Review: Starting Strength Versus Stronglifts
When you venture into the world of working out, there are two training programs you will surely hear about: Starting Strength and Stronglifts. This review shows you what you need to know about both and how you can make the best use of each.
Starting Strength (SS) and Stronglifts (SL) are two most popular beginner strength training programs. They’re widely used, mostly with great success when it comes to their primary goal, and that’s rapid beginner strength gains on basic barbell compound lifts. These strength gains are almost universally followed by favorable changes in body composition, which makes them eligible for consideration in our Bodybuilder’s perspective on popular training programs series.
Now, I know that Mark Rippetoe would probably slap me for even thinking that his program could be viewed by as a “bodybuilding routine”, but that’s just how things are: I’ve been in the community for some time now and have seen lots of beginning trainees pick up SS or SL, or these programs being recommended to them, so I feel obliged to tell my opinion on this practice.
A thing I need to make clear: normally, SS and SL are far from being the same program, as some people tend to think. They are indeed very similar, but bear several important differences that can’t be ignored in the long run (and especially if you’re nitpicky about program design as I am). So normally, I’d never examine them in the same article, but, again, this series does have a fairly constrained context, and that is viewing programs from the perspective of an aspiring bodybuilding trainee. This makes it adequate to place the majority of our focus on the most important traits of both programs, which are, as noted, basically the same. Therefore, picking one or the other, if done at the right time (more on that later), will basically yield the same results.
These basic premises that are worth noting are the following: training thrice a week, on a moderate to high frequency, depending on the lift. Exclusive focus on basic barbell compound exercises, with the barbell back squat being the staple one of both routines. Reps are limited to 5 on all the major exercises. After the warmup, working sets are done in a straight, sets-across fashion. The sole thing that one has to focus on while doing these programs is regularly adding weight to the bar, which is considered possible up to a certain level of strength, and this level is basically the same for both programs, after which one should switch to the intermediate version of it, which we won’t discuss in this article. So, these are basically SS and SL in a nutshell – two most popular beginner strength training programs. Remember the italicized words well, for they, as you’ll see later on, summarize the ideas and suggestions laid out in this article.
What Exactly Are We Looking At?
Another thing needs to be sorted out before we proceed, and that is the exact outline of SS and SL programs.
Stronglifts has 2 versions, the old one, which was the official one from the site’s founding up to 2010, and the new one, which is currently official and can be seen on the site and in the official SL report. (Truth be told, the old one also underwent some minor changes in its time, mostly with exercise selection, like switching barbell rows for inverted rows, dips for pushups, etc, but the basic structure of the program remained the same.) In a nutshell, all the accessory work was thrown out of the old routine, and barbell rows were brought back on the regular 5×5 set/rep scheme.
By doing so, Stronglifts has, horribile dictu, turned from a routine that had some individuality (it was never genuine nor original, but that’s not the issue here) to a 5×5 version of the SS routine, with rows done instead of power cleans, which was already a common trade among the trainees (again, not valid nor endorsed by Mark Rippetoe, but still widely practiced). And, if we’re going to push this outbreak of bluntness even further, further evolution of the SL program would (and should) make it exactly the same as SS (but this won’t happen for obvious reasons).
In this article, we’re examining the new, official version of SL, but we’ll make a few comparisons with the old one along the way.
The situation’s a bit different with SS (or Rippetoe’s, as it’s commonly called). The basic structure of the program is the same in all instances, but accessory work varies greatly, both in exercise selection and set/rep scheme, and these matter, especially if your interests lie on the bodybuilding side of weight training. We’ll examine all the variations in the assistance work given here and here.
Main Premise Of The Article
From my experience, it’s best to put the basic idea of the article up front, in a clear and concise manner, so that all the arguments presented in the rest of the article can be connected with it, and the explanations and overall reasoning behind them appear better structured and logical. In essence, the bolded part is the article conclusion, just presented ahead of time.
So, here’s what we’re trying to show with this article:
Both Starting Strength and Stronglifts programs are great for trainees’ initial contact with weight training, no matter if their subsequent goals are strength training, powerlifting, or bodybuilding related. The focus on basic barbell compounds with adequate low rep range on a higher frequency makes these programs perfect for milking beginner strength gains, which also yield fastest muscular gains one is ever to see.
Adding basic, low-volume accessory work in forms of chins and dips gives further room to learn, practice and improve on these important bodyweight exercises, which are to be used extensively in further bodybuilding endeavors. However, if your strength gains are already decent and near the limits prescribed by both programs, and you are sure in your exercise technique, you’re better off pursuing a more specialized bodybuilding-oriented routine.
So, there you have it – if you’re a beginner of any sort, you’re infinitely better off doing SS or SL than curling or joking around with peck decks or lat pulldowns. In all honesty, I never recommend strictly one or the other, since hybridizing them would, in some aspect, be the best solution, but, as noted in the first article, this series isn’t about tweaking routines, but examining them in their original form.
Again we begin by taking a look at how do these programs fare in respect to basic variables in our hypertrophy training model:
Intensity – Any program that has you consistently progressing on sets of 5, regardless of how many work sets you might be doing, provides adequate intensity for muscle growth. Of course, this solution isn’t optimal for all situations, but it is, overall, much better than GVT’s “beginner” 10×10, which, as we had seen in the previous installment of the series, borders inefficiency, especially with some particular exercises and muscle groups. SS and SL don’t have this problem. Also, 5 rep sets are adequate for practicing exercise form, something all beginners are in need of.
Rest – fine given the exercise choice and rep range. Beginners do recover faster between sets due to less neural fatigue accumulation, but still, proper rest is in order to ensure form perfection, especially when you’re relatively new to big compound exercises.
Volume, Frequency And Exercise Choice
These three important aspects of a routine shall be presented in a joint section because they closely correlate, both generally and in our particular example of SS and SL routines.
(A note – upon reading the following paragraphs, or just starting to read them, you might wonder if I’m pushing all of this a bit too far. If what I’m trying to convey seems unnecessarily complicated, fine, skip to the end of the section where I’ll summarize what I had to say. But bear in mind that I’m doing this to explain the process behind routine analysis, in an attempt to teach you the basics of it so you can apply the principles on a routine that might interest you, but which I hadn’t/won’t cover(ed) in this series.)
A general guideline for volume says that you should aim for 20-30 total reps if you’re in the 80-90% 1RM intensity brackets, which corresponds to a 4-6 RM, and this is about right in our “sets of 5” routines. It’s more appropriate SS than SL, since straight-setted 3×5 allows a higher initial intensity than 5×5. We’ll calculate our total volume by assuming an average of 1.5 A and 1.5 B workouts a week (3 of each in a 2 week long microcycle).
If these calculations were done superficially, you’d deduce something like: lower body quad dominant checked, 45 and 75 reps a week, respectively, lower body hip dominant fails, just 7.5 reps a week, upper body pressing fine, again, 45 and 75 reps a week, upper body pulling, upper body pulling… At this point, you’d probably stop and not know how to proceed. Not that I blame you, and we’ll cover this particular issue in more detail later, but I’d like to make it clear right now that you can’t analyze workout volume this way, especially if the routine you’re observing isn’t designed as a bodybuilding one.
Normally, when analyzing (and synthesizing, i.e. designing) a bodybuilding routine, you have to think both in terms of movements and body parts. The former is more important than the latter, but since bodybuilding goals are mostly physique oriented, some attention needs to be directed at proportion or work given to various muscles. E.g., designing a routine by looking at movements alone might prompt you to put two opposing types of vertical pulls in your routine, one chinup-like, and one in the lines or upright rowing or shrugging. However, if we bear in mind that the primary target of the latter exercise, the upper traps, are probably the fastest growing body part with almost all trainees, you’ll see that there is most likely no need whatsoever to include a movement that targets them, especially if you’re already rowing and deadlifting.
How does all of that reflect on our SS/SL analysis? Well, a proper way to conduct volume analysis would be to, besides checking of both programs have all the important bases covered (lower body, upper body pressing, upper body pulling), to observe the magnitude and type of used exercises, as well as recommended number of working sets, which is, as we had seen, the biggest difference between SS and SL.
Starting Strength Versus Stronglifts, Round 1: 15 Vs. 25
There are no small exercises in these routines. They’re all major compounds, which later on form staples of more complex training routines, and you might notice that we always tend to watch the amount of work done on those exercises more than on others. Nobody ever makes you fill your lower body days in an upper/lower splits with back squats and deadlifts alone – it’s considered too much work. You’ll always do them, and be sure to put maximum effort in those sets, but your squatting protocol most likely won’t look like 3-5×15 or 15-25×3.
This is the essence for limiting SS and SL to beginners only (not only in my own recommendations, their respective authors have concluded that as well). As soon as your strength reaches a certain level, progress will slow down rapidly and will become unsustainable with that much work put into major exercises, as you simply won’t be able to recover from it.
So, what is better, 45 or 75 squats/presses (we’ll get to issues with other exercises later)? It all depends on your recovery ability. If you’re a total beginner, who never lifted weights before, and have good sleep and nutrition, and don’t have your age working against you (i.e., you’re under 50, the younger, the better) you can get away with SL’s 75 rep volume. In all the other cases, SS’ 45 total reps is a more appropriate protocol. Also, this isn’t just the issue of having a certain weekly volume, but also being able to handle 5 consecutive sets of squats (even with low reps and lots of rest) each training day, both from the aspect of physiological recovery, as well as mental readiness to work hard on each and every one of those sets.
Starting Strength Versus Stronglifts, Round 2: Lack Of Back
An objection that is commonly heard in regards to SS program design is its apparent lack of upper body pulling movements (we’re talking core program here, without optional accessories). Some argue that power clean fills this role in a good enough manner, but I beg to differ. Yes, power clean is a full body pull, so upper body pulling muscles must naturally work during it – but not the right ones, in the right way. Upper body pulling (or “back”) exercises commonly used by bodybuilders involve various chins and rows, which respectively train shoulder adduction and (transverse) extension. None of that is present in a power clean, whose movement in the shoulder joint comes down to abduction and flexion. So, no, power clean can’t replace chins and rows.
Another thing we need to bear in mind that not only do we do these upper body pulls to satisfy our impure, bodybuilding desire for a big, powerful back, but also, and this is actually more important, to keep our upper body balanced and healthy. For every press you do in your routine, you should have at least one pull working more or less in the opposing direction. SS has either bench press or overhead press done on each workout, but no pulls to compensate for them.
Yes, the deadlift works the back, and it works the hell out of it, but not in a dynamic fashion, and, considering the average volume of fewer than 20 reps a week (including all the warmup sets), it just doesn’t cut it to call the lack of back work problem solved. This is probably the only major objection I have to the basic Starting Strength program. No, this does not mean that I encourage anyone to mess with it in any way, I’m just pointing out something that bothers me. Something also worth mentioning is that, if doing the Practical Programming Novice Program, you do have both chinups and pullups done for 3 sets, which is a significant improvement on this matter and makes this variation of SS almost free of our “lack of back” issues.
SL has bent-over barbell rows done instead of power cleans. This obviously resolves most complains I presented, but I’ll be a bastard and say that I have a problem with the particular row endorsed by SL followers – the Pendlay row. There’s nothing wrong with the exercise, except when it is done by beginners, at the tempo commonly seen in demonstration videos. The beginner problem stems from the fact that you need to have decent spine mobility, as well as hip and ankle flexibility to be able to do the exercise properly, and that’s with your torso parallel to the ground. Most beginners can’t do that, and even if they get into the proper position, they can’t maintain it during the very execution of the movement. No matter how light the weight used, putting a beginner in such a position is asking for trouble when it comes to lower back injuries.
Second thing about performing Pendlay rows – please, control the negative. It’s fine for the positive to be explosive, but this isn’t a deadlift, where twice your bodyweight is pulling you down, making you unable to resist the negative (nor you should, at least when deadlift is concerned). This is a row, and it’s commonly done with fairly light weights, especially when beginners are concerned, so there’s no real reason for not properly slowing the negative down instead of dropping the barbell on the floor (with your poor shoulders attached to it via your arms). Last thing I need to say is that rowing, like pressing, is very individual when it comes to optimal torso angles, grip width and where you pull the bar to. Because of this, adhering to the strict format of a Pendlay row (wide overhand grip, pulling above abs) might be inefficient for taller, long-limbed trainees, especially if we consider the fact that one of the reason for my endorsement of SL as a good routine for (bodybuilding) trainee’s initial contact with weightlifting is because it forces you to learn and practice basic compounds. You’ll always squat, you’ll always deadlift, but there’s a fair chance you’ll drop Pendlay rows early on in your intermediate training.
Starting Strength Versus Stronglifts, Round 3: Accessory Work
I’ll be short on this one. First clash, SS’s dips and chinups vs. SL (old version)’s pushups and inverted rows. SL versions might be easier initially, but a trainee should start practicing dipping and chinning as soon as possible, for these two movements are among the staples of all bodybuilding routines. The recommended volume of 2 sets of 6-8 reps for SS is also better than 3 sets to failure of SL, both because these routines are already volume heavy (especially SL), and because a fixed rep range is a better solution than trying to push the rep count up ad infinitum. And 3 consecutive failure sets aren’t a good thing as well, but we’ll get to that problem some other time.
Last clash, ab work – the book “Starting Strength” recommends doing some Roman Chair Situps, while old SL had reverse crunches and planks. I find the SL solution better for several reasons, among which is the fact that, in my experience, it’s much easier to teach people to properly activate their abs by reverse crunches than by regular ones. This might not be true all the time, but from what I’ve seen, it seems more natural a movement to bring your hips to your pelvis, than vice-versa. Planks, like any type of isometric hold, are especially good for improving M2M connection, especially with beginners, who never had to really activate their abs and hold them tight before. Roman Chair situps aren’t bad (if you really do them, and not floor situps or something similar), but can yield back problems if the trainee’s abs aren’t strong enough to counter the illo psoas’ pull on the spine.
Announcing The Winner
The bolded part of the article still stands – both SS and SL are great routines for beginners, mainly because they revolve around basic compound exercises, which are trained often (2-3 times a week), in an appropriate rep range, with special focus on milking the rapid beginner strength gains dry. Nitpicky as I am, I pointed our several things that I don’t like and which I’d done differently, but any objections like that are really misplaced since neither of these routines are in any way designed for beginning bodybuilding and fitness trainees (yet they serve great at that purpose, which shows us that different branches of weight training really have a lot in common).
So, which one should you choose between the two? Frankly, I can’t give a simple, straight answer to such a question, so I’ll just say that it really doesn’t matter, since you basically can’t go wrong with either. If you’re a true beginner, I’d slightly opt for SL over SS, but, again, it doesn’t matter, since you’ll get the same valuable initial gains and experience by doing either.
Stay tuned for more articles in this series!
Pictures courtesy of “Noodles and Beef“, “istolethetv“, Alex Castellá, Ramsey Beyer and “Noodles and Beef“.
hi there wolfie, good article. thank you.
Yeah thanks for writing, I learned quite a bit.
I figure I have a better chance of catching you here so I will leave this. I have been following your weightlifting option 2 routine for several months and I have made very noticeable strength gains. One exercise I have not been able to progress with this routine, chinups. My numbers are the same from three months ago. I haven’t monitored my weight but that could potentially be some hidden progressive overload. Bent over rows, can I use a dumbell? It allows my back to be perfectly parallel to the floor and I do
not feel lower back pain after a set. I also know that your routine features short rest times (I think 60s) but I often fluctuate between 60 and 120s to
make progression in reps. Is this ok or would I have better success
adhering to the prescribed rest times? I’m sure I will think of another question, thanks for everything; you’re awesome!
Chinups suck when it comes to regular progression, I can testify that myself – my vertical pulling takes ages to progress. If you can’t add reps, try adding a set, and fill the total prescribed volume in that manner.
BORs aren’t DB rows, in many ways. If you have no other choice, then it’s surely better than no rows at all, but still, I distorts the routine.
60 sec fluctuation in rest times are fine, if you’re doing the routine straightly – if you’re supersetting, it could come down to far too much rest between sets of the same exercise (up to 5 min).
Apparently, my desire for a larger back is “impure”.. Sir, I am offend.
This is just how things roll these days, Moon. If your training goal include anything other than being able to move rocks off injured people, you’re a baaaad bodybuilding Narcissus. 😛
great article, wolf!
Wolf would the SS result in a longer linear progression because of the lower volume? Some people were telling me that so I want to verify.
I kind of alluded to this in the article, but didn’t want to point it out specifically because it revolved around SS vs SL, and not mixing them.
Ideally, you start off by doing 5×5, and then proceed to 3×5. It’s impossible to tell at which point should this reduction in volume occur, but it will definitely allow for more recovery, thus prolonging the time you can spend doing such programs and still making gains.
So, yes, SS would yield longer linear progression, but, IMO, such discussions are pointless since, in real life, nothing forces you to do just SS or just SL or prevents you from doing anything else, similar but maybe a bit more specific to your goals.
Something i’ve always wondered about upperbody pulls, is how weightlifters seemingly get away with none, despite obviously doing a lot of pressing.
It makes perfect sense to me that for every upper push you should have a pull, and as said, that is where SS falls short (even if the routine will only be done for a few months before chins are added).
So how do people whose routines focus on mostly just presses for the upperbody not develope the problems that you would expect from not having a pull to keep the shoulder balanced?
Sorry that this drifts from the actual topic.
I actually meant to say a word or two on this topic in the article, but felt it was already too long so I decided to leave it out and hope someone will ask this question.
The thing is – Olympic weightlifters don’t press a lot, if they press at all. Of course, there are many different approaches to training in weightlifting world as well, but from what I’ve seen, they commonly include only one press, and that’s the Press, or standing OHP. You’ll also see push presses.
From dozens of programs I’ve seen, only one (actually several of them, but from the same author) had bench presses in them, but they looked more like bodybuilding routines with Oly lifts thrown in them rather than weightlifting routines.
And in all these cases, the volume on pressing exercises is minuscule compared to all the other work – again, not the case with SS.
Also, the main cause of shoulder problems in bodybuilders, the imbalance in the rotator cuff, doesn’t happen with Oly lifters since they put tons more work into exercises that involve external rotation of the shoulder joint (most notable examples being the snatch and C&J themselves).
Interesting. I actually use your 21-work out routines – currently workout 3. I guess it still has that basic compound element to it, but I always thought it had a more balanced organization. Do you just recommend those routines for learning as well, and then moving beyond them?
Indeed. You’d start off with Option 1, stay on it for fairly short amount of time, then move to Option 2 or 3 and stay until linear progression fades off.
The thing is, I use these article to give objective, argumented reviews of popular programs, not bash them and say: “Better go and do one of my routines.” That wouldn’t be fair, nice nor productive. Everybody’s free to make his own choice based on facts presented on the Web, no need for me to push them and tell them to do my routines with promises that they’ll work better than something else.
Wolf, I always wanted to ask you about rows… I read all over the place you need both vertical and horizontal pulling… what is your recommended row variation? In my case, only seated cable row and db row feel somewhat comfortable. All Barbell variations feel either lower back strain, not controlled negative/bad form due to hip movement(aka Pedlay).. whats your opinion.. thank you
The first and foremost thing when making exercise choices is whether or not the trainee can do them safely and comfortably. After this, you check if they’ve worked for him in the past. Only then can you go around and play by picking variations that are better for a specific task.
In your case, this translates to the following – if cable rows are the only rows you feel comfortable with, do them. This is especially important if the source of discomfort is a feeling of vulnerability and being prone to injuries.
Of course, there is a chance that you simply haven’t gotten BB row form right. I can’t, of course, tell if that is the case over the Internet, but it’s worth thinking about it since BORs are a “bigger” exercise than cable rows. The difference, however, isn’t such to justify doing them despite the possibility of an injury. 🙂
I think your comments on the lack of upper body work in SS is unfair. You say there NEEDS to be a pull for every press but that’s obviously subjective. In the SS program, the press takes on the role of creating a more balanced shoulder development. It’s not about press to pull ratio, it’s bench to press ratio in this case. The book talks about how all the rotator cuff muscles are used in locking out the press.
Rippetoe makes such a big deal about balancing shoulder development in the book I don’t see why people keep calling him up on the lack of rows as if he hasn’t thought about it lol
Ratio of prone pressing to angled pressing is definitely a component of ensuring a balanced development of the shoulder girdle, but it is not interchangeable with ratio of upper body presses to pulls. Yes, the 1:1 presses/pulls is subjective, but I see nothing wrong with it.
I explained in the article that the issue here is the fact that total pressing volume trumps total pulling volume by a fair amount, and that no pull present in the routine (or both combined) fulfill the role of a row.
Another thing to consider here is that the main focus of the article is deciding if these routines are good for starters who have bodybuilding ambitions, and in this case in particular, lack of practice with rowing movements could be a serious drawback upon arriving at intermediate level and picking up an appropriate routine. 🙂
I did SL a while ago however in week 9 I just became exhausted every time I left the gym and stopped enjoying the exercise. Is this common feeling?
keeping your motivation for working out at a high level is an issue on its own. It becomes particularly difficult if:
a) you aren’t seeing the results you were hoping for, and/or
b) the routine you’re doing became dull or wasn’t exactly what you hoped for in the first place.
SL per se isn’t a boring routine (like GVT is). It is a bit confined, so to speak, for having only 2 different workouts alternated, but this is usually compensated by rapid progress people experience on it. How have your strength gains been so far?
Hi. i just read about these routines ( specially stronglifts ) and i was wondering if it would be productive to do one of them.
In my case i am not a beginner in the gym. I’ve been weightlifting for one year (2009-2010), then stopped, and restarted this year (march).
I’ve seen enough improvement in my lifts and my body, but now i’m looking for a different routine.
I’ve never done full body exercise, all my routines consisted in “”isolated”” muscle excercised.
So, that is my question, would i get good results from doing Stronglifts if i am not a beginner but i’ve never ever done full body exercises before?
This post is some months old but, maybe you will reply.
Thanks for the article.
The worst way to assess one’s level of fitness (beginner, intermediate, advanced) is by time spent training. Even in an ideal world, there would still be genetic and lifestyle differences influencing different starting points and rates of gains for different individuals (some people start out skinny, others fat, while some are blessed and they already carry decent amount of muscle mass and often progress faster than others).
This, however, is real world, and situation is even worse here since a majority of people simply doesn’t know how to train or eat properly.
IMO, you stop being a beginner upon reaching these strength standards:
Deadlifts – 1.5-2x BW
Squats – 1.25-1.5x BW (depending on your build, progressing here will be harder or easier)
Flat bench press – 1x BW
Bent-over BB row – 1X BW
Chinup – 10 x 1.1x BW
Military press – 0.5x BW
Dips – 10 x 1.25x BW
You can read more on it here: http://www.askscooby.com/excellent-postings/the_wolf%27s-routine-faq
If you are below these figures, then SS or SL could serve you well. 🙂
The major difference between these two is the initial progression. SS gives the lifter the ability how much to add each workout for the lifts in the initial couple of weeks. SL requires starting with the bar and adding 5lbs every time.
Interesting article thanks! I found this by searching for reviews on the SL routine. I’m currently 6 weeks into SL 5×5 and I’m really happy with my progress so far. I actually started SL over a year ago but a shoulder dislocation due to a fall stopped me training for a while.
I’m just over 6′ 1″, weigh 186lbs and my squat is up to 90kg and I’m finding the last two sets of 5 really difficult (part of the reason I began searching for reviews of SL). I’ve never seen ‘beginner strength standards’ listed like this before and I find it interesting. Should I continue with SL 5×5 until I reach these figures or reduce to 3×5 and continue adding weight? I guess gaining strength is more important than adhering to a routine for the sake of it?
Finally, after my shoulder injury I did 6 months of physio (low weight mobility exercises, use of elastic cords etc) and I don’t seem to be having any problems so far. Are there any exercises In the SL routine that I should take special care with?
If you can squat over your bodyweight for 5×5, you’ve most likely cleared the beginner levels (unless your squat was already high to begin with and you got here fairly fast, in case of which you could go on for some time, but saying you struggle with last two sets makes me think otherwise). I’d kick the volume down a bit now, and transfer to an intermediate level strength routine (like Madcows) or an upper/lower split.
Problems with overhead pressing manifest themselves at lower poundages, so you’d already know if you had problems with those. Therefore, the only thing that could aggravate a shoulder injury in this case is the bench press. Again, I don’t know what sort of an injury it was so I can’t be more of help. 🙂