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!