Home > Uncategorized > How to get big (and strong) fast with StrongLifts (SL5x5)

How to get big (and strong) fast with StrongLifts (SL5x5)

Be warned: this is a research post. That is, I haven’t done it yet. In fact, I’m just about to start this program. Then again, the experiences of hundreds of thousands of people ought to mean much more than my personal experience anyway. My friend recommended StrongLifts (and he himself became substantially stronger within a few months).

After reading and skimming (and skipping some of) the StrongLifts ebook, I was disappointed. Why? Because the essential what-to-do’s and principles can be stated simply. That’s my goal in this post. On the other hand, I am now very excited about weight-lifting. One important note: I also use some knowledge from Tim Ferriss/4HB and from r/fitness (a sub-Reddit). What I describe is the beginner’s program, or SL 5×5.

What to know first

  • It’s meant to be done for about 12 weeks (before tackling a more advanced program).
  • Something I tell myself: like most self-improvement plans, it does take time to see gains, even for the best of programs. You have to really want it to persist.
  • It is very simple. There are just five exercises total, three per workout, and two alternating workouts.
  • Those five exercises are squat (most important), deadlift (second most), barbell row, bench press, and overhead press.
  • You start out with extremely light lifts: The #1 mistake is starting too heavy.
  • …   but — and this is key — you will be able to add more weight, almost every single workout, for a very long time, quickly growing stronger than other gym-goers.
  • You will be tempted to add more, whether weight or number of exercises or frequency of workout, but you shouldn’t do that. Just trust the system for 12 weeks.
  • 5/5 means 5 sets of 5 reps each, which applies to all but the deadlift.
  • If lifting a weight feels wrong, don’t lift it.

To-do before starting

Check that your gym has both (a) Olympic barbells and (b) a power rack. Most gyms do.

Have a plan to keep up your physical energy, by (a) sleeping 7-8 hours a night, (b) drinking 48 oz + a day (you’ll be much friendlier to the idea once you start working out, trust me), and (c) eating a lot more (~3000 calories/day recommended, for men).

If you’re completely new, as I was until a couple of weeks ago, take a day to learn the exercises before starting the program. Read articles, watch videos, practice them. Speaking of which…

How to do all the exercises correctly

squat  —  bench press  —  overhead press  —  barbell row  —  deadlift

Okay, now you’re ready for….

The actual program

Workout A:

  1. Squat (5×5)
  2. Bench Press (5×5)
  3. Barbell Row (5×5)

Workout B:

  1. Squat (5×5)
  2. Overhead Press (5×5)
  3. Deadlift (1×5)

Do not work out on two successive days. Thus, three times a week is ideal–e.g., Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Resting. Rest for 3 minutes between exercises, as per Ferriss’ (researched) suggestion. Since that seems too long to go between each set, I’m probably going to aim for half that, or about 90 seconds between sets on a given exercise.

Lifting. Ferriss recommends (as always, per experimentation) a consistent 5 seconds up, 5 seconds down cadence. Mehdi claims that you can lift up as fast as you like, just lift down in a more controlled manner. Everyone seems to agree it’s important to lift in a controlled manner, however.

Total time per workout. Thus, rest times for a whole Workout A would be about 24 minutes, so the full workout, including warm-up and cool-down (about 3 mins each) can be done in about 40 minutes. (Plus transportation, which is a 10 minute walk for me, making it an hour a day.)

Starting weights for each exercises (workout #1 weights)

  • squat, bench press, overhead press – 45
  • barbell rows – 65
  • deadlift – 95

Note that an Olympic barbell without weights is 45 lb. Ten pounds per side is needed on the barbell row to have it in an acceptable position (it starts on the floor), 25 lbs per side is needed on the deadlift for the same reason.

Adding weights

Add 5 lbs (2.5 per side) on each exercise every workout, except 10 per workout for deadlift. 

Since you won’t be able to do this every time, there are 3 rules to follow for when you aren’t doing perfectly well …

  1. Never decrease weight on an exercise within the same workout. If you’re struggling to get 5 reps on later sets (like set 4 or 5), just do as many full reps as you can. Record what you did do (e.g. 5/5/5/4/2).
  2. If you fail to get 5sets/5 reps or 5/5/5/5/5 once, do not add weight next workout.
  3. If you fail to get 5/5 three times in a row, decrease your lift weight for that exercise by 10% on the next workout and then proceed as usual. (Supposedly, this is the most powerful strategy for breaking through plateaus.)

Warming up (not much here)

He (Mehdi, the author) mentions warmups only for the squat and deadlift for some reason (or I just missed the others).

— For squat. 2×5 at 1/3 of your full lift weight –> then 1×3 at 2/3

— For deadlift. 1×5 at 1/2 of your full lift weight –> then 1×5 at 3/4

More important things to know

There are two very good reasons for starting out light:

  1. To keep up motivation (after all, you’ll be adding weight each time!) It is crucial to consistently ‘show up’ when forming a habit. Another way of putting that (in behavior-modification terms) is it’s crucial to have consistent positive reinforcement.
  2. To have plenty of practice getting the form of each exercise right, which is crucial for both building strength and avoiding injury in the long run.

Do not use a “Smith machine” for lifting. It is very important that you lift “naturally”, the reason being that you need to develop balance muscles at the same time you develop strength muscles. It can (apparently) be dangerous to lift a ton in the gym yet be unable to lift very much overhead and walk around with it (which requires balance) outside the gym.

Eat post-workout. Definitely within 1-2 hours. Preferably high-protein.

Focusing on lifting strong is the best path to getting big. It is a waste of time to try ‘targeting’ muscles, and you’ll get strong fast with just these few exercises. You will also soon be able to run three miles without effort, even without training for running.

Squats and deadlift are best because (a) they work several muscles, (b) allow the heaviest lifting, and (c) require the use of your balance muscles. Squats are the #1 most important exercise in SL 5×5 which is why they’re the only one done every single workout.

From r/fitness: if you’re struggling to gain weight, try GOMAD: drink a gallon of milk a day (milk – at least, if you drink a gallon! – has tons of protein and fat, which is also needed). GOMAD is used (done?) by many top coaches, and is recommended by Ferriss too. Start at 1/4 (a quart a day) and move slowly up. This is only if you’re serious about lifting and have been trying for awhile with little improvement.

Cheat sheet: the 4 lines I put on a 3″x5″ card

  1. M: SL 5×5  T: Run/yoga  W: SL 5×5  R: Run/yoga  F: SL 5×5  Sa: Run->HIIT  Su: read NYT
  2. MWF. A: Squat – Bench Press – Barbell Row    B: Squat – Overhead Press – Deadlift
  3. + 5 lbs vs. last time (10 for deadlift).   3 minute breaks.   Cut 10% if fail to reach 5/5 3x in a row.
  4. TRS. Warm up. Run very, very fast 60 mins – moderate 2-3 mins – do this 8 times. Cool down.

–>Notes: MWF = Monday, Wednesday, Friday. TRS = Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Su = Sunday, NYT = NY Times.

HIIT = high-intensity interval training. My understanding of it is that (for HIIT running), you run very, very fast for about 60 seconds, then at a more moderate pace for 2-3 minutes, and do this several times. I thought it would be easy. I WAS WRONG. IT IS NOT EASY! Running in this manner is supposed to bring several times the cardiovascular benefit of just running (at more or less the same pace) for the same amount of time.
I’m frankly not sure what to do Tuesday and Thursday. I think I’ll practice yoga, once I take my first 2-3 lessons (in the next 2 weeks or so). Maybe I’ll practice dance moves I learn in an academic fulfills-arts-requirement class I’m enrolled in. Maybe I’ll just run. We’ll see. The important thing is that I show up every day.

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