Regardless of their definition of the word, almost everyone wants to be fit. Maybe this means being able to run a 7-minute mile, maybe it's able to bench press 3 plates, or perhaps it just means having the body of a Greek deity. There are a lot of programs out there, and not all of them are suited for the same tasks. Sometimes, what you think you want isn't what you need at a particular point in your training. In this post, we are going to take a look at the popular strength training routine, Stronglifts 5x5. Who's goals might it align with? Who might it benefit unexpectedly? 

A Closer Look at Stronglifts 5x5

Like most beginner 5x5 programs, Stronglifts consists of two different workouts. You will hit the weights 3 times a week, and alternate between these two workouts as you do. You will be squatting every workout, but all of your other muscles get a break. If these sounds confusing, let's break it down, so you'll see precisely how the program works.

Workout A

  • Squat: 5 sets of 5
  • Bench Press: 5 sets of 5
  • Barbell Row: 5 sets of 5

Workout B

  • Squat: 5 sets of 5
  • Overhead Press: 5 sets of 5
  • Deadlift: 1 set of 5

You'll first notice that you are only doing 1 set of deadlifts. We'll explain a little more about that below in the section about recovery time. For now, just focus on the fact that there are two full-body workouts that make up the program. As we mentioned, these alternate every workout, and your workout three times a week. This is usually a schedule of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, but as long as you have a day off in between the workouts, you can start on whichever day is convenient for your schedule. Let's look at an example schedule.

Week 1

  • Monday: Workout A
  • Tuesday: Off
  • Wednesday: Workout B
  • Thursday: Off
  • Friday: Workout A
  • Weekend: Off

Week 2

  • Monday: Workout B
  • Tuesday: Off
  • Wednesday: Workout A
  • Thursday: Off
  • Friday: Workout B
  • Weekend: Off

Week 3 simply starts over with the week 1 workout, and you continue to alternate. But if you simply follow that lifting schedule, you are not going to get the benefits of Stronglifts. You must also follow the program for adding weights to the bar. In the following sections, we'll look at how your body builds strength and how Stronglifts works to facilitate that. Many beginners want to start changing a program, thinking they are going to improve their workout. They end up ruining their gains. To understand what makes a program like Stronglifts work, we are going to examine the topic in depth so you will better understand if it matches your goals, and more importantly, learn to trust the system instead of trying to change it.

If you don't care about the theory, you can skip to the section on progressive overload to see how to find your starting weights and begin progressing with Stronglifts.

Strength Training Versus Hypertrophy Training

When we build strength, we do it in one of two ways. The first is neurological adaptations. Our muscles have low threshold motor units and high threshold motor units. The low threshold units are the ones that move our muscles during everyday tasks. From the day we are born, we are flailing about and teaching our brains how to effectively activate those units. High threshold motor units only work when our muscles are lifting under load. If you don't do a lot of physical activity, your brain is not at all efficient at controlling these motor units. Strength training works, primarily, by training your muscles to efficiently use these motor units to lift weights. This means that you could, in theory, get significantly stronger without building an ounce of muscle. In reality, strength training will still build muscle.

The other way we build strength is by actually making our muscle fibers bigger. This is known as hypertrophy training. The goal of hypertrophy training is to keep your muscles under tension for a significant amount of time, which prompts them to grow. This differs from strength training, and that's an important distinction to make. You may see a bodybuilder and a powerlifter argue over whether half-reps count on the bench press. In truth, they are both right. The bodybuilder does half reps because full reps would take tension off of his pecs and hurt their size gains. The powerlifter does complete reps because utilizing all muscles allows him to maximize his strength gains. Once you understand that a program like Stronglifts is different from a program that a bodybuilder might use, it will enable you to better evaluate seemingly conflicting information that you may receive.

Recovery Time and Beginner Gains

Every time you engage in exercise, it puts a strain on your central nervous system. It takes a while for your CNS to recover from a heavy lifting day. If it has not recovered by the time you workout again, then not only will you not be able to lift as much as you should, but you will be killing any chance of making strength gains. That is the reason that full-body routines like Stronglifts put a day of rest in between each workout day. It is also the reason for only doing one set of deadlifts. The deadlift is a full-body exercise; every muscle in your body is lifting and lifting hard. This takes a tremendous toll on your CNS. By putting the deadlift at the end of the workout and doing it for only one set, you minimize the effects of that.

When you are a beginner, you are not strong enough to lift so much weight that your CNS is completely exhausted. You still need that day of recovery but can hit the weights heavy the next workout day just fine. As your strength progresses, the ability to lift heavy every other day will decrease. Your CNS will need more recovery time before the next heavy day. People mistake this as the end of their gains. It is not. It is the end of your ability to use a beginner program like Stronglifts 5x5 and time for you to move on to an intermediate program that allows for more rest while still pushing your gains forward.

Progressive Overload in Stronglifts 5x5

Let's say you go into the gym on Monday for bench presses and lift as much as you can for 5 sets of 5. Your body will immediately recognize that this is out of the ordinary and decide to build muscle. Your brain will be exposed to new stimuli and adapt its use of motor units. If you go back that Friday and lift the same weights, those things won't happen. At least not as much. Your body will decide to reserve calories rather than spend them adapting to a weight its already lifted, and your motor units will not get any stimulus that they did not already have. If you continue this week in and week out, you will be doing a lot of work but getting no benefit.

The key to building muscle and strength is progressive overload. You constantly want to be adding to what you previously did. For Stronglifts, that means adding 5-10 lbs to the bar every workout, depending on the exercise. Squats and deadlifts get 10 lbs, and everything else gets 5. If you do the math, you can see how quickly that adds up, and by following the program closely, you will be able to gain strength that fast. Eventually, as mentioned earlier, those gains will slow.

To maximize the amount of time that you can make gains, and ease you into the program, Stronglifts has you start by simply lifting the bar for each exercise. If it is way too light, you can add a few pounds. Just remember that you are going to be adding 5-10 lbs every workout anyway, so it's going to get heavy fast enough.

The Benefits of Stronglifts 5x5

It may seem that Stronglifts is only beneficial for those who prioritize strength over size. This isn't necessarily true. If you've tried a bodybuilding program before, you've quickly learned how long it takes to put on muscle. Lifting for a month and not seeing your tape measure move considerably is demotivating and many people quit exercising because of it. With Stronglifts, your numbers are going up every single workout. By the time that stops happening, exercise has become a part of your life, and you won't have a problem keeping with it. This makes Stronglifts great for beginners regardless of end goals.

Strength training also builds muscle density, helps reduce the chances of injury outside of the gym when the exercises are performed properly, strengthens your joints and ligaments and improves your overall fitness level and even your mental well-being. So the benefits go beyond just being able to say how strong you are or how buff you look and really reach into your everyday life.

The Importance of Good Gear

All it takes is one sprained wrist to take you out of the gym for a few months as you sit idly by knowing that your progress is moving backward to make you really wish that you had been wearing a good wrist wrap on the day of the injury. Nobody thinks they are going to get injured, but preventative measures are especially important when you are dealing with heavy weights like you are in Stronglifts.

As you progress in your weight lifting journey, you may find that other lifting gear becomes a beneficial part of your day at the gym. Lifting straps can help you keep your deadlift climbing when your grip strength just doesn't want to cooperate. Deadlifts and squats alike can benefit from a good quality weight belt.

At TuffWraps, we take your training as seriously as you do, so we make quality products that will keep your gains coming and help keep you injury-free. Browse our store today and pick up some essentials for your next day under the weights.