So you want to get bigger and stronger, and you wonder if StrongLifts 5×5 is right for you.
You type “StrongLifts 5×5 review” into Google and you get 93 million results in 0.52 seconds. Ugh. How do you choose?
Why this review of StrongLifts 5×5 is different
In the reviews at the top of Google, many people say Stronglifts 5×5 is the perfect plan for beginners. But is it, really? To be sure, StrongLifts 5×5 does a few important things right:
- Simple and easy to follow
- Built around progressive overload
- Focus on foundational compound movements (e.g. squat, deadlift)
However, reading these reviews, I found another common theme: a large percentage tweak 5×5 to improve it. Further, and perhaps more concerning, these tweaks can range from alternative exercises for those with bad joints to adding exercises to hit lagging parts.
So why does one of the “best beginner lifting programs” need so many modifications?
In this article, I’m going to critique Stronglifts 5×5 in 13 points to try and identify if better options exist. Further, it will suggest a superior app for beginner lifters who want to build muscle size and strength: Dr. Muscle.
But first, why should you listen to me?
Why you should listen to me
My name is Garett Reid and I have been in the strength and conditioning industry for well over 10 years. I have earned my Masters in Exercise Science as well as several high level certifications such as NSCA, CSCS, and CISSN. Further, I’m also an Executive Council Member of the NSCA Strongman SIG.
I have also been in the gym for over 20 years and have seen and used numerous programs and apps. In fact, I have even used Stronglifts 5×5 myself many years ago, so I’m fully aware of how it works and its status in the lifting community.
Now full disclosure: I was paid to give my thoughts on both programs and apps (the StrongLifts 5×5 app and the Dr. Muscle app). I tried both out, and I can confirm no one tried to influence my conclusions. This is honestly what I think.
STRONGLIFTS 5×5 REVIEW—IN A NUTSHELL
In case you’re in a hurry, here is my brief synopsis of Stronglifts 5×5:
- StrongLifts 5X5 is a popular strength training program and workout app, known for it’s simplicity.
- The program only consists of 5 compound movements, performed using a 5×5 rep scheme across two different workouts.
- These fundamentals of the program are great, and it has always been praised as great for beginners with little to no critique. However, upon a closer look, you find that its insistence of being minimal greatly limits its potential.
However, an app called Dr. Muscle has rectified every single issue seen in Stronglifts. Dr. Muscle is an app that uses AI that was designed by a PhD holder and his team that offers a program backed by the latest information from exercise science.
Why I am able to break down Stronglifts 5×5
As I said above, I have been in this industry for over well over 10 years, earning a Masters in Exercise Science and a number of certifications. I have even used Stronglifts 5×5 myself.
However, between the time I used Stronglifts 5×5 and now, I have learned a lot about exercises science as well as the psychology of lifters. Due to my increased knowledge and experience, I’m able to examine the program from a much higher critical perspective. So, here’s my Stronglifts 5×5 review.
Overview of StrongLifts 5×5
Stronglifts 5×5 program has been around since 2007 when it was created by a Belgium lifter who is known as “Mehdi”. The 5×5 part refers to the rep scheme that is used in the program which simply means you do 5 sets of 5 reps with a strict weight. This means you don’t perform a top set or a back-off set or anything else; you simply perform 5×5 with one weight. Medhi did not invent this scheme (it’s important to know he doesn’t claim this either) as it has been around for decades and some even suggest Arnold Schwarzenegger made it popular. However, he published what he described as the “definitive guide to 5X5” and the rest is history.
The program is extremely simple contains only 5 exercises which are arranged into a Session A and Session B. The exercises include squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and bent-over row. Further, you use a 1×5 rep scheme for the deadlift and a 5×5 rep scheme for the other four movements. The sessions look like this.
You perform these movements and utilize progressive overload upon successfully using a weight for the entire 5X5 and that’s literally it.
Stronglifts 5×5 review & 13-point critique
Stronglifts 5X5 stands out from other fad programs as it goes back to strictly using the big and basic barbell compound lifts that have been proven to be effective through time. As mentioned, I have used Stronglifts before and it works. In other words, Stronglifts uses effective lifts and progressive overload and that’s really all that’s needed for a program to “work”. However, designing a “perfect” beginner program that anyone can use is a bit more complicated than that. In fact, Stronglifts 5X5 is a “cookie-cutter” program at the end of the day.
Ironically, “cookie-cutter” programs are what serious lifters criticize as there are so many variables a program needs to account for when prescribed to a new lifter. To be clear, I don’t think Stronglifts deserves to be labeled with this pejorative as it can be effective and it does boast simplicity in an industry where the complexity of a program is falsely attributed to it’s effectiveness. However, saying it is perfect would be a far stretch as the multiple modifications attest to.
Below, I will lay out the issues that I now see are present in Stronglifts 5×5
Stronglifts excludes vital movements that should definitely be included
As mentioned above, 5×5 only utilizes 5 different movements. Being so, it excludes a couple movements that I believe to be vital to any effective training program. These two vital movements would be a vertical pulling movement and lunge movement. For example, I believe that chin-ups/pull-ups should be included to anyone’s program which would cover vertical pulling while any of the lunge or split squat movements would satisfy the lunge.
These are fundamental movements and I’m really not sure why they’re not included into the program. To be fair, he does mention pull-ups/chin-ups are good “accessory movements” but they are not in the program nor do I think they’re “accessory”. In fact, these are the best vertical pulling movements you can do and arguably the best back exercise period.
The lunge is also a great fundamental movement that not only works the entire lower body, it’s a great unilateral movement and can greatly improve balance. Again, it’s very easy to add in and I don’t understand why it’s not.
Zero arm isolation movements and NO ARM FLEXION!
Stronglifts only uses big compound movements in it’s program. When looking at the 5 exercises alone, they’re awesome and I include all of them in my own programs. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with these exercises and they 100% should be the foundation of any program. However, that doesn’t mean that’s all you should do.
Where this is actually a relatively large problem is Stronglifts doesn’t include any type of arm isolation exercises. To clarify, Stronglifts does address this stating your arms will be worked with the 5 movements as they include elbow flexion (bent-over row) and elbow extension (bench press and shoulder press). To be honest, this theory has scientific evidence to back it up and I have written about this subject many times. In fact, an issue that is very common on the commercial fitness industry is overemphasis of the arms, often excluding other exercises as a result.
However, just because the general fitness world has a problem with overemphasizing “arm day”, that doesn’t mean you completely eliminate it from your program. In fact, this somewhat trivial issue becomes a major concern after a closer inspection of the movements used in Stronglifts.
To the point, none of the movements includes elbow flexion with a full range of motion! To be clear, at the top of the bentover row (the “elbow flexion” movement), your elbow will only be at about a 90-degree angle; that’s a half-rep! While there is a discussion to be had if beginners need arm isolation movements, the argument is null and void with Stronglifts as it doesn’t even use the appropriate exercises to justify this thought! This is a major design flaw and I am confused as
Still, we could get even more technical and address the fact that there are two elbow extension movements and only one elbow flexion that uses 50% ROM causing an imbalance. Again, all of this could be fixed relatively easy if doing squats every session wasn’t insisted upon.
Too much squatting and not enough deadlifting
When you look at the 5×5 program, you notice the squat is programmed 3 times a week while the deadlift is only programmed once. Further, you only perform the deadlift with a rep scheme of 1X5. After a quick calculation, this means the squat is performed 15x more than the deadlift! Unfortunately, this is one of my biggest complaints of Stronglifts, especially after reading his explanation. To illustrate, I’ll break down why this doesn’t make sense by addressing several factors.
1) The program first states that if you can’t squat 3 times a week, you’re under-trained and are too weak or de-conditioned. I think this is a bit of a reach and it doesn’t actually address why you squat is the only exercise you do every session; it only addresses what’s “wrong with you” if you can’t do it.
2) The reason given for only doing deadlifts 1×5 is because all of the other movements hit the same muscles. While this may have a grain of truth, the deadlift is a hip-hinge movement which utilizes the posterior chain. When compared to the other movements, no other exercise one does this. By this reasoning, you could also say you don’t need to do the overhead press since the same muscles are hit with the bench press. Or, why even do the deadlift in the first place? Still, including adequate hip-hinge movements in a trainees program is vital for health of the spine and the prevention of injury or back pain (Hardeman et al, 2020).
3) There are a few errors given pertaining to the biomechanics and muscle activation given when explaining the deadlift. First, deadlifts are referred to as “half-squats” which is completely wrong, it’s a hip-hinge. The explanation then says “presses strengthen your arms” as an example of how the other exercises train the same movements. To be honest, I’m not sure what arm strength has to do with dealifts as your arms should be completely extended. While deadlifts are great for grip strength, flexing the arm is a huge no-no.
4) The last reason deadlifts use a 1×5 rep scheme is because you won’t want to do 5×5 after squats and overhead press. I still don’t agree with this but the obvious answer is to not do squats every session. Therefore, you’d perform squats on one day and deadlifts on the other.
Imbalance between pushing and pulling exercises
Another imbalance in movements occurs as the program has two pushing movements and only one pulling movement. To clarify why this is an issue is because there’s good reason to think that pulling is a more important movement as many people have issues with their posture. As you may not be aware, poor posture is caused by weak back musculature making pulling movements vital to any training program (Kang et al, 2018). Simply taking out the squats, moving the deadlifts as the main movement for a session, and then adding in another pulling movement would solve this. However, this hasn’t changed for the past 14 years.
I’m ok with people who use a program different from main IF they have good reasoning. Unfortunately, with the above situations, the reasoning given actually makes this aspect even worse.
Not friendly to those with health issues (No alternative exercises)
This is another major issue which eliminates it’s ability to work for “everyone”. For example, as a professional strength and conditioning coach, the first thing upon on boarding a client is going over their health’s history. During this discussion, I will ask them about any injuries, ailments, or mobility issues that may prevent them from performing certain exercises. In addition, we discuss their training levels familiarity with weight training implements. After analyzing their responses, I will create a program that fits their specific needs. In order to do this, I need to have a good amount of exercises that I can choose from.
You can now see the issue with a program that offers no alternative exercises. If you have a problem with your knees, back, or don’t have the ability to perform the exercises given with Stronglifts, you’re out of luck.
Only uses linear progression
Stronglifts uses a method to implement progressive overload called “linear progression”. For clarity, this simply means that a small amount of weight is added to each exercise on a weekly basis (assuming you performed the lift successfully). In other words, you will always be placing more weight on the bar with the same intensity for every single exercise. While this does work, there are other variations of peridiozation such as daily undulating periodization which alters the intensity every day. For example, some days will use heavy weights and low reps while other days use light weights and high reps.
Looking at this strictly from an enjoyment factor, trainees tend to like the variability in training, especially beginners.
Impossible to use long-Term (You’ll need to find another program)
One disadvantage of linear progression is that it’s impossible to use long-term. To clarify, your muscles can not sustain having more weight placed on them for an extended period of time due to basic physiology. Eventually, you will need to start using other methods and alter the load used. To be clear, this is a known fact and Stronglifts even mentions it. Therefore, this program can only be used for a short amount of time; most true beginners will only last 3-4 months.
Does not use a full range of reps
Stronglifts only works in the 5 rep range. Similar to above, this isn’t necessarily the worst thing ever, it can just be much better. Again, strictly looking at this from an enjoyability factor, having no variability in your workouts can become very stale. While this might technically work, people often forget the psychological factor which is extremely important for long-term adherence. For example, even though if a lifter truly enjoys lifting or is serious about getting in shape, doing the same thing over and over can become very boring. In fact, I find that I can get bored when all I do are strict sets within the same rep range.
However, there are some other issues which could arise. For example, doing 5×5 is actually pretty tough as you’re using a relatively heavy load (approx 85% 1RM), for 25 reps. Fatigue can build up which could possibly result in injury. However, this could all be avoided by adding in movements with lighter loads and higher reps. Plus, it could make things much more interesting.
Restricted to three days a week at the gym
As Stronglifts 5×5 is a “cookie-cutter” program, it will only work for you if you can go to the gym three days a week.
Concerning training three days a week, this frequency will actually work for new lifters and it solves the issue that many new trainees training too often. However, those people are probably also not using an appropriate program. Again, some people may like an extra day to keep themselves motivate OR perhaps they only have two days.
When it comes to the gym, I love the gym. However, not everyone does. For example, many people feel more comfortable working out at home or they may have children to watch or just don’t have the time. Still, some people just don’t have access to a gym even if they wanted to go. Still, this makes it difficult for even another other group of people; those who travel a lot. Stronglifts only works if you can get to the gym on a consistent basis and this just isn’t possible for many people.
In conclusion, neither three days a week or the gym are bad; the problem only occurs when the program limits people to these variables.
Zero core exercises
When looking at the core, a similar issue arises at trying to be too simple as there are no core exercises with the argument “the other movements will train the core” is used. While the compound movements are great for improving stabilization through an isometric contraction, there are no abdominal flexion exercises or rotational movements. Therefore, why not add these simple exercises to adequately hit these muscles. And again, I have found that people like doing them so if it helps them find more enjoyment, why be so stern about not including them?
Only utilizes barbell movements
To be clear, I love barbell movements and all of my programs revolve around their use. However, they can be intimidating for many people and are generally harder to learn. While this isn’t a huge issue as I believe people need to master them, cornering people into a box when there are perfectly good options also available doesn’t seem to make much sense.
Still, there are certain groups of people who can’t perform these movements. For example, the bench press and especially the overhead press can be difficult to perform by certain groups of people such as elderly, females, and even some de-conditioned guys. In addition, certain mobility issues in the shoulders and hips can make barbell movements very difficult. Simply allowing dumbbells would remedy this as they allow a greater range of movement making it easier to adjust for mobility.
Stronglifts can be boring
Within the field of strength training, you can find a sentiment that effective training outweighs a “fun” program. While there is some definite truth in this way of thinking, it sometimes overlooks the psychology of a person. Point being, many lifters won’t continue a program if it’s not enjoyable. Or, they look at going to the gym as something they have to do. When it comes to Stronglifts 5×5, it can be extremely boring for many people. To clarify, the program has you do the same few exercises with the same amount of sets and same amount of reps; every week. For many lifters, they want an effective program that is also interesting and Stronglifts doesn’t deliver.
For example, I often times include certain variables into a clients program knowing it probably won’t produce extra benefits physiologically. However, it also won’t hurt and my clients enjoy doing them. However, Stronglifts is so set on being basic, it neglects this concept entirely.
Is Stronglifts really suitable for true beginners
One thing I find odd about Stronglifts is that is often said to be a very effective beginner program. However, beginner can mean very different things. Is a beginner someone who has never stepped into a gym? Someone who has some experience but has never been on a progressive training program?
The problem is that while barbell movements are a superior training method, lifts like the squat, deadlift, and overhead press are highly technical. To be clear, while they’re not technical compared to Olympic lifts, they all require a high degree of mobility and proper body mechanics. In other words, if someone who has barely ever been a gym immediately starts to train squats and deadlifts with no proper training, they’re going to fail. While these movements are easy to learn, they take time.
My Final thoughts on Stronglifts 5×5
The one feature that stands out about Stronglifts 5×5 is it’s stripping away of everything gimmicky that is all too present in the fitness industry. The program delivers the most basic and fundamental program using the bare necessities. However, it does this to a fault by excluding things that could actually be beneficial while also having serious problems in the programing. What makes this worse it the fix is very easy and could produce a program of greater superiority.
However, the program refuses to address these issues for reasons unknown. Merely because it’s been overemphasized in the mainstream fitness (arm exercises and core training). Still, it gives no room for alterations and leaves trainees with no viable option if they needed. In fact, even when you look at their explanation for common complaints or questions, the reasons seem to be more based on defending the program rather than using actual science reasoning.
For example, there is a refusal to make the simplest changes such as training squats one session and deadlifts one session so you can use a full 5×5 rep scheme. The reason given is because… well, I’m not really sure why other than that’s what he likes to do.
A superior beginner lifting program: Dr. Muscle
Criticizing a program is meaningless without giving a better option. Therefore, I believe Dr. Muscle to be the superior lifting program not just for beginners, but for anyone. All of the issues I listed above are fixed with this program; and then some. For example, Dr. Muscle uses an AI program designed by the founder who is a PhD holder in exercise statistics; in other words, he knows what he’s talking about. As a result, Dr. Muscle will generate a program that takes every variable into account such as:
- Your training age
- Favorite (or lagging) body parts
- Equipment availability
- Time availability
These are just a few of the variables that Dr. Muscle uses to produce a truly personalized program. Better yet, I have played with Dr. Muscle and have discovered that it produces programs very similar to something I’d deliver. Still, after I alter the variables, it really does produce a program that accounts for the information you give it.
They offer a 100% hassle-free trial so there’s no reason to not try it out. To be clear, I literally mean hassle-free in that you don’t even need to give a credit card number or anything; you simply make an account and get started! If you are wanting to try an app that will do a much better job than Stronglifts at teaching and training you, you need to check out Dr. Muscle.
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