Switching from Stronglifts 5x5 to Starting Strength: A Case Study

If you are unfamiliar with Stronglifts 5x5, the idea is to squat 5x5 (five sets of five reps), bench 5x5, barbell row 5x5 on the first session, then squat 5x5, press 5x5, and deadlift 1x5 on the second workout two days later. These workouts alternate for three workouts per week and adding weight each workout.

Stronglifts plateaus in one to three months. I have not ever heard of someone (in real life) making progress on Stronglifts longer than three months unless they started at extremely-artificially low weights. The main cause of this is the inability to recovery from the stress imposed on the trainee by the 25 heavy reps. This is readily apparent in the way the trainee talks about their training:

"I'm so beat up"
"I'm tired all of the time"
"I'm really sore all week"

This is not overtraining, but rather too much stress for the trainee to recover from.

Fortunately, there is an easy solution. When a lifter who has been stalling on Stronglifts comes to me, I apply two changes.

1) I switch them to the Starting Strength noivce progression - Starting Strength is similar to Stronglifts except that it uses 3x5 instead of 5x5 for the squat, press, and bench. It also doesn't use the barbell row.

This helps because the total reps is more appropriate for a novice's current ability to recover from stress. At the same time, the number of total reps is not so low that the stress is insufficient to drive progress

2) I reset (decrease) the weight on their lifts

This dissipates any accumulated volume that is plaguing the trainee. It also gives me time to fix their technique before the weight gets heavy again. I've never seen someone come in for help with flawless technique. Even if they had coaching in the past, technique drifts over time which is why all trainees should have a coach (or at least video tape their lifts).

The case study: Scott

When Scott emailed me four months ago, he had been doing Stronglifts 5x5. He was stuck at a 245lb squat after multiple resets (reducing the weight and ramping back up). He decided to get some help.

He came in and advanced as a fairly typical case. Technique had to be corrected, the total reps had to be reduced, and he had to be encouraged to eat more protein. Throughout the next month, I had him progress on his squat linearly until he surpassed his old personal record and plateaued at 275lb for a set of five. We ran out the novice phase then moved to a weekly program, and gave him a reset. He advanced for another two and a half months until he squatted 320lb for a single.

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Several aspects of Scott's solo-lifting experience were typical:
-He made great progress on his own
-He reached the same plateau repeatedly
-He had intermittent joint pain

His coached-lifting experience also had typical components:
-Reducing his total reps to 15 and fixing his technique allowed him to surpass his solo progress
-His knee pain was gone in a few weeks as a result of improving his technique
-His back pain was greatly reduced

His bench, deadlift, and press also got heavier than he had every lifted. Last week, he deadlifted 355lb for a single.

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The Stronglifts program actually calls for a switch to 3x5 after progress stops working and then reducing to 3x3, but 5x5 is unnecessary to start with. The problem in the beginning for a novice is not a lack of stress - 3x5 is more than enough stress for a long time. Since that’s where you’re going to end up anyway, you might as well just start there. Additionally, the deadlift does not need to be alternated with the barbell row, because you can make progress on the deadlift every workout. Redundancy and inefficiencies should be eliminated wherever they are found.

If you are struggling to make progress on Stronglifts 5x5, consider reducing the reps to 3x5 and see if that helps. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not say that I think Stronglifts 5x5 is a fine program. Stronglifts and Starting Strength share most of crucial details of a novice training program. I do, however, believe it is limited and prefer the Starting Strength novice progression for my clients.