As a beginner, the idea of starting strength training can be a daunting one. However, thankfully, there are a vast array of programs and coaching materials online to help guide you.
Two of the most popular training programs for beginners are the Starting Strength and Stronglifts.
While the goal of both programs is to help beginners become accustomed to resistance training and ultimately improve their strength, the programs have slightly different approaches.
This article will begin by outlining both training programs before moving on to compare and evaluate the effectiveness of each approach.
Starting Strength Overview
Mark Rippetoe is the man behind the Starting Strength program. He is a prominent American strength training coach and former powerlifter who has decades of experience in the gym.
Due to the fact that Rippetoe comes from a powerlifting background, there are certain powerlifting elements found in this program. That said, it is not a powerlifting program.
Rippetoe designed Starting Strength to be an entry-level beginners program to help lifters gain strength most efficiently.
The program is based around five key barbell lifts:
Rippetoe has chosen these lifts as he believes them to have the greatest impact on muscular strength and comprehensively work all of the muscles of the body.
Research indicates that heavy lifting is most optimal for strength development (1). It is for this reason that these five exercises have been included in Starting Strength as heavy weights can be used with each lift.
The program is entirely barbell-based. This is again because the barbell allows you to lift the greatest amount of weight possible in comparison to other free weights, such as dumbbells and kettlebells.
This program has been used for many years now by beginners all over the world and there is absolutely no denying its effectiveness.
That said, it is not without criticism. It has been suggested that the Starting Strength program is too lower-body dominant and also, while it may develop strength, it does not lead to optimal muscle growth.
Starting Strength Program
As you would expect from a beginner’s program, Starting Strength is very straightforward to follow.
With the Starting Strength program, you are to train three times per week and alternate between two workouts – A and B.
You can find both workouts below:
|Squat||3 sets x 5 reps|
|Bench Press||3 sets x 5 reps|
|Deadlift||1 set x 5 reps|
|Squat||3 sets x 5 reps|
|Overhead Press||3 sets x 5 reps|
|Power Clean||5 sets x 3 reps|
Rippetoe primarily uses three sets of five with the exception of the deadlift and power clean.
The reasoning for having less volume with the deadlift is that it is extremely taxing on the nervous system. Therefore, for the beginner, one heavy set will suffice.
The power clean is an exercise that is intended to be explosive. Therefore, to develop power and explosiveness most efficiently, the rep range needs to be kept low.
While some critics have argued that the volume is too low to optimize strength development, beginners don’t actually need a great amount of training volume to make significant progress.
Progressive overload is an important training principle that must be applied to your training if you are going to increase strength. This involves gradually increasing the intensity over time (2).
While there are many ways that progressive overload can be applied, Starting Strength keeps it very simple.
Providing that you can complete the prescribed volume for an exercise, you must then increase the amount of weight on the bar next time you come to perform the exercise.
For the deadlift, you should add ten pounds, five pounds for the squat and power clean, and two and a half pounds for the upper body exercises.
The program does not have a specified end date and can be run for as long as necessary.
If you are still improving and are consistently adding weight to each lift, keep going. Some lifters find that they can run this program for up to two months or more.
However, you will eventually reach a point where you can no longer consistently add weight. At this point, you should discontinue the program and move onto the intermediate version of this program.
Stronglifts 5×5 Overview
Created by a Belgian known as Mehdi, Stronglifts 5×5 is another extremely high-quality beginner program.
Mehdi was an aspiring bodybuilder who had become exasperated by the lack of progress he was making.
Having attempted a variety of different programs and workouts, he decided to do some research and design a new routine that would increase his strength. He moved away from bodybuilding-style training and focused on the key principles of strength building. In particular, he utilized 5×5 which simply refers to the number of sets and reps.
Having adopted the 5×5, Mehdi began to see substantial changes in strength and size.
He focused less on small isolation exercises and instead looked to perform a combination of the following compound barbell exercises which are now used in the Stronglifts 5×5:
- Bench Press
- Overhead Press
As you can see, there is only one difference between Starting Strength and Stronglifts in terms of exercise selection. The power clean has been replaced with the row in this instance.
Mehdi explains that substituting in the row for the power clean will lead to a greater development of the upper back.
As with Starting Strength, it’s clear that the Stronglifts 5×5 program is a high-quality program that will bring about improvements in strength.
Read also All you need to know about the Bench Press.
Stronglifts 5×5 Program
As you will see, there are many similarities between both programs. As with Starting Strength, Stronglifts 5×5 also requires you to train three times per week and alternates between two workouts.
|Squat||5 sets x 5 reps|
|Bench Press||5 sets x 5 reps|
|Row||5 sets x 5 reps|
|Squat||5 sets x 5 reps|
|Overhead Press||5 sets x 5 reps|
|Deadlift||1 sets x 5 reps|
Stronglifts sticks to 5×5 for all lifts with the exception of the deadlift. Once again, this is because the deadlift is extremely fatiguing on the nervous system.
Although the volume is higher than Starting Strength, it should still be manageable for beginners.
That said, because of the higher volume, a great level of fatigue may be experienced. This has the potential to negatively impact how you perform with each lift.
In terms of progressions, Stronglifts 5×5 also requires you to gradually add more weight to the bar with each session, where possible.
Mehdi recommends that you add two and a half to five pounds to each lift with the exception of the deadlift where you should look to add five to ten pounds.
Remember that weight should only be added if you have successfully completed five sets of five reps at a given weight.
It’s also recommended that you continue with this program until you reach the point where you can no longer consistently add weight or complete the prescribed volume.
Once you have reached this point, Stronglifts recommends that you reduce training volume (from 5×5 to 3×5) for a short period of time before gradually working up once again.
Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5×5 Differences
It should be apparent that both programs are very similar with only three significant differences between the two.
The first difference is in terms of exercise selection. Both use the same four exercises – bench press, deadlift, overhead press, and squat.
However, Starting Strength includes the power clean while Stronglifts 5×5 utilizes the row.
These two exercises are entirely different. The purpose of the power clean is to develop explosiveness while the row specifically targets the strength of the back.
The reason for the addition of the power clean is to develop full-body power and facilitate improvements in strength and athleticism.
Meanwhile, the row was added as Mehdi believed the other compound exercises didn’t do enough to work the muscles of the upper back.
More significantly, the volume used for each program is different. The Stronglifts program primarily uses 5×5 while the Starting Strength program focuses on 3 x 5.
Both programs have been criticized for the volumes used for different reasons. Some critics argue that the volume used in Starting Strength is too low while yet others argue that the Stronglifts volume is too high.
As mentioned, beginners typically do not need a lot of volume to make progress. Therefore, there are you ought not to be concerned about the volumes used in Starting Strength.
With Stronglifts, lifters may need to be more aware of fatigue, however, once again, the overall training volume is not excessive.
Finally, both programs have different recommendations after reaching a training plateau. This is simply where you are no longer making any progress with your training.
For those running Starting Strength, it is recommended that you move onto the intermediate Starting Strength program.
Doing so will alter the training stimulus and consequently force the body to start adapting once again.
However, the Stronglifts 5×5 program recommends you perform a deload. This is where the training volume is decreased to allow the body to fully recover.
Having performed a deload, you may then be capable of progressing your training once again.
Which Program Is Best?
With all things considered, which program should you use to develop strength?
Considering how similar both programs are, it is very challenging to pick one over the other.
That said, if you see yourself as an athletic individual, the inclusion of the power clean in the Starting Strength may make it the best choice.
Alternatively, if you have unsuccessfully attended the gym before and found progress to be hard to come by, the Stronglifts 5×5 program may be most suitable.
What can be concluded is that both programs are undoubtedly excellent for building strength.
Both programs are simple to follow yet highly effective. The structure of the program, where you alternate between two workouts, is very user-friendly which is perfect for the beginner.
Furthermore, in these workouts, there is only one piece of equipment and five exercises that you need to familiarize yourself with.
In terms of the exercise selection, both programs focus entirely on compound exercises. These are “big” multi-joint exercises that engage a variety of muscle groups and cause improvements in full-body strength (3).
Progressive overload is the key to success. With both programs, this process is also straightforward as you are to incrementally add weight with each session.
One important consideration that should be made is in terms of overall training volume.
Starting Strength has a lower training volume than Stronglifts 5×5. Therefore, beginner lifters may find that they recover slightly better with Starting Strength.
That said, while the volume used in Stronglifts 5×5 is higher, it is not excessive. Lifters may need to be more aware of fatigue and prioritize their recovery from training sessions.
Do These Programs Build Muscle Size?
It’s important to understand the differences between muscular strength and muscular hypertrophy (growth).
As mentioned, to optimize strength gains, heavy lifting has consistently been found to be best.
However, for muscular hypertrophy, total training volume appears to be the most influential factor (4). Studies have found that a high training volume leads to the most optimal improvements in size.
Because these are beginner programs, neither utilize a particularly high amount of training volume. If the volume is too high, beginners would not be able to cope with the demands and overtraining may occur.
Therefore, while Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5×5 will effectively build strength, they may not have as substantial an impact on muscle growth.
That said, if muscle growth is a priority, the Stronglifts 5×5 may be the better option as it uses a slightly greater volume than Starting Strength.
Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5×5 are two high-quality strength training programs for beginners. The minimalist design used in both programs is perfect for all beginners and will allow them to make the most optimal progress possible.
1 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5131226/ Schoenfeld, Brad J.; Contreras, Bret; Vigotsky, Andrew D.; Peterson, Mark (2016-12-01). “Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men”. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine. 15 (4): 715–722. ISSN 1303-2968. PMC 5131226. PMID 27928218.
2 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3438871/ Lorenz, Daniel S.; Reiman, Michael P.; Walker, John C. (2010-11). “Periodization”. Sports Health. 2 (6): 509–518. doi:10.1177/1941738110375910. ISSN 1941-7381. PMC 3438871. PMID 23015982.
3 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5744434/ Paoli, Antonio; Gentil, Paulo; Moro, Tatiana; Marcolin, Giuseppe; Bianco, Antonino (2017-12-22). “Resistance Training with Single vs. Multi-joint Exercises at Equal Total Load Volume: Effects on Body Composition, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Muscle Strength”. Frontiers in Physiology. 8. doi:10.3389/fphys.2017.01105. ISSN 1664-042X. PMC 5744434. PMID 29312007.
4 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6303131/ SCHOENFELD, BRAD J.; CONTRERAS, BRET; KRIEGER, JAMES; GRGIC, JOZO; DELCASTILLO, KENNETH; BELLIARD, RAMON; ALTO, ANDREW (2019-1). “Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men”. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 51 (1): 94–103. doi:10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764. ISSN 0195-9131. PMC 6303131. PMID 30153194.