(Photo: Jason Lengstorf)
The Final Showdown: Starting Strength vs. Stronglifts 5×5
If you’re a gym noob doing your research on the best beginner programs out there, chances are you’re running into the same two names over and over again: Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5×5. There are a couple other programs mentioned in this never-ending argument, but these two are hands-down the consensus favorites.
Lots of people will tell you that you can’t go wrong here, that both are equally good, that all workout programs are created equal – those people are idiots. Although Starting Strength and Stronglifts are similar, one of these beginner gym routines has the edge. We’ll get to that – but first let’s break down the similarities and differences between these workouts in one last and final showdown.
The Similarities Between Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5×5
- Linear progression. Both of these programs operate on the principle that beginners can make impressive gains in very little time using a training concept called linear progression. Linear progression simply means that you’ll be increasing the amount of weight you lift in every consecutive workout. Linear progression works, but it also means no slacking, no laziness, and definitely no missing workouts allowed.
- Compound exercises. Starting Strength and Stronglifts both involve workouts packed with compound lifts (think squats, bench press, and deadlifts) performed with a barbell. These exercises train several muscle groups at once, and are the bread and butter of any regimen worth your time. If you were looking for a workout that was gonna let you pump out 100 machine curls every day, you can stop reading right here – Starting Strength and Stronglifts don’t want anything to do with you.
- Workout frequency. Both of these programs are structured around a 3-day split schedule. You’re going to be busting your ass, so allowing adequate time for recovery is essential if you want the program to actually do what it’s designed to. Most people using these programs go with a Monday/Wednesday/Friday split and rest on the weekends.
- Educational material. One of the biggest advantages of using Starting Strength or Stronglifts is the impressive amount of instructional material you’ll have access to. Lots of people use these programs, so there’s lots of people talking about them, writing about them, and giving great tips and advice. The big communities surrounding these programs also means big-time motivation and inspiration. Check out startingstrength.com and stronglifts.com for a better idea of the kind of stuff we’re talking about here.
The Differences Between Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5×5
- Rep counts. The most obvious difference between Starting Strength and Stronglifts is the number of reps prescribed for each set of exercises. While Starting Strength instructs you to perform 3 sets of 5 reps each, Stronglifts 5×5 – as the name suggests – asks for 5 sets of 5 reps. Deadlifts are the one exception here, with both programs calling for a single set of 5 reps.
- Exercises. Although both of these workouts focus on compound lifts, there are a few differences in exercise choice here. If you like squats, bench press, deadlifts, and overhead press then don’t worry – you’ll find these bro favorites in both routines. However, where Starting Strength includes power cleans, Stronglifts goes with barbell rows.
Here’s a side-by-side look at the A and B workouts for each program, which are performed on non-consecutive days:
Note: These are the bare-bones, entry-level, plain vanilla versions of these programs. In both cases, additional compound and even isolation exercises are eventually added. That’s beyond the scope of this article, so check out the FAQ for each program to see what sort of things you can expect further down the line.
The Winner Is Announced…
Alright Already, Which One Should I Pick?
At this point, the playing field between Starting Strength and Stronglifts seems pretty level, no? Well, here’s what you came for – the reasons why Starting Strength is a better beginner program that Stronglifts 5×5:
- Linear progression means it’s easier to stall with Stronglifts. Remember, your goal with these programs is to increase the amount of weight you lift, every exercise, every time you work out. If you’re trying to stick to this objective while also aiming for 5×5 sets, you may find you hit a wall where you simply can’t increase the weight without decreasing reps. Doing this is bad, very bad indeed, as it is not what the programs are telling you to do – and the programs are always right.
- 5×5 could be too much volume to start with if you’ve never stepped foot in a gym before. Some beginners simply don’t have the baseline endurance and mental focus to rip through that many sets, even if you’re lifting an empty bar.
- Stronglifts is considered by a lot of knowledgeable people to be somewhat of a rip-off of Starting Strength. SS was around first and originally designed by Mark Rippetoe, a well-respected strength and conditioning coach with 10 years personal experience as a competitive powerlifter. This guy knows what he is talking about. Stronglifts, on the other hand, was invented by some Belgian dude named Mehdi Hadim who doesn’t have nearly as impressive a resume as Rippetoe. In situations like these, we tend to trust the industry experts.