Is The Strong Lifts 5 x 5 Program Right For Me?

dead lifts 5x5 strength training

Dec 5, 2016

Here’s a question I received last week regarding the 5 x 5 strong lifts program:

Question

“Hi Blake,

I stumbled across your website today while searching for info on beginner strength guides. I am really impressed with the amount of articles that answer so many of my questions. I started a healthy eating plan in April. I'm male, 6ft 2 and weighed 436 pounds. I decided that enough was enough and I enrolled in my work gym.

I've been calorie counting (2,800) every day and doing the treadmill on weekdays since then. I've lost 50 pounds so far and my waist has shrunk from 64 to 58. I read a couple of articles which recommended strength training so thought I would give this a go. I have a desk job, although I walk around 13,000 steps each day to and from work with a lunchtime walk in between.

My work gym has 3 weights machines and a rack with loose weights. I have been following the strong lifts 5x5 program but feel that I will soon get to the point where the weight is too much because I'm increasing the weight each time I do that exercise. I'm a big guy carrying a lot of excess weight so squats are hard for me and I know that my form doing them isn't right.

Can you offer any advice for me on doing squats right. The weight increase with squats on strong lifts represents 7.5Kg per week. It's ok at the moment but I know that if I don't improve my posture then I could injure myself. I read your article which talks about lifting a percentage of your max one rep weight over the first 12 weeks but unsure how to determine my max weight for the various exercises. The lifting I'm doing now is squats, barbell row, bench press, deadlift and overhead press.

My first train to work in the morning means that I can only be in the gym for a maximum of 45 minutes before I have to shower and get ready for work. I am eating my calories most days and feeling positive and motivated and am consciously watching macronutrients.

Thank you for all the information you provide on your site. It's a fantastic source for a beginner like me.

Kenny”

Answer

Congratulations on your progress! It sounds like you have the determination to reach your goals. Regarding your question, the way I see it is if the Strong Lifts 5x5 program is working for you, stick with it. However, if you have concerns you may need to back track a bit and decide if the program is right for you. The 5 x 5 strength training program isn't for everyone especially for those of us who are dealing with ongoing injuries (or can’t perform compound movements anymore).

The 5x5 program is a pure strength building program that can help build strength and muscle mass. I’ve used the original program back in the early to mid ‘90’s (Bill Starr’s version) and gained plenty of strength.

However, it can put a lot of pressure on your connective tissues (tendons and ligaments) especially in the later stages of the program. From my experience, I noticed that near the end of the program I started to feel some discomfort from in my knees and elbows. They were beginning to ache to the point that I was having a hard time performing the bench press and squat. I’m quite certain it was from the combination of the amount of weight I was using, my body type and the length of the program.

You see, I naturally have a small bone structure which means my joints are smaller than those individuals who have larger bone structures. Because of this I’ve come to the harsh realization that my body isn’t made for heavy weight (I wish I knew this when I was younger) but at the time I didn’t know this and continued to use heavy weight with 5 x 5 type strength programs. Today, I have plenty of injuries to show that heavy weight plus low repetitions over extended periods of time just wasn’t meant for my body type.

I’m not saying 5 x 5 type strength programs are bad (IE: Strong lifts), however what you have to realize is that this program isn’t for everyone. Also, I’m not implying that heavy weight plus low repetitions is bad. What I am saying is this:

1) Heavy repetitive movements over extended periods of time can have some unwanted side effects such as ligament and tendon damage. Here is where I went wrong. I got very strong using these types of programs and over a period of time I liked it. In fact I started to think that the only way to build muscle was to use heavy weight and low repetitions. Over time it got to the point in which strength (training) became a part of who I was. I started to define my physical self by my strength which of course became very mental. This line of thinking can become detrimental to your body (as you age). Over time I mentally couldn’t use light weights and never allowed my body to use light weights for compound movements. This is dangerous because being strong can be very addictive. Once you mentally “program” your body to being strong it’s very hard to back track (using light to moderate weight workouts).

It took me years to re-program my body to start using light to moderate weight and high repetitions because of my injuries. In fact there was a point in time when I stayed away from commercial gyms and trained at home because the gym was a big trigger for reverting back to my old style of training (heavy at all costs mentality).

Because of this mentality I brutalized my body with heavy weight, 5 x 5 type strength programs and once I hit 37 years of age I had to pay for it. Kenny, repetitive heavy movements over extended periods of time will take its toll on your body. Just be smart about using heavy weight and low repetition programs. Use the program sparingly and take two weeks break after each cycle. My suggestion is to try using light/moderate (using higher repetitions) days alternated with heavy days (5 x 5 days). This gives your body a very important break allowing it (especially the tendons and ligaments) to recover from the heavy intense workouts.

2) If you don’t have the body type (small bone structure) that can handle heavy weight and low repetitions you may open yourself up to unwanted injuries. I don’t care what anyone says, if your body isn’t made to handle heavy weights it’s going to break down sooner than someone who is built for heavy weight. We’re all built very differently and Mother Nature deals you your body type so train accordingly. If you have a small bone structure and small joints you may want to rethink going down the “heavy weight/low repetition” road. If you do decide to go heavy try and shorten your training cycle and alternate with a moderate (weight) routine afterwards (using a higher repetition count) for a 4 to 6 week cycle.

How do you know if you have a small bone structure? Here’s a little test. Take your right hand and wrap it around your left wrist (just below your palm). If you your middle index finger can touch your thumb you have a somewhat small bone structure. Remember, this is just a rough test but it will give you an indication of your body type.

3) If your form and technique isn’t down to a science and you start adding more weight than you can handle you open yourself up to injuries. This is dangerous because once you start using heavy weight it tends to become addicting. At some point you stop training for you and start training for those around you (to show how strong you are). If your form is off just a bit it can mean injuries. I’ve seen dudes with horrible form come crashing down to the floor with 500 plus pounds on their backs because they wanted to show everyone around them just how strong they were. I’ve seen guys get carried out of the gym on a stretcher because of this.

My suggestion is to get to know your body and understand that it’s imperative for you to be in total control of the weight at all times. Since you’re a beginner, practice good form and don’t bother increasing the weight until your form is down pat. Ask a gym employee (who is qualified) to watch your form and keep asking them until your form is near perfect (each week). Once you are comfortable and your form is down, try using a progression type program (make sure it’s a sensible progression).

4) You need to train according to your goals. I’m a huge proponent of tackling your goals using the right tools. If you want to lose weight and burn fat than you need to structure a routine and diet best suited to reaching those goals. If you want to gain muscle mass and get strong your need to structure a routine and diet program that allows you to get strong and build muscle mass. When it comes to gaining strength there are two main variables that are needed;

  • A progressive weight training routine that provides an environment for building strength and;
  • A diet that allows you to continuously get stronger
The 5 x 5 routine provides the environment for gaining strength. However, the body relies on a continuously progressive intake of nutrients in order to accommodate additional workloads. As you get stronger your body needs additional nutrients to power up progressively heavier weight. Talk with any strength expert or body builder and they will tell you that they’re strongest when they are taking in a lot of nutrients and weakest when they’re cutting nutrients.

By the sounds of it you are currently cutting calories and at the same time you are increasing your workloads by 7.5 kg per week in each of the four compound movements (squats, barbell row, bench press, deadlift and overhead press). From my experience, beginners will always gain strength at the onset of a routine. However, there will come a time when the body reaches an equilibrium point and you will need to start adding more and more nutrients (from quality calories) to help gain more strength.

The body draws from its nutrients to grow. The more nutrients (positive nitrogen balance) you have in your body the higher the chance for growth. However, if you have a low level of nutrients in your body (from dieting) the body can’t draw on the necessary nutrients to handle progressively heavier workloads (heavy weight).

In other words, to get the absolute most from a strength training / building routine it’s critical to get as much quality nutrients in your system as possible.

Don’t get me wrong, a strength building routine can certainly help you burn fat but (in my humble opinion) the point of a strength building routine is to get strong and to do this one needs enough quality calories to keeping building strength. If your goal is to get strong why not put all your chips on the table and simply go for it?

When it comes to losing body weight and fat the opposite is true (in my humble opinion of course). To effectively lose weight and burn fat it is necessary to burn as many calories as possible while reducing your caloric intake. The thinking is quite simple. Eat less and start using those exercises that will allow you to burn as many calories as possible. When it comes to burning calories nothing beats compound movements. The reason is that compound movements use a system of muscles to move the weight which takes more energy and therefore calories. However, there is a difference between using compound movements to gain strength and losing weight.

When it comes to losing body fat and weight I suggest using compound movements with moderate weight and higher repetitions which make you work a lot harder (therefore expending more calories) while giving your tendons and ligaments a break. I’d rather do 5x5 squats using heavy weight and low repetitions than 5x20 repetitions using moderate weight any day of the week. Why? High repetition squats are just so damn hard to perform and because of this (in my opinion) the exercise will burn up more calories. If you ask me, high repetition squats (using moderate weight) is the ultimate fat burning/muscle building combination.

Remember, I’m not against using compound movements as they’re fantastic muscle builders and fat burners. What I am cautioning against is the use of progressively heavier and heavier weight for the sake of using heavier weight. Heavy weight has its place when it comes to building muscle and strength but in my opinion, heavy weight is not the ultimate solution.

Doesn’t it make more sense to optimize compound movements which will allow you to reach your goals more efficiently and safely when it comes to losing body weight and fat?

Kenny, you mentioned that you’ve already lost 50 pounds. In my books that is top notch work. However you also mentioned that heavy squats are hard on your body and you don’t have the best form. At 400 plus pounds I’d say you are somewhat at risk to injure yourself as you progress with the 5 x 5 routine. The program calls for a 7.5 kg increase in weight each week for your squats. It’ll only be a matter of time before you have a substantial amount of weight on your back. Seeing as your form is bad, this may not end up being a good situation for you. In addition, the workout protocol calls for squats and dead lifts to be performed in the same workout two times per week (I believe in alternating weeks).

I don’t necessarily see a problem with this but the protocol is recommending using progressively heavier weight (in the same week). Given your situation, this may not be the best workout protocol (for you). Honestly, it’s too much too soon. Making these kinds of jumps may work in the short term but as you progress you may find yourself in a situation where you may be putting your body at risk.

My suggestion is to back track a bit and perhaps re-structure the 5 x 5 program slightly to utilize its strong points. Here’s what I suggest:

1) Instead of performing the workout three times per week, try performing it two times per week for example, Monday and Friday while using Wednesday as a “break” in the routine. This will allow you to fully recover from the compound movement while keeping your body active.

Example:
Monday: Compound movement day
Wednesday: Alternate movements plus abs
Friday: Compound movement day

2) Break the routine up a bit which allows you to utilize a variety of movements.

For example:

Monday: Squat / Bench Press / Barbell Row

Wednesday: Dead lifts / Shoulder Dumbbell Press / Seated Cable Rows / Planks

Friday: Leg Press / Incline Dumbbell Press / One Arm Dumbbell Row

Start incorporating some ab work into your routine. I know the 5 x 5 program doesn’t call for ab exercises but in my humble opinion abs will anchor your entire development (including strength). They are way too important to ignore and by not training them you risk strength imbalances. If I was in your situation I’d perform abs everyday first thing in the morning (as soon as I roll out of bed).

3) Reduce the weight and increase the number of repetitions. Instead of performing a 5 x 5 protocol increase the repetitions to 12 to 15. Lighten the weight and start with 12 repetitions for each exercise. After two weeks, once you are able to perform 12 easy repetitions for the exercise add 10% more weight and try and complete 12 more repetitions. Once you are able to perform 12 repetitions (in good form) with the new weight add 10% more weight and strive to get 12 more repetitions.

You may not be able to handle as much weight but you’re still going to be improving. Trust me, I’ve performed low repetition squat workouts and high repetition squat workouts and I’d rather do low repetition squats any day of the week (because it’s easier). I get a heck of a lot more out of high repetition squats than with low repetition (my humble opinion of course). Listen, you’re not going to lose strength with this type of set up. You’re still going to gain strength. The only difference is that you’re going to be using a higher repetition count which will help you burn additional calories.

I know from past experience that 5 x 5 routines call for long rest periods (in between sets). As you progress with the new set up, shorten the rest periods a bit so that you are constantly challenging your body. However, only do so once you feel comfortable. If you feel dizzy or out of breath, stop and take a longer break.

4) Back track on all your exercise and make sure your form is correct. I suggest asking a qualified worker at your gym for advice or hire a personal trainer at your gym for a few sessions. Mind you, I’m pretty sure if you hire a qualified and experienced personal trainer they’re not going to recommend the 5 x 5 strength training routine for you.

To take this one step further, you may even want to forego squats for the moment and use exercises which offer more stabilization. If you find your current body weight is giving your too much trouble finding balance and stabilization with squats, try using the leg press until you are more in tune with your body. Trust me, you’ll still lose the weight if you continuously improve in the leg press exercise (see point 3 above). You need to be comfortable with the movements you’re performing given your current physical situation.

5) Keep doing your daily cardio. I know the 5 x 5 program doesn’t recommend cardio which is unfortunate. In my experience, cardio only enhances my development, cardiovascular shape and wellness.

I suggest eating 2700 calories for the next two weeks and cutting it down to 2400 thereafter for the next 4 to 5 weeks and monitor your diet. As long as you remember to keep improving in the gym and slowly cut out starchy carbs (starchy carbs is always the culprit) you'll hit your target weight. I'm 100% certain that if you cut out all rice, pasta, potatoes and starchy carbs and only have fibrous veggies with your lean proteins for meals, you'll reach your goals. I think the 5 x 5 Strong Lifts program calls for fibrous veggies and fruits as you main carbohydrate source (which is great for burning fat and losing weight).

Kenny, when I was younger I was all about getting big and strong. I used the 5 x 5 programs extensively and I have to admit I got super strong. However, I had to pay a steep price once I hit my 40’s. Today I can’t use heavy weight or utilize most compound movements (if I even look at the squat rack my hip and knees ache). My injuries don’t allow me to use the 5 x 5 techniques anymore.

However I’ve created a training system that allows me too continuously to grow while keeping my body in top notch condition. I use high repetitions and varying exercise techniques that keep me away from injury. I’ve had to work extremely hard at mentally giving up heavy weight. Believe me, heavy weight can be addicting and once you start characterizing yourself with this identity it can become a big problem down the road.

The simple truth is this:

If you can improve on any exercise (regardless if it’s a compound movement or not) on a week by week basis in one of the three following areas you can expect a certain level of results:

  • 1) Use more weight than you did in your previous workout for the same exercise (using good form);
  • 2) Perform more repetitions using the same weight in your previous workout for the same exercise (using good form);
  • 3) Perform the same exercise using the same weight and the same number of repetitions but reducing the amount of time it takes to complete the exercise.
The thing you have to remember is the efficiency at which certain exercises have over others. Compound movements will always outperform isolation exercises when it comes to energy output and overall development but that’s not to say isolation exercises won’t provide results (if you follow the above noted points) because they will. The bottom line is positive and continuous progression. Consistently improve from workout to workout in your main exercises and you will attain the results you desire.

Here’s the take away from my suggestions. In your case, your measure of success shouldn’t be how strong you get. Your measure of success should be how much weight fat and weight you lose. Your measure of success should be on the weight scale and in front of a mirror. Your goal should be on losing body weight. Aim for 2 to 3 pounds per week and you should be on par to reaching your goals.

Kenny, I can’t do 5x5 strength programs anymore because of prior injuries from heavy, repetitive movements. However, at 45 years of age I’m still one of the more muscular and well developed dudes in my gym. I’m not as strong as the younger guys but I’ve come to the realization that I have nothing more to prove. As long as I challenge myself and satisfied with my health and well-being that’s all that matters. I’ve done this without using heavy weight and low repetitions. As long as you keep improving in the gym (safely) you can expect to grow and get in the best shape of your life.

Again, I’m not against the 5 x 5 workout routine using heavy weight and low reps. In fact it can be a great routine to help you gain strength and muscle mass. However, this type of routine is not for everyone. I consider the 5x5 type of routine as a “specialty” program which should be used to help boost strength and development. Personally I wouldn’t use this routine as my “staple” routine.

The important thing you have to remember is to evaluate yourself (your current physical situation), what your goals are and come up with a plan that is conducive to reaching those goals safely and efficiently.

Good luck Kenny! Keep up the great work and never give up – You’ll reach your goals. Just remember to be safe and keep your body healthy.

Blake Bissaillion Building Muscle 101
Owner, Building Muscle 101  

Need help?

Do you need help putting your diet and training program together? Do you need help finding out what you need to be doing to lose 10, 20 or even 40 pounds of body weight? Do you need help gaining body mass or strength? Do you need help finding the right program for your goals? Let me know and I'll tell you what you need to be doing to reach your goals. This is a FREE SERVICE and I'm more than willing to help. Just go to this page here and fill out the online form and hit submit. I'll get back to you ASAP (I won't collect your email address or spam you). Just ask me your question and I'll answer it - Blake

As the owner of Building Muscle 101, I am committed to providing you the best practical weight training advice. I've been training for over 24 years (and still train to this day!) and the advice and guidance I provide comes directly from my experience and knowledge.



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