Extensive Stronglift 5x5 ten month review
I have done the Stronglifts 5x5 program for ten months. It is a simple program that works with minor drawbacks which I would recommend to anyone who wants to build real strength with a barbell. I started in June 2014 and finished in March 2015. The finishing statistics were a 122.5 kg bench press, 120kg squat and 165 kg deadlift one rep maximum starting from an empty bar.
What is this powerlifting program ?
The template consists of two workouts, workout A and B. The two programs are alternated and you train for three times a week. You start out with an empty bar / minimal load for all of the lifts you are doing depending on the execution. The lifts which start from the ground (barbell row, deadlift) will start with 5kg on each side, as you can not ensure proper form with an empty bar. The goal is to complete 5 sets with five repetitions on each exercise. If you succeed you increase the weight by 2.5kg for the next time you hit the gym for all exercises except the deadlift, which increases by 5kg in each iteration.
In total the template looks like this:
- Squat 5x5
- Bench press 5x5
- Barbell row 5x5
- Squat 5x5
- Overhead press 5x5
- Deadlift 1x5
The deadlift is the only exception as it is the heaviest lift and usually you are already weak by the time you do it If you have done it right before, because of the structure of the program. As you can see the centerpiece of the program is the squat with 75 reps a week (3x 25 = 75). It is also the technically most challenging and easiest lift to cheat on from my perspective which I will come to later.
How does it stack up in terms of overall lifting theory ?
The program itself is not new. It has been around for quite a while, but not under the Stronglifts 5x5 label. The fact that Mehdi, who runs the 5x5 show, always points this fact out makes him very likable and builds trust, at least for me.
I also looked at the community and there is a multitude of success stories from all different kind of backgrounds gaining strength with the principle, which gives the theory the back up of results on a broader scale. You can also turn to YouTube and do a bit of research there, if you want to reference more material.
To focus on compound exercises like the deadlift and the squat makes sense if your aim is to build strength rather than muscle only. This will take care that whole body movement and strength development is at the core of the program. To put the squat at the center also makes sense and is done by other experts. Greg Everett in his broadly accepted book Olympic weightlifting also starts out with teaching proper form on the squat first, to than move on to the snatch.
In terms of loading progression and reps the program is also laid out for beginners by having a medium amount of repetitions ( 5 - 25 per exercise ) at a moderate load ( 50 - 85% from one rep max). Bodybuilding templates would ask for more reps at lower load, whereas high end performance templates for weightlifters would ask for three reps at 90% for various sets, depending on the program. So overall this would be a program a beginning Olympic weightlifter could work with when he just stepped into the gym for the first time.
What do you think of the instructions ?
The instructions are clear and good if you read them or watch the videos provided on Stronglifts 5x5. All of the proper form fixes are there with pictures, the according descriptions, fixes and drills.
The problem with 5x5 is that it first emphasizes a lot that you do not need any help from professionals to become strong and how easy the program is, which is generally true. In consequence this can lead to lack of attention paid to proper form. Even though it is said in all of the documentation that good form is key for a good lift you kind of tent to focus too much on putting more weight on the bar, rather than fixing your form first.
In addition a lot of the faults in the squat and deadlift are very hard to spot yourself or even impossible to fix whilst looking at a mirror. (Mehdi makes this point himself about the deadlift). Especially with someone who was never under supervision whilst lifting the ease of progress and lack of check-ins with actual humans can be dangerous.
It happened in my case, which of course is self inflicted, but it is like with the handbook for a PlayStation 4 you just got with GTA5. You don't really read the bloody thing, you just want to shoot helicopters out of the sky as soon as possible. Only difference is, that you potentially can harm yourself in a big way with 5x5 if bad form meets stupidity and I have seen some strange things in the gym... me included.
What were your starting statistics ?
- Height: 185cm
- Weight: 80kg
- Bench: 20kg
- Squat 20kg
- Deadlift: 30kg
- Barbell row: 30kg
- Overhead press: 30kg
This is what the program starts at. Still this is not the full picture. At the start in June 2014 I had already run a marathon and lost 15kg within a year. I have also been doing weightlifting and judo in my high school years in a semi professional environment and had therefore at least some kind of base to start from.
I was able to do a pull up, multiple push ups and had done two months of bodyweight training prior with admittedly unimpressive results by that time. Bare this in mind, when you are considering 5x5, as the these exercises are complex, demand flexibility in the hips and ankles and are not necessarily for everyone.
How often do you have to do it ?
Three times a week. You will gravitate towards doing your exercises on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. However I did not find that sustainable, as on Mondays the gym is packed with people. Especially when barbells and power racks are limited this can prolong your workout and waste your time and frustration levels go through the roof. Also Fridays most social activities is planned and it is hard to say no to friends or family who expect you to attend.
I switched to Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday a month into the program mainly because of these two reasons. I work full time and found that to be most easy for my lifestyle doing the routine after work on weekdays and on Saturday morning as an early riser before the rest of the family awakens.
In total I had to do 83 sessions in the gym to get to the level I am now. Which is surprisingly low in my book.
How much equipment do you need ?
The easiest way to start is a gym membership in your local area which provides a free weight area including a power rack, a barbell and allows deadlifts. Weightlifting shoes or converse "chucks" are recommended to lift. Reason being is that normal street, running or jogging shoes have air cushioning in them. This can get dangerous as you progress higher in load. The air cushioning will not give you the stability you need in bigger lifts. For the first six to three months you should be fine with your normal shoes. You can get some insights into my experience with weightlifting shoes on my blog.
After the shoes I think the next essential item will be a weightlifting belt. You can start the program without one, however once you pass the bodyweight squat mark, thit is definetly an item to consider after the powerlifting weightlifting shoes. A good belt will be in the 80 - 120€ or 100$ to 130$ area. Avoid velcro and stick with thick leather. I have been using the rogue leather belt with high satisfaction for a year now.
After shoes and a belt and when I went up in weight I also upgraded with Knee sleeves. Knee sleeves will keep you warm and prvovide additional support around one of the weakest links in the chain when doing a squat. They are not essential but a good addition for extra stability on heavy squats. Other option than rehband in the market are the products from SDB and Mark Bell.
Another item to consider are wrist wraps, which stabilise your wrists while bench pressing, squatting and deadlifting. Again you have several options to choose from and I would also place them far down the priority list after the before mentioned products. Still once you are going beyond bench pressing more than a 100kg for repetitions you might want to consider to add these into your gym bag to "protect yourself before you wreck yourself" as Mark Bell would say.
How much time do you need ?
Mehdi claims it only takes 30 minutes each workout. This assumes no warm up beforehand and also no warm up sets, which are kind of downplayed a bit in his resources to my tastes.
The 30 minutes hold true in the beginning of the program until you start to get to the 100kg squat mark. Once you are there you will most likely do these two things, except you want to expose yourself to high risk of injury:
- Implement a warm up routine which loosens up your tendons and ligaments before hitting the bar
- Include warm up sets with the bar
- Have longer pauses between sets
The warm up sets with the bar are not included in the basic 5x5 app and cost a little bit. Implementing those is roughly 5 - 10 minutes per exercise. If you add a proper warm up that is another 15 minutes added into the mix. The system also allows you to have either 1:30 minutes or 3 minutes of rest between sets, if you struggled to hit the five repetitions. Now given you get close to your limits (which you will) that is 4x3x3 minutes of rest for a challenging workout which brings you to 36 minutes of rest in total. That blows the claimed 30 minutes of 5x5 right out of the window (but to be fair you will also not be a complete greenhorn anymore). 36 minutes of rest + 15 minutes of actual exercise + 10 minutes warm up sets + 15 minutes warm up without bar amounts to a bit more than an hour per workout. I found that to be a lot closer to what you actually have to invest, if you take this serious.
What do you think of the 5x5 app ?
I used it all the time. It is one of the best apps I have on my phone. Easy to use, no fancy stuff, straight forward. All of the buttons work as they should, you get appropriate loading and deloading advice and a timer for rest. Also works fine whilst listening to music on your iPhone. The upgrades to the program are installed easily and billing works just fine.
I recommend getting the warm up and arms package right out of the gate. The other programs (3x5 and 3x3) can be gotten in the package, but will not be used even a year into the program. At least that is how it was for me, it could be that you plateau earlier and therefore need to change sooner.
Are the claims that Mehdi makes on his website accurate?
A definite yes apart from some minor sales pitches he gives or sheer enthusiasm that it works so well. I let you be the judge of that. Mehdi promises you will get stronger and I did get stronger. The expectation to grow muscle was met. It is stated that the program is easy to understand and follow and it is. So overall, turn to the Stronglifts 5x5 website for advise and inspiration, it will pay off.
What are the major advantages of Stronglifts 5x5 ?
Easy to do. Not a lot of equipment or dieting needed. Tangible results as you see the weight increase on the bar week over week. Free app to track your progress and a ton of free advice from Mehdi to go along with it, if you use it.
What are the major disadvantages of the program ?
It does not help you to do a proper self-assessment upfront and is also spun in a way that can be dangerous especially for young adults or unfit individuals.
Young adults will be tempted to neglect any other advice they get because Mehdi presents his information as the ultimate undisputed gospel in some instances. While the results he has to show are impressive and real that does not necessarily apply to everyone. Especially teenage boys could be lead to over train during puberty by the program, just because it is so easy to follow.
I would classify unfit individuals as people who cannot do a pull up or push up. Also test yourself by lifting a 20kg plate as this is the same weight as the barbell you will use. If you cannot move the plate with ease, you cannot do a pull up or push up then focus on acquiring those skills first and progress with goblets squats to the bar increasing from a non-weighted squat to 5kg goblet 10kg, 15 kg, 20kg.
If you do not know what a goblet squat is, check it out on youtube.
Reasonably fit people can fall into the trap of training with inefficiencies because you do not have a spotter as the program is self-explanatory. In my case this lead to scaling to a 137.5kg squat until realizing that it was… shit. I unloaded to 80kg and build back up from there with proper form and depth on the squat. Now I am back at a 120kg but I majorly wasted my time and I think I would have been less prone to with a personal trainer who cares rather than just Mehdi offshore and an app in my hand.
What 5x5 also does not account for are imbalances in your physique. I always had a very strong upper body compared to a weaker lower body. If you only do 5x5 these imbalances will stay and scale. This lead to me benching more than I squat at the time of writing. My new program accounts for weaknesses in my lower back through accessory work which 5x5 does not implement.
I also got bursitis in my elbow from doing 5x5 and had to pause in February 2015 for antibiotics. I feel no pain but still it is a condition which will stay with me for a foreseeable time to come.
Last but not least the program can get very boring. It is not for everyone to do the same exercises over and over and over…
Can you do it by yourself ?
Yes you can, however bear in mind the drawbacks I described under disadvantages of 5x5 if you decide to travel down this path.
How long will you make gains ?
That depends on your overall physique. In my case I made good progress for the first 9 months hitting plateaus at 150kg deadlift, 62.5 overhead press and 110 kg proper squat.
What did you do nutrition wise ?
In the first 6 months I did do nothing. After that I implemented a whey shake in the morning and a complete protein shake in the evening from optimum nutrition mixed with water.
Why did you change the program ?
After 10 months I felt that I did not get further with the program. Also an injury is usually a sign of wear and tear that can be attributed to over training and a need for change. Apart from that I also switched my gym and I felt it was time to try something new as I was also in the range of hitting plateaus. In all fairness I could have pushed the envelope further by sticking to the program and also do the 3x5 and 3x3 program from Mehdi. I do not really want to at this stage and we will see what the conjugate method has in stock for me.
Would you recommend Stronglifts 5x5 to a friend ?
A definite yes as long as
- You can do a pull up
- You can easily handle a 20kg plate
- You are not overweight
- You have no medical conditions which would prohibit you to lift
- You want to get strong
If you are obese, focus on diet first then maybe HIIT and Tabata workouts. They are intense and do not do too many repititions for the same exercise which will help your joints. If you are slightly overweight like I was maybe consider running first to get back to your high school weight and than build up strength using 5x5.
What would you recommend to accompany Stronglifts 5x5 ?
On the off days I personally did my running plan and HIIT or crossfit related exercises. If you only want to get stronger you do not have to do this, but If you want to be an all around athlete I would recommend to get some cardio / high intensity work in somehow.
Also if you have imbalances in your body do the necessary work on your off days to compensate for those.
When would you finish the program ?
When you make no more gains / not get stronger anymore or get injured it is time to change the program. Also If you do not feel challenged by it anymore. Getting bored can also be a reason, but do not mistake a limited down in your mood as an overall dissatisfaction with the program. Be methodical about your choices for a training program, not emotional.
Further reading on Stronglifts
- Stronglifts for teenagers
- Stronglifts for crossfitters
- Stronglifts for runners
- Stronglifts for powerlifting
- Stronglifts for bulking
- How to bench press for stronglifts
- When to move on from Stronglifts
- What program to do after Stronglifts
- Can you do Stronglifts to get ripped
- Stronglifts 5x5 without a spotter
- Stronglifts 5x5 to lose weight
- How long should I do Stronglifts 5x5
- What to do on off days for stronglifts
- Stop making mistakes with Stronglifts
- Wendler 531 vs Stronglifts 5x5
- What equipment should I use for Stronglifts
- Stronglifts for intermediates
- Stronglifts vs CrossFit
- Stronglifts 5x5 diet
- Squat calculator