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Review: StrongLifts 5x5 — Simple strength workout for beginners to intermediate



StrongLifts 5x5

Workout program review


After cracking the floor and some potentially dangerous accidents working out at home, I signed up with a gym earlier this year. In my first few weeks at the gym, I felt like a noob every time I went there 'cause I didn't have a plan and I was still very new to all the equipment. So I went home and started looking for free workout programs online and found StrongLifts, which was a perfect program for me at that time as I needed to get stronger fast for an obstacle race that I was joining.


Program Outline


  • 3 workouts a week, 1 day rest in between and 2 days rest before starting the new week.
  • 5 compound exercises only — (Low Bar) Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, Overhead (Military) Press and Barbell Bent Over (Pendlay) Row. Use free weight Olympic Bar (20kg) only. No dumbbells.
  • 3 exercise per day. Squats is included every time. Alternate between Workout A (Squat - Bench Press - Pendlay Row) and Workout B (Squat - Overhead Press - Deadlift). Do not rearrange exercises.
  • 5x5 — 5 sets of 5 reps per exercise except for Deadlift which you'd only do 1 set of 5 reps. 90 secs rest time in between sets if the prior set was easy. Take 3 to 4.5 mins rest if it was tough. And full 5 mins rest if you failed the set.
  • Add 2.5kg for every exercise (5kg for Deadlift) per workout until you've failed to complete 5x5 for 3 days in a row. Do not drop weight during workout even if you failed the first set.
  • If you've failed 3 days in a row, deload 10% of that failed exercise's weight and continue from there.
  • Optional accessory exercises: Dips, pull-ups/chin-ups and 30 minutes jog right after main workout.





Pros


  • Super effective for gym or weight-training beginners like myself to gain both strength and a bit of muscles in 2 - 3 months time.
  • The whole program is straightforward and easy to remember.
  • Learn to gradually get used to using heavy-weighted bars for major exercises such as Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press and Overhead Press. Improving technique and form of each of these major exercises as you progress as well. Perfect for gym beginners.
  • Spend lesser days or time at the gym compared to most other programs.
  • Muscle soreness usually only lasts a day.
  • It's challenging and fun as you'll be adding 2.5kg to 5kg every workout. It's like you're constantly competing with yesterday's you. The sense of achievement and self-satisfaction is awesome when you break your personal records every week at the beginning. I felt like I was able to be my own personal trainer and motivate myself at the gym.
  • It built a strong foundation for me. When I moved on from StrongLifts, I could confidently kick off a new program with heavier weights and good enough experience with the bar.

Cons


  • You must be patient and extremely discipline to strictly stick with the program without ever rearranging exercises or the plan. No skipping any workout or rest days. No adding any more exercise. Skipping a workout could jeopardise your strength to perform an exercise(s) twice to thrice a week.
  • It's far from a bodybuilding program. And because you can't add any other exercise, smaller muscle groups like your biceps might lack significant growth. If you add isolation muscles into the program on your own, you might struggle to recover in time for the next workout day.
  • You cannot do any form of exercise on rest days. No sport. Not even jogging 'cause if you did, your legs will not be fresh enough for the heavy Squat and Deadlift on the next day(s).
  • As you will be Squating thrice a week, you'd need to use the Squat Rack every time you hit the gym which was difficult for me as there's only one rack at the gym I go to. Most gyms only have two and if you go during peak hours, you might need to spend a lot of time waiting for the rack to be unoccupied.
  • When you reach to a point where the weight of every exercise is extremely heavy and you started failing some sets, it'd feel very dreadful and frustrating in every workout from then. I was constantly afraid 'cause I hated failing a set and had to be taking the long 5-min rests and also get struck at the same weight or deloading in the next workout.
  • Can be dangerous without a kind of spotter, especially for Bench Press 'cause it might be difficult to sense when you need to just try pushing, and when you really need to play it safe. A spotter would solve this completely though.


Notes, Mistakes & Learnings


  • I was overconfident and simply started the program with weights that are heavier than instructed. Squating thrice a week is something that our legs cannot immediately get used to and hence I should've just started with weights 50% lower than what I could do instead of just 30-40%. Because of this error, my recovery couldn't keep up and I started plateauing very quickly.
  • I did High Bar Squat instead of the program's Low Bar Squat. It is known that most people could lift heavier with Low Bar Squat but I felt that doing High Bar Squat may be more beneficial for the sports that I play. The High Bar Squat is also more natural. Besides, I'm not into power lifting. However, I did get stuck at around 95kg to 97.5kg towards the end of the 3 months.
  • I screwed up the rest time. Instead of taking 3 mins rest after a challenging set, I took only 2 mins rest and then increased to 2.5 mins after the next set. This was probably the reason why most of my final sets were prone to failure.
  • I misread the program instructions and added only 2.5kg instead of 5kg for Deadlift on every Workout B day. I believe my legs could've strengthen quicker if I followed this correctly from the beginning.
  • I had a week break twice in the 3 months I was on this program and those breaks really affected my progress, particularly my Squat. Whenever I came back from a break, I could not complete the 5x5 Squat at the weight I successfully did previously. I think I could've improved further if I could've continued working out while I was away for work and vacation.
  • My left wrist was still injured (TFCC tear) while I was doing this program. I believe it only affected my grip as none of the exercises required me to twist my hand (e.g.; no bicep curls).

Results & Verdict


1 - 2 Reps Max
BEFORE
1 - 2 Reps Max
AFTER 3 months
High-bar Squat 90 kg 100 kg
Bench Press 65 kg 85 kg
Pendlay Row 50kg 85 kg
Overhead Press 40 kg 57.5 kg
Deadlift 100 kg 130 kg

I absolutely loved and enjoyed this program due to its simplicity and effectiveness. I think it has a great philosophy as well which makes most sense for beginners. After 3 months (with that two times of a week break in between), I can already lift almost as heavy as some of the people I know who have been working out at the gym much longer than I have. I felt that my chest and legs have grown quite a bit as well. So if your main objective is to get strong fast without doing too many different types of exercises, I do highly recommend StrongLifts 5x5.

But sadly I had to switch to other programs as I was not able play sports while doing StrongLifts, and not to mention at that time I had start training for my first half marathon. My legs simply could not recover in time to concurrently perform well in both the StrongLifts and sports/running. Therefore I had to come up with my own workout plan to accommodate my five-week half marathon training. Also, I felt that my arms and lats weren't really growing with StrongLifts. It's definitely not recommended at all for people who wants to look like bodybuilder. I am now on another free program and I will review it after I've completed the whole plan.

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