get more pump and soreness. Or doing 5×5 Deadlifts instead of 1×5.
If your tooth hurts, you probably don’t try to fix it yourself. You go to a dentist who has knowledge and experience dealing with tooth pain. So why would you try to fix your weakness and out-of-shapeness by creating your own program? What makes you think you have expertise on the subject?!?
The priority on this program is to get stronger at the big five – SQ/BP/DL/OHP/ROW. To get strong at these exercises you have to master proper form and go heavy. To master proper form you have to do the exercises a lot. To get stronger you have to do sets of five. The program works best as is.
The 5×5 routine has been around for almost 100 years. StrongLifts for 10 years. Tens of thousands of people have done this routine. Everything I’ve learned is in this guide. There’s nothing you can do that someone else hasn’t tried before. Nothing you can improve. This program is already optimized.
You can learn through trial & error – by thinking you know better and do it your own way. Or you can save yourself time and effort by doing the program as laid out. This saves you making the same mistakes we’ve made before you. It helps you gain strength and muscle faster.
Do the program as laid out for at least 12 weeks before changing anything. Wait until you can Squat 300lb/140kg before you create your own program. Gain experience first.
Adding Too Much Stuff
The usual mistake here is adding a ton of assistance exercises to hit every muscle. Especially smaller muscles that don’t need much work in the first place. Some people will try to do the big five exercises in one workout. Or they do cardio 5-6x per week on top of lifting to lose fat faster.
But the more stuff you do, the bigger the stress on your body, and thus the bigger the recovery need. If your muscles can’t recovery properly, they can’t get stronger and lift more weight next workout. You miss reps. plateau and get frustrated. Your strength and muscle mass can’t increase.
Doing tons of exercises also forces you to lift lighter weights. You couldn’t do so much if the weights were heavy – you’d be exhausted. You have to lift lighter weight to do more exercises in one workout. But heavy weights build more strength. And more strength is more muscle.
Plus what are you going to do when you plateau? If you do 10 exercises for your arms from day one, what do you do when they’re used to that and no longer grow? What do you do when you’re no longer losing fat doing cardio 6x/week? Everyone plateaus eventually, but you have nowhere to go.
You’re just making it more likely to quit. Self-discipline is like a muscle. The more stuff you do, the more you tire it out. Your mind needs breaks too. Anyone can lift for three hours and do cardio six times a week. But few people can do that for a year. Most people burn out and quit.
Less is more when you start lifting. You don’t need much to gain strength and muscle. The minimum effective dose is low. All it takes is doing the big fives exercises and adding weight each workout. If the workouts feel too easy, add weight or increase the increments. Or just be patient.
The stronger you get, the more work you can handle, and thus the more you can do. You’ll actually have to do more work to keep progressing. But by then you’ll probably be happy to only do three exercises per workout. Don’t understimate the program – it looks easy, but it’s hard work.
Lifting in a Bad Gym
You can’t do StrongLifts 5×5 without free weights. Leg presses or smith squats take work away from your muscles. They don’t make you balance the bar like free Squats. Worse, they force you into fixed movements that can cause injuries. Free weights are more effective and safer.
You also can’t do this without Power Rack. You need to get the bar safely on and off your back to lift heavy. You can’t be wasting strength by cleaning it first (this limits how heavy you can Squat anyway). And you can’t be afraid to fail and hold back because there are no safety pins to catch the bar.
Dumbbells don’t work for this program either. You can’t Squat heavy with dumbbells – holding them is the limiting factor, not Squatting the weight. And you can’t use small increments because dumbbells usually go up by 2kg/5lb. You’ll just plateau sooner, get frustrated, and want to quit.
You need to lift heavy to gain strength and muscle. The barbell is the best tool for that because you can use the heaviest weights. But you need something to catch the weight if you fail. Without Power Pack you can get stuck under the weight and get killed. Really.
Your current gym may not have the equipment you need to do StrongLifts 5×5. Switch to a real gym or build a home gym. But don’t bastardize this program by doing it with machines or dumbbells. It won’t work. You’re not doing StrongLifts 5×5 if you’re not using proper equipment.
Yes, switching gyms can be a major inconvenience to you. But this isn’t meant to be easy. You’re not the first or only one to deal with this problem. Many people do, including me. If you’re not willing to do what it takes, best is to look for a different program – this one is clearly not for you.
Adding Weight Too Fast
StrongLifts 5×5 doesn’t work if you add 5kg/10lb per workout. This works on Deadlifts until you reach 100kg/220lb. It works if the starting weights feel too light. It works if you’re coming back from a big break. But it doesn’t work long, especially not on pressing exercises that work smaller muscles.
Your body needs to recover to get stronger and lift heavier next workout. It can’t recover in time if you stress it with huge increments. Adding 5kg/10lb to a 50kg/100lb press or 10kg/20lb to a 100kg/200lb Squat is a 10% increment. This can work once or twice but not every workout. It’s too much.
Taking bigger jumps won’t make you gain strength and muscle faster. It will make you plateau faster. It will cause bad form. Worse, it can get you injured. Tendons take longer to recover than muscles. Big jumps can cause nasty pains that take weeks or months to recover. This slows your progress.
Get small plates if your gym doesn’t have any. Get fractional plates too so you can add 1kg/2lb per workout to your bench/ohp. Don’t wait until you hit a plateau. Get the plates today so you don’t hit a plateau in the first place. This saves you time wasted on failing and deloading.
Lifting With Bad Form
Bad form causes pains and injuries. The most dangerous mistakes are pulling with a rounded spine, Squatting with caved knees, benching with flared elbows, and arching on the OHPress. It can help you get more reps and lift more. But you’re taking risks. If you get hurt, you’ll slow your progress.
Bad form also hinders strength gains. You have to move the bar in a vertical line because that’s the shortest distance. But you also must involve as many muscles as you can. More muscles working is more weight you can lift. Good form increases efficiency while bad form reduces it.
Bad form hinders muscle gains. You can lift more with half reps. But it doesn’t work your muscles through a complete range of motion. It therefore doesn’t work to cut your depth short on Squats, not touching your chest on bench, not touching the floor on pulls, and not locking your OHPress.
The program starts light and easy. But the weight increases every workout. Small mistakes will turn into big ones fast if you don’t address them early on. Read all the guides on this website. And practice good form from day one. Don’t use bad form or shorten the ROM to get your reps.
Not Lifting Heavy
Lifting the same weight over and over again makes you weaker. You need to give your body a reason to gain strength and muscle. If you don’t challenge yourself by trying to lift heavier as much as you can, your body will get lazy. The weight you keep lifting will become harder to lift.
That means if your first two sets of five were hard, you don’t lower the weight for the next three sets. You stick with the weight even if that means you won’t get fives on the next three sets. You already can lift the previous weight for 5×5. You have to try to lift this weight for 5×5 to get stronger.
That also means if you did 5×5 last time, you add weight next time. Even if it was hard last time. It doesn’t matter if you think you won’t make it. You don’t know until you try. Recover properly before your next workout. Then go to the gym, set the safety pins and go after those fives.
Many people have been surprised to find out their next workout with more weight was easier than the last one. But it should be obvious why – your body is getting stronger every workout. And sometimes you’re just having a bad day. That’s why you should stick to the plan and try.
Don’t be afraid of failure. Your confidence can’t increase if you avoid what you’re afraid of. Everyone fails, I’ve failed a lot. Lift in the Power Rack. Set the safety pins. Ask for a spot maybe. Heck, fail on purpose a few times so you can experience how it feels. But don’t avoid failure.
Some people don’t add weight because they’re OCD about their form. If your form is 80% perfect, add weight. As long as you’re not making dangerous mistakes like lower back rounding, flaring elbows on bench, knees caving in on squat or arching on ohp… keep going.
The 20% smaller form mistakes, try to fix while adding weight. Work on it during your warmup. But don’t stick with light weights to achieve 100% perfect form. Anyone can have perfect form with light weights. It takes strength to have perfect form with heavy weight. Gotta lift heavy for that.
Finally, every now and then there’s some guy who quits the program because it didn’t add muscle for him. Looking closer it usually turns out he didn’t do the program for longer than a few weeks… and never got his lifts beyond a 80kg/175lb Squat, 60kg/135lb Bench and 100kg/220 Deadlift…
It should be obvious that you can’t have the legs of a 140kg/300lb Squatter if you lift half that. You can’t have the chest of a 100kg/220lb bencher if you bench half that. And you cant have the back development of someone who Deadlifts 180kg/400lb if you lift half that. Duh.
It’s not the program’s fault if you don’t lift heavy and then don’t gain muscle. This is normal. You have to lift heavy to gain in muscle size. So do the work.
Each workout triggers your body to gain strength and muscle. So your body can’t get stronger if you skip workouts all the time. It can’t lift heavier weights. You struggle instead and fail reps.
If you miss one workout, you can usually resume the program where you left off. But skipping two workouts in a row can cause strength loss. Skip three workouts and you’ll have to lower the weight to get your five reps on every set next workout. This slows your progress.
StrongLifts 5×5 works best if you do three workouts a week. Two can work, but not one a week. And one workout every 10 days definitely doesn’t work. Look, there are 168 hours in a week. This program only needs four hours of your time. Get your priorities right and make time for this.
Decide the days and times you’ll train. Then stick to it whatever happens. Sore, not motivated, tired, or sick – it doesn’t matter. Stick to your plan and go. Maybe you have a bad workout, maybe not. But bad workouts are always better than skipped ones – you never regret going to the gym.
Yes, this is extreme. But quitting always starts by skipping one workout. It usually turns into two. Then you rationalize you’ll restart next week. But next week becomes the week after. Before you know it you haven’t trained for a month. This is how most people quit – it might sound familiar.
Skipping workouts is therefore a slippery slope. It reinforces the bad habit you want to break – not going to the gym. You want to build the good habit of going to the gym. The only way to do this is by practicing going to the gym over and over again whatever happens.
Stick to your plan. Say no to people. And don’t make excuses.
Rushing Your Sets
You’ll sweat more if you rest only 30 seconds or superset exercises. But you’ll lift with depleted ATP stores. And your form will deteriorate because you get tired. Short rest times make it impossible to lift heavy, and they increase the risk of injury. You need to rest up to five minutes to get strong.
The goal of StrongLifts 5×5 is to lift heavy – not get a sweat, pumped, or out of breath. If you want to sweat, then do HIIT cardio after your workout. If you want pump, then add assistance work for that. But rest as much as you need on the main exercises so you can lift heavy and get stronger.
If you only have half an hour to train, then only Squat. Don’t rush your workout to get it all in. Squats work your whole body and are the backbone of the program. Do them properly and skip the rest.
If you keep running out of time in the gym, then change your schedule. Don’t squeeze your workout during lunch time. Unless you have a two hour break to lift and shower, you’ll have to rush through your sets eventually. Train at a different time or consider a home gym to save time.
Respect your warmup weights. Don’t skip them. Don’t rush through them thinking only your work sets matter. Take them seriously by putting the same effort and focus into it. Lift the light weight as if it was heavy. This will better prepare your body for the heavy weights and avoid injury.
Eating Too Little
Your body needs to recover from your workouts to get stronger. Food contains the material to recover your muscles. When there’s a lack of food, your body uses it for critical tasks first. So your muscles can’t recover well to get stronger. You have low energy, fail reps, and can’t add weight.
Skinny guys are often afraid to gain fat. Maybe you have a low body-fat and don’t want to lose your abs by eating more. But lifting heavy is easier with more muscle mass. There isn’t enough if you’re 1m82/6’2″ but only 60kg/135lb. I’m shorter and weigh almost 20kg/45lb more. Gotta eat.
People who’ve been fat before are often afraid to get fat again. Maybe you did cardio and strict dieting to lose fat. And you now want to build muscle to look better. But the idea of eating more scares you. You’re not supposed to eat junk food like when you were fat though. And you lift weights now.
Obese guys usually want to lose fat/weight fast. The usual mistake is to cut too many calories. Eating 1500kcal/day can work when the weights are light. But your fat loss and strength will both plateau eventually – your calories are too low to cut further, and you can’t recover well to lift heavy.
Most people need at least 3000kcal/day. If you’re obese, you’ll build muscle while losing fat. But most people need to choose between building muscle or losing fat. Choose muscle first since it’s harder than losing fat. You need to lift heavy to build muscle. So eat up for proper recovery.
But don’t eat like a pig. Don’t eat mostly junk food. That builds bad habits that will make you unhealthy and fat in the long run. Eat quality food. Real food not shakes. Three to four meals a day.
Will StrongLifts 5×5 work for me?
It has worked for me and my two brothers. It has worked for several of my friends. It has worked for girls I dated. It has worked for anyone I’ve given this program to. I get emails every day from people from all over the world saying this program is the best thing that ever worked for them.
So I’m confident StrongLifts 5×5 will work for you too. It will work really well if you…
- Never entered a gym. You’re intimidated by free weights, scared of injury, or just weak. This program starts light and focuses on form. You slowly get comfortable with the weights while avoiding injury. Your strength and confidence increase as the weight increase.
- Never used free weights. You’ve gone to the gym before but only used machines. Maybe you’ve benched with free weights but never did Squats, Deadlifts, and OHPress. You’ll learn these lifts now by starting light, doing them a lot, and adding weight each workout.
- Resume after a break. You’ve done these exercises before. But you quit last summer. Or you haven’t lifted since high school. This program will get you back into shape fast. You’ll get in even better shape if you’ve never used this kind of structured training program.
Now I’ve never seen StrongLifts 5×5 not work. I’ve seen stories on the Internet of people saying this program didn’t work for them. But it’s usually because…
- This is NOT for experienced lifters. Don’t do this if you can Squat 300lb and Deadlift 400lb right now. You can’t add weight every workout with those weights. That’s why I don’t do StrongLifts 5×5 anymore – my weights are too heavy. Do Madcow 5×5 instead.
- This is NOT for know-it-alls. You have to do the program as laid out for it to work. If you do it your way by changing things, it won’t work. You have to be coachable. And you should re-read this guide every couple of weeks to catch things you missed the first time.
- This is NOT for wussies. This program won’t work if you skip workouts. Not work if you skip Squats. Not work if you don’t increase your lifts. You will not become strong and big unless you lift heavy weights. This takes hard work.
So if you’re 60kg/135lb at 1m82/6’2″… you barely eat to avoid fat gains… your Squat is stuck at 80kg/175lb after 10 weeks… and you’re not happy with how your body looks… this is NORMAL. You’re not eating enough, not lifting heavy enough, and not being patient enough.
How long does it take to see results?
Strength gains are almost immediate. You’ll see the weight on the bar increase every workout. If you start with the bar, don’t miss one workout and get your reps every time, you’ll Squat 100kg/220lb in 12 weeks and 130kg/265lb in 16 weeks. That’s stronger than most guys.
The maximum amount of lean muscle you can gain naturally is 2lb per month. So if you’ve never lifted before, you can gain 10lb of lean muscle mass in 20 weeks and 24lb by next year. Note that this is LEAN muscle – weight gains can be higher due to increase in water retention.
If you’ve lifted before and are coming back from a break, you’ll gain muscle faster. Thanks to muscle memory you’ll regain the muscle you lost during your break faster than you build it the first time. Your strength will come back faster as well, and you’ll lose fat at the same time.
Obese guys will also build muscle while losing fat. Your shirts will get tighter in the shoulders, neck and back. But your pants will get loose around the waist. Your body-weight may not change or even increase due to the muscle gains. But you’ll look better because muscle is denser than fat.
Don’t rely on mirrors to track your body’s changes. Your mind can play tricks on you. Many lifters have bigorexia – they keep seeing a skinny guy in the mirror despite increasing their muscle size. It’s like anorexic women seeing someone fat in the mirror while they’re skinny.
Plus your body doesn’t change as fast as the weight on the bar. The mirror can make you think you’re not making progress when you are. You don’t notice because you’re looking at it every day. But people who haven’t seen you in months will notice how your body has changed.
Take pictures instead. Front, back, side. Full body, from head to toe. Every two weeks so your body changes are large enough to notice. Be consistent with how you take them – same camera, lightning, clothes, distance, time of the day. This makes it easier to see changes.
If you do this, you’ll see enough body changes after 12 weeks to motivate you to continue. Because it will take most people at least a year to achieve dramatic changes. Again, it takes on average a year to add 24lb of lean muscle naturally. You can’t accelerate this. So you have to commit long-term.
What’s the science behind this program?
The main theory is the stimulus – recovery – adaptation cycle. Stressing your body causes fatigue. It triggers it to recover. If the stress wasn’t excessive your body adapts to better handle that same stress in the future. This is the old saying “what doesn’t kill you make you stronger”.
This means that if the stress is excessive, your body can’t adapt to the stress. You get more fatigue which could lead to overtraining. On the other hand, if there’s too little stress, then your body has no reason to get stronger than it already is. You don’t improve because you’re undertraining.
Think of lifting in hot weather. The heat is a stressor. You sweat to keep your temperature down. You lose water and must drink to recover. Your sweat glands adapt to better deal with heat. You become more efficient by sweating earlier. This cools you down faster so you can train harder for longer.
Think also of sedentary lifestyles. Lack of physical activity is an absence of stress. Your body, bones and muscles weaken because they have no reason to be strong. This saves your body resources and energy. But your flexibility also decreases because what you don’t use, you lose.
Think of tanning too. Your skin becomes pale in the winter. And it will burn if you fly to a sunny beach and spend the whole day in the sun. You’ll have to stay in the next day so your skin can recover. This is like starting this program with too much weight, getting sore and having to skip workouts.
But you’re less likely to get burned if you only spend 15mins in the sun. Your body has time to produce melanin to protect your skin. It darkens so you can stay in the sun longer. This is like starting light on this program to avoid soreness, and then gradually increasing the weight.
People love to say everyone is different. Sure some people get darker, some burn faster. Some are naturally strong, others are weaker. Some people handle stress better. But anyone can adapt and get stronger. Just start with a small dose and slowly increase it. This is progressive overload.
The stronger you get, the more stress you can handle. Champions lift heavier weights than beginners. But this causes more fatigue. It takes them longer to recover between workouts. That’s why they can’t add weight every workout anymore. It takes them longer to keep getting stronger.
The barbell is the best tool to stress your body and cause adaptation. The weight is heavier, and you have to balance it. The big five barbell exercises use a lot of muscle. This causes a bigger hormonal response because the stress is higher. You get a bigger adaptation as a result.
How much stress is too much, how much too little? This is where this is more art than science. You look at your progress. But best is to be conservative. If the stress was insufficient, you can always fix that with progressive overload – add weight. If it’s excessive though, you’re stuck.
Check the recommended books if you want to educate yourself more.
Does StrongLifts 5×5 build muscle?
Yes. You can gain 24lb of lean muscle the first year if you’ve never done a training program like this one. That is by only training three times a week and without using supplements or drugs.
Here’s how it works: your skeletal muscles are attached to your bones by tendons. When you Squat down your hip and knee joints bend. When you Squat up, they straighten. This movement is powered by your muscles which contract to bend and straighten your legs against the weight.
The heavier the weight on your back, the harder your muscles must contract to Squat the weight. The harder they have to work to resist gravity on the way down too. This stress triggers your leg muscles to get stronger and bigger to better handle that weight next workout.
Most people are confused because they only see five compound exercises. There aren’t any isolation exercises to work muscles directly. But this is why this program works better to build muscle – you’re doing the big five exercises which work your whole body with heavier weights.
Some people think this program only builds strength. All the gains are “neurological’… Of course your central nervous system adapts to the training just like your bones, tendons, heart, etc. But only a fool would think your muscles are excluded from that adaptation. If you’ve lift heavy, you know better.
You have to eat though. Lifting heavy stresses your muscles. Your body needs to recover before it can add muscle. It can’t do that if you eat like a bird. No program will add muscle on your frame if you eat like a bird. No rep range of exercise will. You have to eat more to gain muscle mass.
This is not bodybuilding program. You’ll build muscle. You’ll good naked if you eat properly. Girls will like it – they always have with me. But you won’t look like those guys in magazines or on instagram. Many of them use drugs but won’t tell you. You’re naive if you think they train naturally.
If you insist on bodybuilding, you’ll get better results by doing this program first. One, you’ll learn to lift with proper form on the main exercises. Two, you’ll increase your strength and muscle mass. So you can do the high rep, isolation at a higher intensity later than if you started with that.
Most guys will never go there though. Because this program builds a great body, builds strength, and takes less time. It’s also a simpler and saner way to train.
Can I gain mass with StrongLifts 5×5?
Yes, if you eat more calories than your body burns. Adding muscle mass and getting bulky comes down to increasing your body-weight. To gain weight you have to eat more calories than your body burns. You need to create a caloric surplus. You do that by eating more food.
There’s no training program, rep range or exercise that will make you gain 20lb/45lb. Because that’s the minimum you’re going to have to gain if you’re a skinny 60kg/135lb at 1m82/6’2″. Lifting can help you gain weight by making you hungry post workout. But you still have to eat the food.
Maybe you’re skinny and think you eat a lot. You don’t or you wouldn’t be skinny. Weigh yourself every week. If your weight doesn’t go up, eat more until it does. If you have a high metabolism like me, you may have to eat a lot more to gain mass. Be consistent – don’t eat less some days.
Stay away from weight gainers. They’re full of sugars and will make you fat and fart. Eat quality food instead. Carbs like potatoes and oats are your friends. Eat at least three meals a day. You’re probably only eating one or two now. Wake up earlier so you can start with a big breakfast.
Read the guide on how to gain weight for skinny guys.
Can I lose fat with StrongLifts 5×5?
If you’re obese, you’ll lose fat while building muscle. Your body will burn calories to lift the weights. It will also burn more calories post workout for muscle recovery (this will increase your metabolism). And your body will use your fat reserves to build muscle so you can lift heavy.
Your body-weight may not change. It can increase because of the muscles you’re building. But your clothes will fit differently – pants will become looser around your waist. And your shirts will get tighter in the neck, shoulders and back. You’ll look more athletic because muscle is denser than fat.
Obese guys usually stop worrying about their weight after a while. They realize they don’t really care about that number on the scale. They just want to look good and be healthy. And if they get addicted to getting stronger, they’ll prefer to stay big because that helps them lift heavier weights.
If you’re not obese, the lower your body fat, the harder to lower it further on this program. You have to eat less to lose fat. But you have to eat more to build muscle. If you eat too little, your muscles can’t recover well between workouts. You can’t add weight, and the program can’t work.
Doing StrongLifts 5×5 on a caloric deficit to lose fat is therefore a bad idea. It will work the first few weeks when the weights are light. But not when the weights get heavier. You should be eating at least maintenance calories, and then add some cardio to help fat loss.
Remember a low body-fat is useless if you don’t have muscle to show for. And you can easily lose 1lb of fat per week later, but you can only gain 0.5lb a week now. So gain muscle first. Get your Squat to 140kg/300lb. After that you can focus on lowering your body-fat if it’s still needed.
Does this program work for guys over 40?
Yes. Your body doesn’t recover as fast as that of younger people. But you’ll gain strength and muscle, even if you’ve never lifted or are in your 70s. Your age will only be a problem if you think it is.
Older people keep telling me StrongLifts 5×5 has been like a fountain of youth. If your body feels old, you feel old, and you behave like an old person. But if your body feels young, you feel young, and you behave like a younger person. Here’s how this program helps you achieve that…
- Build muscle. You lose muscle from inactivity and sedentary lifestyle as you age. You also lose muscle as part of the aging process – up to 10% per decade over 50. Lifting weights decreases muscle loss from aging by building muscle. You’ll gain a lot of the lost muscle back.
- Lose fat. Inactivity makes you fat, especially if you don’t eat less although you move less. The lost muscle is replaced by fat, and you become skinny-fat. This program reverses that by building muscle, burning calories and boosting your metabolism. You lose fat.
- Build strength. Inactivity and muscle loss turn you weak as you age. You lose balance and coordination. Your joints become weak and you lose flexibility. This program reverses that by building strength, improving balance and strengthening joints. You get less injured.
How much strength and muscle can you gain? More than you think. Go to a powerlifting competition. There are age categories for guys in their 40s, 50s, 50s, 60s, and even past 70s. The 40y old often lift more than younger guys because building strength takes time. They’ll inspire you.
The longer you’ve been inactive, the lighter the weights you’ll have to start with to avoid soreness. If the empty bar is too heavy, start with a lighter 5kg/10lb bar. If that’s still too heavy to Squat, do body-weight Squats for a few workouts. Move to the bar once you’re stronger.
The empty bar can be too heavy to Overhead Press as well. Try with a lighter bar of 5kg/10lb. If that’s still too heavy, substitute the OHPress by the Bench Press. Bench every workout for three-four weeks to increase your upper-body strength. Then add the Overhead Press back in.
Add weight slowly. Maximum 2.5kg/5lb per workout. 1kg/2lb is even better, and a must for the Bench and OHPress. Use proper form to avoid injuries. The program will get you stronger just like it does for younger guys. But you’ll need to modify StrongLifts 5×5 sooner to keep making progress.
Here’s why: you recover slower than younger guys. So you need to modify StrongLifts 5×5 to increase recovery between workouts. Your body can then get stronger and lift heavier without injuries.
Switch from 5×5 to 3×5 as soon as you struggle to get your reps. You don’t have to wait until you fail three times or deload. Just switch already to decrease the stress of your workouts. If you feel sore all the time despite not starting too heavy, you should definitely switch.
The next change is to get more rest days. You could take two rest days between workouts. Instead of lifting Mo/We/Fr, you’d lift on Mo/Th/Su, then Wed/Sat, and then Tu/Fr. But this changes your training schedule every week. So it’s not ideal for building a long-lasting gym habit.
Better is to simply train twice a week, Monday and Thursday for example. This way you have two rest days before your Thursday workout, and three rest days before your Monday workout. You’ll do about the same amount of workouts in a month, but your training schedule will be consistent.
|StrongLifts 5x5 for Older Guys|
|Monday - workout A||Thursday - workout B|
|Squat 3x5||Squat 3x5|
|Bench Press 3x5||Overhead Press 3x5|
|Barbell Row 3x5||Deadlift 1x5|
You’ll make progress for several workouts until you start struggling to get your reps again. You can then switch to 3×3 and 1×3 to improve your recovery. Or you can switch Madcow 5×5 to give you a break from adding weight every workout, and switch to slower weekly increases instead.
Your progress will be slower compared to younger guys training three times a week. But you probably aren’t in a hurry anymore. Your priority is more likely to be healthy. Slowing your progress will keep you healthy by improving your recovery. You’ll avoid soreness, pains and injuries.
Keep in mind turning 40 doesn’t mean you HAVE TO do these changes. A 72y old need these changes more than a 57 old, and he needs it more than a 40y old. I’m 36 and still Squat three times a week. I’m just more careful to avoid injuries. Look at your progress to decide what to do.
Does StrongLifts 5×5 work for women?
Yes. The bar doesn’t know you’re a woman, and doesn’t care. And your body reacts to stress like men do – you gain strength and muscle in response to the stress of the bar weight to better deal with that stress next time. So women should lift weights like men, and do StrongLifts 5×5 like men.
The only difference is that you’ll never get the strength, size and muscle mass of a man who trains equally hard. Men have about seven times higher testosterone levels than women. Men also have more upper-body muscle mass than women. And most men are taller and bigger than women.
That’s why men don’t compete against women in sports. It wouldn’t be fair, just like making a 52kg powerlifter compete against a +140kg heavy weight wouldn’t be fair. All male strength records are higher than women’s. The top 20% women only lift what the bottom 20% of men lift.
So you won’t get big and bulky. It’s hard enough for guys, it’s even harder for you. Because you don’t have the same size and testosterone levels to work with. Some women solve that by taking anabolic steroids. But you probably don’t want to grow a moustache.
This program will get you toned instead. This term is often misused in fitness circles. Women are usually told to lift light weights for high reps to get muscle definition without bulk. But definition comes down to a low body-fat. And bulk requires being a man or taking steroids. So that’s BS.
Muscle tone really means the tension of your muscle at rest. When you sit, your muscles contract partially to maintain posture. Toned muscles look harder at rest. But lifting light weights doesn’t build hard muscles. It build soft ones. Lifting heavy builds hard muscles and thus tone.
Anyway, if the empty bar is too heavy, start with a lighter one of 5kg/10lb. If you don’t have one, Goblet Squat until you’re strong enough to Squat the bar. If you can’t Overhead Press the bar, Bench Press instead to increase upper-body strength. If you can’t Bench the bar, bench light dumbbells first.
I’ve seen girls who could Bench Press the empty bar for 5×5 the first workout, despite only weighing around 45kg/100lb. I’ve seen girls who couldn’t even Bench the bar for one rep. But the newbie gains are with you. You’ll be able to Bench it for 5×5 within a few workouts if you stick to the program.
Since you have less testosterone, muscle and size than men, your progress will also be slower. Stick with adding 2.5kg/5lb per workout on your lifts. Get fractional plates so you can add only 1kg/2lb per workout on your Bench Press and Overhead Press. This will improve your progress.
Can teens do StrongLifts 5×5?
Yes, I started in my late teens. Even kids can do this program – Chinese weightlifters often start as early as age six. This is a huge competitive advantage as they have at least ten years of technique practice by the time they’re 18. The sooner you can start lifting weights, the better.
Lifting weights will not stunt your growth. Arnold Schwarzenegger started lifting weights at age 15 and he’s 1m82/6’2″. Lou Ferrigno and Dave Drapper also started young but are over 1m80/6″ tall. Same with athletes like Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Karl Malone and Michael Vick.
Some people say lifting weights can stunt your growth if you fracture your growth plates. First, how does that even happen? Dropping the bar on you? Never happened to me in 18 years of lifting. If you start light, lift in the Power Rack and don’t do anything stupid, you can’t break a bone by lifting.
Two, fractures are more common in contact and collision sports. Kids playing soccer get tackled all the time. Broken bones happen more than in the gym where it’s just you and the bar. And yet we don’t have an epidemic of kids turned into deformed dwarfs. The fractures seem to heal fine.
If you believe fractures can stunt your growth, then you should be more afraid of contact and collision sports than lifting. If you do these sports then it’s smart to lift weights too because that increases bone density and strengthen joints. This protects you against fractures and injuries.
But lifting weights won’t stunt your growth. This myth probably started in the 80s with Olympic lifter Naim Süleymanoğlu aka Pocket Hercules. He was only 1m47/4’10” but could lift +180kg/400lb over his head. Some people concluded the heavy weights stopped him from growing…
This is like saying basketball players are tall because they jump. It’s not correlated but selection bias. There’s way more compression when you run or jump than lift, and your spine handles it fine. Lifting weights can actually make you look taller by improving your posture so you stop slouching.
The main cause of stunted growth is malnutrition. Outside of that your height is mostly genetically determined. You’ll keep growing until you’re about 21, regardless of lifting weights.
Lifting weights is good for teens. It builds discipline and improves work ethic that helps with studies later. It gives them a healthy lifestyle that keeps them from unhealthy ones like drugs and drinking. And it gives over-active kids an outlet for their higher activity level that beats taking pills.
The key is to start light. Get a 5kg bar or even a broomstick. Focus on proper form to build good habits and avoid injuries. If it’s your kid, supervise him every workout to check his form (make sure you know proper form). Praise him for good form and discourage bad form immediately.
Most important, don’t force the kid. I like lifting, you may like lifting, but not everyone does. The kid may not like it. If he’s not having fun, he won’t be motivated. This can lead to technical errors that can cause injury. Or he’ll just hate you for forcing him. He needs to have fun first and foremost.
Will this make me slow for sports?
No. It will make you faster, more powerful and more explosive. The big five exercises strengthen your whole body, including your legs. Stronger legs last longer because each step takes less effort. They can do more work in a given time. In physics we call this power (P=w/t) aka explosiveness.
What about the added bulk? Doubling your Squat will increase your muscle mass. But the added bulk isn’t enough to slow you down. Gaining strength and muscle is like putting a bigger engine in your car. It weighs more, but you’re still going faster. Because you’re more efficient and powerful.
Gone are the days where athletes would only practice their sports. Ronaldo and Nadal lift weights. Tiger Woods benched 300lb. Every athlete and team now has a STRENGTH and conditioning coach. Strength improves balance and coordination, reduces injuries, and makes you more explosive.
If you do sports but don’t lift weights, you’re putting yourself at a disadvantage in 2017.
Isn’t Squatting 3x/week too much?
It is if you start with your five rep max on the first workout. You’ll get sore legs and won’t be able to Squat again two days later. This program will look impossible to do because you started too heavy. The trick is to start light to let your body get used to Squatting three times a week.
I used to hammer my legs every Monday by doing almost a dozen of exercises for high reps. I was often sore for a week. So when I discovered the 5×5 workout in 2003 I didn’t get how anyone could Squat two more times in the same week. I know now – you stop training for failure.
Most weight lifters Squat several times a week. I once Squatted every day for 50 days. Sprinters usually sprint several times a week. Runner run several times a week. Cyclists ride their bike several times a week. Only in bodybuilding are you supposed to only train legs once a week. It’s BS.
If you can’t Squat three times a week, you’re not overtrained. You’re undertrained. You’re in bad shape that’s why you can’t do it. Start light, let your body get used to it, and you’ll be able to do it too.
Can I do 5×5 Deadlifts?
You can do whatever you want. The question you should ask is whether that will get you better results. Will your Deadlift increase faster? And the answer to that is no.
First, there’s a big overlap in the muscles used on the big fives. Deadlifts are like half Squats. Rows strengthen your back. Presses strengthen your arms. Your whole body gets strong. So your Deadlift increases fine with only one heavy set of five. You don’t need more. This has been proven.
Two, you can lift heavier weights on Deadlifts than any other exercise. And each rep starts from a hard dead stop. Deadlifts are therefore more stressful. 5×5 Deadlifts are harder to recover from than 5×5 Squats. If you don’t recover from all that stress, you can’t get stronger. You fail and plateau.
Three, you lack experience. People who do 5×5 Deadlifts always come to their senses later. When you have to fight to get your 5×5 on Squats, and fight to get your 5×5 on presses, you don’t want to end your workout with a 5×5 Deadlift. You’re happy to finish with one heavy set of five.
If you like Deadlifts, warmup with sets of five like my app suggests. This give you more sets without the stress of sets across with the same weight. You won’t hurt your recovery and plateau.
What’s the best time to workout?
The one you stick to. It doesn’t matter what time of the day is best. If you can’t stick to it long-term, your program won’t work. Train at the time that works best for you and your schedule.
Most people train in the evening because they work nine to five. You may have to wait for the Power Rack to be free, which increases the time you spend in the gym. I never have this problem though as I just ask if I can train inbetween. I’ve never been refused in 18 years of lifting.
Some people avoid training on Monday and Tuesday. The gyms are always more crowded because people want to make up for pigging out on the weekend. But that means you’ll have to train Saturday or Sunday. I prefer to have my weekend off so I usually train on Monday/Tuesday.
You can try to get there before everyone else. Start work an hour or two earlier if you can. This way you can already leave around four and start lifting before the crowds arrives. This also prevents working out too late which can keep you up by raising your body temperature.
Training in the morning is best if you have unpredictable work hours. Whatever happens the rest of the day, you already did your workout. You’re more consistent because a longer work day no longer causes you to skip your workout. You progress better as a result.
It’s not easy though. You have to wake up earlier. Your gym has to be open early enough so you can get your workout in before work. The gym won’t be crowded but that also means less or no spotters. And if you had a hard workout in the morning, you can feel tired afterwards and need a nap.
Some people feel weaker in the morning. This is either from not sleeping properly the night before, or from not giving it enough time to adapt. I once Squatted around 400lb for 50 mornings in a row. While I do seem stronger in the afternoon/evening, it’s not by much. You can do it.
Eat before your morning workout so you can train harder. Keep the meal small so you don’t feel sick while you lift. Eat at least 45min before going to the gym, first thing on waking up, so it can go down. If you don’t have the time, have a protein shake instead – liquid food digests faster.
Whatever time you choose, make it consistent. Choose the same days and times every week. This creates a habit that will pull you to the gym over time, instead of you pulling yourself there. It works even better if you workout right after or before work, so you go from one to the other.
Note there is no maximum workout time. You don’t have to finish within 45 minutes to avoid muscle breakdown. The idea behind that is to not do gazillions of exercises like some people. Take as much time as you need to do your exercises properly and get your reps.
Should I workout if I’m sick?
I do. Now I’m rarely sick because lifting weights boosts your immune system. I happens maybe three times a year. But I usually train anyway, don’t feel much weaker, and feel better post workout.
This is controversial. Some say you shouldn’t stress your body more by lifting weights, so it can fight the sickness. Others say you should stay home to not make others sick. I say if I only trained when all was perfect, I wouldn’t train much. Consistency is key and requires training when sick.
The only exception is if you have the flu. I caught it years ago, tried to lift but was just weak. I spent the rest of the week in bed, sleeping most of the day. This is one of the rare times where I didn’t train due to sickness. If you catch the flu, it’s probably best to take several days off.
But not if you have a cold, running nose, sore throat or mere headache. Just go. You’ll probably feel better afterwards. Obviously clean the equipment when you’re done if you train in a gym.
How heavy you should lift depends on how you feel. Rule of thumb is to always go to the gym and try. If your warmup sets feels good, keep going. If they feel terrible, only do your warmup sets and call it a day. Or do one heavy set of five instead of the full five. And skip all the assistance/cardio.
If you catch the flu and take a week off training, you’ll have to lower the weight when you come back. Take 10% off on every exercise to deal with the strength loss. If you barely ate anything while you were sick, you’ll probably need to take 20% or more off. You’ll get the strength back quickly.
What about stretching?
Lifting weights doesn’t decrease flexibility. This is a myth spread by people doing mostly isolation. Powerlifters and Olympic lifters have to be flexible otherwise they couldn’t bring their hips below their knees when they Squat. Regularly doing Squats actually maintains flexibility.
If you’ve been sedentary for years, you might need to stretch. What you don’t use, you lose. If you never move your muscles through a full range of motion, they tighten up. So you lose the ability to move properly which can cause bad form. Common examples include…
- Tight hips prevent your knees to stay out when you Squat. This causes lower back rounding aka butt wink on Squats – which causes back pain. Stretching can help you keep your knees out so your spine stays neutral. It also helps breaking parallel more easily.
- Tight shoulders prevent you to lockout the bar over your shoulders on the Overhead Press. It has to stay in front which is harder. Your spine can compensate by arching to get the bar balanced over your shoulders. But this can cause lower back pain.
Stretching can help you regain the mobility you lost. It can improve your technique if limited range of motion was causing bad form. This can eliminate nagging pains and help you lift heavier weights. After that, doing exercises like Squats with proper form help you maintain that flexibility.
But stretching isn’t always the solution for bad form. You do need proper mobility to Squat with your knees out. But you also need to control your muscles while you move so you achieve proper form. That control requires a conscious effort from your part, as well as strength.
Stretching doesn’t teach you to stay tight. You’re not generating force like when you do heavy Squat. You’re relaxing. So don’t be surprised if your Squat doesn’t improve despite starting yoga. You may regain lost range of motion, but you still have to Squat to improve your Squat technique.
Stretch movements, not muscles. Compound exercises work several muscles at the same time. It therefore doesn’t make sense to do stretches like toe-touches. That’s the equivalent of an isolation exercise. Do stretches that work several muscles at the same time, like the Squat stretch.
You can stretch pre-workout (I don’t). But it doesn’t replace your warmup. You still have to start with an empty bar and work your way up. This works better because you can practice proper form. It warms up your muscles and prepares you for the heavy weights using lighter weights.
Flexibility comes faster than strength. Stretching takes more work at first and can be uncomfortable. But if you do it consistently you’ll improve in a matter of weeks. It takes less work after that as the exercises of StrongLifts 5×5 will help you maintain flexibility.