To gain weight you need to eat more calories than your body burns.
It doesn’t matter if you think you eat a lot. If your average calorie intake is smaller than your calorie expenditure, you won’t gain weight. To get bigger you must create a caloric surplus. You have to eat more food than you do now to put on weight and stop being skinny.
This is the definitive guide to gaining weight naturally for skinny guys, hardgainers and ectomorphs.
Why You Can’t Gain Weight
Skinny guys usually think they can eat anything they want without gaining weight. They believe they can eat junk food all day because they have a fast metabolism. Some think they can’t gain weight because they don’t digest the food they eat, are stressed out, or “have worms”…
Here’s the truth: you can eat everything you want without gaining weight because you don’t eat a lot. I know you think you do, but you don’t – otherwise you wouldn’t be skinny. Really.
Track your daily caloric intake for proof. Spend the next week logging everything you eat in an app like myfitnesspal. You’ll see you’re not eating that many calories. This is the main reason why you’re not gaining weight. Skinny men always overestimate how much they eat.
This doesn’t mean a high metabolism doesn’t exist. Some people have a harder time gaining weight because they’re more active (hardgainers tend to fidget more). Others are naturally skinny because they have small frames and thus aren’t born to be big and strong (ectomorphs).
But every skinny guy, hardgainer and ectomorph who eats more calories than he burns gains weight. It doesn’t matter if you have a high metabolism, skinny build, or bad genetics. The only difference is that you’ll need to eat more food than the average person to put on weight and get bigger.
Stop believing you can’t change your body because of your metabolism. Stop thinking you’ll always be skinny because everyone in your family is. Start understanding this is mostly a matter of nutrition. Eat more calories than you burn – consistently – and you’ll gain weight. It’s that simple.
How to Gain Weight
The three ingredients to go from skinny to muscular are nutrition, training and consistency. Here are the most important tips to gain weight for skinny hardgainers and ectomorphs…
Eat More. Eat more calories than your body burns. How much depends on your metabolism and activity levels. But if you’re not gaining weight, you’re not eating enough.
Eat More Meals. Small meals are easier to eat than big ones. They don’t make you feel stuffed. Wake up earlier, eat breakfast, and then eat 3-4 more meals a day.
Eat Caloric Dense Foods. Food high in carbs and/or fats has more calories per serving. It takes less eating to create a caloric surplus. Bulk on pasta, dried fruits, nuts, etc.
Eat More Protein. Your muscles need protein to recover from your workouts and grow bigger. Eat a whole source of protein with each meal – meat, chicken, fish, eggs, etc
Go Liquid. Blended food digests more easily than solid food. Make weight gainer shakes by mixing oats, milk, banana, peanut butter and whey protein in your blender.
Track Calories. Skinny guys over-estimate how much they eat. They think they eat a lot but they don’t. Track your calorie intake to make sure you’re eating enough to gain weight.
Lift Heavy. Stop wasting time with curls and flies. Do free weight, compounds like Squats and Deadlifts instead. They trigger more strength and muscle gains to gain weight.
Be Consistent. If you eat a lot today but little the rest of the week, you won’t gain weight. You must consistently eat more than you burn to increase your body-weight.
Weight Goals for Men
How much weight do you have to gain to stop looking skinny? A simple rule is to take your height in centimeter, substract 100, and that’s your goal weight in kg. Anything less you’ll always look skinny. Here’s a table with minimum goal weights for skinny guys, and maximum muscular weights.
1m62 / 5'4"
62kg / 136lb
78kg / 172lb
1m67 / 5'6"
67kg / 147lb
82kg / 181lb
1m73 / 5’8”
73kg / 160lb
86kg / 190lb
1m77 / 5’10”
77kg / 169lb
90kg / 199lb
1m83 / 6’0”
83kg / 182lb
94kg / 207lb
1m87 / 6’2”
87kg / 191lb
98kg / 216lb
1m93 / 6'4"
93kg / 204lb
102kg / 224lb
1m98 / 6'6"
98kg / 215lb
106kg / 233lb
As an example, I’m the ectomorph type with a small frame, narrow wrists and long limbs. I weigh 77kg/170lb at 1m73/5’8″. I’m not a big guy but people I meet always notice I lift weights.
Eat More Food
You need to eat more calories than your body burns to gain weight. Don’t go by feeling since it’s easy to overestimate your calorie intake. Instead start by tracking everything you eat. Find out how many calories you need to gain weight. Then consistently eat more calories.
Good calorie calculators will suggest about 16kcal/lb of body-weight to maintain your weight. For the 135lb/60kg skinny guy that’s about 2112kcal/day. This number doesn’t need to be 100% accurate. You’re just looking for a starting point and will adapt your food intake based on your progress.
Add 500 calories per day to gain weight. For the 60kg/135lb skinny guy 2112 maintenances calories becomes 2612kcal/day. Round this down to 2600kcal to keep things simple – this isn’t surgery, and the calories on food labels aren’t 100% accurate anyway. Ballparking it is fine.
If you want to gain weight fast and don’t care about gaining some extra belly fat, add 1000kcal/day. So for the skinny 60kg/135lb guy, that’s 3100kcal/day. It’s however easier to start with 500kcal/day extra so your body has time to get used to eating more food.
Keep in mind it’s your daily average calorie intake at the end of the week and month that determines if you’ll gain weight. If you eat 3100kcal today but then only 1500kcal the next three days, you’re unlikely to gain weight. You have to consistently eat more food. Hit your numbers every day.
It’s normal to struggle to eat your calories every day in the beginning. But your stomach will stretch as you eat more food. Within two weeks you’ll have an easier time eating your calories. You’ll actually get more hungry. But the first week is usually the hardest. You may have to push yourself to eat.
Track your progress by weighing yourself every week. Do it the same time and day every time, ideally first thing on waking up, after you pee. Don’t weigh yourself every day. Your weight fluctuates daily based on your stomach/bowel content, water/salt intake, etc. This will confuse you.
Aim for 0.5kg/1lb of weight gain a week. Skinny guys who start malnourished often gain more the first weeks. But this is mostly because of increased bowel/stomach content, and extra water weight. Remember you can gain max 0.5lb of lean muscle a week on average.
If you gain weight, keep eating the same amount of calories. If you don’t gain weight for two weeks, despite eating the same amount of calories every day, then bump your calorie intake. Add another 500kcal/day and check what happens. Repeat until you gain weight.
This means the food intake that makes you gain your first 10kg/20lb won’t make you gain your next 10kg/20lb. Skinny men with less muscle need less calories than big and strong guys because they burn less calories at rest. The bigger you get, the more you have to eat to get even bigger.
Eat More Protein
Eat 1g of protein per pound of body-weight per day for muscle building and recovery. That’s 135g of protein per day for the 135g/60kg skinny guy. You can easily hit these numbers by eating a whole source of protein with every meal. Here are some of the best proteins sources for gaining weight:
Steaks, ground round
Chicken breast, chicken thighs
Tuna, salmon, mackerel, sardines
Yoghurt, cottage cheese, milk
The macronutrient ratio of carbs and fats matters little for gaining weight. What matters most is that you eat more calories than your body burns. Hit your 1g of protein per lb of body-weight per day for muscle building. Then fill the rest up with carbs and fats so you hit your calories. Keep it simple.
Don’t make the mistake of avoiding carbs and/or fats because you’re afraid of gaining fat. Carbs and fats have more calories than proteins. If you avoid them, you’re making it harder and more expensive to gain weight. Most people can’t gain muscle and weight without gaining some fat anyway.
Eat More Meals
Let say you need 3500kcal/day to gain weight. It’s easier to eat 5 meals of 700kcal than three meals of 1150kcal. Your stomach is small from eating like a bird for years. Bigger meals force you to push yourself to finish your meal, and can make you feel like throwing up. Eat small meals instead.
Increase your eating window by waking up early and eating breakfast. Many skinny guys eat nothing for breakfast, a bagel at noon, then a pizza for dinner. Their eating window is less than 10 hours long. That’s why they can’t gain weight – it’s only two meals with zero calories before noon.
You need eight hours of sleep. That leaves you 16 hours to eat. It’s easier to gain weight if you spread your meals over 16 hours. Your meals can be smaller, your stomach has a break inbetween, and you don’t feel stuffed all the time. Here’s an example meal plan to gain weight…
Breakfast at 7am – oats, raisins, yoghurt, milk
Snack at 10am – mixed nuts, banana
Lunch at 1pm – chicken, pasta, parmesan
Snack at 4pm – dried fruits
Dinner at 7pm – steak with potatoes
This meal plan is hard if you only eat between noon and bedtime. You have to eat five small meals every two hours, or three +1000 calories every three hours. Most skinny guys can’t do this for more than a day or two before quitting. They don’t have the appetite and their stomach is small.
Intermittent Fasting is therefore a terrible idea for skinny men who want to gain a lot of weight. It shortens your eating window to eight hours a day. This is a great strategy if you want to limit how much you eat for fat loss or maintenance. But not to increase your body-weight.
Wake up early, eat breakfast, and then eat three to four more meals each day.
Eat Caloric Dense Foods
Vegetables are healthy but don’t have many calories. 100g salad only has 25kcal while 100g pasta has 380kcal – 15x more. It’s easier to gain weight if you eat foods that contain more calories per serving. You have to eat less food to reach your daily caloric surplus.
The best foods for gaining weight are high in carbs and/or fats. Vegetables are low in both. They’re therefore great for fat loss but not for getting bigger. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat veggies. But most of your diet should consist of caloric dense foods. Here are the best to gain weight…
Junk food is tempting for gaining weight because it’s caloric dense. McDonald’s is cheap and high in sugars and fats. Same with kebabs, chips, cookies, fries, ice cream, etc. But eating too much junk food builds bad eating habits that will get you fat in the long-term, especially around your belly.
Yes, food quantity matters most for gaining weight. But food quality matters too. You’re going to lift heavy to convert all that food into extra muscle mass. Eating quality food supplies your muscles with vitamins and minerals for muscle recovery. This maximizes strength and muscle gains.
This doesn’t mean you should turn into a health freak that never eats junk food. You can eat a cheat meal once in a while – I do. But that beer, cake or icecream should be a treat. It shouldn’t make up the bulk of your diet. Pareto’s rule is a good guideline – 90% quality food, 10% junk.
Drink Mass Gainer Shakes
Blending your food in liquid form makes it digest more quickly than solid food. The blending acts like pre-digestion by breaking down the food for you. You don’t feel full as long and can eat again more quickly. It’s therefore easier to gain weight if you get some of your calories in liquid form.
The easiest way is by making your own mass gainer shakes. They only take five minutes to make which makes it easier to hit your calorie surplus every day. Here’s a simple 1000 calorie home-made mass gainer recipe for skinny guys who want to gain weight…
Just mix it all in your blender. This shake will get you 1048 calories from 80g protein, 120g carbs and 28g fats. Drink one for breakfast and you’re a third of the way to your daily calorie surplus. You’ll gain weight easily if you eat two solid meals and some snacks during the rest of your day.
Avoid weight gainer supplements. They’re usually filled with cheap sugars that will make you fat and fart. Buy regular whey protein instead, and make your own weight gainer with oats and milk. This is cheaper but also healthier because instead of fake sugar you get vitamins, minerals and fiber.
And if you’re lazy, then just drink milk. One liter whole milk has 600kcal and 33g protein. Two liters has 1200kcal, four liters 2400kcal. Milk is tasty, portable and requires no preparation. Drinking a gallon of milk a day is extreme but it’s effective for gaining weight. Check the GOMAD guide.
Treat Food Like Training
Most skinny guys wanting to gain weight find that the eating is harder than the training. This is normal since you’re only training three times a week for about an hour on StrongLifts 5×5. But you have to eat four to five time a day, seven times a week, during an eating window of 16 hours.
Failing to plan is therefore planning to fail. You don’t go to the gym and then wonder what to do. You have a plan – StrongLifts 5×5. Similarly, you don’t open your fridge to find it empty and then wonder what to eat. You’ve done your weekly groceries and have a meal plan to gain weight.
On StrongLifts 5×5 you’re doing the same exercises every week. There’s no variety except the weight. One of the many advantages of this is that it’s easier to stick to the program (and the one you stick to is the best). You can apply the same strategy to your nutrition by eating the same every day.
This means you get variety by eating a different meal each time. But you eat the same four to five meals every day. If this sounds repetitive, most people eat the same most of the time anyway (80/20 rule). Plus, when you get bored of your diet, you just switch some meals and continue.
Eating the same every day will make your grocery list easier. You have less ingredients to buy, and just multiply by seven days. It’s also cheaper because you can buy more in bulk. The better you do your groceries, the less likely you are to run out of food mid-week and then skip meals.
Cook in advance. Prepare your food for the day in the morning (wake up 45 mins earlier) or when you’re back home. Or spend Sunday afternoon batch cooking your meals for the week. Don’t leave home without food and then wonder what to eat at school/work.
Put some mixed nuts or trail mix in your bag just in case. 100g has over 500kcal.
Lifting weights triggers your body to build muscle mass. Your body uses the food you eat to recover your muscles and build new ones. Lifting also increases your appetite which helps you eat more.
If you don’t lift weights or don’t do it correctly, then all the excess food you’re eating will be stored to fat. This is what happens to people who eat more calories than they burn. Their body stores the extra energy as fat, usually around their belly. You want to go from skinny to muscular, not chubby.
You must therefore lift. Here are the basic rules of lifting for skinny guys. If you’re hardgainer or ectomorph like me, this is the only way to lift that will increase your body-weight naturally…
Free Weights. More effective than machines because you must balance the weight yourself. Safer because you control how the bar moves. More effective than dumbbells because the weight is heavier, and you can add as little as 0.5kg/1lb per workout.
Compound Exercises. Squats, Deadlifts, Bench, Press, Rows. These exercises work several muscles at the same time, with the heaviest weights. They trigger maximum strength and muscle growth in your entire body. The big fives must be the bulk of your routine.
Progressive Overload. Always try to lift more weight than last time. This forces your body to gain in strength and muscle mass to lift the heavier weights you’re exposing it to. You can’t build muscle if you lift the same weight all the time. You must add weight.
Proper Form. You must work your muscles through a complete range of motion for proper muscle development. Half Squats give you half the gains. Proper form also prevents injuries and help you lift heavier so you gain more strength and muscle mass.
Rest. Muscles need rest to recover from your workouts. They can’t grow if you train them every day with gazillion of exercises. Skinny guys don’t need more than three full body workouts a week. Doing more won’t make you gain weight. Eating more calories will.
The more you do in the gym, the more calories you burn, and thus the more you have to eat to create a caloric surplus. Cardio is therefore not a good idea. Do the strict minimum to gain muscle.
Do a training program proven to work instead of making your own. You don’t want to risk wasting time and effort without getting anywhere. Just do StrongLifts 5×5 – it only takes three times a week, and comes with a free app to guide you through each workout.
Thousands of people worldwide have already changed their bodies and lives with StrongLifts 5×5. Here are just some results people have emailed me. Note that your results may vary based on your age, body-weight, technique, nutrition, sleep, experience, consistency, etc
How to Send Your Results: send me your StrongLifts 5×5 success story and before/after pictures through the contact page. The best results I’ll feature here.
25lb Lost While Gaining Muscle and Strength
People who start out over-weight can easily lose fat while building muscle and gaining strength. Here’s an example from Branimir (USA) who lost 25lb while gaining muscle and strength…
After being lazy for so long I started working out in 2008, dreaming to get in best shape of my life in 6 months.
I failed because of lack of planning, discipline and valid information. I was overweight, on the verge of obesity.
I worked out for 1 and a half years and my weight dropped only 10lbs. My strength increased because I was beginner, but I looked almost the same.
I quit using creatine and preworkout stuff. Took awhile to get used to working out clean. I was still wasting time with split routine workouts, triceps extensions, biceps curls, calves work, leg extensions, hamstring curls, long ab workouts…
All this gave some results, but nothing major. I did Squats when I was bored (with horrible form). I did Deadlifts… Wait, I didn’t do Deadlifts. I thought the Deadlift was something that hurt your back and was useless.
I figured I was doing something wrong. So I started reading how to get big and lean. I learned Squats are important! I learned nutrition is number 1. I learned rest and sleep are more important than training. But all that was not settling in, because information came from a lot of sources.
I started losing fat, maintained muscle, but my strength was not impressive. I was jealous to see kids lifting more than me, and being same size or smaller.
One person who was deadlifting 405lb and weighed 20lb less than me said – “I have a website for you, I think you’ll like it.” Guess what website that was? I got home, went on StrongLifts.com, read everything, then applying all I learned.
Now most important: results. I am stronger, faster, leaner, healthier, happier.
My weight went from 220lb to 195lb. But while my weight (FAT) went away, I got stronger, and I am still getting stronger. I can’t even keep up with how my body is progressing. Strength is going up, fat is going down. I feel amazing.
Body-weight: 200lb @ 5’10”
Bench Press: 240lb (5×5)
Squats: 275lb (5×5)
Deadlifts: 315lb (1×5)
Overhead Press: 145lb (5×5)
Some kid was impressed by my strength and body so he asked me what I do and how. I told him I do StrongLifts 5×5. He said I was bullshitting him, no way I do 4-5 exercises per session. So I said, let’s try it. He is one of those kids who can Bench more than Squat (and does partials), and don’t know what Deadlifts are.
So he put 90lbs on a bar, did 5 funny Squats and said that was easy. I told him: “Do those Squats right, all the way down”, and I even thought him how to place the bar without a pad. I told him to lower that weight, cause it was too much. So he got the form almost right, but refused to lower the weight. He was benching funny as well, so I showed him to bench properly.
I didn’t see the kid in the gym for a week. I finally saw him and he complained he was soooo sore, couldn’t move his legs and arms for 3 days, and went back to his old workout, because he “can’t” do StrongLifts 5×5. “Bro I can’t.” I just said ok, and continued with my workout.
How much will something work is up to you. Up to your discipline, concentration and determination. Never say you can’t do something – you can. Approach it with attitude: “I can’t do it yet,” or “I have problems doing it, please help me,” or just be honest and say: “I don’t want to do it.”
Remember to start StrongLifts 5×5 with low weights, lower than what you think is enough. Get the form right, stick with the right form at all costs. Do NOT give up when weights get really heavy. That’s when you get strong, when you grow and all other good things happen.
Be persistent, eat big, train hard, have a right mindset and results will come.
Skinny Guy Gains 44lb in 12 Months – Girls Say He’s Hotter
The best way to gain weight if you’re skinny is to train hard and eat more calories than you burn. On average you can gain 0.5lb of muscle a week or 2lb a month. But skinny kids can often gain more muscle than that. Here’s an example from Frederico from Portugal…
I’m 20 years old, 1,70m and i’ve been skinny all my life, my father and brothers are ethiophian like so i had a really bad time gaining weight since i was a child, i never did any sport and i started gym on 1st November.
After 3 months a guy told me about StrongLifts 5×5 so i tried it. With StrongLifts i’m stronger than ever. On March it’ll be 1 year since i started StrongLifts 5×5 (Madcow now) and it’s impressive when i look back and couldn’t lift properly.
I recommend StrongLifts 5×5 to everyone starting lifting or having low marks. Many gym buddies are amazed with my strength but most still don’t believe it. It’s your choice but if i was doing some stupid routine i wouldn’t be like this.
Hardgainer Gains 16lb in 16 Weeks
Again, you can gain about 2lb of muscle per month on average, which is about 8lb in 16 weeks. But skinny guys can often gain more than that. And the total weight gain is usually higher when you add water weight and such. Example from Alexandre…
I am your typical “hardgainer” with long limbs/short torso.
However after 4 months on stronglifts, I have gone from 137lbs 8%bf to 153lbs 8%bf, squats have gone from 75lbs to 265lbs, deadlifts from 150lbs to 330lbs, and bench from 65lbs to 180lbs.
All the guys in my dorm want to work out with me now (I’m 19 and in college), and I often get stares at the gym when I do the heavy compounds haha.
Thank you Mehdi, you’re the best!
47y Old with Bad Knees Gains 12lb and Almost Doubles His Squat
StrongLifts 5×5 works for guys over 40 years old too. Here’s an example from Andrew (47, California). He increased his Deadlift from 150lb to 355lb and Squat from 150lb to 285lb in 12 months. He gained 12lb in the process, and got these results despite prior knee surgery.
Thirty years ago, I was 135 lbs, teaching kung fu and fighting anything that would fight back. I benched 250 and squatted 300 with no form whatsoever. I went to Art School and all things fitness went the way of Art and Music.
Flash forward a few decades and here is the result: Fifty pounds heavier, bad knee, bad hair and bad habits.
I got knee surgery and while rehabbing, decided to do more than just one leg. I decided I wanted to get stronger than I had ever been in my life, even at 46. This led me to StrongLifts 5×5.
A big mistake I made was starting all my lifts near 5RM while teaching myself proper form. I struggled for six months with several stalls from 150lb Squats to 230lb.
Another mistake I made was not checking my form with video until six months in. I found out I was not breaking parallel.
When I had stalled on all lifts for three months I decided to do Madcow 5×5 . It broke my stalls, and I added 40lbs to my squat, deadlift and rows.
When I started lifting, I had no intention of getting stronger than 1.5xBW squats and 2xBW deadlifts. I have since adjusted that as I have learned to love getting stronger. I think in terms of plate milestones now.
I’ve put on weight since I started lifting, but my first six months I made the mistake of cutting while lifting, which made stalling more frequent and recovery difficult. Caloric excess is a tailwind, and while not all my weight gain is muscle, I can get rid of fat later, once I’ve reached my strength goals.
Here what I look like now. I didn’t start lifting to look better, but I am pleased that I have an ass now and my legs don’t look spindly. The gut may require a few less Manhattans and braised Pork Bellies…
I don’t recover as well as when I was 17, but if I eat enough and sleep enough, I do all right. Ultimately, I don’t think age is hindrance, just a factor.
Rugby Player Gains 45lb and Triples His Deadlift to 435lb
Many people have had such impressive results with StrongLifts 5×5, that their friends accused them of using steroids. Here’s an example from AJ…
I started playing rugby and wanted to bulk up to put up with the abuse I’d have to deal with if I wanted to make it through an entire season. I wanted to be able to knock someone on their ass if they tried running on my side of the pitch.
After a while, I was unable to recover from the workouts (rugby practices 3x/wk) and had to cut Squatting to 2 days/wk. Recovery is still an issue given the lack of sleep that comes with my profession…my legs are always spent.
I grew from 165 to 210lbs. My squat went from 135 to 355…my bench went from 185 to 300lbs. The last time I did deadlifts, I did 435.
When I started growing, people took notice. Some thought I was on steroids. Others thought I was taking all kinds of supplements. They thought I was crazy when I’d walk into class, pull out a 1/2 gal of milk and drink it during the lecture.
Eventually, guys began asking me about how I was training, what exercises I was using, etc. I told a lot of people, but few were willing to put in the work needed (especially the eating) to make the gains that they wanted.
Being called a “big” guy is still weird. Guys respect it because they know how hard the work is… girls like it too (I haven’t figured out the reasoning yet).
A friend of mine who played in the NFL used to work out with me. Sometimes I’d increase my weight and try to rep out 5, but I’d only be able to bang out 2 or 3 without his assistance and he’d notice my disappointment.
One day when I didn’t hit the number I wanted, he asked me “are you better than you were your last workout?” I realized that I was and that hit home with me.
Since then, my goal has been to be better, stronger and more intense than in my previous workout. If I’m not doing that, there’s no need for me to be in the gym.
StrongLifts has changed my personal and professional life. Mehdi receives hundreds of emails and I’m unsure whether he’ll read this, but I appreciate what he’s doing. I’m enjoying lifting and I’m glad I found StrongLifts 5×5. Thanks.
Icelander Loses 35.7lb and 8% Body-Fat without Doing Cardio
Eat less calories than you burn and you’ll lose fat. Obese guys can easily lose fat by lifting weights and eating less without doing cardio. They can even gain strength and muscle because their fat reserves fuel their workouts. Here’s an example from Bjarni from Iceland…
Two years ago it dawned on me i was nowhere in the physical condition i should be in at my age and that i needed to something about it.
The first year i did bodypart splits with some success. Build up base strength but didn’t have a clue on how to perform a proper squat.
I wanted to become strong so after minimal results i searched the internet for programs and came across StrongLifts 5×5. Its fast progression called me.
StrongLifts 5×5 has given me significant gains. In one year i’ve lost 16kg of BW, putting me from low 30% BF at 135.8kg down to ca 22% BF at 119.6kg, all while remaining 192cm tall. My strength has skyrocketed.
Apart from shifting 15kg of lard off and giving me a foundation of strength, my posture has improved along with my self esteem.
First pic is one year ago at 135.8kg & 30% BF. The second is taken at 129kg & 26% BF. Last picture is taken this morning at 119.6kg & 22% BF. This was achieved without cardio, only diet & StrongLifts 5×5.
Having done this i’d recommend the following for beginners:
Do the program as laid out. I tried tweaking it but gained nothing of it.
Nutrition is key to weight loss, get it sorted out and the flab will fly off.
50y old Increases Squat to 325lb, and Inspires His Wife to Lift
One of the best ways to get your wife or girlfriend to lift weights, is to get impressive results first. Don’t try to convince them, let your results do the talking. Here’s an example of John from Michigan who increased his Squat to 325lb at age 50…
Mehdi, You’ve changed my life, and my wife’s life, in a major ways.
Two years ago I weighed 300lb and had a third chin growing. Seeing myself in pictures disgusted me and almost made me cry. I felt ashamed of my body.
A year later of daily hour long cardio sessions, I had dropped to 200lb, and my energy was soaring. However, looking in the mirror and seeing a still “loose” physique and hanging skin made me wince.
Not knowing better I embarked on adding the entire round of weight machines to shore up my body — improve strength and pull up the loose spots.
The machines helped for a while, and I started to show definition I’d never possessed before. However, as the weights grew, my muscles didn’t.
I started split routines… I benched on the smith machines… I “squatted” on the smith machines… But strength results did NOT follow, only injuries.
Searching for an answer brought me to StrongLifts 9 months ago. I wanted to go with compounds, but having never lifted free weights before I was afraid.
But you laid it out plain and simple, and showed how starting with the bar was going to give me technique to master weights — so I jumped in with both feet.
I started with the bar, and built, and built. After 12 weeks of StrongLifts 5×5, I gained 10lb of muscle. My legs, arms and chest have grown, while my waist has shrun , and my “looseness” from weight loss has disappeared. My abs and torso muscles are thick and powerful. Having once been size 50, I am now 35.
My wife was impressed with the results. After 4 babies and extra weight, she was desperate for fat loss. Her belly muscles, when pregnant, got pulled apart and doctors told her that there was nothing she could do to pull them back in. But seeing the results I had achieved, she jumped in.
We started training together and she lost 15 pounds, transferred fat to muscle, down-sized clothing three times, and shows leg muscles of an olympic champion. She’s proud of herself and I am proud of her.
I’m 50 years old, 6’1″, 212lb, and on Monday I squatted 325lb. Today I deadlifted 415lb. We can’t thank you enough the StrongLifts site. We have fallen in love with squats and love our bodies like we have never imagined we could.
We’ve had to endure the no-squatters, the knee blowers, the unsolicited advice givers, the curlers in the power rack, etc… and now are able to withstand the barrage of negativity that comes from the majority of gym goers…
But when we complete our lifts and walk past the naysayers with the squat or deadlift body/mind pump and steel torso, they shut up — and silence truly is golden. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
How to Send Your Results: send me your StrongLifts 5×5 success story and before/after pictures through the contact page. The best results I’ll feature here.
Proper Deadlift form starts with the weight on the floor. Pull the bar to your mid-thighs and lock your hips and knees. Return the weight to the floor by moving your hips back while bending your legs. Rest a second at the bottom and repeat. Do five reps on the StrongLifts 5×5 program.
Your lower back must stay neutral to avoid injury. Rounding it during heavy Deadlifts is dangerous for your spine. It puts uneven pressure on your spinal discs which can injure them. Always Deadlift with a neutral lower back – maintain the natural inward curve of your lower spine.
The fastest way to increase your Deadlift is to improve your form. By pulling more efficiently, you can use more muscles and Deadlift heavier weights. This results in more strength and muscle gains. The best way to improve your form is by practicing Deadlifts with proper form.
This is the definitive guide to proper form on the conventional Deadlift
Free: download my Deadlift checklist to get the most important tips to Deadlift with proper form. Review these tips between sets and you’ll increase your Deadlift without getting hurt. Signup to my daily email tips to get instant access to the checklist. Just click here.
How to Deadlift
The “dead” in Deadlift stands for dead weight. So every rep must start on the floor, from a dead stop. You don’t Deadlift top-down like on the Squat or Bench Press. You start at the bottom, pull the weight up and then return it to the floor. Here are the five steps to Deadlift with proper form…
Walk to the bar. Stand with your mid-foot under the bar. Your shins shouldn’t touch it yet. Put your heels hip-width apart, narrower than on Squats. Point your toes out 15°.
Grab the bar. Bend over without bending your legs. Grip the bar narrow, about shoulder-width apart like on the Overhead Press. Your arms must be vertical when looking from the front.
Bend your knees. Drop into position by bending your knees until your shins touch the bar. Do NOT let the bar move away from your mid-foot. If it moves, start from scratch with step one.
Lift your chest. Straighten your back by raising you chest. Do not change your position – keep the bar over your mid-foot, your shins against the bar, and your hips where they are.
Pull. Take a big breath, hold it and stand up with the weight. Keep the bar in contact with your legs while you pull. Don’t shrug or lean back at the top. Lock your hips and knees.
Return the weight to the floor by unlocking your hips and knees first. Then lower the bar by moving your hips back while keeping your legs almost straight. Once the bar is past your knees, bend your legs more. The bar will land over your mid-foot, ready for your next rep.
Rest a second between reps. Stay in the setup position with your hands on the bar. Take a big breath, get tight, and pull again. Every rep must start from a dead stop. Don’t bounce the weight off the floor or you’ll pull with bad form. Deadlift sets of five reps every workout B on StrongLifts 5×5.
Main Deadlift Cues
Your build influences how proper Deadlift form looks like for you. If you have short thighs with a long torso, you’ll usually setup with lower hips than someone with long thighs and a short torso like me. So don’t mimic someone else’s Deadlift form (not even mine) unless you have the same build.
Use these cues instead and you’ll Deadlift with proper form. They work whether you’re young or old, beginner or advanced, short or tall, skinny or fat, weak or strong, male or female. Try them.
Bar Path: vertical line over your mid-foot when looking from the side
Barbell: on the floor, over your mid-foot, at the start of each rep
Stance: heels hip-width apart, narrower than on the Squat
Feet: whole foot flat on the floor, toes turned out about 15°
Grip width: narrow, hands about shoulder-width apart
Grip: thumbs around bar, bar close to fingers, both palms facing you
Arms: vertical when looking from the front, slightly incline from the side
Elbows: locked before and during the pull, until lockout. Never bent.
Chest: up to avoid back rounding, do NOT squeeze your shoulder-blades
Lower Back: neutral – the normal inward curve. No rounding or excess arch
Shoulders: in front of the bar from the side view, relax your shoulders and traps
Shoulder-blades: over your mid-foot when looking from the side, don’t squeeze them!
Head: inline with the rest of your spine, don’t look up, don’t look at your feet either
Hips: setup looks like a half Squat, hips higher than parallel. Don’t Squat your Deadlifts
Setup: bar over mid-foot, shoulder-blades over bar, straight line from head to lower back
Breathing: take a big breath at the bottom, hold it at the top, exhale at the bottom, repeat
Way up: don’t jerk the bar off the floor, pull slowly while dragging the bar over your legs
Way down: hips back first, bend your legs mostly once the bar reaches your knees
Between Reps: don’t bounce, rest a second, lift your chest, breathe, pull again
Traps: let them hang, relaxed. Don’t shrug or roll your shoulders at the top
Knees: push them to the sides on the way up, lock them at the top
Shins: touch the bar with your shins during your Deadlift setup
Lockout: lock your hips and knees. Don’t lean back at the top
Free: download my Deadlift checklist to get the above cues in a handy pdf. Signup to my daily email tips to get instant access to the checklist. Just click here.
Deadlifts work your whole body. Your legs are the prime movers. Your back muscles keep your spine neutral. And your arms keep the bar in your hands. But since the weight is heavier than on any other exercise, every other muscles has to work too. Otherwise you can’t Deadlift the weight.
The Deadlift is more for the back than the legs compared to Squats. But every muscle works when you Deadlift heavy. That’s why Deadlifts are a full body, compound exercise – they work several muscles at the same time. Here are the main muscles Deadlifts work…
Legs. Your hamstrings and glutes straighten your hips. Your quads straighten your knees. Your calves straighten your ankles. The range of motion is smaller than on Squats since you start in a half Squat position. But the weight is heavier and starts from a harder dead stop.
Back. Your back muscles contract to keep your spine neutral while gravity tries to bend it. Your lats keep the weight close to your body so it doesn’t drift away. Deadlifts are the best back-builder because they work your whole back with heavier weights than any other exercise.
Traps. Your trapezius muscles contract to keep you shoulders in place and transfer force to the bar. Even your shoulders and chest muscles contract to add support. The heavier you Deadlift, the harder your traps work, the bigger they become. You don’t need to do shrugs.
Abs. Your abdominal muscles and obliques contract to support your lower back. The heavier your Deadlifts, the stronger and more muscular the become. Eat right and they’ll show.
Arms. Your hands hold the bar tight. This strengthens your grip and forearms. But everything upstream tightens as well during heavy Deadlifts, including your biceps and triceps. They don’t bend but work isometrically, like your lower back, to hold your body in position.
The Deadlift is the best exercise for your back. Add Barbell Rows and maybe Pullups and you don’t need more to build a v-shape back. Go heavy and you can build a great physique doing just two to three exercises per workout. This is why StrongLifts 5×5 is so effective.
All exercises can hurt your back if you use bad form. The most dangerous mistake on the Deadlift is to pull with a bent lower back. This puts uneven pressure on your spinal discs and can cause bulged discs, pinched nerves and other back injuries. Don’t Deadlift heavy with a rounded lower back.
The safest way to Deadlift is with your spine neutral. Setup with the normal inward curve in your lower back. Maintain this position while you pull the weight off the floor to the lockout. The pressure on your spinal discs will be even. This decreases the chance of injuring your lower back.
Many people have improved their bad back with Deadlifts. Dr Stuart McGill Phd says your spine is like the mast on a ship – the rigging holds it firm so it can’t buckle. Your trunk muscles around your spine are that rigging. They hold your spine firm so it can bear heavy loads safely and pain-free.
The Deadlift can turn a weak back strong by strengthening your trunk muscles. It also increases back endurance and builds safe movement habits. Here’s how it does this:
Gravity pulls the bar down when you Deadlift. Your trunk muscles contract to fight this force so your spine doesn’t bend. The heavier the weight you can pull with a neutral spine, the stronger your trunk muscles become. The stronger they are, the more they support your spine.
Stronger muscles last longer. The same movement takes less effort from your stronger trunk muscles. It takes longer to tire your back. You can therefore lift longer with a neutral spine. And since your back is in a safer position more often, you’re less likely to hurt it.
Deadlifts are practice for picking up weight by bending through your legs with a neutral spine. Repeating this in the gym builds safe movement habits that transfer to daily life. You’re less likely to hurt your back when picking up something at work for example.
Deadlifts have a risk of injury like any other physical activity. The best way to increase safety is by using proper form. Start light, use proper form, and slowly add weight. Your trunk muscles will get stronger as the weight increases. This will build a stronger back that is harder to injure.
Here’s a video of me Deadlifting 210kg/451lb. During the setup the bar is over my mid-foot with my shoulder-blades over the bar. I drag the bar over my legs to the top. My lower back remains fairly neutral. I don’t use the mixed grip and belt on the lighter sets. I keep them for the heavier sets.
Here’s a second video where I do Deadlifts as part of the StrongLifts 5×5 workout B. I also answer common questions about the Deadlift. Watch from 20:59 onwards…
And here’s a video of my good friend Mike Tuchscherer Deadlifting about 300kg at the StrongLifts London 2014 seminar. Mike is a powerlifting champion and Deadlifts exactly as laid out in this guide: bar over mid-foot, shoulder-blades over bar, neutral back. Watch and learn…
Setup with your heels hip-width apart for Deadlifts. The distance between your heels should match the width of your hips. So the wider/narrower your hips, the wider/narrower your stance. The goal is to create space for your arms so they don’t get blocked by your legs during the setup.
Don’t Deadlift with your Squat stance. Standing with your heels shoulder-width apart is too wide for Deadlifts. Your legs will bock your arms when you setup because they won’t have space. They’ll make you pull with bent arms which is dangerous for your biceps and elbows.
You could solve this by gripping the bar wider. But this increases the distance the bar has to travel to reach the top. It makes the weight harder to Deadlift. Your arms should be vertical when you face the bar. You need a narrow stance for that. Deadlift with your heels hip-width apart.
Setup with the bar over the middle of your foot. Your mid-foot is your balance point. If you pull the bar over your mid-foot, you’ll have better balance. This makes the weight easier to Deadlift.
Most people setup with the bar almost over their toes to avoid hitting their shins. But this puts the bar in front of your balance point and further from your center of mass. The weight will pull you forward when it leaves the floor. It will make you lose balance and feel harder on your lower back.
Heavy weight is impossible to pull from your toes. The bar will move to your mid-foot after it leaves the floor because that’s the stronger position. It will hit your shins in the process. Better is to setup with the bar over your mid-foot so you don’t waste energy moving it there during a heavy Deadlift.
Some people setup with the bar too close. Your shins should only touch the bar during your setup. If they touch it when you stand, the bar will block your shins from coming forward when you setup. They’ll have to stay almost vertical which causes bad balance and is just ineffective.
Your shins will usually push the bar to your mid-foot if it was too close. This puts you in a stronger position to pull. But again, it’s better to setup with your mid-foot under the bar rather than moving the bar there later. The more consistent your setup, the more consistent your form.
Your mid-foot is the middle of your whole foot. When you stand in front of the bar and look down, you won’t see the part of your feet under your legs. Most people will therefore put the middle of the visible part of their foot under the bar. But this puts the bar too far forward.
The simple trick is to check your shoe sole. Find its center and remember the lace above it. For me it’s usually lace five but this depends on your shoe brand and size (I wear 43). Put that lace under the bar when you stand in front of it. It may look too close but it won’t if you did it right.
Setup with your toes pointing about 15° out. This makes it easier to push your knees out on the way up. Knees out helps engaging your groin muscles to Deadlift more weight. Knees out also keeps long thighs line mine back and out of the way of the bar so you don’t hit your knees on the way up.
Keep your feet on the floor. If any part of your foot comes up when you Deadlift, you’ll lose balance. You want the greatest surface in contact with the floor. Keep your heels, mid-foot and toes down. It may help to try to grab the floor with your feet like grabbing a basketball.
Grip the bar narrow, about shoulder-width apart. This puts your arms vertical to the floor when looking from the front. The bar will hang at the lowest position possible which decreases the distance it must move to reach the top. You’ll be able to Deadlift more weight with the narrow grip.
Create space for your arms and legs by putting your heels hip-width apart. Don’t stand wide or your legs will push against your arms. Don’t try to fix that by gripping the bar wider – it will hang higher which increases the distance it travels. Grip narrow and stand with your heels hip-width apart.
Grip the bar with both palms facing you. This is the normal or double overhand grip. You can use the mixed grip later when you can’t hold it with a normal grip. But don’t use it on every set or you’ll have nothing to switch to when your grip fails. Deadlift most sets with the normal grip.
Wrap your thumbs around the bar. The thumbless grip makes no sense on the Deadlift as it makes the bar harder to hold. Use a full grip so you can Deadlift more weight. If you “don’t feel your muscles” as well with the full grip, add weight on the bar. You’ll feel it once things get heavy.
Most people make the mistake of gripping the bar in the middle of their palms. Gravity pulls the bar down when you Deadlift. The bar will slide down your palm and fold the skin under it. It will then put pressure on those skin folds. This causes hand pain and big callus that tear more easily.
The proper way to grip the bar on Deadlifts is low hand. Hold the bar lower, close to your fingers. Put it on top of your main callus not above them. This stops the bar from folding and squeezing your skin. Your hands will no longer hurt and you’ll quit forming big callus that easily tear.
This low hand grip is not weaker. You have the same amount of thumbs and fingers around the bar. It’s more secure because you’re not trapping skin and calluses that makes you relax your grip mid-set. If it feels weak or weird it’s because you’re not used to it. Stick with it to get used to it.
Your hands may hurt when you start Deadlifting. This is because you don’t have calluses yet. Don’t use gloves but stick it out. Your skin will form calluses to protect against the pressure of the bar. The pain will be gone once you have calluses. It only takes a couple of workouts.
Your arms must be vertical when looking from the front. This decreases the distance the bar travels because the bar hangs lower at the top. You can Deadlift more weight if you grip the bar narrow, about shoulder-width apart. Your heels should be hip-width apart to create space for your legs.
From the side, your arms should be incline during your setup. Vertical arms doesn’t work because it puts your hips too low. Your knees will come too forward and in the way of the bar. Your hips should be higher so your shoulder-blades are over the bar. This puts your arms incline from the side.
Lock your elbows. Straighten your arms before you pull the weight off the floor. Keep them straight during the whole movement until the lockout. Never pull with bent arms or you risk injuring your elbows and biceps. Keep them straight. It may help to contract your triceps during your setup.
Remember your Deadlift weight is easily five times heavier than what you curl. Don’t try to pull with your arms. They’re not strong enough. Let your stronger legs and back muscles lift the weight.
The bar must leave the floor from your mid-foot on every rep because that’s your balance point. It must then move up in a vertical line because that’s the shortest distance to reach the lockout. There should be no horizontal bar movement because that makes the bar path longer.
Always start by putting your mid-foot under the bar. Don’t drop into position and then try to roll the bar over your mid-foot. It’s harder to get the bar in proper position this way. Move your mid-foot under the bar before you setup rather than moving the bar over your mid-foot later.
The bar must be still before you setup so you have a consistent starting position on every rep. Your floor should therefore be even. If it isn’t, stop the bar from rolling before you setup. You may have to move the bar around until you find a position where it’s still. Don’t setup until you’ve found one.
If the bar moves away from your mid-foot during your setup or between reps, best is to reset. Stand up, get the bar still, and put your mid-foot under the bar again. Then setup and pull. Again, don’t try to move the bar over your mid-foot, you’re unlikely to get in proper position. Reset instead.
The bar should move in a vertical line on the way down as well. And it should land right over your mid-foot again, ready for your next rep. Tape yourself from the side when you Deadlift. If the bar moves up and down in a vertical line, over your mid-foot, you’re likely to use proper form.
Your hip position for Deadlifts depends on your build. If you have long thighs like me, your hips will be higher than if you have short thighs. But your hips will be in proper position if you setup properly and this regardless of your build. So forget about your hip position and focus on your setup.
Deadlifts aren’t Squats. It doesn’t work to setup with low hips like in the bottom of Squats. This moves your knees too far forward. Your shins end in the way of the bar so you’ll hit them on the way up. Plus the bar has to move around your knees instead of straight up. A longer bar path is ineffective.
That’s why you can’t Deadlift heavy weight with low hips. They’ll rise before the weight leaves the floor to put you in a stronger position to apply force. It’s more effective to setup with higher hips rather than moving them mid-lift. This makes your hip position more consistent and improves form.
But your hips shouldn’t start too high. Your legs can’t straighten to lift the weight if you start with high hips – they’re already straight. This takes your knees/quads out of the movement. Your back and hips have to do all the work. Less muscles working means less weight you’ll Deadlift.
Deadlifts with high hips are Stiff-legged Deadlifts. They’re fine as assistance exercise for Deadlifts but don’t substitute them. You want to lift as heavy as you can to gain maximum strength and muscle mass. You can lift heavier if you setup with bent legs and use your knees. Don’t pull with high hips.
The best way to find the proper hip position is to forget about your hips. Setup with the bar over your mid-foot. Now grab the bar and bend your knees until your shins touch the bar. Keep the bar over your mid-foot and raise your chest. Your hips will be exactly where they should be.
Don’t copy someone’s hip position unless you have the same build. My long thighs put my hips higher. Someone with short legs who tries to Deadlift the same way will struggle. His legs will be too straight because of his different build. Copy how I set the bar over my mid-foot, not my hip position.
Watch out with people who review your Deadlift like Squats. There’s no parallel position to reach or start from here. No hips below knee caps. You just setup with the bar and your shoulder-blades over your mid-foot, and your shins against the bar. Your hip position doesn’t matter.
Your shoulder-blades must be above your mid-foot when you setup. Every strong Deadlifter from Andy Bolton to Benedikt Magnusson to Mike Tuchscherer has his shoulder-blades above the bar when the weight leaves the floor. It’s the most effective way to Deadlift heavy weights.
Here’s why: your shoulder-blades transfer force generated by your legs into your back to the bar. You pull it in a vertical line over your balance point – your mid-foot. Gravity pulls the bar down in a vertical line too. So your shoulder-blades must be above the bar to pull against gravity.
This means your shoulder-blades, mid-foot and the bar must be aligned when you setup. There must be a perpendicular line running through them because this is the most efficient way to pull heavy weight off the floor – and this is regardless of your build, height, size, gender, etc.
Don’t squeeze your shoulder-blades on Deadlifts like on the Squat and Bench Press. This increases the distance the bar travels. Keep them back (retracted) by raising your chest when you setup. Lock the position by contracting your lats. But don’t try to make your shoulder-blades touch.
Your shoulders must be in front of the bar when you setup for Deadlifts. This puts your shoulder-blades above the bar and is the most effective way to Deadlfit as discussed above.
Shoulders above the bar doesn’t work. It puts your hips too low. Your knees and shins will come too far forward. You’ll hit them on the way up because they’ll be in the way of the bar. It will have to move around them instead of straight up which is ineffective. Keep your shoulders in front of the bar.
Keep your shoulders relaxed. You don’t need to shrug or roll them at the top of your Deadlifts. Your traps already work hard to keep your shoulders in place. Shrugging or rolling is unnecessary and bad for your shoulder joints. Let your shoulders hang while your legs lift the weight off the floor.
The proper back angle for Deadlifts depends on your build. If you have long thighs with a short torso like me your back angle will be more horizontal to the floor. Same if you have short arms. But your back angle will be more vertical if you have short thighs or long arms.
You should therefore not focus on your back angle (just like you shouldn’t focus on your hip position). Focus on setting up properly instead – bar over mid-foot, shoulder-blades above bar, and shins against bar. If they’re aligned, your back angle will be perfect regardless of your build.
Keep your back angle constant through your Deadlift. Don’t let your hips rise faster than your chest. This takes your quads out of the movement by straightening your legs too soon. Raise your hips and chest at the same time by pushing your feet through the floor.
The angle of your shins depends on your build too. But they should be incline when looking from the side. Vertical shins doesn’t work because it puts you too far behind the bar. You’ll lose balance and dig the bar into your shins. Just setup properly and forget about your shin angle.
Your shins can’t touch the bar when you stand with your mid-foot under it. If they do, the bar is too close and will hit your shins when you pull. Your shins should only touch the bar when you setup by grabbing the bar and bending over. Don’t let your shins push the bar away from your mid-foot.
The bar must stay in contact with your legs when you Deadlift to save your lower back. Dragging it over your shins to the top can feel uncomfortable at first and cause redness. Protect your shins by wearing long pants or socks. Or put athletic tape over your shins.
Your shins should not bleed when you Deadlift. They should not get bruised either. The bar should start against your shins during the setup, and then drag over them to the top. But if your shins get beat up, your form is probably off. Make sure you’re not to close to the bar and hips not too low.
Push your knees out when you Deadlift. Setup with your toes pointing out 15°. Then push your knees in the same direction as your toes during your setup and while you pull the weight. This will engage your groin muscles. More muscles working is more weight you can Deadlift.
Pushing your knees out also keeps them back and out of the way of the bar. You’re less likely to hit them on the way up. The bar can move up in a more efficient vertical bar line.
Lock your knees at the top of every rep so you have a strong position to hold the weight. Straighten your legs through their full range of motion until your knee joints are locked. The rep doesn’t count if you fail to finish your Deadlifts with locked knees.
Deadlift with your lower back neutral. Setup with the normal inward curve of your lower spine aka lordosis. This keeps the pressure on your spinal discs equal when you Deadlift. It’s therefore the safest way to pull heavy weight off the floor without injuring your lower back.
Don’t pull with a rounded lower back. This squeezes the front of your spinal discs on the side of your stomach. It stretches the back of your discs. One can bulge overtime, pinch a nerve and cause pain shooting down your leg. This is how lower back injuries usually happen on Deadlifts.
Over-arching your lower back is bad for the same reason. It also puts uneven pressure on your spinal discs but by squeezing the back part. Your lower spine must have a natural curve, not hyper-lordosis. If you tend to over-arch your lower back, contract your abs to straighten your spine.
Set your lower back neutral before you pull the weight. Don’t try to do this after the weight has left the floor – it won’t work. Setup with the bar over your mid-foot, grab it and bend your legs until your shins touch the bar. Raise your chest and your lower spine will be neutral.
If you struggle to put your lower back neutral, try to arch it. Pull your hips to the ceiling while raising your chest. You can exaggerate this arching cue until your lower back stops rounding. But remember proper Deadlift form is not hyper-lordosis but a natural arch in your lower spine.
Once your lower back is neutral, lock it into position before you pull. Raise your chest, contract your abs and take a big breath. Hold it and then pull. Best is to contract your whole torso between every rep before pulling the weight again. Otherwise your back will tire and round.
Don’t try to pull the weight with your lower back. Your back doesn’t Deadlift the weight – it doesn’t move. It just keeps your spine neutral while transferring force generated by your legs to the bar. Your legs and hips lift the weight by starting bent and straightening out. Let them do the work.
Your upper-back should also remain neutral when you Deadlift. It’s easier to keep your lower back neutral if your upper-back is neutral as well. You do this by raising your chest before pulling the weight. Keep your chest up up by taking a big breath and squeezing your lats.
Your upper-spine has a normal outward curve. It will look slightly rounded when you raise your chest. This is fine as long as your shoulders don’t slouch. Don’t try to get an arch in your upper-back like in your lower back – this is not the natural position of your upper-spine.
Deadlift with your neck neutral. Your whole spine must be neutral so you have equal pressure on your spinal discs. Position your head so you have that natural inward curve in your cervical spine.
This means you shouldn’t be looking up when you setup for Deadlifts. This squeezes your spinal discs which is bad as discussed earlier. It also causes bad Deadlift form – you may try to relieve pressure in your neck from looking up by dropping your hips more. But this doesn’t work either.
It’s tempting to look up or forward in a gym full of mirrors. You’ll try to use them to check your form. But they’ll mess it up and mess your neck. Face the mirrors away if you can. If you can’t, ignore them. Videotape yourself instead to check your Deadlift form.
The other mistake is to look at your feet or the bar. This relaxes your upper-back and makes it more likely to round. Your lower back is more likely to round too which is bad as already explained. Your chest must stay up and this works best when you keep your upper-back and neck neutral.
Look at a point on the floor in front of you instead. If you do this right you’ll have a straight line from the top of your head to your hips when you setup for Deadlifts. Your neck will be neutral. This can feel weird if you’re used to look up. Stick with it and you’ll get used to it.
The proper Deadlift setup looks like a half Squat. Your build determines your hip height and back angle. But they’ll be where they should be if you setup in the following position:
Bar over mid-foot – middle of your whole foot not just visible part
Shins against bar – grab the bar and bend over until your shins touch the bar
Shoulder-blades above the bar – shoulders in front of the bar, arms slightly incline
Neutral spine – natural lower back arch, chest up, head inline with your spine
Setup by walking to the bar first. Put your mid-foot under it. Grab the bar while keeping your hips high. Then bend your legs until your shins touch the bar. Now straighten your spine by raising your chest. If the bar stayed over your mid-foot the whole time, you’re ready to pull.
You’re doing it right if your mid-foot and shoulder-blades are aligned with the bar. You should be able to draw a perpendicular through them when looking from the side. You should also be able to draw a straight line from your head to your hips. This is the most effective position to pull from.
Every rep must start from this position. The key is to lower the bar in a vertical line so it lands over your mid-foot again. Your back will tire and want to round as the reps go by. Lock it in the neutral position by raising your chest and taking a big breath before you pull the next rep.
Your toes should be slightly out, about 15 degrees. Push your knees out as well – it keeps your shins back and out of the way of the bar. Space is limited but try to push them in the same direction as your toes. This will engage your groin and helps you Deadlift more weight.
Proper Deadlift form is lifting the bar in a vertical line. This is the most effective way to pull because it is the shortest distance between the floor and the lockout. And since you have the best balance when the bar moves over your mid-foot, it should leave the floor from that position.
Pull the weight slowly off the floor. Don’t jerk the bar. Don’t try to lift it with your arms. Take the slack out of the bar first. Pull on it with straight arms until the sleeves touch the top of the plate holes. Keep the tension, take a big breath, and then lift the weight off the floor. The bottom should be slow.
Drag the bar over your legs. If you setup correctly, your shins started against the bar. Keep it close to your center of mass by dragging the bar over your shins, knees and thighs to the top. Don’t let it drift away or it will be harder on your back. Protect your legs by wearing long pants or socks.
Push your knees out while you lift the weight. This keeps them back and out of the way of the bar. It also engages your groin muscles more. The more muscles involved, the heavier the weight you can Deadlift. Make sure you setup with your toes 15° out so you can push your knees out.
Raise your hips and chest at the same time. Don’t let your hips rise first or your legs will straighten too soon. This takes your quads out of the movement and makes the weight harder to Deadlift. Wait until the bar has left the floor to raise your hips and chest at the same time.
Try to push your feet through the floor instead of pulling the weight back. Imagine you’re doing the leg press – lift the bar by pushing the floor away with your feet. The floor will obviously not move. But this cue stops your hips from rising too soon. It helps properly involving your legs.
There should be no horizontal bar movement when you Deadlift. One, this increases the distance the bar must travel to reach the lockout. Two, it makes the weight harder on your lower back. If the bar moves horizontally (like in a J-curve), it didn’t start over your mid-foot. Fix your setup position.
If the bar doesn’t want to leave the floor, your grip might be weak. Step away from the bar, put chalk on, and try again with a mixed grip. You’ll have a better grip and should be able to lift the weight now. Don’t give up too quickly, keep pulling. If the bar still won’t move, it’s just too heavy.
The way down must be a mirror of the way up. The bar must move down in a vertical line because this is the shortest distance to the floor. It must stay in contact with your legs to decrease lower back stress. And it must land over your mid-foot ready for your next rep. Your spine must stay neutral.
Unlock your hips and knees. Then lower the weight by moving your hips back. Keep your legs almost straight while moving mostly from your hips. The goal is to keep your knees back and out of the way of the bar. This way you can lower it in a vertical line to your mid-foot.
Don’t lower the weight by bending all from your knees. They’ll come too far forward and block the bar. You’ll then hit your knees which hurts. The bar will have to move around your knees to reach the floor. It will land over your forefoot which is an inefficient position to pull your next rep from.
Wait until the bar has passed your knees to bend them. Lower the weight by moving your hips back while keeping your legs almost straight. Keep the bar close by sliding it down your legs to your mid-foot. Keep your lower back neutral – don’t let it round or hyper-extend. Normal inward curve.
Lower the bar under control but not slow. It should be faster than the way up. But don’t drop the bar. One, that breaks the floor, plates and bar. Two, the way down builds strength and muscle too. Keep the bar in your hands and lower it under control back to the floor.
You’re lowering the bar correctly if it moves in a vertical line and lands over your mid-foot. The bar should never hit your knees, and your lower back shouldn’t hurt.
Finish your Deadlift by locking your hips and knees. Stand tall with your chest up and shoulders back. Keep your lower back neutral so you have that normal inward curve. Hold the weight for a second at the top, over your mid-foot. Then lower it back to the floor under control. Done.
Don’t lean back. Some powerlifters do this to avoid red lights in competitions. They want the judges to see they pulled their shoulders behind their hips. But leaning back loads your spinal discs unevenly. It squeezes the back of your discs which is dangerous as explained above. Don’t do it.
Just stand up with the bar and lock your hips. Remember your back doesn’t lift the weight – it keeps your spine neutral. So don’t try to pull the weight back and then stand there with your butt sticking out. Lock your hips so your lower back ends in a stable and safe neutral position.
Lock your knees too. This isn’t bad for your joints because you’re not taking them past their range of motion – not hyper-extending. You’re using a normal range of motion by straightening your legs until your knees are locked. Heavy weight is easier to hold with locked than bent knees.
Shrugging or rolling your shoulders at the top is unnecessary. Your traps already work hard to keep your shoulders in position when you Deadlift. There’s no need to add a contraction at the top, and doing it anyway is bad for your shoulders. Let your shoulders hang at the top.
Inhale before pulling the bar off the floor. Hold your breath while you pull the weight. Continue to hold your breath at the top. Lower the weight back on the floor and then exhale. This is the proper way to breathe on Deadlifts because it increases lower back safety and strength.
Here’s how this works: inhaling fills your lungs with air. It expands your chest and abdomen. Holding that air increases pressure in your torso which puts force on your spine. This creates a “natural belt’ that supports your back – it keeps it in proper position so it doesn’t bend.
Your blood pressure will increase when you hold your breath. But it will return to normal after your set. Deadlifts actually lower your blood pressure by increasing muscle strength. Stronger muscles put less demand on your heart because it takes them less effort to do what you do.
Ignore people telling you to exhale on the way up and inhale on the way down. Exhaling empties your lungs. It decreases pressure in your torso. It therefore also decreases lower back support. You’re more likely to injure your spine if you exhale on the way up. Don’t do this.
Exhaling at the top is bad for the same reason. The reps are short so you can hold your breath until the bar is back on the floor. If not, you’re waiting too long to pull after inhaling at the bottom. Wait to inhale until you’re ready to pull. Once you’ve taken a big breath, pull immediately.
Exhale once the bar is back on the floor. Then setup for your next rep by gripping the bar tight, raising your chest and setting your back neutral. Take a big breath and pull. Hold your breath at the top while holding the weight for a second. Then lower it back to the floor. Exhale, setup, inhale, repeat.
Every rep must start from a DEAD stop because this is a DEADlift. The weight must be still before you pull your next rep. Rest the bar on the floor for a second between reps. Use this pause to breathe and set yourself back in a strong position before you pull again.
Don’t bounce. You can Deadlift more reps if you drop the weight and pull it back up by bouncing it off the floor. But this takes work away from your muscles. You’re not lifting the weight from the floor to your knees – the rebound from the plates against the floor is. So bouncing is cheating.
Pulling from a dead stop is harder. But this is also why it builds more strength and muscle. Plus the pause gives you time to setup with proper form for your next rep. Bouncing gives you zero time for this which is why it causes bad form (it usually ends in a stiff-legged rounded back pull).
Keep the rest on the floor short so you can use the stretch reflex. Your hamstrings and glutes stretch on the way down. This makes them contract harder on the way up and increases strength. You lose the stretch reflex if you wait too long between reps. It should be just a second.
So don’t stand up between reps. It makes the next rep harder because you lose the stretch reflex. If you lower the bar correctly, it will land over your mid-foot. Your hips and shoulder-blades will be in proper position. The only thing left is to breathe, put your spine neutral, and get tight.
Avoid regripping the bar for the same reason. If you have to regrip then you didn’t grip correctly at the start – maybe you used a normal grip while this weight needs a mixed grip. Or you gripped mid-palm and had to relax because of hand pain. Grip properly before starting your Deadlift set.
Work hard on getting tight between reps to lock your spine in a neutral position. Grip the bar hard and plant your feet into the ground. Try to get your whole torso stiff by contracting your chest, abs and lats. Do this when you take that big breath right before you pull the weight off the floor.
Many strong Deadlifters are tall: Brian Shaw is 6’8″, Terry Hollands is 6’6″, Zydrunas Savickas is 6’3″, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson is 6’9″ tall. And yet they all Deadlift well over 400kg/880lb.
It’s because your height doesn’t matter. Look at The Mountain in the top picture: he pulls with his head neutral, shoulders in front of the bar, bar drags over his legs, etc. He follows all the Deadlift tips in this guide because Deadlifting for tall guys is the same as for guys of average height.
It’s the length of your limbs that matters. If you have long thighs like me, your knees will come more forward. So you’re more likely to bruise your shins during Deadlifts. But I’m only 5’8″ and have long thighs. Tall guys with long thighs think only they have such problems. They don’t.
Don’t let your height be an excuse. Follow these Deadlift tips and practice.
Andy Bolton was the first guy to Deadlift 1000lb. He weighs 350lb. Benedikt Magnusson has broken Andy’s world record by Deadlifting 1015lb. He weighs 379lb. Being big didn’t stop them from using proper form on the Deadlifts. They Deadlift exactly like this guide lays out.
Look at the picture above. They both setup with the bar over their mid-foot, their shoulder-blades over the bar, shoulders in front, head neutral, lower back neutral, etc. So this works even if you’re big.
The usual challenge for bigger guys is that their belly gets in the way. Widen your stance. Go narrower than on Squats but wider than hip-width apart. You can create further space for your belly by pointing your toes out and pushing your knees to the side. Most important, don’t make excuses.
Small palms and/or short fingers make it harder to hold the bar during Deadlifts. Less thumb overlaps your fingers. Your grip is less secure compared to Deadlifters with bigger hands like me.
But the size of your hands doesn’t matter until you reach an advanced level on Deadlifts. Women are proof of this: they have smaller hands and weigh less. And yet they routinely Deadlift 180kg/400lb. You can do it too, regardless of the size of your hands, if you do the work.
The key is to grip the bar tight, apply chalk and use the mixed grip. Finish every Deadlift set with static holds to further increase your grip strength. Be consistent, be patient and don’t make excuses. Your grip strength will increase, and so will your Deadlift.
Small palms can result in bigger calluses. They force you to grip the bar mid-palm because you have little room to play with. Don’t wear gloves – they make the bar even thicker, last thing you want. Just shave your calluses off every week so they don’t get trapped under the bar and tear.
Proper Deadlift for women is same as for men. This is because the body of a woman is similar to that of a man if you forget about the boobs and genitals for a minute. They also have two arms, two legs, two hands, two feet, one torso and one head. They’re usually just smaller.
That means you Deadlift the same way as men do. Setup with the bar over your mid-foot, grab the bar by bending over, and then drop your knees until your shins touch the bar. Do it right and your shoulder-blades will end over the bar. Pull from here by dragging the bar over your legs. That’s it.
Don’t hyper-extend your lower back. Women tend to do this due to their hip anatomy (more anterior pelvic tilt for making babies). Excess lower back arching squeezes your discs – don’t do it. Keep a natural arch by squeezing your abs. Wearing a belt can cue them to contract.
There are lighter women’s barbells that weigh only 15kg/30lb. They’re usually shorter, and some are only 25mm thick to deal with women’s smaller hands. However women use the same 28mm barbell in competitions as men do. So unless an empty man bar is too heavy, just use it.
Wear long socks if you don’t want to bruise your shins but keep them sexy for summer. Shave your calluses off to keep your hands soft if you like to give your man a massage.
A strong grip is crucial for Deadlifts because you can’t lift a weight you can’t hold. Strengthening your grip helps you holding the weight longer. You fail less Deadlift reps on StrongLifts 5×5. You progress better as a result, increase your Deadlift and build bigger forearms muscles.
The best way to increase your grip strength for Deadlifts is to use white knuckling, chalk and the mixed grip. Squeeze the bar until your knuckles turn white. Use chalk to absorb sweat. Grip the bar with one hand facing up, one down. For extra grip work, do static holds.
What doesn’t work are straps, gloves and grippers. Straps cover a weak grip instead of strengthening it. Gloves make the bar thicker and harder to hold. Grippers build grip strength that doesn’t carry-over to Deadlifts. Stick with white knuckling, chalk and the mixed grip.
Squeeze the bar until your knuckles turn white. The tighter your grip, the less the bar can move in your hands. Gravity will pull the bar down and out of your hands during Deadlifts. If you grip the bar loose, it will slide down, open your hands and you’ll lose the bar. So squeeze hard.
White knuckling also increases overall Deadlift strength. When you make a tight fist, all the muscles upstream (your biceps, shoulders, etc) contract harder. This is “hyper radiation” – you engage more muscles by squeezing the bar as hard as you can until your knuckles turn white.
The full grip works best for white knuckling because you can squeeze harder. That means you should wrap your thumbs around the bar so they overlap your fingers. Don’t grip thumbless to “feel it more”. You’ll feel it more when your Deadlifts are heavy. The full grip works better for that.
You can also keep your hands closed longer with the full grip. Gravity will pull the weight down. The bar will open your hands and roll down to your fingers. Without your thumbs overlapping your fingers, you’d lose the bar quickly. So Deadlift with a full grip and squeeze the bar hard.
The mixed grip is holding the bar with one hand up, one down (like a baseball bat). This increases grip strength by putting four fingers and two thumbs on both sides of the bar. The normal grip puts eight fingers on one side but only two thumbs on the other side. So your thumbs always fail first.
The mixed grip also cancels the bar rotation. Gravity pulls the bar down which opens your hands. The bar rolls to you and opens your hands more because both palms face you. But it can’t roll anymore if you face one hand away. That’s how the mixed grip can add 20/45lb to your Deadlift.
The mixed grip isn’t cheating. You’re still Deadlifting the weight by yourself (unlike with straps). Your grip muscles still have to fight gravity. They still have to keep your hands closed so you don’t lose the bar. There’s just no more rotation. But your grip is working – with much heavier weights now.
Don’t avoid the mixed grip to strengthen your grip. You don’t want to limit your Deadlifts. Your grip won’t be weak if you grip normal on most sets, mixed on heavy sets. It will get stronger because you’ll increase your Deadlifts with the mixed grip. So you’ll work your grip with heavier weights.
Most people face their dominant hand up. I’m right handed and faced my right hand up for years. In 2014 I switched it around after a small injury. Grip was weaker at first but it’s now equally strong. It doesn’t seem to matter which hands you face up as long as you’re consistent with it.
Some people recommend switching the hand facing up on each set to avoid imbalances on the spine and shoulders. But you won’t use the mixed grip on every set – only the heavy ones. Plus StrongLifts 5×5 included plenty of balanced leg and back work with Squats/Rows to avoid imbalances.
If you’re skeptical, I asked my good friend World Champion Mike Tuchscherer about this. He never switches the hand facing up because that gives that arm half the practice. He wants full practice to increase grip strength, strengthen his arm in that position, and protect it against injury.
The best way to avoid biceps tears from the mixed grip is to keep your arms straight. Don’t Deadlift with bent elbows. Don’t jerk the bar off the floor or try to lift it with your arms. Grip the bar tight with locked elbows but relaxed arms. Let your stronger legs and back muscles Deadlift the weight.
You don’t need the mixed grip the first weeks of StrongLifts 5×5 – the weight is still light. Don’t use the mixed grip when you can hold the bar with the normal grip. Otherwise you have nothing to switch to the day the weight is too heavy to hold to. Use the normal grip as long as you can.
Once you approach the thee-plate 140kg/300lb Deadlift, you’ll notice it will be harder to hold on the bar. Here’s how to use the mixed grip then…
Normal Grip for Warmups. Strenghten you grip with the bar rotation by using the normal grip on your lighter sets. Grip the bar with both palms facing you for as many warmup sets as you can. Hold the weight at the top to strengthen your grip even more (static hold).
Mixed Grip for Heavy Sets. Once you can’t hold the weight with the normal grip anymore, use the mixed grip. So if you can’t finish your set with the normal grip, switch to the mixed grip and continue. Never let the normal grip stop you from Deadlifting weight.
Deadlifting mixed grip will feel weird at first. It can feel harder to setup properly, as if you lack space. But it’s just a matter of habit. Keep practicing and you’ll get used to it. The quickest way is to face the same hand up everytime. This way you get double the practice with this grip.
The bar will tend to drift forward on the side where your hand faces up. Keep it against your legs by pulling it back on that side. Don’t let the bar drift away or it will be harder to lift. Pull even.
If you have a shoulder injury or get shoulder pain from the mixed grip, switch the hand facing up. If it feels more comfortable that way, stick with it. Again, it doesn’t seem to matter which hand you face up for grip strength. Use what you can use and stick with it.
Static holds means holding the weight without doing any movement. On the Deadlift you do this by holding the weight at the top for several seconds before returning it to the floor.
Static holds increase grip strength for Deadlifts by increasing time under tension. Let’s say your set takes ten seconds. If you hold the bar for ten more seconds at the end, you trained your grip to hold that weight for 20 seconds. Do this enough and holding for 10 seconds becomes piece of cake.
To do static holds you hold the weight at the end of your set. Just stand with the weight after your last rep. Keep your hips and knees locked but let your shoulders and arms hang. Hold it for ten seconds or so (less if you can’t), then lower the bar back to the floor. Simple but super-effective.
Do static holds on your last Deadlift set of the day at least. I do it on every set and it doesn’t tire my grip for my top sets. But I’ve been doing this for a while and have quite a strong grip. If this weakens your grip, only do statics holds on your top set until your grip strength increases.
Grippers aren’t that effective to increase grip strength for Deadlifts. They build a different type of grip that has limited carry-over to Deadlifts.
Deadlifts need support grip – thestrength to keep your hand closed so you don’t lose the bar (gravity pulls the weight down which opens your hands)
Grippers build crushing grip – the strength to close your hand against an external resistance (closing the Captain of Crush Grippers, giving strong handshakes, etc)
This is why static holds work better than grippers. They train your grip the exact same way you use it on Deadlifts. Plus they only take 10 seconds at the end of each set. And you don’t need to buy extra equipment – you already have the bar. You can save your money and buy steaks instead.
If you want to use grippers anyway, then don’t do quick closes and releases for reps. Keep the gripper closed for time instead. It will try to open your hand like gravity does during heavy Deadlifts. Keep your hand closed to build the support grip you need for heavy Deadlifts.
Keep in mind you’re gripping a lot already. Every StrongLifts 5×5 exercise, daily life, etc. Using grippers on top can cause nasty elbow pain that can keep you from lifting. Take it slowly. If it hurts, stop.
You’ll have the best grip with a powerlifting barbell with revolving sleeves and sharp knurling.
28mm beats 29mm and 30mm because your thumbs cover your fingers more when you grip the bar. Revolving sleeves are easier on your wrists because the plates can spin when you Deadlift. Deep, sharp knurling is better than smooth because it gives you a better grip.
The middle of the bar should have no knurling (except the very center for Squats). This way your shin touch the smooth part of the bar when you Deadlift. If the whole bar is knurled it will scrape your shins and make them to bleed. This hurts and causes bad Deadlift form.
Weightlifting bars are okay but not ideal. They spin more which is great for Olympic Lifting but not for Deadlifts. The bar will rotate in your hands more. This makes the bar harder to hold. You’ll have to switch to the mixed grip sooner with a weightlifting bar than with a powerlifting bar.
Cheap bars without knurling are hard to hold, even if you use chalk and the mixed grip. If the bar has fixed sleeves, it will spin with the plates, rotate in your hands and weaken your grip. Cheap bars also bend easily. This can hurt your confidence if it feels like the bar could break mid-set.
Invest in a quality Olympic Barbell. You’re using the barbell for every StrongLifts 5×5 exercise so it’s worth it. You’ll have a better grip for Deadlifts and you’ll feel safer with heay weights. A quality barbell isn’t cheap but it lasts a lifetime. Some options:
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.
The best plates for Deadlifts are round, made of iron and have 50mm holes. Diameter should be 17″ for the 20kg/45lb plates so the bar starts at mid-shin level when you setup for Deadlifts.
Hexagonal plates don’t work because they land unpredictably. The bar will land away from your shins on some reps. You’ll have to reset between reps to avoid back pain and shin scraping (but this turns your 1×5 Deadlifts in harder 5×1). Hex plates are for plate-loaded machines, not Deadlifts or Rows.
You don’t need rubber or bumper plates. Heavy Deadlifts will always make noise. Plus bumpers can encourage bouncing between reps. Iron plates force you to pause between reps so you don’t break the bar and the plates. Plus they’re cheaper and take less space than bumpers.
Weight tree. 50mm/2″ holes to keep your plates organized.
Here’s the minimum setup I recommend:
4x20kg, 2x10kg, 2x5kg, 2×2.5kg, 2×1.25kg
4x45lb, 2x25lb, 2x10lb, 4×5lb, 2×2,5lb (4x5lb so you can do 85-90lb on Overhead Press)
Include your 20kg/45lb and you can Deadlift 137.5kg/303lb with this setup. This will keep you busy for at least three months on StrongLifts 5×5. When you run out of plates, buy extra 20kg/45lb.
If start StrongLifts 5×5 with the recommended weights of 40kg/95lb, consider two full diameter plates of 25lb/10kg. This way you can setup with the bar at the proper mid-shin level.
It’s hard to Deadlift without making noise. Dropping weight makes noise, especially if it’s heavy. You could lower the weight more slowly to reduce noise. But this is stressful on your back and wastes strength for the next rep. Keeping the weight in the air is not an option as that is not a Deadlift.
Instead get rubber mats to decease the noise and protect your floor against the impact of the weight.
You can also build your own platform using horse mats and plywood. Here’s an example.
Chalk increases grip strength by absorbing sweat. It stops the bar from moving in your hands when you have sweaty hands due to hot weather or a hard session. I increased my Deadlift by 20kg/45lb almost overnight by using chalk. If you’re not using chalk you’re leaving kg/lb on the bar.
Chalk also reduces calluses from Deadlifting. You get calluses because the bar squeezes on your skin folds. Chalk fills up your skin folds which makes your palms smoother. Less of your skin gets trapped under the bar. This means less and smaller calluses than if you lifted without chalk.
Some gyms forbid chalk. You can solve that with liquid chalk, it leaves no traces. Babypowder doesn’t work – it decreases friction and will weaken your grip. The gym chalk you’re looking for is Magnesium Carbonate. It’s what rock climbers and gymnasts use.
GSC Gym Chalk. Eight blocks for a total of 1lb. This should last you several months. Break one in pieces 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.
Boardchalk is not gym chalk. Eco chalk balls I don’t recommend because they don’t fill your skin folds like gym chalk does (unless you split them open but then you paid more for nothing).
Your skin can get beat up by the chalk, especially in cold winter. Chalk works by drying your hands. I have sensitive skin and am prone to eczema’s. So I must make sure I get rid of the chalk asap after training to avoid skin issues. Wash your hands when done, moisturize if needed.
The best shoes for Deadlifts have thin, flat, hard soles. Thin soles shorten the distance the bar travels by putting you closer to the floor. Flat soles let you sit back better to engage your stronger posterior chain muscles more. Hard soles don’t compress which improves balance and power transfer.
Deadlifting barefoot puts you closest to the floor. But many gyms don’t allow it because it’s unsafe and unclean. Plus you have zero traction when Deadlifting barefoot. While it’s harder for your feet to slip during Deadlifts than Squats because there’s less hip rotation, shoes are more stable.
Deadlift slippers fix the issue of barefoot lifting. They’re socks with a thin rubber sole (they look like ballet slippers). This gives you traction while keeping you close to the floor. The world champion Deadlifter Andy Bolton uses Deadlift slippers. I’ve never used them.
Don’t Deadlift in running shoes. Their soles have air or gel filling that compresses to absorb impact. They compress differently on each rep which makes it impossible to control your form. Running shoes cause bad form, which increases the risk of injury. Don’t wear them for Deadlifts.
Deadlift with these shoes instead…
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.
Belts increase your Deadlift by giving your abs something to push against. Your abs contract harder which increases pressure in your trunk. This gives your lower back extra support and improves power transfer to the bar. You can easily increase your Deadlift by 15kg/30lb with a belt.
Deadlifting with a belt isn’t cheating. The International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) allows belts. They forbid straps because they make your grip muscles work less. But your abs don’t work less when you wear a belt. They work MORE because they have something to push against.
This is similar to how chalk allow your grip muscles to work harder. Chalk increases friction and help you hold on the bar better. So your grip muscles are exposed to heavier weights than if you didn’t use chalk. Same with the belt: your abs can contract harder and lift more weight.
Belt don’t make your abs weak. They’ll get stronger because you’ll work them harder and with heavier weights. My beltless Deadlift increased as my belted Deadlift did. I Deadlift heavier now without belt than before Deadlifting with belt. Your abs won’t become weak. They’ll get stronger.
Besides, you shouldn’t wear the belt during your whole workout. Wear it on your last warmup set and work sets only, and remove it between sets. This trains your abs both ways: beltless and belted.
Belts don’t protect against injuries from Deadlifting with bad form. Pulling with a round lower back can get you hurt despite wearing a belt. The injury could be even worse if you thought the belt made you invincible. Always Deadlift with proper form, especially when using a belt.
I recommend you Deadlift the first 12 weeks of StrongLifts 5×5 without belt. This way you can focus on proper form first. Once you’re getting close to 300lb/140kg on your Deadlift, start wearing a belt to lift more. It will feel weird at first. Just a matter of practice like anything else.
Your belt should be the same width across to give your abs a big surface to push against. That makes bodybuilding belts inefficient for Deadlifts. Get one of these instead…
I have the Inzer – 10mm and single prong (easier to put on than 13mm/double prong). It’s 4″ wide and fits well despite my short torso. It never hurts but I wear it higher on Deadlfits than Squats.
Don’t wear the belt tight or it will hurt your ribs. Belts aren’t corsets. Wear it on top of your belly button, higher than on Squats, so it doesn’t dig in your hips when you setup for Deadlifts. If you’re short with a small torso, a 3″ or 2.5″ wide belt might fit better for you on Deadlifts.
Straps make the bar easier to hold by wrapping it to your wrists. They can help you Deadlift heavier weights if your grip is the limiting factor. But they do so by taking work away from your hands and forearm muscles. You can weaken your grip if you over-rely on straps.
I made this mistake. My grip held me back on Deadlifts so I started using straps. Then I used them on Rows and Pullups. Then I used them on every set and exercise. This turned my grip weak – I couldn’t hang on the pullup bar for 10 seconds. So I quit using straps and let my grip strengthen.
Many people misuse straps to cover their weak grip instead of fixing it. It’s tempting to wear straps on every set and exercise as I did. But the less your grip muscles must work to hold the bar, the weaker they become. This increases the need for straps – you can’t lift without anymore after a while.
Some people don’t care. They just want to build muscle. But Deadlifting without straps builds bigger forearms. Your hands, wrists and forearms muscles must work harder to keep the bar in your hands. This makes them stronger and thus more muscular – more strength is more muscle.
There’s no better way to build big and muscular forearms than Deadlifting without straps. The weight is easily five times heavier than on a wrist curl. Again, more weight is more strength is more muscle. You don’t need extra forearm exercises if you Deadlift heavy without straps. This saves time.
You also get the satisfaction of Deadlifting the weight yourself, without a pair of straps holding the bar for you. And you keep things simple by not needing another piece of equipment to train.
Note that Powerlifting competitions don’t allow straps. Belts are fine because they don’t lift the weight for you. They just gives your abs something to push against so they contract harder. But straps hold the bar for you. They make your grip muscles work less, not more. They’re therefore not allowed.
I don’t Deadlift with straps anymore, and have pulled 495lb without. My grip is strong enough to never hold me back. If I use straps it’s because I can’t mixed grip (on heavy Dumbbell Rows for example). Otherwise I stick with white knuckling, chalk and the mixed grip.
If you want to Deadlift with straps anyway, make sure you only use them on your heaviest set. Pull most sets without so your forearms get to work. This way you don’t end with a weak grip.
Gloves add a layer between your palms and the bar. The idea is to protect your hands against the pressure of the weight. But gloves aren’t effective at this despite what the sellers claim.
Heavy weight puts pressure on your hands with or without gloves. It’s weight. Gravity pulls it down. Your skin can still fold under the bar if you grip it wrong (this causes hand pain and big callus). You’re more likely to grip the bar wrong with gloves because you can’t feel the bar.
Gloves also make the bar harder to hold. The extra layer between your hands and the bar increases the diameter of the surface you grip. It’s like turning a 28mm bar into 30mm. Less thumb overlaps your fingers. You’ll get less reps and need the mixed grip faster.
Gloves also add an unnecessary expense. The bar will wear them out quickly. It will pull on them until the stitches come loose. Your gloves will fall apart and you’ll need to buy new ones all the time. Chalk and a pumice stone cost less, last longer, and limit callus formation better.
Many people get gloves when they start lifting because their hands hurt. They hurt because you have no callus yet. Don’t use gloves and your skin will toughen up. It will form callus to protect against the pressure of the bar. Your hands will stop hurting if you stick it out. It won’t take long.
Gloves only make sense if it freezes in your gym, until the bar has warmed up. You could also wear gloves until that torn callus has healed. I’ve always preferred to tape it up. This way I don’t have an extra layer over my whole hand which hurts proper form and grip strength.
If you insist on Deadlifting with gloves, be warned you’ll be frowned upon by serious lifters. Success in the gym requires overcoming discomfort. Gloves send a signal that you can’t handle the pressure of the bar on your hands. They’ll consider you a newbie until you lift with your bare hands.
Deadlifts aren’t Squats. You don’t walk the weight out of the rack, lower it and then Deadlift it back up. You start each rep with the weight on the floor. You then DEADlift this DEAD weight from that DEAD stop until your knees and hips are locked. This is the proper way to Deadlift.
Pulling top-down usually promotes bouncing. You end dropping the bar fast and pull it back up using the rebound of the plates on the floor. This creates fake strength at the bottom. It’s also harder to control a bar you dropped. You get an unpredictable bar path and thus bad form.
There’s one Deadlift variation where you pull top-down – the Romanian Deadlift. Here you keep your legs almost straight while moving from the hips. This stresses your posterior chain more but limits how heavy you can go. Romanian Deadlifts are assistance for Deadlifts, not a substitute.
Always pull the weight from the floor up.
Bouncing Your Deadlifts
Bouncing means dropping the bar quickly and using the rebound of the plates against the floor to pull the weight back up. It’s tempting to Deadlift this way because you get more reps. But it’s bad form.
Bouncing builds fake strength. You’re not pulling the weight off the floor to your knees. The rebound is. So you’re not strengthening the muscles which should do that work. You’re making them weak.
This becomes clear when you test your one rep max Deadlift. You can’t bounce that rep because the weight is dead on the floor. Don’t be surprised if you can barely Deadlift for one rep what you bounced for five. It’s because you never pulled five reps. You pulled one. The other four were partials.
Bouncing also increases the risk of injury. You’re dropping the bar too fast to control it. It will bounce unpredictably off the floor. It can bounce forward and away from your legs, which will stress your lower back more. Or it can bounce backwards into your shins, which will bruise them.
Worse, bouncing happens so fast that you can neglect to use your legs. The usual mistake is to keep your legs straight and pull with your hips and back only. This stresses your back more since your legs can’t help it to lift the weights. It’s even more dangerous if you let your lower back round.
The proper way to Deadlift is from a dead stop. Wait a second on the floor between reps. Use this pause to get tight and take a big breath before pulling your next rep. You’ll have better form, are less likely to get injured, and will build real strength from the floor.
Not Touching The Floor
Deadlifts aren’t Yates Row. You don’t keep the weight in the air between reps. You put it on the floor.
Keeping the weight in the air during your whole set is bad for you back. You’re tiring it out. When it gets tired, the first thing it will want to do is round. Rounding your lower back during heavy Deadlifts squeezes your spinal discs. That’s how people herniate them. Don’t do this crap!
Give your back a break between reps by putting the weight back on the floor. Then use that break to setup strong for your next rep. Put your spine neutral, lock it into position, get tight. Now take a big breath and pull. You’ll be stronger this way, and your back will be safer.
Some people keep the weight in the air to “keep tension on the muscles”. Again, if you want tension, put more weight on the bar. Plenty of tension when you’re Deadlifting four plates. And resting the bar on the floor between reps works better for that. Your back doesn’t get tired before everything else.
Some people do this because their gym forces them to. Print this guide for your gym manager so he gets what he’s making you do is bad for your back. Tell him to get rubber mats or build a platform to protect the floor. And remind him it’s a gym, not a library. Weights make noise – it’s weight.
Squatting Your Deadlifts
Deadlifts aren’t Squats. It doesn’t work to setup with low hips like at the bottom of your Squat. This puts your knees more forward and your shins more incline. You’ll hit them with the bar when you pull. This is how you end up with bruised knees and bloody shins from Deadlfits.
The proper Deadlift setup position looks like a half Squat. Your exact hip position depends on the length of your limbs. If you have a long thighs with a short torso like me, they’ll be higher than if you have short thighs with a long torso (so don’t copy me unless you have the same build).
The simplest way to find the proper hip position for Deadlift is to setup with the bar over your mid-foot. Bend over with straight legs and grab the bar. Now bend your knees without moving the bar until your shins touch the bar. Stop and raise your chest. Your hips were in proper position. Done.
Some people will tell you to drop your hips more. Maybe they don’t get higher hips are normal if you have long thighs with a short torso like me. Or maybe they don’t like the more horizontal back it causes. They want to see you pull with a more vertical torso to avoid “shear force”.
Their thinking is that shear force can make your spinal discs “slide”. Anyone who has done Deadlifts long enough knows this is silly. A spine that can’t stay neutral will round. Nothing slides. Plus your trunk muscles are there to keep your spine from rounding in the first place.
Don’t setup like on Squats and you’ll stop bruising your shins and knees.
Leaning Back At The Top
You don’t need to lean back at the top of Deadlifts. Just stand straight with the weight. Done.
Some powerlifters lean back in competitions. They end their Deadlifts by pulling their shoulders past their hips. This is an exaggeration of the lockout on purpose. The goal is to show the side judges that they locked out the weight. They want to make sure get no red lights.
But leaning back squeezes your spinal discs. It does this like rounding your back does, but from the opposite direction. Squeezing your spine under a load can cause herniated discs. It can be worth the risk when trying to win a competition or break a record. But it isn’t for normal Deadlifting.
Don’t lean back. Just stand up with the weight. You’re finished when your hips and knees are locked. Your shoulders will be above your hips, with a natural arch in your lower back.
Shrugging At The Top
Shrugging your shoulders at the top of Deadlifts is unnecessary. Your traps already work to keep your shoulders in place when you Deadlift. They stay tight while gravity pulls the bar down. This isometric contraction against heavy weights is enough work to stimulate growth. No need to shrug on top.
Rolling your shoulders is unnecessary for the same reason. It’s also dangerous as it can injure your rotator cuff. Just don’t do it. Let your shoulders hang at the top of your Deadlifts.
The guy in the video above is jerking his Deadlift. He’s trying to rip the bar off the floor and lift it using his arms. But his hips end up too high so he can’t use his leg muscles. Worse, his back rounds like a taco. Deadlifting like this is not only ineffective, it’s also plain dangerous.
Your arms will never be strong enough to lift what you can Deadlift. Most people can pull 100kg/220lb without too much work. But try to curl that. Your arms are small muscles compared to your legs. They can never lift the same amount of weight. It’s a waste of effort to try Deadlift with your arms.
If you jerk the bar anyway and bend your arms right before you pull, the weight will straighten them for you. Best case you only get some elbow pain. Worst case you tear your biceps.
The proper way to Deadlift is with straight arms. Grip the bar with locked elbows. Contract your triceps if if helps. Put your heels hip-width apart so your knees don’t push against your elbows.
Now pull SLOWLY. Take the slack out of the bar first by pulling on the bar until it touches the top of the plate holes. Stay tight while taking a big breath. Now get the bar off the floor by pushing through your feet. Once the weight is past your knees you can accelerate. But the bottom should be slow.
Dropping The Weight
Many guys, especially Crossfitters it seems, like to drop the weight from the top of their Deadlifts. There seems to be three reason why they do this:
They’re afraid of hurting their back. Easy: the way down is just the opposite of the way up – bar close, neutral back. If you can’t do the way down, you shouldn’t do the way up.
They keep hitting their knees. Easy too: stop bending your knees only and bend your hips too. Move your hips back and keep your knees back. This creates space for the bar.
They’re looking for attention. The big one. When grunting or yelling isn’t enough, just drop the weight. You don’t fool us though when it turns to be only 100kg/220lb…
The first problem with dropping the weight is that it breaks the bar, plates and floor. Weightlifting bars and bumpers can handle it. But powerlifting bars and iron plates can’t. They’ll wear out, bend, chip and crack. The floor won’t like it either unless you have thick rubber mats or a platform.
Many people complain about gyms banning Deadlifts. But many people, sometimes the same, don’t handle the equipment with respect. I’d get mad too if you dropped my bar. This stuff is expensive. Don’t drop weight not made to be dropped. Don’t drop it on a floor that can’t handle it.
The second problem is that you can’t control where the bar lands if you don’t control it on the way down. You want the bar to land over your mid-foot. This way you can quickly pull the next rep using the stretch reflex. But you can’t do that if the bar lands wrong and you have to reset yourself first.
You can of course not care and pull the bar from a position that isn’t over your mid-foot. But that’s not effective. The bar will either be too far from your legs, which is more stressful on your back… or it will be too close and hit you shins. If you want a strong Deadlift, you have to use proper form.
Third, the way down matters too for gaining strength and muscle. It’s hard to skip it on the Squat or Bench Press. But you can do it easily on Deadlifts by dropping the weight or not resisting it on the way down. This is doing half the work and missing out on strength and muscle gains.
Lower your Deadlifts under control. Don’t drop them.
Mirrors are not an effective way to check your Deadlift form. You can only see your stance and grip when you face the mirror. You can’t see if your lower back is neutral, if your hips are in proper position, whether the bar moves in a vertical line, etc. Bad feedback makes it hard to improve form.
Standing with your side to the mirror doesn’t work either. The only way to see what you do is to turn your head while you Deadlift. This is a great way to tweak your neck. It will hurt for days.
The best way to check your form is by videotaping yourself. Get a gorilla pod so you can attach your phone anywhere. Shoot from the side and front to see every angle. Watch the videos between your sets, improve and fix on the next one. Keep practicing and your form will improve.
Lower Back Pain
Deadlifts can hurt your back if you don’t keep your spine neutral. Always pull with a natural arch in your lower back. Maintain the arch you have when you stand. Your lower back shouldn’t round when you Deadlift. But it also shouldn’t have any excess arch (aka hyper-lordosis).
If you have sharp lower back pain after Deadlifts, or your back gets sore, or one side of your lower back hurts, it’s usually because you’re making one of these mistakes…
Rounding. Deadlifting with your lower back bent squeezes your spinal discs from the front. This hurts and can cause herniated discs. Fix this by setting up properly before you pull. Raise your chest and arch your lower back until it’s neutral.
Hyper-extension. Deadlifting with excess lower back arch also squeezes your spinal discs, but from the back. Fix this by contracting your abs. Wearing a belt can cue them to do this. Also, don’t lean back at the top. Just stand tall with locked hips and knees.
Twisting. Deadlifting with your hips or shoulders leaning more to one side will twist your spine. Keep them neutral by gripping the bar evenly. Double-check your floor and shoes are even. And don’t lean or pull more with one side when you Deadlift.
If you’re getting lower back pain despite Deadlifting with a neutral spine, then double-check you’re pulling the weight with proper form. Check this:
Keep The Bar Close. The bar must touch your legs from start to finish. Setup properly and protect your shins with long socks/pants/tape. Then drag the bar over your shins, knees and thighs to the top. Don’t let it drift away or you’ll stress your lower back more.
Use Your Legs. Don’t try to Deadlift the weight using you lower back only. Engage your legs. Do this by setting up properly with your hips at the right height. Then pull the weight by pushing your feet through the floor. Imagine you’re doing the Leg Press – push, don’t pull.
All of this applies to the way down as well. Keep you lower back neutral when you lower the bar. Keep it close and in contact with your legs. Then lower the weight by pushing your hips back while bending your legs. Don’t drop the weight with a bent back and high hips.
Many doctors will give you painkillers to relieve your back pain from Deadlifts. They’ll tell you to rest for several days and avoid Deadlifting when you resume. The assumption here is that Deadlifts are bad. Rarely do they ask if you used proper form. It’s not their domain of expertise.
Painkillers will relieve your back pain from Deadlifts. But they only treat the symptoms, not the cause. Pain is your body telling you you’re doing something wrong. Without pain you would have continued the bad form and hurt yourself more. So it’s a bad idea to mask pain guiding you.
The best thing you can do to relieve your back pain from Deadlifts are spinal decompressions. This is the best lower back stretch you’ll find. You do it by hanging on the pullup bar for time. Chinese and Russian lifters do these a lot. I do them every single time I go to the gym.
Spinal decompressions stretch your spine vertically using gravity. Unlike the toe-touch stretch, they don’t compress your discs – there’s no bending. So you don’t irritate a disc bulge that could cause your back pain. Instead you reduce it and create space for trapped nerves causing the pain.
If you do spinal decompressions several times a day, you’ll find your back pain will quickly relieve, without taking any painkillers. Just hang as long as you can with your feet off the floor. Relax and let gravity stretch your spine. I usually hang for a minute, but hold as long your grip can hold.
Avoid stretches where you bend over and touch your toes. They can feel good. But if your back pain is caused by a disc bulge from pulling with bad form, they’ll just increase it. You want to reduce the disc bulge instead, and the best lower back stretch for that is hanging on the pullup bar.
Also, don’t wear a belt to make up for poor Deadlift form. Wear it for extra lower back support. It helps cuing your abs to contract. But don’t wear one and then Deadlift with a bent back.
Lower Back Rounding
The most common way to hurt your lower back Deadlifting is if you pull with a bent lower back. This squeezes the front part of your spinal discs. If a nerve gets trapped, you’ll get sharp pain shooting down to your leg. Keeping pulling bent back and your spinal disc can bulge and herniate.
The solution is to Deadlift with a neutral lower back. Setup with that natural arch you have when you stand. Your lower back shouldn’t be flat but have a slight curve (aka lordosis). Maintain this arch in your lower back from the start of your Deadlift, until the lockout, and on the way back down.
Setup. Stand with the bar over your mid-foot. Bend over and grab it. Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar. Now lift your chest. If this doesn’t put your lower back neutral, arch it – pull your hips to the ceiling. Lock the position by squeezing your lats and taking a big breath.
Way Up. Don’t let your hips rise too fast like in the top picture or you’ll round. Maintain your back angle by pushing the floor away as if you were doing a Leg Press. Keep your chest up, your lower back arched and the bar close to your legs. Keep pushing until the bar moves.
Way Down. Lower the weight by moving your hips back. Bend your legs slightly but keep your knees back so the bar doesn’t hit them on the way down. Keep your chest up and lower back neutral. Lower the bar while keeping it close, against your legs.
Reset your spine between reps. Your back will get tired and want to round. You can avoid this by setting up in a strong position every time. That means you raise your chest again, put your spine neutral again, squeeze your lats again and take a big breath again. Only then you pull.
Don’t setup with a bent back and try to get it neutral during the lift. For one, this rarely works. Two, Dr Stuart McGill Phd says this is even worse for your spine than pulling bent back.
Stretching your hamstrings rarely fixes lower back rounding on Deadlifts. The issue isn’t that your hamstrings are tight. The issue is that your lower back isn’t tight enough. It’s loose. Get it tight before your pull. If you can’t get that natural arch, raise your hips to the ceiling during your setup.
Arching Too Much
Your lower back should have a natural arch when you Deadlift. The same curve as when you stand. It shouldn’t have an excess arch or hyper-lordosis. This is unnecessary and bad for your back.
The issue with arching too much during Deadlifts is similar to pulling with a bent lower back. You’re compressing your spinal discs. The difference is that you’re doing it from the back now instead of the front. But the result is the same: trapped nerves, disc bulges, and maybe herniation.
I hurt my back a lot when I started Deadlifting because people kept saying “arch your back”. You do want a natural arch in your lower back so it doesn’t round. But you don’t want to over-arch.
Natural Arch. Setup with a natural arch in your lower back. It should have the same curve as when you stand. Don’t arch your back more than that. It should feel comfortable and not squeeze your discs. Also, don’t finish your Deadlifts by leaning back. Just stand tall.
Squeeze Your Abs. If you can’t keep your lower back from over-arching, squeeze your abs harder. Contract them as if someone was about to punch you in the stomach. Consider wearing a belt to cue your abs to contract when you Deadlift.
Hips Rise Too Fast
Your hips will rise faster than your chest if you Deadlift without using your legs, or if you setup with your hips too low in the first place. The former is bad because it means your back will have to work more than it should. The latter is bad because the bar will usually scrape your shins.
In the top picture you can see her hips start in the proper position. But they rise while the bar stays on the floor. This straightens her legs before they can help to Deadlift the weight. Her hips and back have to pull the weight alone, as if doing a stiff-legged Deadlift. Worse, her lower back rounds.
Setup Properly. Avoid your hips starting too low by setting up properly. Stand with the bar over your mid-foot, bend over and grab it, then bend your knees until your shins touch the bar. Raise you chest and your hips will be in the proper position – not too high or too low.
Get Tight. The goal is to maintain your back angle while you break the bar off the floor. You do this by getting tight. Squeeze the bar and your lats. Lock your hips into position by contracting your glutes and hamstrings. Raise your chest, take a big breath, and then pull.
Don’t Pull – Push. The Deadlfit is a pull. But it helps to think of it as a push so you can engage your legs instead of trying to pull it with just your back. Get the bar off the floor by pushing your feet into the floor. Imagine you’re doing a Leg Press – push the floor away.
Don’t let your hips move before the bar leaves the floor. Your hips and chest must rise at the same time. Keep your hips where you’ve put them during your Deadlift setup. Push your feet through the floor as hard as you can. Only when the bar leaves the floor can your hips rise with your chest.
Hitting The Knees
Hitting your knees on Deadlifts hurts. It’s also ineffective: the bar can’t drop in a vertical line because your knees are in the way. It must roll over them instead. So it lands over your forefoot instead of mid-foot. Pull from here and the bar will go up in a J-curve, bruising your shins in the process.
Hitting your knees is also bad for your lower back. The closer you hold the weight, the less stressful it is because it’s closer to your center of mass. But you can’t keep the bar close if your knees force it to move away from your body on the way down. So you’re hurting your back on top of your knees.
The solution is to get your knees out of the way of the bar. Keep them back on the way down. You do this by moving from the hips. Lower the bar by pushing your hips back. Bend your legs too but keep your knees back. This creates space for the bar to go down in a vertical line without hitting them.
Once the bar reaches your knees, then you can bend your legs more to lower the weight to the floor. If you do this right, the bar will land over your mid-foot without hitting your knees. It will be right where it should be to Deadlift your next rep in vertical line up.
Don’t drop your Deadlifts to avoid hitting your knees. Just learn to do it right.
Deadlifts bruise your shins and make them bleed when you pull with bad form. If you setup with your hips too low or the bar too close to your shins, you’ll hit and scrape them on the way up. It’s even easier to get bloody shins if you Deadlift in shorts using a bad bar with aggressive knurling.
Bruising your shins hurts. Keep bruising them and they’ll bleed. Wounds turn into scars that stick out of your shins. The bar will rip off those scars next time you Deadlift. They’ll hurt, bleed again and you’ll end with bigger scars. Unless you fix your Deadlift form, your shins can never heal properly.
Worst, they can infect. Happened to me once in Thailand. A bar with aggressive knurling scraped my right shin. It bled and I forgot to disinfect it. The next morning my leg hurt – the wound was black. I ended up in the hospital to clean it out and get anti-infectives plus a tetanus shot.
But more annoying was that I couldn’t Deadlift properly for two weeks. Just touching my shin hurt. I had to pull with the bar away from my legs to not hurt the wound again. This is an ineffective way to pull – I felt it more in my back, and not in a good way. And yet many people Deadlift like this.
It seems right to Deadlift with the bar away from your shins so you can’t bruise them. But it’s bad for your spine. The further the bar from your body, the more stressful on your lower back. You have to keep it close to your center of mass. The closest is when you drag the bar over your shins.
Shin scraping is therefore unavoidable. I have vertical marks on my shins from Deadlfiting. The skin has thickened to protect against the bar (just like my hands adapted by forming calluses). But my shins don’t get beat up from Deadlifts, and rarely bleed. The key is to use proper form…
Bar over Mid-Foot. Bar over forefoot is too far away. It will move back to your mid-foot when you pull because that’s your balance point. You’ll pull in a J-curve and hit your shins. But the bar can’t be too close or your shins will be in its way. Setup with the bar over your mid-foot. Your shins shouldn’t touch it yet when you stand in front of it.
Hip-Width Stance. Setup with your heels hip-width apart so you shins face the smooth part of the bar. If it has none in the middle but is covered with knurling, use a better bar.
Feet 15° Out. Long thighs put your shins more forward, more in the way of the bar. If you have long thighs like me, setup with your feet pointing 15° out. Push your knees out while you pull the weight. This will keep your shins back so you don’t bruise them on the way up.
Don’t Squat your Deadlift. The lower your hips, the more incline your shins, and the more they block the bar. Keep your shins back and out of the way by raising your hips. The exact height depends on your build. But they’ll be where they should be if you setup properly – with the bar over your mid-foot and your shoulder-blades over the bar.
Deadlift on an even floor. The bar can’t move before you pull or between reps. It should stay still over your mid-foot. If the bar rolls towards your shins, it will hit them on the way up.
Deadlifting in shorts is a bad idea. Your shins will turn red when you drag the bar over your legs to the top. This can feel uncomfortable and tempt you to pull with the bar away from your shins. But again – this is ineffective for Deadlifting heavy weights and more stressful for your lower back.
Best is to wear long pants for Deadlifting. Anything will do as long as it doesn’t restrict movement or creates bumps that get caught by the bar. Sweatpants are fine for Deadlifts.
Deadlift socks are also fine if it’s too hot for pants. They protect your shins by putting a layer between them and the bar. They’re like the socks of soccer players and skiers. I’ve never worn them.
Shin guards are overkill. They’re for Crossfitters who do high reps Deadlifts for time. It’s hard to keep proper form when you pull that fast. So your shins get beat up. But not when you do simple sets of fives on StrongLifts 5×5. You can control the weight and don’t need excess padding.
Shin guards can actually encourage bad form. Let’s say your shins are beat up because you Squat your Deadlifts. The excess padding of shin guards remove any feedback that would otherwise make you stop. There’s no pain so you can keep pulling with bad form instead of fixing it.
Knee sleeves to protect your shins against the bar also doesn’t make much sense. They create bumps on your shins. The bar will catch the knees sleeves on the way up. This slows the bar and makes it harder to Deadlift. Just lower the bar correctly and you won’t hit your knees on the way down.
Stick with long pants and maybe Deadlift socks to protect your shins. And use proper form.
If you hurt you shins Deadliting, put athletic tape over the wound. Put it vertically, not horizontally, so the bar can’t pull it off. The tape will protect the wound and stop the bleeding so you can finish you workout. Make sure you disinfect the wound post workout and clean the blood on the bar.
Put athletic tape on your scared shin for several workouts. This way the bar can’t rip off the scar and reinjure the weakened skin. Tape it everytime for extra protection so it can heal without messing with your Deadlift progress. And fix your form so this can’t happen in the first place.
Deadlifts tear calluses when you grip the bar wrong. The usual mistake is to hold the bar mid-palm. Your skin will fold under the bar when gravity pulls it down. It will form calluses to protect against the pressure. Some calluses will become too big, get pulled by the bar, and eventually tear.
Torn calluses are not cool. They just take time away from deadlifting. It takes a good week for a torn callus to heal. You can easily tear the weakened skin again the weeks after by Deadlifting heavy. The smart thing is to avoid callus tears in the first place so you don’t slow your progress.
Grip The Bar Low. Deadlift with the bar low in your palm, on top of your big calluses, close to your fingers. Your skin won’t fold under the bar because you’re gripping below your main skin folds. This grip can feel weird at first. Stick to it and you’ll get used to it.
Use Chalk. Get gym chalk – magnesium carbonate. Put it on your hands when you Deadlift. It will prevent torn calluses by filling up your skin folds. Less skin will get trapped under the bar because your palms are smooth. Use liquid chalk if your gym doesn’t allow chalk.
Shave Your Callus. Don’t let your calluses become huge or they’ll get trapped under the bar. Get a pumice stone and shave your calluses off once a week. Don’t be aggressive, you don’t want to weaken your skin. Just level off your calluses with the rest of your hands.
I rarely tear a callus nowadays. It happens maybe once a year, usually when I do something my hands aren’t used to (last tear was when weight lifters in my gym got me to do Power Cleans again). If you grip the bar properly, use chalk and take care of your hands, Deadlifts will rarely tear a callus.
If you tear a callus during Deadlifts, here’s what to do:
Wrap. Stop the bleeding by covering the wound with athletic tape or nose tissue. You should be able to finish you workout despite the torn callus (I usually do). Especially if you tore a callus on your fingers – just wrap it with athletic tape and you’ll be fine. Clean the bar when done.
Cut. Disinfect the wound then cut the flap out and trim the edges. Level it with the rest of your hands. Don’t cut deep or you’ll weaken the skin around the wound (you don’t want that to tear later). Just clear the dead skin so new tissue can grow. Don’t leave the flap or glue it back on. It will just take longer to heal and easily tear again. Just cut the dead skin out.
Soak. Get salty warm water and soak your hands for 10 minutes. It will hurt but it’s the fastest way for your torn callus to heal. Do this twice a day for two to three days to speed up recovery. Wait five days before Deadlifting heavy again.
Protect your callus with athletic tape when you resume Deadlifting. Pull lighter for a while to avoid tearing the callus again. As long as you keep Deadlifting, you shouldn’t lose too much strength. But use this as a lesson to avoid callus tears in the future: proper grip, chalk, and callus care.
The Sumo Deadlift is a Deadlift using a wide aka sumo stance. Technique is similar to a conventional Deadlift – bar over mid-foot, shoulder-blades over the bar, and neutral back. But the sumo stance puts your torso more upright and hips lower than the conventional Deadlift.
This impacts the muscles worked. Sumo Deadlifts work your lower back muscles less because your torso is more vertical. It’s harder to keep a horizontal back neutral than a vertical one. Conventional Deadlifts are therefore more effective for building a strong lower back.
The sumo stance works your groin more because it starts stretched. It also works your quads more because your hips start lower – your knees are more bent. But Squats work your quads even more. They also work your groin. So this is no reason to choose sumo.
I rarely pull sumo because my hips don’t seem to agree with it. When I do, I go semi-sumo so I don’t hurt my hips. I’ve always pulled conventional-style, and pull more that way than sumo-style.
There are very strong Deadlifters who pull sumo. They may influence you to pull sumo too. Wait until you can Deadlift 180kg/400lb with proper form. Build basic strength first before experimenting with sumo. And don’t switch because you can’t figure out conventional.
There’s a minority of people who can’t Deadlift with proper form due to their build. They have long thighs with very short arms. This makes it impossible to get their shoulders-blades over the bar conventional-style. Sumo is the only way for them. You’re unlikely to have this problem.
Trap Bar Deadlifts
The trap bar or hex bar is an hexagonal shaped bar made for shrugs. It allows you to do heavy shrugs like with a barbell. But there’s no friction of the bar against your legs because of the hexagonal shape of the trap bar. Some people prefer to Deadlift with a trap bar than with a regular barbell.
But trap bar Deadlifts aren’t Deadlifts. The bar doesn’t block your shins to come too far forward when you setup. You can pull with an upright torso like when Squatting high bar. Trap bar Deadlifts are more like half Squats with the bar in your hands, and the weight hanging from the side instead of front.
The trap bar has become popular because it lets you get away with bad form. You can’t scrape your shins because the bar is further away. Your lower back can’t round because your torso can be more upright. This torso position makes the weight less stressful on your lower back.
But this is also why the trap bar is less effective to build a strong back. It doesn’t teach you to pick up a heavy weight from the front by bending through your legs with a neutral back. It doesn’t teach you to pick up a heavy box or kid. The movement is closer to picking up a wheelbarrow.
The trap bar is usually a band-aid solution for people who lack the patience to learn proper Deadlift form. But it’s less effective than Deadlifting with a bar, and thus no substitute for it.
The Stiff-legged Deadlfit is a Deadlift done with straight legs. The weight also starts and returns to the floor on each rep. But your quads can’t push the weight off the floor by straightening your legs – they’re already straight. So your hamstrings and glutes have to do all the work.
Stiff-legged Deadlifts are great assistance for advanced Deadlifters. But they don’t substitute them. You can go heavier with Deadlifts because they use more muscles – your quads can help lifting the weight. Deadlifts are therefore more effective for gaining strength and muscle.
The Romanian Deadlift is a Deadlift done top-down with straight legs. You take the bar out of the rack at thigh height. You then lower to your knees with straight legs and quickly come back up. This works your hamstrings and glutes more while taking your knees out of the movement.
Romanian Deadlifts are also a great assistance exercise for Deadlifts. But they also don’t substitute them because taking out your quads limits how heavy you can go. They’re a great stretch for your hamstrings though if you keep your legs straight throughout.
Popular Deadlift Questions
I’m afraid of Deadlifts. What should I do?
You should Deadlift. The sooner the better. Because it’s normal to be intimidated by Deadlifts or afraid of injury. Weight is intimidating and there’s a real risk of injury. But you won’t fix that by avoiding them. The only way to overcome the fear of Deadlifts is to actually Deadlift.
Here’s how it works: every rep you Deadlift without getting hurt boosts your confidence. You believe you’re going to be okay because you were okay last time. So you add weight, and if you’re okay again, get another boost in confidence. This creates a positive feedback loop that overcomes fear.
The fear itself never goes away. I still have fear sometimes when approaching maximum weights, and this despite lifting for almost two decades. The difference is experience has taught me how to handle the fear. It’s quite simple: you have to become comfortable being uncomfortable.
What doesn’t work is to substitute Deadlifts for machines or other exercises that look similar. This won’t make you more comfortable at Deadlifts. It’s not specific training. You have to Deadlift to get better at Deadlifts. Here’s how:
Start light. Light weights are less intimidating and do less damage if you can’t lift with proper form yet. Stop caring about what people think. Swallow your ego and start with 40kg/95lb on StrongLifts 5×5. Go even lighter if this sounds like too much.
Focus on Form. Proper form builds confidence. Read this Deadlift guide over & over again, and apply everything. Setup the same way on every set. Pull each rep the same way. Every rep you do successfully will increase your confidence and help you overcome fear.
Add Weight. Increase your Deadlifts slowly, by 2.5kg/5lb each workout. It may not sound much but it adds up. You could be Deadlifting 400lb/180kg in 12 months by doing this.
If you can find a coach to show you how to Deadlift, that’s great. If not, videotape yourself to see what you do. Compare with the tips in this guide. Don’t use mirrors, they don’t give a full view. Tape yourself from the side, look at it between sets, improve on the next set. Be patient and keep practicing.
Can I Deadlift in the smith machine?
No. Using a bar attached to rails doesn’t make this safer. This isn’t a Squat or Bench Press where you can get stuck under the weight. If you fail to Deadlift the weight, you just return it to the floor. If it turns out to be too heavy to lift, then the weight never leaves the floor in the first place. It’s safe.
The only thing the smith machine achieves is transforming Deadlifts into a less effective bastardised version. You can’t balance the bar because it’s attached to rails. This takes work away from your muscles. It makes the exercise less effective for gaining strength and muscle.
You also can’t control where the bar goes because it’s fixed on rails. You’re locked doing unnatural movements. The plates can rarely touch the floor because the lowest bar position is too high. That means you can’t Deadlift dead weight from the floor, you’re doing Rack Pulls instead.
Use a real barbell. If your gym doesn’t have any, it’s not a gym. Switch to a real one so you can do real Deadlifts and get real results. Maybe you can build a home gym. Or you can continue doing inferior exercises and getting inferior results. Your priorities will determine your choices and results.
Should I Deadlift in the Power Rack?
No. As explained above, if you fail mid-rep you just return the weight to the floor. If it’s too heavy to pull, it never leaves the floor in the first place. You can’t get stuck under the weight on Deadlifts. And each rep starts on the floor. So you don’t need the safety pins or J hooks of the Power Rack.
It’s fine to Deadlift inside the Power Rack if there’s limited space in your gym. Otherwise leave it for the Squatters. I never Deadlift inside the Power Rack.
How do I prevent calluses from Deadlifts?
You can’t. Your hands build calluses to protect you against the pressure of the bar. This is a byproduct of lifting like building muscle is. If your skin didn’t harden, your hands would hurt. You want calluses to form so you can Deadlift heavy without getting hand pain or needing gloves.
What you can and should do is prevent big calluses to form. The bar traps and tears them more easily because they bulge out of your hands. This hurts and can cause you to skip Deadlifts. Big calluses also make your hands look dirty. You want your calluses to stay small.
To prevent big calluses to form, grip the bar properly. Not mid-palm or your skin will fold under the bar. Hold it low in your palm, close to your fingers. Then use chalk on your heavy sets to further fill up your skin folds and create a smooth surface for the bar. This limits skin folding.
Why do Deadlifts hurt my hands?
You don’t have calluses yet. Don’t use gloves but stick it out for a few workouts. The pain will be gone once calluses have formed on your hands. Make sure you grip the bar correctly to avoid excess skin folding which could cause unnecessary hand pain. Hold it low hand, close to your fingers.
You shouldn’t get hand pain if you started StrongLifts 5×5 with the recommended starting weights. The lighter weights give your hands time to adapt to the pressure of the bar and form calluses. If you started heavier, consider dropping the weight until calluses have formed.
Keep in mind that you lose your calluses when you stop lifting. You lose them like you lose muscle. You may still have the strength to Deadlift heavy, but not the calluses to protect your hands. So give your hands a few workouts to form calluses again before you lift heavy.
Painful calluses on your fingers are harder to fix. I have one on the middle of my right index finger. The bar seems to trap that callus no matter how I grip it and despite using chalk. The only thing that works is to wrap athletic tape around the middle of my finger to cover the callus. Try it.
How do I remove calluses on my hands?
You don’t want to remove your calluses. You need them to protect your hands when you Deadlift. If you remove your calluses, your hands will hurt. You wont’t be able to hold the bar and Deadlift heavy. This limits your strength and muscle gains. Don’t try to remove your calluses!
Limit their growth instead. Keep them small. The best way to do this is to shave them off each week. This keeps your calluses from growing big. It keeps them from getting trapped under the bar. It keeps you from playing with them when bored. And it keeps your hands looking clean.
Use a pumice stone to level off your calluses with the rest of your hands. You don’t want them gone since they protect your hands against the pressure of the bar. You just want them to stop bulging out of your hands. The point is that they don’t get trapped under the bar when you Deadlift.
Shave the dead skin off by working on your whole hands first. Then shave the big calluses – side to side, up & down, and in circles. If you go gentle, nothing will hurt, tear or bleed. Your calluses will be leveled off and barely noticeable. Your hands will look clean.
Don’t be aggressive. You don’t want to weaken the softer skin around your calluses. The bar will pull on that skin next time you Deadlift. Weaken it and it will tear. The whole callus will come off. This hurts, takes week to recover, and is a dumb way to slow your progress. Be gentle.
That means no cheese grater or razor – they’re too aggressive. No scissors and nailclippers either. And don’t bite or rip your calluses off with your nails when you’re bored. You don’t want to cut into live skin, rip too much off and create tears. It’s a stupid way to damage your hands for Deadlifts.
Stick with the pumice stone. Put it in your shower. Wet shaving seems to work better. Calluses turn white and bulge out when you soak your hands in warm water. This makes them easier to shave off. Shave your hands at the end when your hands are soft and moist. It only takes five minutes.
Best is to shave your calluses off after your last Deadlift session of the week. This way your hands have several days to recover before your next Deadlift session. In case you were aggressive, your skin has a couple of days to recover and toughen up. This prevents tears.
What if my grip fails during Deadlifts?
Avoid it in the first place. Use chalk, the mixed grip and white knuckling. And hold the bar low, close to your fingers. This way you don’t get hand pain that forces you to relax your grip mid-set.
If your grip fails mid-set, you can try to regrip the bar. But this will make the next rep harder as you’ll lose some stretch reflex. It can feel even harder than the first rep since you’re already tired from the previous reps. You risk failing to move the bar at all despite regripping the bar.
You can try the monkey grip instead. Don’t regrip but hold on to the bar. Ignore your thumbs failing – hold the bar with your fingers, on top of the middle bones. Your fingers just need to be strong enough to hold on the bar for a few more seconds until your set is over.
I use the monkey grip a lot since my right thumb always fails first during hard Deadlift sets. I broke that thumb while skiiing several years ago. It’s been weaker than my left thumb ever since. So I often have to rely on the monkey grip on the right side to keep the bar in my hands.
But the monkey grip is less safe. You can lose the bar and damage your equipment. The bar can hit your knee caps on the way down in the process. This has never happened to me, but it’s possible. If you know what you’re doing, give the monkey grip a try. Otherwise just regrip.
Should I hook grip or mixed grip?
Keep it simple and use the mixed grip for Deadlifts. It’s as secure as the hook grip but doesn’t put pressure on your thumbs. So it increases grip strength instantly without causing thumb pain.
The hook grip puts your thumbs between the bar and your fingers. Your fingers rest on your thumbs instead of under it. This increases grip strength but without needing to hold the bar with one hand up and one down. Your palms face you instead, like with the normal grip.
Olympic lifters use the hook grip for the Snatch and Clean & Jerk. They can’t use the mixed grip as it doesn’t work for these lifts. They can’t use straps either – strapping yourself to the bar is dangerous if you fail to lift the weight overhead. The hook grip is their only option.
It has become popular to use the hook grip for the Deadlift too. The benefit is that it doesn’t load your shoulders unevenly because both palms face you. Some say this makes the hook grip safer than the mixed grip – it prevents muscle imbalances and biceps tears. However:
Muscle imbalances are a non-issue as already discussed. You’re Deadlifting with the normal grip on most sets. And you’re doing plenty of balanced exercises for your shoulders, back and legs. So unless your shoulders can’t take the asymmetry, the mixed grip is fine.
Biceps tears from the mixed grip aren’t that common. Go to a powerlifting competition – most Deadlift with a mixed grip and yet biceps tears are rare. When they happen it is usually because of bad form – pulling with bent arms or hitching. Steroid-use also seem to be a factor.
The hook grip is definitely safer for people who have torn their biceps in the past, and who don’t want to risk tearing it again. But that doesn’t mean the mixed grip causes biceps tears. Bad form does. Keep your arms straight when you Deadlift. Don’t pull with bent elbows.
The main reason to use the mixed grip instead of the hook grip is that it doesn’t squeeze and hurt your thumbs. You don’t have to lift lighter until your thumbs adapt to the pressure. You can use the mixed grip today on your heaviest set and get an immediate boost in grip strength.
Keep in mind that the stress on your thumbs is higher when you use the hook grip on Deadlifts than on Olympic lifts. The set lasts longer – the weight moves more slowly, you hold it at the top, and control it on the way down. You also use much heavier weights. It will hurt your thumbs more.
Stick with the mixed grip. Especially if you have small palms or short fingers. If it feels uncomfortable on your shoulders, try to switch your grip around by facing the other hand down.
How do I Deadlift with hex plates?
Bad. The bar will land on the corners of your hex plates. It will move out of alignment. This forces you to pull the bar from a bad position – too far which causes back pain, or too close which bruises your shins. The only solution is to reset between reps. But this makes the set harder.
Hex plates are made for plate-loaded machines, not Deadlifts or Rows. One side will land on the flat part. the other on the corner. The bar will have to tilt back or forth to balance itself from the corner to the flat part. But this moves the bar out of alignment and away from your mid-foot.
The problem is worst when you Deadlift two-three plates a side (100-140kg/220-300lb). Beyond four plates, the problem fixes itself because the corners average out. This gives the weight plenty of corners to balance itself on. But you need to be able to Deadlift 180kg/400lb first…
Lowering the bar slowly doesn’t fix it. The hex plates will land on the corners regardless. Keeping the weight in the air also doesn’t work – it’s not a Deadlift unless each rep starts from a dead stop on the floor. Pulling from the lowest pins in the Power Rack doesn’t work for the same reason.
The best solution is to get round plates. They behave predictably which allows you to control how the bar lands. You can pull each rep from your mid-foot consistently. This saves you from lower back pain and bruised shins that you otherwise get with hex plates.
Two round plates is often enough. Hex plates are usually smaller than Olympic plates. Put one plate of 20kg/45lb on each side of the bar, and the hex plates will stop touching the floor. If your gym has no round plates, maybe you can convince your gym manager to get a pair.
If not, then reset between reps. Lower the bar to the floor, release your grip, and stand up. Then move your mid-foot under the bar again. You will lose stretch reflex by resetting though. Your set of five reps will turn into five harder singles because of the longer rest. But it’s that or switching to a real gym.
Should my back be sore after Deadlifts?
Soreness doesn’t matter. It doesn’t mean you’re building more strength and muscle. What matters is the weight. If you increase how much you Deadlift with a neutral spine, then your back got stronger – whether you got sore or not. Otherwise you couldn’t lift the weight with a neutral spine.
Soreness usually happens if you do something new. If you suddenly do five sets instead of one. Or if you do 20 reps instead of five. Or if you quit Deadlifting and now resume with a weight that is heavier than what you should be using after a break. All of this can cause soreness.
My lower back is rarely sore from Deadlifts. The last time was when I trained in a gym with smaller diameter plates. They forced me to pull from a lower position than I’m used to (as if doing deficit deadlifts). My lower back got pumped and was slightly sore the next day.
But aside from that my lower back never really gets sore from Deadlifts. If I get sore, it’s usually in my upper-back. The area between my shoulder-blades can be sore for a day. This is most likely from contracting my upper-back hard before pulling the weight so my spine doesn’t round.
If your back hurts after deadlifts you’re probably doing something wrong. Check your form. Make sure your lower back doesn’t round, And make sure you lift the weight with your legs not your back. Just stand up with the weight until your hips and knees are locked. No need to pull back.
What if I hurt my back Deadlifting?
The best thing is to move. Get back to the gym as soon as you can but lift light weights. At the very least walk. Don’t do nothing but sitting the whole day, it will take your back longer to recover.
Most doctors will tell you to stop lifting and prescribe painkillers. But if you’re like me, you don’t want to quit lifting and go back to being skinny, fat and weak. And painkillers only mask pain. They don’t fix its cause (usually bad form) so you don’t do it again.
Plain rest doesn’t work but makes things worse. What you don’t use, you lose. If you don’t use your torso muscles, they get weaker. Bed rest weakens your torso muscles because it immobilizes them. You want strong torso muscles to protect your spine, not even weaker ones.
Avoid bending your back. Don’t do toe-touch stretches or situps. They make disc bulges that could cause your back pain bigger by putting uneven pressure on them. You want to decrease the disc bulge, not further irritate it. Stretch with spinal decompressions instead (see below).
The back pain will usually be severe for a few days but then decrease. Go back to the gym and try to Deadlift again. But keep it light, 40kg/90lb maybe (use big diameter plates). Be super-strict on your form – keep your spine neutral and your pelvis even. Your back should feel better afterwards.
If pain is shooting down one leg, a nerve probably got pinched by a disc. Get it checked out with an MRI (X-rays are for broken bones). But keep in mind discs heal too. Many people have lifted big weights despite disc injuries. I have a disc bulge and still Deadlift heavy. It’s not the end.
Pain in the upper-back is less common but may happen too. Deadlifts can bruise your ribs if you wear your belt too tight or too high. If that’s the case, loosen it up and wear it lower.
Fear of re-injury is common. The best way to overcome is to start light, use proper form and slowly work your way up again. Every rep you complete pain- will build your confidence.
What’s a good lower back stretch?
Spinal decompressions. Hang on the pull-up bar for time and let gravity stretch your spine. This is like inverted table therapy except you can do it in the Power Rack without other equipment.
Spinal decompressions are better than toe-touch stretches. There is no bending or arching of your lower spine. So there’s no uneven pressure on your discs that could irritate disc bulges. You stretch your spine and create space instead. This reduces disc bulges and relieves lower back pain.
Technique is simple. Grip the pullup bar with both palms facing you, about shoulder-width apart. The bar is ideally high enough for you to hang with straight legs without your feet touching the floor. This prevents your lower back from arching and keeps it neutral.
Hang on the pullup bar as long as you can. I usually do sets of up to one minute between sets, several times during my workout. I don’t use straps because my grip is strong enough to hold on the bar. But feel free to use straps if your grip gives out too quickly.
Should I Squat my Deadlifts?
No. Deadlifts aren’t Squats. They’re Deadlifts. If you try to Squat the weight, you’ll start with too low hips. They’ll end further away of the bar which makes the weight harder to pull. Your shins will also come more forward so you’ll hit them on the way up. It doesn’t work.
There are some strong lifters who setup in a low Squat position before Deadlifting the weight. The Russian Olympic lifter Mikhael Koklyaev does this for example. Check the image below..
Notice he starts in a bad position with his hips too low, shoulders over the bar and arms bent. But he raises his hips before pulling the weight. When the bar leaves the floor he is in the proper Deadlift setup position – bar over mid-foot, shoulder-blades above bar, and bar against shins.
I think this is a habit he built from Olympic lifting. They Squat low before cleaning and snatching the bar. This loads their leg muscles and creates a stretch reflex. It increases speed from the floor so they can pul heavier weights. But you’re not olympic lifting. You’re deadlifting.
If you try to Squat low first and then raise your hips, you’ll probably make mistakes. You’ll push the bar away from your mid-foot with your shins. You’ll raise your hips too much or not enough. So whatever benefit you could get from Squatting low first, you lose because of the bad form that follows.
Keep it simple. Setup with the bar over your mid-foot, shoulder-blades over bar, and shins against bar. When you can Deadlift four plates then maybe you can try Squatting low first. I don’t do it.
Should I drop my hips into my Deadlift?
No. You shouldn’t do it for the same reason you shouldn’t Squat into your Deadlifts. Whatever benefit it gives you lose if you fail to move in proper position before pulling the weight. It’s harder to setup properly after quickly dropping your hips. You’re more likely to make technical mistakes.
Deadlift champion Andy Bolton starts with high hips. He then drops and raises them several times before pulling the weight. This loads his hamstrings and glutes. It increases strength by using stretch reflex. But he’s in proper position when the bar leaves the floor. And you’re not Andy Bolton.
There are many things elite athletes do that regular lifters can’t get away with because they’re less experienced. It’s too easy to end in a bad position – back not neutral, hips too high, hips too low, bar not over mid-foot. etc. This neutralizes any benefit dropping your hips may give.
Keep it simple and Deadlift without dropping your hips first.
If rounded back Deadlifts are bad, why do some powerlifters do it?
Competitive Powerlifters Deadlift to win. They use the technique that helps them Deadlift the heaviest weight possible. That technique may not be healthy for their lower back. But athletes often prioritize winning over long-term health. Drug abuse illustrates this best.
World records also don’t always reflect how they Deadlift most of the time. Max attempt look ugly. It’s harder to maintain proper form. It could be that they round their back more when attempting PRs in competitions. Maybe they pull with a more neutral back the rest of the year in training.
And they might be rounding less than you think. Strong Deadlifters can have huge back muscles that bulge out. This can create a more rounded look of their upper-spine. Their lower back can look flatter as well if their bigger back muscles fill up the normal inward curve of their lower spine.
That said, many successful Deadlifters have pulled rounded-back style. Konstantins Konstantinovs (426kg/939lb beltless in 2009), Bob People (329kg/725lb weighing only 82.5kg/181lb in 1949), Vince Anello (373kg/821lb which was 4x times his body-weight), etc.
The benefit of pulling with a rounded back is that it lowers your shoulders and brings your hips closer to the bar. Lower shoulders decrease the range of motion. Bar closer to hips artificially shortens your thighs (especially if they’re long like mine). Efficiency increases and so you can lift heavier weight.
The main drawback is that rounding your back puts uneven pressure on your spinal discs. You can injure your spine, herniate a disc and develop chronic back pain. This is a risk that powerlifters trying to win a competition or set new records may be willing to take. But are you? If so, for what?
Rounding also makes the lockout harder. The weight leaves the floor more easily. But once it reaches your knees, your back is forced to finish the weight. Your legs can’t help since they’re already straight. You’ll be tempted to hitch and re-bend your arms. And you’ll fail at the top more often.
Note that rounded-back Deadlifters like Konstantinovs don’t do full lower back rounding. Dr Stuart McGill Phd says the last three degrees of lumbar flexion are most dangerous. The round-back deadlifters in gym round their back fully, like a taco. Powerlifters like Konstantinovs don’t.
Notice also how Konstanstinovs maintains the spinal curve he sets up with. The rounded-back Deadlifters wannabes usually start neutral but then round. Or they start rounded and round more while they pull. Moving your spine while lifting heavy is extremely dangerous.
Most important, Konstantinovs has been Deadlifting for years. His back and abs are stronger. They protect his spine more against injury. He also has perfected his technique through years of practice. The rounded-back Deadlifters trying to imitate him have weak muscles and bad form.
It’s one thing to round slightly when attempting a PR once a year. It’s another thing to do it every time you Deadlift. But some people are looking for ways to rationalize their bad form – “Konstantinovs is doing it, so why can’t I?” Because you’re not him! You lack his experience and strength.
But it’s your spine so you can Deadlift however you want. I’ve done my fair of rounded-back Deadlifts trying to reach my goals at all cost. Back pain taught me to stop and pull neutral.
How can I increase my Deadlift?
Deadlift more. This is the best way to get to four plates (180kg/400lb). This works because the more you Deadlift, the more you can practice proper form. This refines and perfects your technique over time. Your lifting efficiency improves which increases how much you can Deadlift.
This doesn’t mean you should Deadlift daily. It means increasing your Deadlifts without Deadlifting doesn’t work. Pulling sumo instead doesn’t work either. You want to get better at piano, you have to play piano – not guitar. Same here: you must Deadlift to increase your Deadlift.
The simplest, most effective program to increase your Deadlift to 180kg/400lb is StrongLifts 5×5. It can easily double your Deadlift in 12 moths if you start light, use proper form and add 5lb/2.5kg each workout. Read the guide, watch the videos and use the apps to help you.
Increasing your Deadlift from 0 to 100-120kg/220-265lb is easy. You just have to Deadlift consistently and add weight over time. The details matter more as you get stronger and reach for the three and then four plates Deadlift. Here are some tips to help you get there….
Warmup properly. Start light and work your way up. Practice proper form on the light weights. Lift them as if they were heavy – put the same effort and focus into them. Use the warmup calculator in my apps for the exact sets, reps and weights.
Rest longer. ATP is your primary energy source for lifting. Every set you do depletes it. But 95% is back after you rest for five minutes. So rest at least five minutes before your heaviest set and you’ll pull more. Use the built-in rest timer in my apps to guide you.
Improve your grip. Grip the bar low in your hands, close to your fingers, not mid-palm. Use chalk or liquid chalk. Switch to the mixed grip on your heavy sets. Do static holds at the end of each set to increase your grip strength. If you do all of this you won’t need straps.
Wear a belt. Get a belt with an equal width all around. Wear it on your last warmup sets and heavy sets. The belt will give your abs a surface to push against which helps them contract harder. This increases support for your spine and helps you Deadlift more.
Eat & Sleep. Your body needs food and sleep to recover from your workouts. Lack of sleep kills motivation to train hard. Lack of food makes you weak. Try to sleep eight hours a night. Eat at least three meals a day. Get a good meal an hour before lifting.
Most important, hammer down on your technique. Every deadlift champion lifts with solid technique because it increases efficiency. It takes work but it’s crucial to increase your Deadlift.
How can I improve my form?
The best way is to get feedback from a coach who knows how to Deadlift with proper form. Someone who can Deadlift at least 400lb. Someone who wasn’t born strong but had to work hard to increase his Deadlifts. Someone who therefore understands what it takes. Someone not using drugs.
Maybe you can’t find a coach where you live. I couldn’t in Belgium. So I solved that by videotaping my lifts to get feedback. Tape yourself from the side so you can see what you’re doing. Review the videos between sets and post-workout. Then try to improve the next time you Deadlift.
Here are the main things to look for. Get these right, and you’re already 80% there.
Proper setup – bar over mid-foot, shoulder-blades over bar, shins against bar
Neutral spine – head neutral, chest up, normal lower back arch
Vertical bar path – ever rep, way up and down
If you notice your Deadlift form is off, don’t try to fix everything at once. You’ll get overwhelmed if you have to think about too many things while you pull. Instead, pick one thing to focus on during your next set. If you get it right, then pick the next thing to fix on your next set.
Mastering proper form will take you through the four stages of competence. At first you don’t know you’re pulling wrong. But you tape yourself and notice the errors. So you focus on doing it right when you Deadlift. Eventually you stop having to think about it – it just becomes natural.
But you’ll keep going through these four stages no matter how advanced you are. There will always be aspects of your form that you can improve. All great Deadlifters keep refining their technique despite their years of experience. I do too. It’s one of the things I enjoy most about lifting.
Your technique will be more consistent if what you do before you Deadlift the weight is consistent. So setup the same way everytime. Walk to the bar the same way, put the same foot under it first, grab it with the same hand first, etc. Every set should look the same whether it’s light or heavy.
More strength is more muscle. The heavier the weights you lift, the stronger your body becomes, and the bigger your muscles grow. Your muscles increase in size so they can lift heavier weights. This is why strength is size – lift heavy weights and you’ll gain muscle mass naturally.
Most people try to build muscle by doing high rep isolation exercises until pumped and sore. But this rarely works because you can’t lift heavy enough to trigger muscle growth. Only lifters who are already strong or use drugs can build muscle by doing mostly isolation exercises like curls and flies.
Natural lifters need compound exercises to build muscle. You need to mostly Squat, Bench, Deadlift, OHPress and Row. You need to lift heavy. Do this and you can gain up to 43lb of muscle without using drugs or training more than three times a week. This even works for skinny hardgainers like me.
This is definitive guide to building muscle naturally.
The biggest muscle building mistake people make is training like a bodybuilder. Many bodybuilders use drugs but won’t tell you. And they rarely built the bulk of their muscle size with the routines they do now. That’s why bodybuilding routines don’t work for most people. This is what works…
Get Stronger. The best bodybuilders that ever existed were strong. They knew more strength is more muscle. Increase your Squat to 140kg/300lb, Bench Press to 100kg/220lb, and Deadlift to 180kg/400lb. Your overall muscle mass will increase because strength is size.
Add Weight. Forget about pump and soreness. Instead focus on adding weight on the bar. Try to lift more than last time. You’ll get stronger which will increase your overall muscle mass. If you don’t lift more today than last month or year, you’re not building muscle.
Do Compounds. Do exercises that work several muscles at the same time. You’ll be able to lift heavier weights which will trigger more muscle growth. The bulk of your routine should consist of heavy Squats, Bench, Deadlifts, Overhead Presses and Barbell Rows.
Use Barbells. You can lift heavier weights with barbells than any other tools. You also have to balance the weight yourself. Barbells involve more muscles and trigger more growth. Use free weights not attached to machines. Start light and use proper form to avoid injury.
Increase Frequency. The more often you train a muscle, the more you trigger it to grow. The more you do an exercise, the quicker your technique improves, and the heavier you can lift. Start Squatting, pressing and pulling three times a week instead of only once.
Recover. Your muscles need to recover from your workouts to grow stronger and bigger. They can’t recover if you work them hard every day. Even your mind needs a break. Take three to four rest days a week. Help your muscles recover by getting plenty of food, water and sleep.
Eat More. Your body uses food to fuel workouts, and recover muscles. Your muscles can’t recover and grow if there’s a shortage of food. Most guys need at least 3000kcal/day to build muscle. Skinny guys with high metabolisms need even more to gain weight.
Eat Protein. Your body uses protein to build new muscle, and recover damaged muscle tissue post-workout. You need 2.2g protein per kilogram of body-weight (1g/lb) to maximize muscle recovery and build muscle. For an 80kg/175lb guy, that’s about 175g of protein per day.
Get Real. You can’t get steroid-like results without using steroids. You can’t turn into Arnold in three months because building muscle takes time. Celebrities set unrealistic expectations. Stop trying to look like them. Focus on improving yourself. It will save you frustration.
Be Consistent. Most guys gain 0.25kg/0.5lb of lean muscle per week if they do an effective training program and eat well. You can’t gain muscle faster than this. It takes a year to gain 12kg/24lb of lean muscle and see dramatic change. Consistency is therefore key.
Rate of Muscle Gain
Most guys can gain 0.25kg/0.5lb of lean muscle per week when they start lifting. That’s about 1kg/2lb of muscle per month or 12kg/24lb in a year. This assumes you do an effective training program like StrongLifts 5×5, eat well, and are consistent. Muscle gains slow down after the first year.
Weekly Muscle Gain
Monthly Muscle Gain
Yearly Muscle Gain
0.25kg / 0.5lb
1kg / 2lb
12kg / 24lb
0.12kg / 0.25lb
0.5kg / 1lb
6kg / 12lb
too small to track
0.25kg / 0.5lb
3kg / 6lb
Your body-weight can increase by more than 1kg/2lb per month when you start lifting. Your muscles store glycogen to fuel your workouts. Glycogen binds to water which causes water retention and a fuller look. This water weight increases your body-weight. But it’s not pure muscle tissue.
Some guys can gain more than 1kg/2lb of muscle per month. Teens gain muscle faster because they have more testosterone. Skinny kids gain muscle faster because they start under-weight. People who lifted before gain muscle faster thanks to muscle memory. Drugs change everything.
On the other hand, older people gain muscle more slowly because they have less testosterone. Same with females – they usually gain only half the muscle or 12lb the first year. Strong lifters gain muscle more slowly than weak lifters because they already have more muscle mass.
But on average you can expect to gain about 1kg/2lb of muscle per month during your first year on an effective training program. So if you’ve been going to the gym for a while but never did a program like StrongLifts 5×5, you can still gain 12kg/24lb of muscle in the next 12 months.
Most of your muscle gains will happen the first three years. In the beginning you’re weak and have little muscle. So you gain strength and muscle fast – these are the newbie gains. I started out skinny-fat at 60kg/135lb. My weight climbed to 80kg/175lb the first three years, most of it the first year.
But my weight hasn’t changed much since then. The more strength and muscle you have, the harder to gain more. This is the law of diminishing returns – it takes more work to get more, and the return is smaller. Luckily the gains are easier to maintain, and come back faster after a break.
It’s harder to build muscle than to lose fat or get stronger. You can easily lose 0.5kg/1lb of fat per week by eating slightly less. You can easily add 2.5kg/5lb per workout on Squats for weeks with StrongLifts 5×5. But you can’t build more than 0.5kg/1lb of muscle per week. Compare…
7.5kg / 15lb
0.5kg / 1lb
0.25kg / 0.5lb
30kg / 60lb
2kg / 4lb
1kg / 2lb
90kg / 180lb
6kg / 12lb
3kg / 6lb
This explains why you can’t look like top bodybuilders, fitness models or celebrities in three months. They’ve usually been training for years – Arnold was lifting weights for eight years before winning his first Mr Olympia. And don’t ignore the lightning, tanning, photoshop, drugs, …
You can’t gain more than 1kg/2lb of muscle per month. This is the human genetic limit. The only way to gain muscle faster is by not going slower. It takes a year to gain 12kg/24lb of muscle and make a big change. Be consistent and stay focused so it doesn’t take you two years to get there.
Your maximum muscular body-weight depends mostly on your height and bone-structure. Tall people can build more muscle mass than short people. People with large, thick frames can gain more muscle than people with narrow builts and small wrists/ankles like me.
Casey Butt Phd has come up with formulas to determine the maximum amount of muscle mass you can gain naturally. His research is based on the muscle size of the world’s top bodybuilders before anabolic steroids existed (source). I’ve turned Casey’s formula in a simple table below.
These numbers assume a wrist size of 17.8cm/7″, ankle size of 22.9cm/9″ and body-fat of 10%. The biceps size is contracted at the largest point. These numbers are for males only. The female muscular potential is lower since they’re usually shorter, smaller and have less testosterone.
These numbers are based on the achievements of the best bodybuilders that ever existed, including Reg Park. It’s therefore unrealistic to expect gaining as much muscle. These lifters had better work ethics and genetics than the rest otherwise they wouldn’t have become champions.
So be proud if you reach 90% of your muscular potential in lean condition. I’m 5’8″ with 6’7″ wrists. I weigh about 175lb with maybe 12% body-fat. That’s 90% of 190lb. This is why although I’m not a big guy, and may look small on paper, people I meet always notice I lift weights.
These numbers show most guys won’t build a 200lb lean and muscular body. The average height for males in the US is 1m75/5’9″. Unless you’re taller, the only way to get to 200lb is to let your body-fat increase… or take anabolic steroids. Working hard won’t make it happen for natural lifters.
The point isn’t to demotivate you. Quite the opposite – I don’t want you to get demotivated because you set unrealistic goals like 21″ ripped arms. Reg Park had 18.5″ arms, competed at 214lb and was 6’1″ tall. He could Squat 600lb and Bench 500lb. You’re unlikely to do better than him. Really.
It’s true that training and nutrition methods have improved. People gain strength and muscle faster today than in Reg Park’s time. But human genetics haven’t changed – there’s still a limit to how much muscle you can gain naturally. And this still depends mostly on your height and frame size.
What has changed a lot is anabolic steroids. Arnold Schwarzenegger competed at 235lb/6’2″. Three decades later Ronnie Coleman competed at 300lb/5’11”. They both worked hard, both Deadlifted over 700lb, Arnold even admitted using drugs. But one clearly used more to get 65lb bigger…
That’s why natural bodybuilding competitors rarely weigh over 200lb. They can’t get lean enough to show up ripped. Most people compete in the lighter 165lb class because that’s where you end when you drop to single digit body-fat. 200lb ripped, life-time natural physiques are rare.
Your genetics determine the shape of your muscles. People’s muscles look different for the same reason their faces look different. You can increase the size of your muscles by lifting heavy weights. But you can’t change their shape because you can’t change your genetics. Examples…
Frame size. People with a short torso like me will have a fuller look than people with a long torso. There’s less muscle mass needed to fill up the same amount of space. People with a long torso will tend to look skinnier and have a smaller waist.
Muscle insertions. Your biceps will have a bigger peak if you have high biceps insertions. Your calves will look smaller if you have high calf attachments like me because there’s less muscles to work with – most of your lower leg will be bones and tendons.
Length of limbs. People with long arms and legs like me will tend to look skinnier because there’s more space to fill up. They need to increase their overall muscle size more to make their arms and legs look big. They’ll need to weigh more at the same height by eating more.
Note that you can’t isolate parts of a muscle. You can’t work your lower or outer biceps, or your inner-chest. You’re either working the whole muscle, or you don’t. What you can do is increase the overall size of the muscle so it fills out more. You do that by lifting heavy and eating more.
Don’t try to look like some celebrity or model. Everyone is built differently as already explained. Your genetics determine the shape of your muscles. So unless you have the same frame size, limb length, and muscle insertions as that celebrity or model, you won’t able to recreate their look.
In fact, movie stars don’t look the same either. Notice in the top picture how Hugh Jackman looks like the biggest of the three. Chris Hemsworth has a longer torso with a smaller lean. Daniel Craig’s torso is shorter and looks more bulky. Their chest and shoulders have different shapes.
Even if you lift and eat the same, you won’t look the same. I trained with my mentor for two years. We did the same sets. reps, and exercises. But I looked different because different genetics. My brothers look different too despite having the same parents. This only works for identical twins.
Most people can’t stick to celebrity workouts anyway. They’re grueling and time-consuming. Actors have time. They get help from personal trainers and cooks. They get motivated by big paychecks. But most hate lifting, quit as soon as filming ends, and get fat. Check Gerard Butler after the 300.
Truth is, most actors don’t look like in the movies the whole year. They only have to look good for a few shirtless shots. And their muscles are accentuated by using special angles, lightning, make-up or even CGI. For the movie posters there’s good-old photoshop. Lots of smoke and mirrors.
And then there’s steroids. Actors are on a tight schedule. They get older but still have to look ripped. Their salary depends for a big part on their looks. Competition is high. This makes steroids tempting. But few are open about using – they don’t want to get problems or disappoint their fans.
The point is that it’s fine to get inspired by celebrity transformations. Chris Pratt goes from fat to fit in six months – cool. Hugh Jackman is still big and strong in his late 40s – great. Just don’t try to get the same results in the same amount of time using the same routine. It won’t work.
More important – don’t try to look like someone else. Build a better body that makes other people want to look like YOU. Do this by increasing your strength and muscle mass first, and then lowering your body-fat to get ripped. This will make you look great regardless of your genes.
You can’t build a great building on a weak foundation. And yet many people try to build a great body without doing the basics first. This is why so many of them fail to gain muscle mass. You need to build a strong foundation in order to build a great body. Here’s what that means…
Foundation of Size. You can’t chisel a marble sculpture without a big block of marble. You can’t pump muscles you haven’t built first. You need to increase your overall muscle mass before you can define it with isolation exercises and cutting diets.
Foundation of Strength. You can’t get strong and big with high rep isolation exercises – the weights are too light. You need compound exercises to go heavy and get stronger. You can then use that strength to do isolation with heavier weight to sculpt your muscles.
Foundation of Form. You can’t lift heavy with bad form. Proper form increases lifting safety and efficiency. It increases your strength so you can work your muscles harder with heavier weight. But you have to do the main exercises frequently to master proper form.
It’s tempting to skip this step and go straight after the pump with high rep isolation. But if you build a foundation of size, strength and form first, you will get better results with whatever you decide to do later – whether that is aesthetics, endurance or even more strength.
The challenge is that everything works in the beginning. You can gain muscle by jumping straight into high rep isolation routines. But you won’t build the maximum amount of muscle mass you can build in the shortest amount of time. And you’ll eventually get stuck because you never built a foundation.
This is where many people start to blame their genetics or age. This is where they start buying more supplements. This is where they start considering anabolic steroids. They lack experience to see the issue is their training – they’ve failed to build a strong foundation first.
This muscle building guide is about spending a year on building a foundation of form, strength and size. After that you can specialize if you want. Most people are happy with how they look by training for strength. Some want more aesthetics. But it always starts by building a strong foundation.
Strength Is Size
More strength is more muscle. If you lift big, you get big. This is why the best bodybuilders that ever existed were strong like bulls. They knew strength equals size.
Here’s how this works: your skeletal muscles are attached to your bones by tendons. Your muscles contract to move your body and lift the weights. The heavier the weight on the bar, the more gravity pulls it down. This forces your muscles to work harder to lift and control the weight.
Lifting heavy weights stresses your body and muscles. It stimulates them to grow stronger and bigger so they can better handle that same stress next workout. This is the stimulus – recovery – adaptation cycle aka what doesn’t kill you make you stronger. Put simply, you lift big, you get big.
Arnold Schwarzenegger agrees. He won the Mr Olympia title seven times. But he also competed in olympic lifting, powerlifting and strongman before becoming a bodybuilder. Arnold could Deadlift 710lb, Bench Press 440lb and Squat 473lb. Here’s what he said about strength…
The truth is that not all bodybuilders are strong, especially those who have done most of their training with weight machines. But years of power lifting and working with free weights had given me massive biceps and shoulders and back muscles and thighs. I simply looked bigger and stronger than the rest.
Arnold wasn’t the first or only bodybuilder that understood strength equals size. There’s a long list of top bodybuilders who can lift big, heavy weights. Here are some examples…
Franco Columbo. Arnold’s trainingpartner from Sicily. He could Deadlift 755lb, Bench 525lb and Squat 655lb. He even competed as a strongman. Franco won the Mr Olympia twice.
Reg Park. Arnold’s mentor who probably taught him strength is size. He could Deadlift 700lb, Bench 500lb and Squat 600lb. Reg Park won the Mr Universe title three times.
Ronnie Coleman. The 8x Mr Olympia champion once said “Everybody wants to be a bodybuilder but nobody wants to lift heavy weights.” He could Deadlift 800lb like peanuts.
Sergio Oliva. Competed as an Olympic weightlifter nationally. He could lift 300lb overhead and totalled 1000lb. He then switched to bodybuilding and won the Mr Olympia 3x.
John Grimek. Competed in weightlifting at the Olympic Games. Then switched to bodybuilding and won the Mr America and Mr Universe. Grimek could still Squat 400lb in his 60s.
Dr Layne Norton Phd. Pro-bodybuilder and powerlifter. Increasing his Squat took his chicken legs from 21″ to 28″ thighs. He Squats 617lb, benches 387lb and Deadlifts 700lb.
Stan Efferding. Professional bodybuilder who also owns the world record Squat in the 275lb class with 854lb. People often call him the world’s strongest bodybuilder.
These bodybuilders DID high rep isolation routines at one point to chisel their physique. But they were strong first. And they didn’t get strong by doing isolation like curls and flies. They got strong by doing heavy Squats and Deadlifts. This is how they increased their overall size and muscle mass.
Bodybuilders and powerlifters actually used to train the same way. It was normal for them to compete in both. Bodybuilding competitions even used to include feats of strength. Joe Weider changed this in 1946 when he created the IFBB and turned bodybuilding shows into beauty contests.
But strength is still size. That’s why so many strong lifters can pass as bodybuilders if they diet down. Just look at powerlifter Dan Green and olympic weightlifter Dmitry Klokov. Dan Squats 848lb, Dmitry lifts 511lb overhead. Most people couldn’t tell if they do bodybuilding or strength training.
Now they won’t win bodybuilding competitions against real bodybuilders. But you probably don’t plan to compete. Most guys want to build muscle to get laid (hey, even I did). I don’t know any girl who wouldn’t like a body like that. I don’t know any guy who wouldn’t be happy to look like that.
And sure, they might sneak curls in here and there. But the bulk of their training consists of heavy Squats, presses and pulls because that’s what their sport demands. Their physique is therefore the result of doing a lot heavy lifting. This illustrates the principle of form following function.
Some people think strength training doesn’t build muscle because they’ve seen fat powerlifters. First, they have muscles, big muscles, or they wouldn’t lift big. It’s just hidden behind fat. Powerlifters don’t win by being more ripped than their competitors. They win by lifting heavier weight.
Two, those 300lb pro-bodybuilding mutants are of course more ripped than 300lb powerlifters. The former is strict about his diet, uses all kinds of drugs to get more cut, and is tanned. The latter just eats a ton to maximize muscle recovery and break world records. Different goals.
Here’s how to compare – take a 180lb powerlifter and 180lb natural bodybuilder. Put them side to side without tanning and at similar body-fat levels. The average person wouldn’t be able to tell who the powerlifter is. They’d probably call them both bodybuilders. Heck, they call me a bodybuilder.
Other people think strength training can’t make you big. This contradicts the last point. Plus Andy Bolton Deadlifted 1000lb and weighs over 300lb. I met him, he’s huge. Weight classes in powerlifter go up to 140kg. These guys do tend to be fat. But it’s not all fat because fat doesn’t move weight.
The confusion happens because they’ve seen a light weight powerlifter. In the video below you can see Sergey Fedosienko Squat 300kg at a body-weight of only 58kg. Naive people will conclude he’s not big so lifting heavy weights don’t make you big. This shows a lack of common sense.
Why doesn’t he have more muscle? Why aren’t his arms 18″? Because your maximum muscular body-weight depends mostly on your frame size and height. This guy is only 4.9″. He can’t weigh 100kg without turning fat. 58kg is perfect for his height. But that means no 18″ arms for him. Normal.
Again, powerlifters win by lifting heavier than their competitors. And since there are weight classes, they manipulate their body-weight to end in the category in which they’re most competitive. Small powerlifters often eat strictly to avoid weight gain. They don’t want to end in a heavier category.
But strength is size. Even celebrities have caught on and are now lifting heavy. It’s the most effective way for them to quickly increase their overall muscle mass so they look big on screen. Just look at Hugh Jackman and Henry Cavill Deadlifting heavy for the Wolverine and Superman movies…
Hugh Jackman pulls 461lb and he’s almost 50. He had a point when he wrote on twitter: “if the bar isn’t bending, you’re pretending”. Curls don’t bend bars. Heavy Squats and Deadlifts do. Maybe you don’t care about strength, you just want to build muscle. But lifting heavy is what it takes.
Strength is size doesn’t mean you have to Deadlift 700lb like Arnold. I can’t do that. But get stronger. You’ll see a massive difference by increasing your Squat to 140kg/300lb, Bench to 100kg/220lb, and Deadlift to 180kg/400lb. You can easily do that with StrongLifts 5×5.
And yet most people will make all kinds of excuses to not lift heavy. They’ll do gazillion of exercises and chase pump instead. But this doesn’t work because building size requires gaining strength. You need to lift heavy to increase your overall muscle mass naturally. Get started, today.
In Ancient Greece, Milo of Croton trained for the Olympics by carrying a calf on his back each day. The calf grew bigger which forced Milo to lift heavier weights. Milo’s body became stronger and bigger as a result. He became the strongest guy in his time, winning the Olympics 6x.
It’s a legend. But it illustrates the principle of progressive overload used in effective training programs like StrongLifts 5×5. Gradually increasing the weight stresses your body and muscles. It triggers them to gain in strength and size so they can better handle heavy weights in the future.
Strength is size as already explained. You got to lift big to get big. Progressive overload is how you do it. Start light, add weight each workout, do this as long as you can. Always try to lift more. Because if you’re not lifting heavier weight today than last year or month, you’re not gaining muscle.
It works the opposite way too – Progressive Underload. You’ve seen people getting less active as they age. They use their muscles less by becoming sedentary. They become skinny, weak and fat because what you don’t use, you lose. Your body needs a reason to be strong and muscular.
Besides the fact that progressive overload works, it’s is also the simplest way to progress. The sets, reps and exercises can stay the same. You just add weight. So you know if you’re making progress by looking at the weight on the bar – if it increases over time, you’re gaining muscle.
Most people get addicted to training programs that use progressive overload. They find it motivating to see the weight on the bar increase each workout. They end up looking forward to going to the gym and see how far they can take it. They don’t have to drag themselves as they used to.
Now you can’t add weight forever. Otherwise everyone would be Squatting 700lb. But most people are amazed by how long they can add weight. Of course this is simple but not easy. It’s hard work. Some people don’t have what it takes to push themselves to add weight over and over again…
So many people chase pump instead. They hammer their muscles with high rep failure training. But all this does is bloating up your muscles with water. As soon as you leave the gym, the pump is gone. It’s also hard to pump anything up if you don’t have much muscle mass to start with…
Other people chase soreness. They think being sore after a workout means you’re building muscle. But there’s no link between soreness and muscle growth. Novelty usually causes soreness – a new exercise, weight, rep range, etc. What builds muscle is lifting heavier weights over time.
Some people try to confuse their muscles. They keep changing exercises, sets and reps. This makes it hard to improve your form because you’re never doing an exercise long enough. You also can’t know if you’re making progress because you’re changing too many variables at the same time.
Muscle confusion only ends up confusing you. You gain strength quickly the first weeks you do a new exercise. But this isn’t because you’re building muscle. It’s because your form is improving – you’re getting more efficient. You’re switching exercise before the muscle growth kicks in.
If you want to confuse your muscles, add weight on the bar. This gives your body new stimulus to grow stronger and bigger muscles but without confusing you. Start light to build momentum. Use small jumps of 2.5kg/5lb per workout. Or just do StrongLifts 5×5 – it uses progressive overload.
To build muscle you must do compound exercises that work several muscles at the same time. The bulk of your routine must consist of the big five – Squat, Bench, Deadlift, OHPress and Rows.
Most people try to build muscle with isolation exercises like curls, flies and leg extension. This is ineffective because the weight is too light. Only one muscle group lifts the weight while the rest is taken out of the movement. This limits how heavy you can go. Yet size requires strength.
You can go heavier on the Squat than leg extension because your hips help your legs lift the weight. You can go heavier on the Bench Press than flies because your arms help your chest. You can go heavier with compound exercises because several muscle groups are involved.
The heavier the weight you lift, the bigger the stress on your body, and the bigger the stimulus to grow stronger and bigger muscles. You lift big, you get big. You lift bigger weights with compounds than isolation exercises. That’s why compound exercises are more effective to gain muscle mass.
Progressive overload is also easier to apply on compound exercises. More muscles are working and the weight is heavier. Adding 2.5kg/5lb to a 50kg/100lb Bench is a 5% jump. But moving from 40lb to 50lb dumbbell flies is a 10% jump. You can add weight longer with compound exercises.
Compound exercises build more muscle symmetry. Since every exercise works several muscles at the same time, you can’t favor the mirror and beach muscles. So you don’t turn into a captain upper-body with big arms but no legs/back. You build a more balance physique instead.
Compound exercises work your body the way you use it in the real world. You never use only one muscle group outside the gym. Your body always moves as one piece. That’s why the strength you build with isolation exercises doesn’t transfer outside the gym. They build fake gym strength.
And since compound exercises work several muscles at the same time, you don’t need to do more than three exercises per workout. This saves time compared to doing isolation exercises where you need double the amount of exercises to work your whole body.
Many people think you need to work a muscle directly for it to grow. If this was true we would have powerlifters with a barrel chest from benching but pencil arms from barely curling. Yet their arms grow bigger because they hold and press the weight when they bench. This triggers growth.
That’s why your triceps doesn’t need much work after benching heavy. One exercise to pump and shape it, maybe. But not five. That can be counter-productive because your arms are small muscles that need recovery to grow. They can’t if you keep hitting them with a ton of isolation.
Much of the confusion comes from seeing bodybuilders doing mostly isolation. But again, many of the top bodybuilders were strong as bulls. They built strength and size by doing mostly compound exercises first. They only did isolation later in their career. Quote from Arnold again…
“Reg Park’s theory was that first you have to build the mass and then chisel it down to get the quality; you work on your body the way a sculptor would work on a piece of clay or wood or steel. You rough it out””the more carefully, the more thoroughly, the better”” then you start to cut and define. You work it down gradually until it’s ready to be rubbed and polished. And that’s when you really know about the foundation. Then all the faults of poor early training stand out as hopeless, almost irreparable flaws. [..]
I was building up, bulking, going after the mass, which to me meant 230 pounds of sheer body weight. At that time, I didn’t care about my waist or anything else that would give me a symmetrical look. I just wanted to build a gigantic 250-pound body by handling a lot of weight and blasting my muscles. My mind was into looking huge, into being awesome and powerful. I saw it working. My muscles began bursting out all over. And I knew I was on my way.”
Let’s say you still think flies will build a bigger chest than Bench Press. If you double your Bench from 110lb to 220lb, you double the strength of your chest, shoulders and arms. So you can now do those flies with more weight than before. That means you get better results from the isolation.
It’s actually fine to do some isolation as long as it’s not the only thing you do. Pareto principle can be a good guideline – 80% compound exercises like Squats, Bench, Deadlift, OHPress and Row. Then 20% isolation like curls to pump and shape muscles. That’s is if you still need to, I don’t bother.
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.
Free: download the StrongLifts 5×5 spreadsheet to get your first 12 weeks of training calculated for you. You’ll know the exercises, weights, sets & reps to do. And the progress graphs will keep you motivated. Signup to my daily email tips to get the spreadsheet. Just click here.
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…
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…
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…
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…
Free: download the StrongLifts 5×5 spreadsheet to get your first 12 weeks of training calculated for you. You’ll know the exercises, weights, sets & reps to do. And the progress graphs will keep you motivated. Signup to my daily email tips to get the spreadsheet. Just click here.
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 Bodybuilderreveal 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…
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.
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.
Free: download the StrongLifts 5×5 spreadsheet to get your first 12 weeks of training calculated for you. You’ll know the exercises, weights, sets & reps to do. And the progress graphs will keep you motivated. Signup to my daily email tips to get the spreadsheet. Just click here.
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.
Your starting weights depend on your strength and experience. Download my spreadsheets and apps, they’ll calculate your starting weights for you. Here’s the basic idea…
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 StrongLifts Pro 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…
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…
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 when you upgrade to StrongLifts Pro. 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.
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.
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. Upgrade to StrongLifts Pro 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.
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…
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…
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…
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.
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:
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.
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.
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…
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…
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 Rack 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.
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.
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.
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.
I mostly do the Squat Stretch (hips/ankles) and passive hangs (shoulders/spine). I do the former after Squats, the latter between sets. You don’t need gazillions of exercises – keep it simple.
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.
The amount of marketing BS spread about supplementation is absurd.
It makes sense – supplements are a billion dollar industry, and the craziest claims get you paid.
We’ve been dissecting supplement and nutrition claims for over two years at Examine.com. With over 20,000 citations now, we’ve amassed a wealth of knowledge. And we’re going to use that knowledge to reveal the truths about the 12 most popular strength training supplements.
Claim: Glutamine is touted as a muscle-building agent, and more recently it’s starting to be marketed as an intestinal-health supplement.
Reality: In a cell culture (aka a petri-dish), glutamine can cause dose-dependent increases in muscle protein synthesis. Furthermore, when given to trauma patients, there appears to be rapid recovery of muscle tissue. Unfortunately, these properties do not apply to healthy athletes who use glutamine for muscle-building purposes. This is not one of the issues where there is a lack of evidence, but instead pretty much complete consensus from repeated scientific studies in which glutamine does not outperform placebo.
It is possible that very low protein intakes (vegetarian/vegan diets) could benefit from glutamine supplementation, but supplementation could be avoiding by simply eating more protein.
The reason glutamine doesn’t work is a kinetic issue: the liver and intestines consume most glutamine, and thus little gets to your muscle tissues. Glutamine does seem to help people with intestinal disorders such as Crohn’s disease.
Notables: As glutamine’s inefficacy is a kinetic issue, it is possible that a certain variant of glutamine could bypass the issue and actually cause muscle growth. This variant is only a theory right now, and does not currently exist. However, glutamine is not likely to go away anytime soon, since the cash cow can still be milked.
> Waste of your money, unless you have serious intestinal issues.
Claim: Protein powders are dehydrated food supplements with the sole purpose of adding protein to the diet. The sources and flavors vary, and different forms of protein supplements come with various claims to encourage people to buy their powder rather than another. Most famously, this includes whey protein being a “faster-absorbed” protein source.
Reality: There are indeed differences in protein absorption between whey and casein, but there is not a clear relationship with muscle growth. While studies that last 24 hours do note higher protein-synthesis rates with whey over casein, studies that actually measure muscle mass over a few weeks or months note no real difference. So here we have increased muscle-protein synthesis on a technicality, but the truth for building muscle is no significant difference.
It would be safe to summarize that for an average person, the speed of digestion is irrelevant; the only benefits one source of protein would have over another would be coingested nutrients (such as calcium in whey and casein, or fiber in hemp protein).
Notables: Casein protein is known to have gel-forming properties, and with the addition of small amounts of water it can make pudding; with some ingenuity, other recipes such as ice cream or protein fluff can be made.
> A great way to get more protein into your diet, but no type of protein is significantly better than others. The speed of digestion may not be relevant.
Claim: Creatine is said to be a muscle-building and power output-enhancing supplement, with a high safety level and a plethora of evidence to support its efficacy. There are various other claims for enhancing cognition and reducing depressive symptoms.
Reality: While the cognitive benefits of creatine supplementation are sometimes reliant on a partial creatine deficiency (seen in vegetarians), supplementation of creatine is a proven way to enhance power output. There is initially some weight gain (excess water retained), but creatine does have an ability to increase muscle-protein synthesis and has been noted to increase muscle gains over time.
There is still an issue of nonresponse (some people do not respond to creatine supplementation, and do not even gain water weight from supplementation), which appears to be a kinetic issue. This does not affect enough people to call creatine unreliable in any way, but creatine nonresponse does appear to exist. You can tell if you respond to creatine by taking high doses (20g daily for 5 days) and assessing the increase in water weight gain.
Notables: Topical application of creatine might be anabolic there too, being able to permeate the skin and potently increase collagen synthesis.
> It’s safe and it works. Especially potent for vegetarians.
Claim: Beta-alanine is the amino acid precursor to carnosine, a molecule that serves as an intracellular buffer for acidity. Supplementation of beta-alanine is said to enhance work output and prevent fatigue, and due to increased work output, an increase in muscle mass is claimed to occur.
Reality: Beta-alanine does appear to be effective, although the most recent meta-analysis on the topic suggested that the benefit is 2.85% and only significant in moderate-length trials (60 to 240-second bouts of exercise). This time frame actually excludes weight lifting, and the studies assessing weight lifting and power activities below 60 seconds do not uniformly find benefit.
Oddly, the three studies that measure lean mass and fat mass do note beneficial trends of more muscle and less fat mass. It is currently not known why this occurs.
Notables: Some anecdotal reports suggest that very high (8-16 g) and chronic dosing of beta-alanine, while effective for multiday training sessions, causes severe cramping and pain. This is actually quite plausible, as beta-alanine gets into the muscles via the same transporter that the amino acid taurine uses and competitively inhibits its uptake. Transient taurine deficiencies are well known to induce muscular cramping (as commonly seen with clenbuterol usage).
> Works, but the benefits are small.
Claim: Testosterone-boosting supplements are cocktails of various herbs or extracts that are said to increase testosterone production in the human body. Marketed to male weight lifters, the claims found on the label are the stereotypical claims associated with steroid usage.
Reality: Testosterone boosters are in an odd position. There are numerous herbs (fenugreek, Bulbine Natalensis) or molecules (D-Aspartic Acid, vitamin D, DHEA) that do appear to work, but the increases are quite small relative to testosterone injections, and these studies do not actually measure muscle mass gain over time.
More importantly, there are an astounding number of things marketed to increase testosterone with no apparent consistency in what works and what doesn’t. Even then, libido enhancers (sole purpose is to make you hornier) are very commonly put into testosterone boosters to make you feel like they’re working; the most popular T-booster, Tribulus terrestris, is evidence of this. People often confuse increased libido with an increase in testosterone, but the two can be independent of each other.
Notables: The most promising test booster of late is Bulbine Natalensis. Currently, there is no human evidence on its testosterone-boosting properties (it will apparently be published soon) but it appears to be quite respectable in rodents. While D-Aspartic acid is known to increase testosterone by 42%, Bulbine has been cited at 346%. Usage of Bulbine is limited by its known toxicity in rats (kidneys and liver), and the state of research on this topic is somewhat odd (all toxicity reports come from one research group in Africa, which appears to be the only group who really cared about it up until recently).
> There are promising ones on the horizon, but the current batch are mostly useless. Many of the T-boosters increase your libido without increasing your testosterone levels enough to appreciably build muscle
Branched chain amino acids, aka BCAAs
Claim: Branched chain amino acids (three amino acids known as leucine, valine, and isoleucine) are said to be muscle-building amino acids. This is technically true, and the BCAAs (especially leucine) are prime regulators of how food can increase muscle-protein synthesis. The leucine content of protein powders is even a marketing point, with “leucine-enriched proteins” being claimed to be more anabolic.
Reality: BCAAs do work, and they are anabolic. To be specific, they are anabolic relative to nothing. While this means that the marketing claims do reflect the state of the science, there are some practical limitations. BCAAs are in all protein-containing foods, and the studies that measure protein versus protein with added BCAAs do not uniformly note increased muscle-protein synthesis.
In short, if you follow a protein-rich diet, then you likely get enough BCAAs already, and consuming BCAAs separately will have little impact in increasing muscle mass.
Notables: Isoleucine is quite interesting due to it increasing glucose uptake into muscle cells quite potently, and by a relatively unique mechanism to boot. Leucine can do this as well, but due to inducing muscle-protein synthesis it eventually shoots itself in the foot (the same mechanism also reduces glucose uptake). Due to this, isoleucine supplements have a potential role for being antidiabetic or used on carbohydrate refeeds.
> If you are getting ample protein via your diet/supplementation, BCAAs likely have little benefit. They are a low-caloric source of protein.
Claim: Fish oil, for athletes, is most frequently used to reduce joint pain and inflammation and to allow for faster recovery. It is commonly followed up by studies showing that NSAIDs (the other choice for reducing soreness) hinder muscle growth in youth, while fish oil can theoretically increase glucose uptake and enhance leucine signaling in muscle tissue.
Reality: The joint health and inflammation issue is well known and researched, and does appear to exist. Fish oil dose-dependently reduces soreness and inflammation, and this appears to be secondary to a slight immunosuppressive effect.
Although there is not as much evidence for the muscle-building claim, it is potentially true as well. Relative to people without dietary fish oil, those with inclusion of fish oil appear to have enhanced leucine signaling (and muscle-protein synthesis from amino acids) and increased glucose uptake into muscle cells. There are no current studies that assess actual muscle growth (rather, they measure fractional synthesis rates over a few hours) so while it cannot be claimed that fish oil builds muscle, it does seem possible.
Notables: Fish oil exerts many of its benefits in an omega 3:6 ratio, with the desired ratio being around 1:1.
> Mostly useful in helping you achieve a 1:1 omega 3:6 ratio (or close enough). If you eat ample amounts of fatty fish and not too much omega-6, you likely do not need it. It can help with inflammation and joint pain.
Claim: L-Carnitine is touted to be a fat-burning agent, as a carnitine-dependent enzyme (carnitine palmitoyltransferase) is the rate-limiting step of transporting fatty acids into the mitochondria for their subsequent oxidation (the “burning” of the fat). Beyond that, carnitine is also said to enhance recovery from exercise.
Reality: L-Carnitine provision does not inherently increase the rate of fatty-acid oxidation, although it seems to under a few instances. For those deficient in carnitine, usually elderly individuals (65+) and vegetarians, supplementation can help burn fat. In otherwise healthy and young omnivores, carnitine has not been demonstrated to have fat-burning properties.
Preloading exercise with carnitine supplements (either tartrate or GPLC) does appear to have a muscle-protection effect, as increases of biomarkers of damage measured the next day appear to be reduced. Carnitine does not appear to have 100% reliability in actually increasing performance, although it has been associated with it at some times, and although this could lead to increased muscle mass over time (by allowing more work to be conducted) this has not yet been shown with carnitine supplements.
Notables: A variant of carnitine known as Acetyl-L-Carnitine (ALCAR) is commonly used in nootropic communities for its cognition-enhancing effects, which are said to be stimulatory but “cleaner” than caffeine. This may be related to an increase in neural glucose consumption, and would be an added benefit for elderly persons who might be partially deficient.
> Ineffective as a fat burner. Only helpful if you are deficient in it.
Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA)
Claim: CLA is touted to be a fat-burner, and is said to work on a novel method of fat burning (whereas the mitochondria mediates beta-oxidation of fatty acids, the system that CLA activates is known as the peroxisomal system and its receptors are called PPARs; peroxisomes can burn fat independently of the mitochondria). At times, CLA is also claimed to build muscle mass.
Reality: CLA is a prime example of how animal research differs from human research. In rats and in mice, CLA supplementation results in significant fat loss (and eventually fatty liver in mice) via the above mechanisms. There is ample human evidence to suggest that CLA has no such potency in humans.
Now, it would be incorrect to conclude that CLA is ineffective; if you cherry-pick evidence you can find studies to support the role of CLA in fat loss. The problem is that CLA is highly unreliable (with one study actually supporting an increase in fat mass) and the reason for this unreliability is not yet known.
Notables: CLA was one of the first molecules to be found to be a ligand for PPARs, and in the past few decades (partly due to research on CLA) studies on PPARs in general have exploded. PPARs are already the target of some drugs (thiazolidinediones) and supplements (tetradecyl thioacetic acid) and their established benefits are probably set to be the next things abused by supplement companies in marketing
> Great example of something that was very promising in rats/mice, but did not translate to humans. Highly unreliable results, and thus can be stated as being ineffective in fat burning.
Claim: Nitric-oxide boosters are a category of supplements that are all collectively said to increase bodily production of nitric oxide (aka give you “the pump”). Nitric oxide is not actually supplemented (it has a half-life of a few seconds), but instead supplements that stimulate the enzyme that makes nitric oxide are used.
The most popular supplement in this category is L-Arginine (the amino acid that nitric oxide is actually made from) and recently L-Citrulline has been gaining popularity (being a better absorbed version of L-Arginine), as have Agmatine and Beetroot (via nitrates). These supplements are said to enhance pumps in the gym, muscle growth, and be cardioprotective.
Reality: Nitric oxide itself is very important in the body, and there is evidence for most nitric-oxide boosters. Unfortunately though, the first bout of nitric-oxide supplements (which were all based on arginine) appear to be quite unreliable in their benefits. This unreliability is similar to CLA in the sense that we cannot say they are useless but it limits how much they can be recommended.
Also based on the aforementioned unreliability with arginine, a lot of studies in humans with the statement of “I wonder how nitric oxide does something in the body” could not properly assess the question. Nitric oxide is indeed involved in building muscle, but it isn’t confirmed if the increase in nitric oxide seen with supplementation is sufficient to actually induce benefits.
Beetroot and supplemental nitrates appear to be more reliable, and agmatine is set to get more studies to confirm its benefits (or lack thereof). However, the research is still at a “preliminary and promising” stage.
Notables: Arginine is a somewhat interesting supplement, as although it is the amino acid that nitric oxide is made from, this fact is completely irrelevant and a complete misdirection. The enzyme that makes nitric oxide from arginine is fully saturated even in a fasted state, and adding in more substrate would not work in the desired way. It has recently been noted that arginine can act on a receptor (alpha-2 adrenergic) to induce nitric-oxide production, but it appears to need really high concentrations to do this (which is hard to do with arginine supplementation due to the intestinal issues). Agmatine is more potent at the same issue, citrulline acts vicariously through arginine, and beetroot is a completely different (perhaps complementary) mechanism.
> While L-arginine is the common choice, L-citrulline works better (on a per-dosage basis). Beet roots are a great food-source for nitric oxide, and agmatine holds a lot of potential.
Claim: Caffeine is the worlds most popular cognitive enhancer, and is known to be both stimulatory and “antisleep” to non-users; while tolerance develops to the stimulatory effects, the antisleep properties are retained. It is marketed to athletes to increase power output and to prevent fatigue from setting in during workouts.
Reality: Caffeine definitely does have an ability to increase training volume and power output, but requires dosages of around 600 mg in people who are not caffeine tolerant. Such a dosing protocol, while effective, is likely to cause some hyperstimulation issues.
The increase in power output and training volume is mostly lost when tolerance to caffeine develops, which at this dose can last a week or so. Due to this, caffeine seems to be more of a competition supplement than a basic training supplement.
The time where caffeine still has benefit to persons who are tolerant to it is for the antisleep properties, which are not lost with tolerance. For people who are sleep deprived and need to hit the gym, caffeine supplementation can still prevent the lack of sleep from destroying your workout.
Notables: Caffeine tolerance is known to be insurmountable. In other words, once tolerance develops you cannot just simply take more caffeine to try and overcome tolerance.
> Helps keep you awake, and in non-habitual users has a definitive increase in power output, but only at higher doses. Cannot be used regularly or the increase in power output is lost.
Claim: Mass-gainer supplements are marketed to hardgainers (a term used to refer to people who cannot gain mass, usually due to undereating) that carry the claim that they are able to increase mass even in people who have difficulty in doing so. Although “˜mass’ is usually said, the primary focus for these supplements is muscle gain.
Reality: Mass gainer supplements are essentially protein powder with extra calories thrown in. Usually the calories are from nutrient-poor sources to boot (such as straight maltodextrin) and these extra ingredients somehow warrant an incredible price increase. Although it appears to be a deal due to the large size of most mass gainer supplements (many coming in bags), the price per serving frequently exceeds $2-3.
Mass-gain supplements have little to no benefit over simply buying a protein powder supplement without the added calories, and then just making a shake at home with other additives. Adding peanut butter or cream to your protein powder is significantly cheaper, and you can control the added nutrients easier with protein powder and perhaps even add in some healthy stuff (like blueberries).
Assuming a protein powder is used, there is absolutely no need for mass-gaining supplements, and there is no benefit associated with mass gainers that cannot be mimicked by just adding calories to protein powder.
Notables: There are no significant notables about mass-gain supplements aside from unscrupulous marketing.
> A very expensive way of just getting extra calories into your diet. A smarter solution would be to add food products into a shake made with basic protein powder.
About the Authors
This dissection was written by Kurtis Frank and Sol Orwell, co-founders of Examine.com. They recently released The Supplement-Goals Reference, a quick and easy way to see which supplements work, and which don’t.
Guess what? Been there, done that. It’s that kind of lifestyle that turned me into a skinny-fat weakling who lost at armwrestling to a girl, who couldn’t even do a single Pushup and who was embarrassed to take his shirt off at the pool.
And I got fed up with that.
If you have done or are doing StrongLifts 5×5, chances are you also got fed up with being a skinny fat weakling at one point in your life. It should therefore amuse you whenever some nobody arrogantly suggests that you “have no life” because you CHOOSE to go to the gym while they watch TV… because you CHOOSE to prepare your own food while they order take-away… because you CHOOSE to rest for Friday’s Squats while they get wasted on Thursday night.
Few guys are willing to accept that their strength, physique, fitness and health is the result of the lifestyle CHOICES they’ve made and are still making today.
Few guys understand there’s no something for nothing.
Consequently very few guys feel confident about their body… routinely impress their friends, family and colleagues with their strength… repeatedly have people come to them for training and nutrition advice… frequently inspire others to also change their lifestyle and mimic ours.
Don’t be fooled – the people suggesting you have “no life” secretly hate their own life and are envious of your results. So whenever they ask you to come out and “have a life,” remember why you changed your lifestyle in the first place.