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Smolov vs Stronglifts 5x5 [Article]

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Dec 26, 2017 10:00:00 AM

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Smolov vs Stronglifts 5x5

Programs and anything you do regarding training has to be seen in context to the goal set you are pursuing. I have done both Smolov and Stronglifts 5x5 myself after I changed my main training focus from endurance to strength chasing a 200kg squat, 230kg deadlift and 180 kg bench press at 80kg bodyweight. If you read any material comparing programs, make sure that the author spent some time on putting the programs into context so that they understand the big picture rather than just crunching the numbers. This will be different for each individual based on many factors like age, training and injury history, sleep, nutrition, genetics and stress levels.
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The goal sets and contexts I have chosen for this article are strength development, Muscle building, weightlifting/powerlifting and martial arts. There is a short overview of both programs which you can do a deep dive on in my reviews of the Stronglifts 5x5 and Smolov program which are also available on this blog.

Strength development

Strength development is based on muscle growth, how fast your nervous system sends the signals to twitch to your muscle fibers and on the structure of the muscle cells themselves. There are still many unknown factors for what goes into strength and how to achieve it. Based on what I read you can generally go with this for strength:
You want to work somewhere between 1 - 5 repetitions per set
You want to work at high intensity determined as a percentage of your one repetition maximum
You want to work with long rests between sets from 3 - 10 minutes based on who you quote
You will usually do no more than 5 sets of any given exercise per session
The adaptations in your system are usually more related to cell structure and how the nervous system interacts with these cells and less about size with this style of training. Just as an example, my chest muscles are not huge even though I out bench most people in my local gym with a 150kg bench press. You will find quite a lot of guys around who have bigger chests. This is due to the fact that I do not have the goal to grow my chest and barely do flies or cable work. 
With this as a backdrop, Smolov and Stronglifts 5x5 are both programs which have been designed mainly for strength development with muscle growth as a side effect. Both successfully increase your strength. I worked myself from a 20kg squat to a 120kg squat on Stronglifts and used Smolov to boost my squat from 140kg to 170kg belted. You should be mindful about which program you use when. I used Smolov way too early in my development because I could not do deadlifts based on an injury in 2015. Smolov assumes that you improve in months, maybe even quarters, while Stronglifts assumes beginner gains which happen every week. 
Therefore, for strength purposes, both programs are valid but at the utmost extremes of the learning curve. Stronglifts 5x5 is one of the first programs you will be doing, while Smolov will be very late in your development and as a shock cycle rather than a solid all year round program. 

Muscle Building

Generally speaking, muscle building is all about hypertrophy and blowing your muscles up. The whole approach to training is different compared to strength. You want to maximize time under tension and exert maximum control out of every repetition. The weight moved is usually of secondary concern. With that in mind 
You will perform somewhere between 8 - 12 repetitions per set
You will very likely perform more than five sets
You will work at a lower intensity of 50 - 70% of your one repetition maximum
You will have less rest between sets ranging from 30 seconds to two minutes
As I am not a bodybuilder please also look up sources from this realm like Dorian Yates or Ronnie Coleman and see what they have to say on the topic. 
Regarding Smolov and Stronglifts the programs are not designed towards the purpose of muscle building. Stronglifts never goes into the ranges I mentioned before. Smolov does go into these ranges, especially in the Introduction phase which forms the first of the three months of the program. While this technically has similar effects as a bodybuilding program the intensity is a lot higher than on most bodybuilding templates you will find. This month is not designed for muscle growth, but to beat you up with weights you would usually move for five repetitions to prepare you for month two and three of Smolov. These two are a brutal overload to what your body is used to.


In the sports of powerlifting and weightlifting, you want to amass the biggest total out of a certain set of lifts. Both disciplines are tightly aligned with the goals of strength development. Still, the needs are more specific which makes the comparison of Stronglifts 5x5 and Smolov for these athletes more complex.
Both programs lack specificity for weight lifting as they have been written around the squat, bench press and deadlift. This makes them not very useful for weightlifters who are preparing for competition. Also, the clean and jerk and snatch are usually practiced amongst experts with not more than 3 repetitions per set because they are so demanding on the nervous system. Stronglifts has its place for beginning lifters who first have to develop the strength to be able to handle a barbell comfortably and to master the squat and deadlift as stepping stones to more complex lifts like the hang clean and clean squat to end up at the clean and jerk and snatch. Smolov could be used off season for experienced weight lifters who have trouble getting out of the hole by switching the back squat with the front squat to run it in the winter season.
For powerlifting, the general picture is better. The structure of Stronglifts 5x5 is very specific to what is done in a powerlifting competition and a great start for aspiring lifters. This program is a good option for the first year of training until you move on to something which lets you progress month over month rather than week over week because you have outgrown the beginner phase. 
Smolov is only for powerlifters who are off season or need to break a plateau in the squat. The focus on one lift for three months might hurt your overall platform performance unless you are a beast like Chris Duffin and just do Smolov after breakfast to do two more sessions of speed benching and deficit deadlifts on the same day. (Check him out, that is not what he actually does, but the guy is insane!). 

Martial arts

In martial arts, you have to follow many different paths in your training to be ready for the ring, cage or mat. Speed, strength, stamina all have to be considered and there are only so many days and hours you can allocate to the different parameters. Here Somolov and Stronglifts 5x5 can help and are in my opinion not the first go to programs. I would still favor Stronglifts over Smolov for martial artists.
Stronglifts 5x5 is good for athletes who never have worked with a barbell before. If you want to get barbell training into your routines spent the extra time on Stronglifts and you will not be disappointed. The only back-draw with Stronglifts is, that if you do it by the book, it will quickly eat up about 1.5 hours for three days a week in your schedule. If you are reasonably fit and know your work around a barbell you can get more done in less time with programs like Wendler 531 or the Juggernaut method. 
Smolov itself is only recommended to fighters who want to toughen their mind and build a training schedule which challenges them at every corner. Smolov is the most gruesome lifting program I have done so far and lets you grow some chest hair. If you are in need of a proper kick in the butt in the off season, this is what you do for three months. Be careful to cycle in some kettlebell swings or any other work for explosiveness and upper body as you otherwise might hurt your fight performance.


In short, Smolov is a three-month squat routine which has you work with a high number of sets and repetitions at a high intensity. This program maxes out on all axis you can pull in barbell training except speed. Based on this you should seriously consider if you want to commit the time to a single minded program which also increases your injury risk due to its monotony and high workload. You find a detailed review of Smolov on my blog.

Stronglifts 5x5

Stronglifts 5x5 has you in the gym for three times a week utilizing the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press to make you stronger. It is a time tested staple for beginners to start their first your under the barbell and progress from an empty one up to 100kg squat for males. Numbers may vary based on gender and body weight. I can heartily recommend it to anyone who wants to get stronger with the only caveat that it can get quite time-consuming six months into the process. The app does what it says on the tin and it is a program for the masses. 


All in all, Smolov is the program for the crazy people who have nothing to lose and want to test their limits after they have passed the intermediate stage. Anyone who has a responsibility towards their team or coach to perform in a sport will be well advised to not do it unless their goal is to set a new world record in the back squat. Stronglifts 5x5 is the tried and tested standard when it comes to beginner programs in lifting apart from Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength. You can not really compare the two programs as their use cases and maturity of the individuals who should consider them are vastly apart. 

Further reading


Topics: Lift stronger, Stronglifts 5x5, Smolov, Bench Press, Deadlift, Squat, Powerlifting, Bodybuilding, Strongman