Thoughts on the Starting Strength and 5×5 Programs

One growing trend in weight rooms around the world is the shift from pumping out high(er) reps on machines and dumbbells to lifting for low reps on barbell movements.

Not everyone is following this trend, but it has become quite popular in recent years due to the popularity of the Starting Strength program by Mark Rippetoe as well as the Stronglifts 5×5 program by Mehdi. There are other similar linear progression programs like these, but to my knowledge they are the two most popular programs.

I’ve used Starting Strength in the past with much success. Not only did my strength increase significantly (mostly on my squat), but I also put on a lot of weight (mostly fat though) as the diets emphasize eating a large surplus of calories.

There are benefits to these programs, but also quite a few drawbacks which I will go over below. Let’s start with what the program is though.

What are the Programs?

For the record, both Starting Strength and 5×5 are quite similar programs. There are several other programs out there that are similar as well. This is because they are all based around the same concepts:

1.)    Compound Lifts

2.)    Progressive Overload

3.)    Full Body Workouts

These workouts are essentially interchangeable, with small variations in exercise selection and volume.

The programs consist of workouts 3 times a week centered around compound lifts such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press, barbell row, and power clean. They are susually done for 3-5 sets for 5 reps. Over a period of time, the goal is to continually increase the amount of weight on all exercises.

Here’s a sample SS workout (Taken from here):

Workout A Workout B
3×5 Squat3x5 Bench Press

1×5 Deadlift

3×5 Squat3x5 Press

5×3 Power Clean

As you can see it has a very minimalist approach.

My Experience

Back in the summer of 2011 (I believe) I was getting fed up with my lack of results. I wanted something that was proven to work.

Something simple.

Something effective.

Starting Strength was exactly what I was looking for. I used the SS wiki (See Further Reading) and read it through and through.

I began the routine exactly as written. It was both frustrating and embrassaing at first because you are told to start with the bar and then continually work you’re way up in weights. The first few weeks it’s nothing, but it really is effective at putting weight on the bar.

I don’t remember all my beginning stats, but here’s what I ended up with:

Weight: 172–>185 lbs. (Although a large portion was fat).

Squat (ATG): 235 lbs. x 3 x 5 (235 doesn’t sound like a lot, but I was going literally ass to the floor with 235 for 3 sets of 5. I was quite pleased).

Bench: 165 lbs. x 3 x 5 (My bench was, and always has been a weak point).

Overhead press: 120 lbs. x 4

I’m sure it would help more to have the starting amounts for those lifts, but I don’t recall them. What I do know is that they were significantly lower when I began the program.

As far as size goes, my thighs got huge. It’s no surprise either when you’re squatting heavy three times a week.

For my upper body I definitely began to fill out, and even started having people tell me I looked bigger, but again a lot of that was fat gain which means nothing although muscle was absolutely added to my frame.

Who is it for?

The programs are technically for anyone, but are geared towards novice lifters. These lifters will benefit the most from the program because:

1.)    They are introduced to proper form for compound exercises.

2.)    It is effective at quickly increasing strength.

3.)    It builds a foundation of strength and knowledge to succeed in the gym.

Why is it so popular?

These two programs have become increasingly popular in recent years. I believe it is due to its proliferation on the internet.

The workout is usually done and touted by the intellectual type. For example, my friends who are the most intelligent won’t use the meathead mentality; it makes no sense to them. These are the guys who want to approach everything from a mechanical standpoint, and thus the rigidity and simplicity of these two programs appeals to them most. Anytime I walk into the gym, I can bet that the nerdiest guys are doing one of these programs or something similar.

From Scooby’s article (See Further Reading)

“First, a word of warning about this book and Mark Rippetoe. There is an almost cult-like following of SS and its followers perpetrate the myths associated with it. Its quite likely that you heard of Mark Rippetoe’s SS program on some forum where people were touting the “incredible gains” possible with it – don’t believe them! Starting Strength is a good program but its not magical like the anecdotes seem to indicate. Its gains are no better or no worse than similar programs. Every report I have seen of someone having “great” results was because they didn’t know how to measure their progress accurately.”

How long should one do it for?

I would say the minimum amount of time it should be done for is 12 weeks. At that point you’ll likely begin to stall on your lifts, if you haven’t already.

Novice lifters can continue these programs or a variation of them for a longer period of time to acclimate to lifting weights in general. The advanced novice, or intermediate lifter will not benefit as much to staying on these programs for longer periods of time.

What are the benefits of this program?

On one of these programs or a similar one, one can expect most notably rapid increases in strength. When exercises are done at a high frequency for low reps, strength is the byproduct.

Also, one should be consuming a lot of calories on this program and one can expect to gain quite a bit of weight.

What are the drawbacks of the program?

There are in fact quite a few drawbacks to this program.

To me, the most notable is the lack of isolation and assistance exercises. I believe most men step into the weight room to look good naked, not squat as much as possible. These novice lifters are then told that it is bad to want to look good and are thus told to squat and deadlift developing a blocky physique, with excess lower body mass relative to the upper body.

After 12 weeks on SS I had what I like to call “T-Rex syndrome”, that is huge thighs and a pitifully small upper body. To this day my thighs are still huge and I can knock out 10 pistols easy, but who the fuck cares? I sure as hell don’t.

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The beef I have with SS, in that it is treated like the Gospel.

“Thou shalt Squat 3 times a week.”

“Thou shalt not curl, and if thou curleth in the squat rack thou shall perish in hell.”

“Thou shalt not want to look good, and only do heavy compounds.”

And so on…

The diet is also another drawback for two reasons:

1.) Too many calories: It is important to eat a surplus of calories, especially when you’re a small guy looking to put on size. However, there is not only a point of diminishing returns, but there is also a point where you’re going to gain more size fat than you should be gaining.

2.) GOMAD: This stands for Gallon of Milk a Day. Yep, a whole gallon of whole milk every damn day. While there is no doubt that one will gain on this protocol, I don’t reccomend it one bit. One reason is that I don’t tolerate dairy too well and I believe many people don’t either. You will gain weight, but at the cost of compromising your well being by being bloated, nauseous and compromising one’s immune system.

Secondly drinking a gallon of whole milk is way too many calories. People should focus on eating whole foods and whole meals not whole milk.

What to do after this program?

After you have done one cycle of this program you have to make the decision to continue with the program you were doing, a variation of it, or something completely new.

This is a personal decision, but in my opinion I would suggest one break away from this mold sooner rather than later.

A good stepping stone would be an upper/lower split in which both the upper and lower bodies are trained twice a week. This is a good way to delve into muscle gain and puts more emphasis on the upper body, whereas individuals were previously squatting three times a week.

Further Reading

Again, this workout is quite popular and there are lots of varying schools of thought on it. I did my research and so should you. Here’s a few helpful links on the topic:

  1. Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe: The book that started it all (Well, besides Bill Starr’s The Strongest Shall Survive). The book is in-depth and goes over the main exercises and the program at length. A must read for those interested in this program.
  2. Starting Strength [Review] by Scooby: He gives an excellent, no bullshit breakdown of the program.
  3. Starting Strength Wiki: I used this website when doing SS. It has a ton of relevant and helpful information and is probably just as good as buying the actual book.
  4. Stronglifts: Mehdi is the propriter of this site which has lots of helpful articles and videos. If I recall correctly, he also will send you his entire 5×5 program for free which is a great read too.
  5. Starting Strength Review by Bodybuilding.com: A solid and objective review of the SS program.