When you start out in strength training, you tend to increase the weights you lift relatively quickly as your strength increases. But it’s not always easy to know how much you should be adding on each time, or how frequently you should increase your weights. This is when a structured program can help. Structured programmes help determine how often you should complete workouts, which exercises to do, how many sets and reps and when to increase the load. By following a structured plan, you can see improvements in a short time and progress at a faster pace safely, than you may otherwise have thought.
Whilst there are a number of these plans around, two particular programs attract the greatest amount of attention and the greatest numbers of devotees – Starting Strength and StrongLifts 5×5. These are both considered useful and capable of producing impressive results.
Here is a description of the main elements of each program.
Also known as 5×5, StrongLifts focuses on free weight compound exercises, each repeated for five sets of five reps. The exception to this 5×5 rule is the deadlift, which is performed for only one set of five reps. This is because the deadlift is performed from a stop – the barbell returns to the floor after each rep, every time, making it more difficult than other exercises. It is also performed with heavier weights on the bar than any of the other exercises.
Performing a greater number of reps will inevitably lead to a decline in technique as fatigue builds, increasing the risk of injury and making it less likely that you will be able to complete the workout safely and correctly. A higher load with reduced reps means better technique for the full set.
This is a three times a week workout, with the weights increasing every workout. For this reason, it is important not to start out with too great a load on the bar: you need to allow time for your body to get used to the exercises and to mastering the correct form. The weight will increase by 2.5kg increases for the 5×5 exercises and 5kg for the deadlifts.
Starting Strength works on a similar no-frills basis. Developed by former competitive powerlifter Mark Rippetoe, there is a focus on basic body movement patterns and a gradual load increase. Again, weights go up with every workout. Starting Strength puts an emphasis on the classic, logical nature of its program. It steers clear of gimmicks or fads, using the barbell and the body to achieve improved strength.
Workouts are three times a week with at least a day’s rest in between each session. A typical Starting Strength schedule would be Monday-Wednesday-Friday. Workouts are made up of compound lifts performed for three sets of five reps each, apart from the deadlifts, which are performed the same way as in StrongLifts: one set of five reps.
Which is best?
There are arguments for both in terms of effectiveness, safety and progression. A better question to ask may be “Which one is right for you?”
From the information above, it might seem as though StrongLifts will get results faster, given the higher number of sets. But a lower number of reps performed consistently with correct technique is often preferable to attempting to complete a higher number of sets with poor form. Remember that both programs incorporate increased weight every workout, not every week. It’s not a bad thing to do fewer reps as your load will increase incrementally every time you start a new session – three times every week.
Starting Strength and StrongLifts are the two most popular weight lifting workouts at present. If you’re still undecided as to which is right for you, just ask around the gym – it’s likely that everyone will have an opinion. There’s also lots of educational material for each program so you’ll be fully supported whichever you choose.