Starting Strength vs Stronglifts vs Jim Wendlers 5/3/1

There are countless lifting programmes all over the internet. Some of them are more complex than others, but all of them promise the same goal – gains. If you’re a novice lifter, chances are you’re already confused about which programme will be best for you. Some involve tons of complicated accessory work and hours in the gym. Others incorporate just about every exercise possible for tempo movements.

The 3 big programs compared

There are three main lifting programs that have been around for a long time. The reason? They work. These three programs – Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1, Starting Strength, and StrongLifts 5×5 have all helped lifts of all levels achieve what they want from the gym – bigger numbers and an improved physique. Let’s take a look at each of these programmes to help you decide which is best for you.

Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1

For lots of lifters, Wendler’s approach seems completely opposite of what we’ve always learned. Taking weight off the bar theoretically moves us in the wrong direction of where we want to go. The reality is that starting lighter gives you more freedom to move forward.

The key here is that starting light forces you to build patience, which is a tenant that’s sometimes tough to follow. Ultimately, this has to do with every lifter’s worst enemy – ego. Forget what numbers you think you should be putting up and instead focus on executing your lift properly and with perfect form every single time. Nothing will destroy a lift faster than an overly zealous ego.

Slow progress

Patience is hard to come by a lot of the time, especially in the gym. Everyone wants a program that’s going to give them huge numbers in incredibly short amounts of time. The progress on 5/3/1 is slow, but it’s slow for a reason. When you build muscle the right way, you’re building it to last. This means that you’re going to smash your rep records. Moving weight for rep clearly proves strength instead of just relying on a 1RM. If your back squat goes from 120 kg x 4 to 120 kg x 6, you’re getting stronger, no matter what your 1RM shows.

Crushing a goal each workout

Other programming can feel endless because you’re supposed to working for months to see increases. With 5/3/1, you crush a goal every workout. The last set in each workout is designed to push you far past your comfort level. You don’t have to go beyond the set number of reps, but there are significant benefits to pushing yourself. You’re going to build strength and muscle, but you’re also going to build a lot of character, too.

The basics

  • Train 3-4 days a week.
  • Each training cycle lasts 4 weeks.
  • Then the next cycle starts, using your new numbers.
  • Build skill at the core lifts.
  • Start light, progress slowly.
  • Forget about your ego.

Each workout needs to be built around one of the following

  • Squat
  • Bench press
  • Deadlift
  • Standing shoulder press
  • Don’t fudge your numbers.

Use the right percentages of accurate 1RM to lift 5 reps, then 3 reps, then 1 rep. These percentages are based on 90% of your 1RM.

Be conservative with your 1RM

It shouldn’t be the number you hit once a year when everything aligns perfectly. Use a 1RM that’s attainable during the majority of your training sessions.

Set rep goals are as follows:

  • Week 1 3×5
  • Week 2 3×3
  • Week 3 3×5,3,1
  • Week 4 Deload

Let’s imagine your 1RM for bench is 130 kg. Use 90% of 130 kg as your base number to determine your target weights for each session.

Week 1 Week 2 Week 3 Week 4
Set 1 65% x 5 70% x 3 75% x 5 40% x 5
Set 2 75% x 5 80% x 3 85% x 3 50% x 5
Set 3 85% x 5+ 90% x 3+ 95% x 1+ 60% x 5

+ means that you’re aiming for a rep report in each workout, so you’re pushing for the max number of reps you can do at that weight.

When you start a second cycle, add 2.2 kg to your 1RM numbers for the upper body lifts and 4.5 kg to the lower body lifts.

Accessory work helps complement the simplicity of 5/3/1. There are endless options, but focus on bodyweight exercises:

  • Pull ups
  • Dips
  • Lunges
  • GHD

Keep in mind that there’s no real benefit to doing a ton of extra supplemental exercises. They’re supposed to align with your training, not detract from it.

Why it works

There are a few keys to making this program work. Most importantly, make sure you’re super realistic about your 1RM. Base all of your training on that number. If you have no idea what a current number is, you can easily spend a few workout sessions building to a 4RM on each of the core lifts. Convention shows that a 3RM is about 90% of your 1RM.

Give the last set of your workout everything you’ve got. It’s the one that really produces strength and push yourself hard. The exception is during deload week, when you’re supposed to be giving your muscles a break. Make sure you’re resting appropriately between each set to make sure you give it everything you’ve got.

This is a simple and effective training modality when followed correctly. It can produce significant strength gains, coupled with a careful and detailed approach to diet and active recovery.

Starting Strength

Starting Strength relies on something that’s often discussed as almost a legend within lifting communities – novice gains. The idea here is that a healthy person can easily walk into a gym and quickly add a decent amount of weight to their core lifts over a short period of time.

Sometimes these are called newbie gains. No matter what you call them, know that when you’re a novice lifter, you’re in the best position possible.

Why? Because you’re going to see the greatest increase in all of your numbers and your overall size. Novice linear progression is an amazing component of weight training. So if you’re new to the gym, don’t let that fact keep you down.

The reality is that you’re in an amazing position to make significant transformations. The progression of volume load and overall muscle adaptation means that eventually these gains are going to slow down. So relish in them while you can because they won’t be around forever.

The brainchild of Mark Rippetoe’s experiences as a competitive powerlifter, Starting Strength uses basic movement patterns to work the body in a coordinated approach. Increased load makes the entire body stronger over the course of time.

This program is best suited for novice lifters to develop the strength they need to progress to more complex lifts. It can serve as the foundation for future training and to increase sports performance. For those who are new to lifting weights, Starting Strength gives you plenty of slow progression options to begin seeing real gains.

No matter the long-term goal, Starting Strength can help. That’s because the basis of Starting Strength is simplicity – the training modality is easy to follow and it includes just 5 barbell exercises. This is a great program for those who are building a home gym and want to work out in the comfort of their own spaces.

Starting Strength incorporates the five main barbell lifts:

  • Squat
  • Deadlift
  • Press
  • Bench press
  • Power clean/Power snatch

The program is broken into two workout days, Day A and Day B.

Train three days a week on non-consecutive days.

Each session is a total body workout.

The goal is to add weight each time you lift to take advantage of newbie gains.
Most lifters can add 4.5 kg to a squat the first few times its performed along with 10 kg to deadlifts. After that, lifts generally improve in 2.2 kg increments.

Phase 1

Usually lasts 1-3 weeks

Day A Day B
Squat 5 x 3
Press/Bench Press 5 x 3 Press/Bench Press 5 x 3
Deadlift 5 x 1 Deadlift 5 x 1

This doesn’t include any warmup sets.

In Phase 1, workouts A and B are the same, except for the press and bench press. If you begin the program on a Monday and press, on Wednesday you’ll bend and so on. By the end of Phase 1, you should easily have put on 18-22 kg on all of your lifts.

Phase 2

This incorporates a new lift – the power clean. You’ve increased strength enough on your deadlift that pulling that weight three times a week isn’t ideal. So now, you’ll do cleans in place of your second deadlift session. This will ultimately help your deadlift numbers go up, since the explosiveness of the pull on a clean mimics the motion of a deadlift. As long as you’re progressing on Phase 2, you can push this for as long as you like. Once you start to stall it’s time to move on to Phase 3.

Phase 3

You’re now a whole lot stronger than you were when you started. Phase 3 changes deadlift and clean frequency on alternate days. Phase 3 is generally referred to as the “Advanced Novice” stage and it means that Starting Strength has done exactly what it was programmed to do. It sets you on the road to weight training and soon you’ll be ready to move on to an intermediate program.

One of the most amazing benefits of the Starting Strength program is its robust online presence and detailed training tools. Because it’s directed toward new(er) lifters, there are plenty of resources available to offer insight and coaching. There’s also an app that helps you keep track of your numbers over time, which is essential for real progress. Starting Strength also offers virtual coaching for novice lifters who feel like they need an added set of eyes.

Things to keep in mind

As a novice lifter, you might think that just walking into the gym and getting started is the way to go. The reality is that you need a dedicated set of warmup lifts to best prepare and prime your muscles for the work they’re about to do. Warm up sets here are crucial to ensure you perform at your top level.

If you feel like you’ve stalled, the reason could be because you’ve advanced too quickly. If you can’t make the prescribed number of sets and reps for a particular exercise, try again the next time it comes up. If you still can’t make it, deload by 8-10% and try again. If you staff after a deload, it’s likely you’re finished with your linear progression for that specific exercise and it’s time to start thinking about moving away from Starting Strength.

Recovery is crucial to all lifting programs, but especially if you’re new to the barbell. Being short on sleep over the long term is going to impede your progress. So with an improper diet.

You need plenty of protein, and a few choice supplements are a good idea too.

StrongLifts 5×5

This is probably the easiest to follow program that’s ever been created. StrongLifts 5×5 is a strength program that only has two workouts – Workout A and Workout B.

Workout A includes squat, bench, and barbell rows. Workout B has squat, overhead press, and deadlift. It’s as simple as that. No crazy high-volume of accessory work, nothing too overly complex like a clean that you have to master. Just basic lifting at its core.

With SL, you lift three times a week, but never on back to back days and you alternate A and B each time. A recovery day with SL is critical to help your muscles recover. The creators strongly advise against ever doing a double in one day. Not only is squatting twice just too much on your joints, but you’re not going to perform well on your second session.

You can push SL 5×5 for as long as you’re seeing gains so long as you alternate between workouts A and B. SL is great if you haven’t been in the gym in a while, or if you’re brand new to barbell work. The key here is to start out light and maintain proper form.

Try for 50% of your 1RM, if you know that number and work from there. The point of SL 5×5 is that you work slowly and methodically to build confidence, muscle memory, and proper technique. You might be able to get away with benching without scapular retraction to start, but once you have some serious weight on the bar, that’s just not going to happen.

To increase your weights safety, it’s recommended that you add 2.5 kg on each exercise with the exception of the deadlift set. For deadlifts, you can add 5 kg each iteration.

Each time you lift, you do each exercise 5×5. So, your first week pushing the programme would look like this:

Day 1 Day 2 Day 3
Squat 5×5 Squat 5×5 Squat 5×5
Bench 5×5 Overhead press 5×5 Bench 5×5
Barbell Row 5×5 Deadlift 1×5 Barbell Row 5×5

You’ll notice that deadlift is just 1 set of 5. That’s because you’re squatting three times a week. You might be able to deadlift 5×5 at the start of the program, but the goal here is to increase your weights with each session. So for most people, deadlifts after squats gets to be too much when the weights get heavier.

One of the most amazing things about SL is that there’s a free app that calculates your first 12 weeks of training. This not only takes all the guess work out, but it’s like having a coach right there on your phone. Progress graphs are also included, which help you get a visual for what you’re doing in the gym – super useful if you’re not seeing aesthetic gains right away.

Conclusion

Before you can begin to select a programme that’s appropriate to your needs, you have to be clear on your goals and you need to have an honest conversation with yourself about where you are in your fitness path. All three of these programmes have robust online communities to help you connect with fellow lifters.

Each of these proves that a lifting program doesn’t need to be overly complex or involve a lot of fancy equipment. Simple exercises and dedicated commitment lead to tangible results.

If you’ve never touched a barbell in your life, then don’t disillusion yourself and try Wendler’s 5/3/1. But if you’ve been lifting for a while and are ready to try something new, the StrongLifts 5×5 takes a lot of the fuss out of programming.

Wendler’s modality is probably best for lifters who are trying to gain strength and have been at it for a while. No matter which programme you select, know that you’re going to get out of it what you put into it.

Lifting is as much about the actual movements as it is about showing up for yourself, challenging yourself, and becoming better than you were yesterday.

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