Starting Strength VS. Stronglifts 5×5: Which Program is Better?

Which is better: Starting Strength or Stronglifts? We hear and see this question coming up in the forums again and again, especially from people new to training or just starting out.

So let’s have a closer look at each program individually and break them down into pros and cons, this will allow us to differentiate them.

The starting strength program gained popularity throughout the last decade.

From the first edition that came out in 2005, Mark Rippetoe’s book on this program is one of the best sellers on Amazon.

However, for every good program, there is a competing program, which has raised the topic of comparing Starting Strength 3×5 vs. Stronglifts 5×5 workout.

The starting strength book is nearly 350 pages long and consists of a couple of workout programs, which are displayed below.

Starting Strength 3×5

With this program, you have 1 to 5 working sets.

It is recommended that you do these exercises with the maximum amount of weight possible in the 5-rep range.

The weight goes up when you manage to hit the given sets and repetitions with a certain weight.

In the beginning of your starting strength cycle, it is recommended that you go up in weight every workout, while of course, trying to keep the proper form on each exercise.

Repeated maximum (RM)– The weight which you can use to complete a given number of repetitions:

1RM – the Maximum weight you can use for 1 repetition.

5RM – the Maximum weight you can use for 5 repetitions.

Starting Strength Workout Program 1

Squats2×5 with no weight on the bar, 1×5 using 40% of your 5RM, 1×3 with 60% of 5RM, 1×2 with 80% of 5RM35
Bench Press2×5 with no weight on the bar, 1×5 with 50% of 5m, 1×3 with 70% of 5RM, 1×2 with 90% of 5RM35
Deadlifts2×5 with 40% of 5rm, 1×3 with 60% of 5RM, 1×2 with 85% of 5RM15
Dips (Optional) 2-3Until failure

Starting Strength Workout Program 2

Squats2×5 with no weight on the bar, 1×5 using 40% of your 5RM, 1×3 with 60% of 5RM, 1×2 with 80% of 5RM35
Military shoulder press2×5 with no weights on the bar, 1×5 with 50% of 5RM, 1×3 with 70% of 5RM, 1×2 with 90% of 5RM35
Barbell cleans2×5 with no weights on the bar, 1×5 with 55% of 5RM, 1×3 with 70% of 5RM, 1×2 with 85% of 5RM53
Pull-ups (Optional) 3Until failure
Barbell cleans  – This is the only exercise where you have 5 sets of 3. This is a power clean exercise, done from a position in which the barbell is over the knees in a quarter squat.

You alternate between these two workouts with a rest day between them.

There is no given amount of rest time between the sets, take as long as you need to feel recovered, but I recommend that you don’t go over 1 minute between the warm-up sets and 3 minutes between the working sets.

Progressing with Starting Strength Workout

The progress depends on gender, age, and the exercise.

These are the recommended workout progressions during the first 3-4 weeks:

  • Deadlifts: +5-10 kg
  • Squats: +5 kg
  • Bench press: +2,5-5 kg
  • Military press: +2,5-5 kg
  • Power clean: +2,5-5 kg

Females, adults, and teenagers who may be skinny, just starting out or simply under-conditioned can go 50% on these given progressions.

For the weeks after the first month, you go up in weight with half of the given weights.

When and How Much to Increase Weight

  1. If you have managed to complete the given numbers of sets and reps with clean exercise execution and the last few reps were quick, you can increase with more than the given weights. For example, 10 kg for deadlifts and 5 for the bench press
  2. If the last few reps were significantly slower, you increase the weights as little as possible- 5 kg for deadlifts and 2,5 for the squats and bench press
  3. If you could not complete the working sets you stay on the same weights.

If you reach a plateau, reduce weights with up to 20% and start over.

Notes to Starting Strength

This is a program that relies on lower rep ranges of 3 to 5 reps. The program is designed to kickstart the development of your physical properties, by focusing on strength development, which will inevitably boost your muscle gains in the long term.

Stronglifts 5×5

Steve Reeves Back
Stephen Lester “Steve” Reeves (1926 – 2000) was a professional bodybuilder and actor.

This is the famous 5×5 workout that is known among lifters and bodybuilders and it has been used by people like Reg Park, Steve Reeves, and many other known powerlifters.

The Basic Stronglifts Principles

When you manage to hit 5 sets of 5 reps with a given weight, you increase the weight in the next workout.

This workout program is usually done for 12 weeks.

The weights used for each exercise are done within the 5RM range (a weight that will challenge you in the 5 repetitions range).

This workout is recommended for intermediate and advanced athletes.

Stronglifts 5×5 Workout (Bill Star’s version of it):

The goal of this workout program is strength gains and the very foundations of the training program are basic compound movements.

ExerciseWarmup & NotesSetsReps
SquatsWarm up sets of lower weight and higher reps, leading up to the 5×5, which are done with a given weight55
Flat bench press55
Rows (barbell, dumbbell)55
Optional assisting exercises for triceps and abdominals
ExerciseWarmup & NotesSetsReps
SquatsWeight used is 15-20% less than the one on Monday (you can optionally replace this with front squats)55
Military press 55
DeadliftsIf the weight used is more than 2 times your bodyweight, the sets done are 3×555
Optional assisting exercises for triceps and abdominals
ExerciseWarmup & NotesSetsReps
SquatsWeight goes up with each set55
Bench press Flat or incline55
Rows 55
Optional assisting exercises for triceps and abs

Starting Strength vs Stronglifts

Now to the topic of starting strength vs. Stronglifts 5×5 workout. There are many similarities between these two workouts, like the fact that they both have assisting exercises for smaller muscle groups.

Another similarity between them is that they are both made up of basic, compound movements and focus on strength development.

Now, as we all know, building muscle mass requires some heavy weights and that’s just what these two programs allow us to develop.

Anabolic Bodies - Starting Strength vs Stronglifts. Man getting ready for a deadlift.

Usually, when the intensity is higher than 85% (2-3 rep range), the body focuses on developing the nerve paths leading to the muscles.

This is simply because 100% of the muscle fibers are involved at around 80% intensity, hence, overcoming heavier weights after the 80% mark is only possible through increased frequency of the brain-to-muscle impulses.

This just goes to show that both programs are on the verge of higher intensity levels.

They both allow you to focus on strength development, that goes along with solid muscle gains.

However, one thing you can notice straight away when you hear or read about 3×5 vs 5×5 is the difference in training parameters.

The 3 sets of 5 give much less volume to the workout, compared to the 5×5.

Two sets may not be a lot but they add up with each exercise.

For example, if as a beginner, you use 40 kg on the exercise barbell bench press, in 3 sets of 5 repetitions, that would be a total volume of 600 kg (40 kg lifted 5 times = 200 kg, 3 sets of 200 kg= 600 kg) and in a 5×5 it would be 1000 kg for the whole exercise.

So, Conclusions to this Comparison of Starting Strength and Stronglifts are:

  1. Starting strength is an appropriate workout program for beginners, which will kickstart the strength development and allow you to learn the basic, compound movements.
  2. Stronglifts 5×5 is a more advanced program, which also focuses on ~5 rep range and compound movements, but allows for a way higher volume, which will boost the muscular/strength development furthermore. The Stronglifts 5×5 program is appropriate for athletes that have passed the beginners phase and are ready to take their physical development to the next level.
  3. As an outcome to these first two points, we can say – The topics of “Starting strength vs Stronglifts” or “3×5 vs 5×5” shouldn’t really be a major object of discussion, as there is no “better” program in this case. The different nature of the two programs allows us to do them in two different phases- Beginners, intermediate.

Use Starting Strength 3×5 to:

Develop basic strength, musculature tone, learn exercises.

Use Stronglifts 5×5 to:

Further, develop strength and musculature after you have learned the correct motor patterns of each exercise.