14 min read

Starting Strength Isn't "Really" a "Beginner" Program

I get asked questions about 2 programs online more than any other programs. Here's when you should use them, and more often why you shouldn't.
Starting Strength Isn't "Really" a "Beginner" Program

Without fail there are two programs I get asked about online ad nauseum. Neither of them are even my own free-to-use training system! Obviously I think it's better, or I wouldn't use it, but that doesn't make it popular.

These programs are:

  1. Starting Strength (SS)
  2. Stronglifts 5x5 (SL5x5)

Both applauded for their simplicity, relatively small equipment investment and focus on some seemingly 'staple' 'functional' strength movements: The big three as they relate to the sport of powerlifting.

Yes, it's all a bit buzzword-y.

All you need to complete either program is a power rack, a bench and a barbell, which can easily drift past $1000 USD in actuality, so your investment usually isn't that small. Assuming you have a garage or basement with the space to fit a power rack and probably some rubber flooring mats.

I'm going to ignore program number two (SL5x5) for the sake of this article, because it's so similar to the first one, it's hardly worth breaking out into its own separate article. Add 2 sets to Starting Strength and a few more accessory movements and you have SL5x5.

It's a fairly trivial change. Other than true beginners are probably best off using SS. 5x5 is a lot of volume for the rank beginner, and better left to more intermediate lifters in my humble opinion.

That said, almost any program works in beginners. Which will be one of my main arguments in this article.

I gotta level with you people asking me all these questions about it, you really should ask the person(s) who came up with them. I can only tell you how I view these programs and well, obviously I use my TPT system for a reason and not either one of these programs ... really ... well ... ever ...

And today I'm going to tell you why.

Simplicity β‰  Better

This is likely one of the main reasons people gravitate to these programs. It's 3 movements per workout, with two exercise changes every other training session:

Day 1:

  • 3Γ—5 back squat
  • 3Γ—5 bench press
  • 1Γ—5 deadlift

Day 2:

  • 3Γ—5 squat
  • 3Γ—5 overhead press
  • 1Γ—5 power clean

Pretty simple right?

The whole program is only about 5 lifts to worry about, although if you read the book chin-ups are encouraged at the end if you have time too – amongst some other accessory movements.

Start with an empty barbell, add 5-10 lbs to each lift until you can't do all the sets with that weight for multiple weeks. Which is typically called a 'stall' or a 'plateau.' And repeat until you get bored enough to move onto something else entirely. Usually something that seems more 'hardcore.'

Except that the power clean is far more technical than any beginner or adult over the age of 35 is ready for. Thus most trainees attempting SS will be terrible at it for quite some time, or drop it and replace it with another deadlift anyway. I teach Olympic Lifting with a dowel first, for reference, if I teach it at all.

All this is also assuming you actually read the book too. Which I highly recommend because implementing the gist of the program you can easily find online – like the Coles Notes version I gave you above – doesn't do the program any justice.

You really should read the book if you're going to do this program.

Seriously, the kindle version is $10, there is lots of good stuff in there and it's a pretty easy read for 320+ pages. It's not that long because the author is wordy. It's full of lots of good tips for implementing the program. For instance it's good to understand how to use warm-up sets and when and why to add accessory lifts. How do you know when you're ready to move on from SS? Read the book and find out ...

Otherwise, many of you may end up adhering to only fraction of the program and miss a lot of the nuance of training down the road. You end up with a poor foundation.

Einstein once said:

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."

Nobody picks up on the caveat at the end of the quote.

Resistance training programming is far more complex than the bullet points you see above. Outcomes are driven by the sum of the workouts. And workouts are but small puzzle pieces in a much bigger puzzle.

What could go wrong?

People generally put FAR too much focus on workouts, rather than the entirety of the program.

And this is a crucial first mistake most beginners will make. They grab something off the internet called a "program" but is really just some "workouts" and they think they are ready to rock. The truth is you probably aren't.

Context and Nuance

This is a lot of what I write about on SBF. For instance:

  • Movement Variability (SS does not feature much, if any of this)
  • Match Quality (is SS right for you if you don't have all the equipment?)
  • Warming Up (you don't want to throw on 3 plates a side and do all your sets out of the gate, even in SS)
  • Etc...etc...

What happens if you get injured and can't squat or deadlift? What happens if the squat makes your knees hurt? Or the deadlift makes your back hurt? Or your shoulders hurt doing the bench press?

What do you do then? Do you have a backup plan? Or are you abandoning resistance training entirely? There is a lot more to resistance training than the big three. And there is a lot more the SS than 5 lifts, on a primed sequence.

"Failing to plan is planning to fail." ~ Winston Churchill

Exercise programming is synonymous with exercise planning.

There are lots of training considerations that don't immediately jump out of those bullet points above because you haven't thought about anything that might go wrong in advance. Β 

  • What's the progression strategy?
  • What's your goal?
  • What are viable exercise substitutes?
  • How much time to train do you have? What days of the week?
  • How well do you eat, sleep and recover?
  • What equipment do you have? How heavy does it get? Are you willing to invest in more?
  • How much space do you have?
  • What's your injury history?
  • Yadda yadda yadda

That's only the tip of the iceberg when I interview someone to plan their programs. If you don't have access to someone like me to do all that planning for you, you should still do as much of that planning in advance as you can. Or at least read the SS book as you're executing it!

Grabbing a seemingly simple program off the internet and thinking it's going solve all your problems is a recipe for disappointment.

What's to Like About It

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I've mostly listed off what people like about it:

  • It's Simple Full-Body Training 3x a week – so is TPT
  • It's 5 exercises to worry about – TPT is 8
  • The progression plan is extremely simple – you don't progress until you can complete all work sets with the same weight, and you deload when you stall out for more than two weeks
  • All you need is a power rack, a bench, with a barbell, some plates and a rack – can probably be had for $1000-2000, about the same price as a cheap gym membership for 2-5 years and this equipment will easily last that long.
  • It is a good intermediate program for people interested in starting powerlifting – i.e it's a good beginner powerlifting program, which does not make it a good 'beginner' resistance training program.

What's Not to Like About It

A lot of what people like about it, is actually what I dislike about it.

  • It's not very time efficient
  • It's too simple to do, for as long as people do it
  • It lacks some fundamental lifts
  • The lifts are a bit overrated and often misrepresented
  • Powerlifting isn't synonymous with resistance training, it's a subset of it
  • Barbells aren't the best or only valid tool for strength training
  • Zealotry

The good news is, it doesn't take much to modify SS (or SL5x5) and turn it into something slightly better. Consider some of these shortcomings as an opportunity for improvement.

Time Efficiency

This is a program for building strength specific to the sport of powerlifting. Such training by nature is not time efficient, as any powerlifter will tell you. If that's your goal, you're in the right place.

But a lot of people use this program as their gateway into resistance training and it can take a while to complete. Especially if you do the 5x5 variety and do the warm-up sets properly.

The #1 reason people don't lift is that it takes too much time to complete.

That's why I'm a big fan of paired sets, especially for "real" beginners.

Excessive Simplicity

I'm all in favour of simplicity, but SS is too simple, especially for anything longer than a phase or two – i.e. train until you stall, then deload, that's one phase.

The human body is capable of moving in so many ways and in so many other planes of movement. SS only trains one plane of movement of 3. If you got 33% in a course, would you pass?

If you are doing multiple deloads with the same 5 (really 4) lifts, it really prevents you from training anything else months or potentially more than a year. At least the way some people seemingly do SS online.

Obviously I think movement variability is important for injury prevention and movement proficiency, even if you only want to compete in powerlifting. More advanced powerlifting programs feature a lot more variety. Why not move in that direction now rather than later if this is something you're serious about?

Honestly, it doesn't adequately prepare you to do the programs that will fundamentally help you compete if that's the goal. You can build a simple training program with a more appropriate amount of variety.

When you've done a cycle or two of SS, spend another $10 on Tim Henriques book, All About Powerlifting to see what I mean.

I'd Prefer it If You Rowed

This has always felt like an oversight to me. If you read the book, there is plenty of talk of a set of max chin-ups at the end which is a start in the right direction but rowing provides so much more balance to the equation.

You have the barbell already, why not mix in a barbell or pendlay row? i.e one deadlift or press can't become a row 1x a week?

For the average desk/office worker, it's borderline essential. But even for a powerlifter rowing has a ton of benefits and a lot of powerlifters have monster rowing capacity.

Yes the low back and lats get a lot of stability work with the squat and some dynamic work with the deadlift, but this is not a substitute for the mid-back work provided by the row.

These Lifts Are Overrated

I love these movements and all my clients know how to do multiple variations of most of them, many with barbells, but ...

Bench press is risky to perform solo without a good power rack. And the straight bar doesn't really make it nice on most people's shoulders – a neutral grip bar called a swiss bar, or football bar can quickly solve the latter problem, but isn't valid for competition.

If I'm being honest, weighted pushups are my favourite horizontal push exercise for most people.

The main limitation of the squat and deadlift is eventually the low back. It's good to keep that strong and all of these exercises certainly have a place in your program but should they be the focal points?

A lot of people lack the required mobility and will struggle to maintain stability during a deadlift. And I see squats butchered all the time.

You can't compete in powerlifting without them, but most of you will never participate in a powerlifting competition anyway, so who are you trying to impress?

I just don't believe that exercises should be put on a pedestal in the absence of context. And there are usually far more appropriate 'beginner' exercises to consider. I'll give you 3 alternatives that immediately come to mind:

Are these going to be great for intermediates? Probably not, but for beginners, learning the movement with an easy to learn variation is critical.

Powerlifting β‰  Resistance Training

If you don't want to compete in powerlifting, then doing SS makes even less sense. But what's worse is that somehow powerlifting and resistance training have become one and the same thing online. They are not.

There are no required movements or exercises you have to do. None, whatsoever.

Yet a common theme I see with people who gravitate to these programs is the assumption that everyone must squat, bench and deadlift to be successful in the weight room.

And the truth is, you don't!

Somewhere along the line, powerlifting barbell training zealots got a hold of the narrative that you're not a real man unless you do the big 3 regularly. Which is just macho bullshit pandering.

You're still a man (or woman!) if you can't, or choose not to do these lifts.

The only reason anybody has to do these lifts is if they want to compete in the sport of powerlifting. Given that it's a niche sport only a tiny fraction of the lifting population participates in? My guess is, most people don't care or don't want to compete in powerlifting.

So why all the fuss?

They just want to be part of the tribe and are often guilted into it with that machismo crap I mentioned earlier.

There are significantly more resistance training movements your body is capable outside of squatting, hinging and pressing. These aren't the holy grail movements by any stretch.

All you need to execute resistance training well, is a resistance. Any kind of resistance is a valid starting point and is in my experience a lot cheaper and better suited to beginners the majority of the time.

Bands are 1/10th to 1/20th the cost to get started with. An adjustable dumbbell set and a bench 1/4th the cost of a decent barbell setup too.

Realistically speaking, the exercise selection of SS (And SL5x5) is in part what makes it more of an intermediate program because there a lot of other steps between mastering the movements and mastering the movements with a barbell.

Barbell's Aren't Necessarily the Best Tools For the Job

Don't get me wrong, I love barbells, but not any more than dumbbells, trap bars, swiss bars, safety bars or kettlebells really. They each have strengths and weaknesses you should consider before you dish out a grand or more on your equipment.

That's a lot of Benjamins just to test the waters and see if you like to lift. If you are going to a gym, then it doesn't really matter and they'll have the variety I'm talking about anyway.

Barbells are a simple tool that permit quite a bit of loading, in principle. They are also straight and predominantly favour heavy bilateral movements as a result.

Bilateral meaning you train two limbs at one time. Efficient yes, but doesn't always favour the natural tendencies of your joints. Particularly the shoulders, which like to rotate as they move.

25-50% of the population have heavily hooked or partially hooked acromion type in the shoulder and thus minimized acromial space that can impede the free movement of certain tendons. Especially when the wrists are fixed in a pronated position like they are in the straight bar bench press or a barbell back squat.

There is no way to know for sure what type of shoulder structure you have without an X-ray, which is probably overkill. An easier strategy is to leverage your injury history and natural tendencies to make a decent guess.

If you have a history of shoulder pain/injury, or pressing often makes your shoulders cranky, you probably fall into the that small subset of the population that would benefit greatly from neutral bar pressing (swiss bar) or just using dumbbells.

Furthermore, a lot of adults will struggle to get into a good position for the deadlift. Hence using another tool to start, while you work on your mobility is often the better approach. And many more may struggle to hold a barbell properly on their traps due to a lack of shoulder mobility.

I've seen it a lot, believe me. It takes some time to work through, but what are you going to do in the meantime? Not train at all? Just stretch, massage and mobilize?

Highly successful powerlifters generally all share a similar genetic quality: robust joint structure that can handle straight bar training and heavy repetitive loading. It's called self-selection.

In a similar vein to most basketball players being tall.

There are dozens of other practical, more affordable resistance training tools at your disposal that can serve as a much better starting point in your lifting career.

Bands, Dumbbells, Kettlebells, chin-up bars, suspension trainers, etc...etc...

All can provide resistance, and many are a far more joint friendly option with a shallower learning curve. Require substantially less space and significantly less upfront investment.

A decent set of bands might set you back $40-100. A chin-up bar and a suspension trainer can go a long way for <$200. A pair of adjustable dumbbells from 5-50 lbs that will last your lifetime, take up 1sq feet of floor space by comparison, are more versatile and cost about $200-600 depending on the type and manufacturer.

No bench? No problem, you can do push-ups, or banded push-ups or floor presses. The world of resistance training is your oyster. The world of powerlifting is limited to 3 lifts you have to do. Constraints are good some of the time. Just not all of the time.

There are half a dozen great alternatives to all of these barbell exercises that add resistance and teach good movement at the same time as a generally good starting point to get into resistance training. No barbells required.

When You Have a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail

If you want to 'get strong' then it's natural to look to the strongest people on the planet.

Namely powerlifters and strongmen. And strongman events are too complicated for most folks to replicate easily and the equipment too expensive to procure, so I guess we're stuck with powerlifting.

What most people forget when attempting to mimic elite athletes with their own training is that the goal of elite athletic training is performance. It isn't just to "be healthy" or "be health & generally strong" or to "live long and prosper."

You can usually throw the concepts of health and longevity right out the window in the world of sport, it's an afterthought in the pursuit of athletic glory.

SS is a powerlifting program. Meaning it's fine if you want to take up powerlifting. An excellent introduction even, but a 'beginner' powerlifting program and a beginner 'resistance training' program are not the same things.

If you're new to lifting, I'd much prefer you start somewhere else. Even if that means doing SS with dumbbell. This may not technically be SS anymore at that point I guess, but it holds just as much value in my view.

Strength is specific anyway, so squatting a mountain won't necessarily translate to other more specific actions in your daily living. Β The strongest squatter and the strongest bench presser and the strongest deadlifter don’t necessarily have the easiest time with any task β€” just squatting, bench pressing and deadlifting heavy @$$ weight.

Quick Closing Story

One of my favourite personal coaching stories is about a strength athlete I once worked with that could absolutely crush bench-press – 360+ lbs for reps, did like 39 reps on his 225 lbs test, an absolute beast.

For some reason though, they sagged on their push-ups, shortened the range of motion dramatically and they looked ugly. I mean ugly.

It was weird to witness, but it didn't happen because they weren't strong in their pressing muscles.

It's because they didn't train the push-up in years. Just bench press.

The individual in question didn't have much of any variety in their upper body push training to maintain anything other than bench press effectively.

We are what we repeatedly do, success then is not an act, but a habit. ~Will Durant (Often misquoted as Aristotle)

The adaptation ended up so specific to benching, that I questioned his ability to adequately apply that capacity on the field. We trained push-ups, the jammer (because we had one) and landmine presses a lot that winter/spring and he had a great subsequent season.

Specialization and Closing

If you want to specialize; specialize. I'm willing to bet most people reading this don't want to specialize in the sport of powerlifting. Most of my readers just want to be competent lifters with decent physiques. They want to play with their kids or play amateur sports on the weekend.

I could (will one day) make a strong argument that explosive power is far more useful than strength. That said, strength is a huge part of that, it's one entire side of the equation that's far easier to train than the velocity side.

It's time to stop painting the entire world of resistance training with the same brush as bodybuilding or powerlifting. There is a lot that exists outside these worlds that can help you fall in love with lifting.

And lifting is just flat out good for you. Any lifting.

There is more to lifting than SS or SL5x5.

I'm not saying don't do them, but I am saying choose the right programs to fit your needs and goals. Don't change your goals or needs to fit them within an easy program to follow that you found online.