Illustration of a man doing a low-bar barbell back squat.

One of the most common questions we get is whether StrongLifts 5×5 is good for building muscle. More often than not, the question is coming from a skinny guy who’s new to lifting weights and is just getting started with barbell training. Is StrongLifts a good workout routine for a beginner who’s trying to get bigger and stronger?

The other people asking us about StrongLifts are often intermediate lifters who are seeing impressive increases in their squat strength, but they’re concerned that their bench press is lagging behind, and they’re worried that their upper bodies aren’t growing at the same pace as their hips and thighs. Why is that?

Finally, StrongLifts claims that doing low-rep sets on certain compound lifts builds bigger, denser, stronger muscles than all other training methods. Is there any truth to that? Is StrongLifts the best way to build muscles that are big and strong and hard?

Now, just to be perfectly upfront: this article is pedantic. If you get stronger at the big barbell lifts, eat enough protein to build muscle, and eat enough calories to gain weight, you will indeed grow bigger and stronger. The main principles that lay the foundation of StrongLifts are good ones. But how good are those 5×5 workouts for building muscle?

Illustration showing a skinny-fat man gaining muscle and losing belly fat.

What is StrongLifts 5×5?

StrongLifts 5×5 is a barbell-based workout routine designed by a man known as Mehdi. The 5×5 part refers to doing 5 sets of 5 repetitions for each exercise. The idea is to lift heavy weights while also getting in enough reps to gain some muscle size. The StrongLifts part refers to the five big barbell lifts that the program emphasizes:

StrongLifts is often compared to Starting Strength, but it appears to be loosely adapted from Bill Starr’s classic strength training program for football players. The difference is that it’s been simplified for a more general audience:

  • There are no assistance or accessory lifts, resulting in less overall muscle growth, but meaning there are fewer lifts to learn.
  • There are no sets of 10 reps, everything is 5×5, arguably resulting less muscle growth as well as versatility, but again, keeping the workout simpler to understand.
  • There are no Olympic lifts, and that’s probably a good thing. Olympic lifts are great for developing explosive power and athleticism, but rather awful for stimulating muscle growth.
  • There are no ramping sets. The original program used a series of progressively heavy warm-up sets followed by a heavy set of 5 reps. StrongLifts uses the same weight for every set, making the workouts quite taxing.

So what we get is a much simpler workout program that’s quite a bit harder to recover from and not quite as good for developing general athleticism. But it’s also much easier to learn. Not necessarily easier to do, but easier to learn. The workouts are simple but gruelling.

The StrongLifts 5×5 Workouts

Workout One

The first workout emphasizes the squat but also includes the bench press and the from-the-floor “Pendlay” barbell row. All three lifts are done for five sets of five repetitions.

  • Squat: 5 sets of 5 repetitions (5×5)
  • Bench Press: 5×5
  • Barbell Row: 5×5

Workout Two

The second workout emphasizes the squat but also includes the overhead press and the conventional deadlift. The deadlift is only done for a single set, given how fatiguing heavy deadlifts can be, especially when done as Mehdi recommends, like a powerlifter—lower the barbell very quickly, reset between each rep.

  • Squat: 5×5
  • Overhead Press: 5×5
  • Deadlift: 1×5 (1 set of 5 repetitions)
Illustration of a man doing a barbell overhead press

How to Do the Workout Program

Each StrongLifts workout is made up of three exercises, and each exercise is done for five sets of five repetitions. There are two workouts, but we train three times per week, like so:

Week One

  • Monday: Workout A
  • Tuesday: Rest
  • Wednesday: Workout B
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: Workout A
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Rest

Week Two

  • Monday: Workout B
  • Tuesday: Rest
  • Wednesday: Workout A
  • Thursday: Rest
  • Friday: Workout B
  • Saturday: Rest
  • Sunday: Rest

There are a few instructions that go along with the workout program:

  • Before doing each lift, we’re advised to do several warmup sets. For example, if we’re deadlifting 315 pounds for 5 reps, then we do a warm-up set with 135 pounds for 3 reps, then 225 pounds for 3 reps, then 275 pounds for 3 reps, and then five sets of five reps with 315 pounds.
  • We rest for 2–5 minutes between sets, as needed. As a general rule, the stronger a person is, the longer it will take them to recover their breath and strength between sets. Someone lifting 225 pounds might need two minutes, whereas someone lifting 405 pounds might need five minutes.
  • We add five pounds to each lift every workout. That means that we might be leaving a few reps in reserve on the first set, but the final set is supposed to be at or near failure. Since we’re benching 1–2 times per week, that means adding 5–10 pounds to our bench press every week. And since we’re squatting three times per week, that means adding fifteen pounds to our squat every week.
  • If we can’t progress, we deload. And then work our way back up, hopefully making some progress next time.

Overall, this makes for a pretty simple workout routine to follow, and that’s great. We go to the gym three days per week, alternating between two different workouts. And every workout, we attempt to add another five pounds to the three lifts we’re doing. That’s where this program shines. It’s simple to understand.

Is StrongLifts Good for Gaining Muscle Size?

StrongLifts isn’t just for building muscle. It’s also for gaining maximal (1-rep max) strength. And we’ll talk a bit about gaining strength. But we’re coming at this from the perspective of someone whose main goal is to build muscle. Ideally, that muscle would look great, make us damn strong, and improve our general health, but to be clear, we’re coming at this from the perspective of gaining muscle mass.

Illustration of a skinny-fat guy building muscle and losing fat.

A Focus on Progressive Overload

Perhaps the very best thing about StrongLifts 5×5 is that it encourages people to outlift themselves every workout. Every workout, people are challenged to add 2.5–5 pounds to the bar (linear progression), fighting to get the same number of reps as last time. This forces them to push themselves harder and to find their limits. And, ideally—if muscle is actually being built—it gradually makes them stronger over time, just like the man who lifted a calf as it gradually grew into a bull:

Illustration of Milo of Croton carrying a calf as it grows into a bull, demonstrating the principle of progressive overload.

The importance of progressive overload cannot be overstated. One of the biggest problems people run into when working out is that they stop their sets too far away from failure. They fail to challenge themselves enough to stimulate much, if any, muscle growth. That’s where linear progression shines. By adding weight to the barbell every workout, people are forced to push themselves harder each workout.

There are other ways of approach progressive overload, and linear progression only works for so long, but challenging people to always beat their previous performance is a great way to make sure that people are lifting hard enough to build muscle.

Weight Gain Advice for Skinny Guys

Mehdi is a formerly skinny guy, and StrongLifts 5×5 includes a couple of article for skinny guys who are looking to build muscle, get bigger, and gain weight. Part of that advice is to follow the workouts, but he also includes some simple diet advice, and it’s pretty solid.

He recommends eating enough protein to build muscle, and he gives 0.8 grams of protein per pound bodyweight as the minimum target. That’s great. Anywhere from 0.8–1 grams of protein per pound bodyweight is perfect as a minimum protein intake while trying to bulk up. There’s nothing wrong with eating more protein than that, but there’s also little benefit to it. It won’t help us build muscle any faster or more leanly.

Illustration of a man eating a big bulking meal.

He also recommends eating enough calories to gain a bit of weight every week, but not so much that we wind up getting fat. That’s good advice, too. Even though skinny beginners are often able to make “newbie gains,” building muscle quite fast, it still makes sense for most of us to limit our rate of weight gain to 0.5–1 pounds per week. That way our weight gain goes to our biceps instead of our bellies.

Now let’s talk about the workout program.

Do 5×5 Workouts Build Muscle?

When we lift 1–5 reps per set, we tend to stimulate less muscle growth per set (systematic review), but we also make some beneficial neural adaptations that help us improve our 1-rep max. We do stimulate some muscle growth, but the main benefit is that we’re able to improve our 1-rep max relative to our size. For powerlifters, then, it’s essential to spend a lot of time lifting in lower rep ranges. For example, check out the results of this study:

  • The strength group did 2–4 reps per set. They saw a 30% increase in their squat 1-rep max, but their quad size only increased by 4%.
  • Hypertrophy group did 8–12 reps per set. They only saw a 17% increase in their squat 1-rep max,  but their quad size increased by 10%—more than twice as much.
Illustration showing a powerlifter doing a low-bar back squat.

Okay, so, the systematic review of 14 studies found that lifting in a moderate rep range stimulates about twice as much growth per set as lifting in a lower rep range, which was confirmed with the individual study we used as an example. Those differences disappear, though, when we match volume (total poundage lifted). Let’s dive deeper into that.

These findings indicate that heavy load training is superior for maximal strength goals while moderate load training is more suited to hypertrophy-related goals when an equal number of sets are performed between conditions.

Brad Schoenfeld, PhD

We covered a study by Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, in our strength training article that does a good job of demonstrating the downside of lifting in lower rep ranges for muscle growth:

  • The strength training group did 7 sets of 3 repetitions. It took them 70 minutes to finish their workouts, and by the end of the study, they were complaining of sore joints and overall fatigue. Two of the participants dropped out of the study due to injuries.
  • The hypertrophy training group did 3 sets of 10 repetitions. It took them 17 minutes to finish their workouts, they were eager to do more lifting, they finished the study feeling fresh, and they gained the same amount of muscle size.

So what we’re seeing is that it’s 4x quicker and far less fatiguing to lift in moderate rep ranges, at least when comparing sets of 3 against sets of 10. If we compared sets of 5 against sets of 10, the differences would likely be a bit smaller. My guess is that it would take 3–4 sets of 10 reps to match the muscle stimulation from doing 5 sets of 5 reps.

Still, by bumping the rep ranges higher, we could trim off a couple of sets, freeing up some time and energy for adding in the lifts that StrongLifts is missing: chin-ups, biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises, crunches, and maybe even some neck training. Not only would you build more muscle, you’d also look better, and more of your muscles would be strong. (You’d have a stronger back, stronger arms, a stronger core, a stronger neck, and so on.)

Overall, the 5×5 set and rep scheme is okay for stimulating muscle growth, but there are easier ways to stimulate even more muscle growth.

What’s the Difference Between Muscle Size & Strength?

What is Strength Training for?

After talking about “building muscle” vs “gaining strength,” there are a few things to unpack. First, different people define strength differently. Think of it this way, who is stronger? The guy who can bench 315 pounds for one rep but only 200 pounds for 12 reps, or the guy who can only bench 300 pounds for one rep but 225 pounds for 12 reps? The first guy has more maximal strength, the second guy has better muscular endurance, both have great general strength, and the differences are fairly small anyway. Both guys have big muscles, both guys are strong.

Illustration of a man doing the barbell bench press.

When we’re talking about “strength training,” we aren’t talking about training to be strong in a general sense, we’re talking about developing maximal strength—how much someone can lift for a single all-out repetition. For developing general strength, the rep range we use doesn’t matter very much. The more important thing is choosing lifts with good carryover to the tasks we need to do. StrongLifts includes five good lifts, but there are more: push-ups, chin-ups, barbell curls, loaded carries, and so on.

What is Hypertrophy Training For?

Second, when talking about hypertrophy, there’s often this assumption that it’s dysfunction growth. To quote Mehdi, “bodybuilding routines typically just pump and bloat your muscles with water” whereas strength training is “more athletic.” But that’s total nonsense. It’s not like the purpose of bigger muscles is to look good. Every adaptation has a purpose.

Illustration of a man with burning biceps flexing.

The reason hypertrophy yields bigger muscles is because in addition to accruing more myofibrils, it also causes more fuel (glycogen) to be stored inside the muscle fibres (in the sarcoplasm), allowing them to do more work, lift more total weight before needing to rest (study). Having more glycogen in our muscles is great. Not only does it make our muscles look fuller, it also improves rates of muscle growth (studystudy, study), glucose control, and our general health.

Do Bodybuilders Have Puffy Muscles?

Fourth, Mehdi says that strength training builds “thick, heavy, dense muscles” instead of the “puffy” muscles people get from bodybuilding. There’s no reason to think that muscle built from strength training would look any different from muscle built with hypertrophy training.

Skinny Guys Should Gain Muscle Size Before Strength

Finally, the whole point of strength training is to take big muscles and make them better at lifting in lower rep ranges. If you’re skinny, it makes much more sense to spend a bit of time making your muscles big, and then focus on getting stronger for your size. And, of course, if you don’t care about your powerlifting total, then you don’t ever need to specialize in lifting 1-rep maxes, you can just focus on getting stronger in moderate rep ranges instead.

And so, for people who want to get bigger, stronger, healthier, and better looking, it’s often best to spend some time lifting in moderate rep ranges. When we bump the rep range higher, doing 8–12 reps per set, we get quite a bit more muscle growth, less wear and tear on our joints, greater cardiovascular improvements, and just as much general strength. The only downside is that our strength isn’t specialized for lifting 1-rep maxes. However, the same is true for doing 5-rep sets. To develop our maximal strength, we’d want to include some maximal lifts.

How to Become Big & Strong

To build muscle mass while also growing strong, the most important thing is making sure that we’re training the relevant muscles. For example, the leg press is great for strengthening the lower body, but it doesn’t train the lower back, and so when we go to lift something, we may find that we don’t have the lower-back strength to lift it. That’s why some lifts are better for developing general strength than others.

Illustration of a man doing neck curls with a weight plate.

The rep range we use doesn’t matter as much, and so we usually recommend using a variety of rep ranges depending on what works best for a given lift. Deadlifts? Low reps so our cardiovascular systems don’t limit us. Biceps curls? Moderate reps to gain more muscle size with less joint stress. Neck curls? High reps to make them safer.

Are Full-Body Workouts Good for Building Muscle?

StrongLifts 5×5 has three full-body workouts per week, and that’s a great way for beginners to train. In fact, I’d argue that full-body workouts are the best way for beginners to train. It spreads the stress on any given muscle out over the week, limiting the muscle damage we cause with each workout, and keeping our muscles growing steadily all week long.

For example, if we look at a study comparing 3-day full-body workout routines against push/pull/legs splits, we see that the full-body workouts stimulate quite a bit more muscle growth (study). This was then confirmed with a meta-analysis that evaluated all of the relevant research:

Graph showing that training a muscle 2–3 times per week stimulates more muscle growth than training a muscle once per week.

So what we’re seeing is that by training every muscle every workout, we’re able to stimulate around 48% more muscle growth than if we trained just one muscle group per workout.

Now, there are a number of different ways of organizing our workout routines so that we train each muscle at least twice per week. Some people might prefer going to the gym 6 days per week and only training a third of their muscles each workout. That’s perfectly fine. But for beginners, three full-body workouts per week, each lasting only about an hour, is usually enough to maximize muscle growth. StrongLifts 5×5 is great for that.

Overall, doing three full-body workouts per week is a great way for a beginner to build muscle. This is one of the betters aspects of StrongLifts 5×5.

Is There Too Much Low-Bar Squatting?

Every StrongLifts 5×5 workout starts with 5 sets of squats. Squats are a great lift for building muscle in your quads and glutes, which are the two biggest muscles in your body. By emphasizing those muscles, you can indeed build quite a lot of overall muscle mass. Plus, because those muscles are so big, the squat is quite taxing on our cardiovascular system, making it perhaps the healthiest of all exercises. It’s just that when most men say they want to gain twenty pounds of muscle, they aren’t imagining that fifteen of those pounds will wind up in their hips and thighs.

Diagram showing the muscles worked by the barbell front squat.
Muscles worked by the squat.

Squats are the only lift that are done every workout (15 sets per week), meaning that we do them twice as often as the bench press, barbell row, and overhead press (7.5 sets per week), and ten times as often as the deadlift (1.5 sets per week). And, because we’re doing them at the beginning of our workouts, we’re investing our best energy into them. The order of our lifts doesn’t have a huge impact on muscle growth, but it does affect strength gains, meaning that we’ll gain more strength on the squat than on our other lifts simply by doing them first (study).

Illustration showing the results from the stronglifts 5x5 program, with the man building bigger legs and a smaller upper body.

Should we be giving squats such a heavy emphasis? That depends. Do you want to be building muscle twice as fast in your legs as in your chest and back? Are you happy gaining strength on the squat twice as fast as you do on the bench press? That depends on your goals.

Side view illustration of a man doing a Starting Strength low-bar barbell back squat.
The low-bar back squat.

The next thing to consider is the type of squat in the StrongLifts program: the low-bar back squat. This is a variation of the squat favoured by powerlifters because it makes the lift easier on their backs, engages more of their hips, and cuts the range of motion short, allowing them to lift more weight.

Illustration of a man doing a front squat

Outside of powerlifting, though, most intermediate lifters would get more benefit from the high-bar or front squat, both of which allow for a deeper range of motion, are easier on the hip and shoulder joints, and are better for strengthening the back. For example, look at how much deeper we can go on the front squat before crashing our pelvis into our femurs:

A diagram of the range of motion (depth) differences between the front squat and the back squat.

The front squat, especially, is great for developing general strength, as it does such a great job of bulking up the upper back. If we take a look at the moment arms at the sticking point of the lift (with thighs just above parallel), we see that the back squat is all hip, whereas the front squat spreads the load between the upper back, hips, and quads:

Diagram of the moment arms in the front squat and back squat.

Now, how much does this matter? Maybe not that much. The low-bar squat is a great lift for our quads, hips, and glutes, and that’s why most people squat. I’d argue that the front squat is a better lift for developing general strength, is easier on our joints, is safer, and yields more balanced muscle growth, but it won’t make or break a muscle-building program.

The bigger issue, I think, is that the low-bar squat is an advanced powerlifting lift. Most beginners would be better off with a goblet squat, which is much easier to learn, requires much less coordination, and does a great job of building full-body brute strength right from the very first workout:

Illustration of a man doing a dumbbell goblet squat.

If you’re a powerlifter whose goal is to build bigger hips and thighs as quickly as possible, starting every workout with 5 sets of low-bar squats is a great way to do it. But if you’re trying to gain overall muscle size and strength, it’s better to train your other lifts and muscles with equal fervour. If you aren’t a powerlifter, you may prefer the high-bar or front squat. And if you’re a beginner, the goblet squat is probably best.

Too Little Upper-Body Emphasis

Because so much of our time is spent low-bar squatting, it leaves fairly little room in the program for upper-body work. We only do the bench press, overhead press, and barbell row half as often as the squat, and only after we’ve already spent our best energy squatting. And there are no exercises for the biceps, nothing for the long head of the triceps, nothing for the abs or the neck, and the list goes on. We’re neglecting quite a lot of our upper-body musculature, and even for the muscles we do train, we don’t train them as hard or as often as our legs.

Illustration of a man doing a stronglifts barbell row, from the floor.
The StrongLifts barbell row (aka the Pendlay row).

Even the variation of the barbell row in StrongLifts 5×5, done with an explosive tempo from the floor, is ported over from powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting. Rowing the barbell from the floor creates a huge moment arm for the hips and lower back, meaning that your glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors will often be challenged more than your upper-back muscles. It’s a lift designed to improve hip and lower back strength, not to build a bigger upper back.

Illustration of a man doing a barbell row for muscle size.
The muscle-building barbell row.

The variation of the barbell row that bodybuilders will typically use to build bigger lats, traps, rhomboids, and rear delts is done from a hip hinge position, with the barbell in mid air. The barbell is still lifted explosively, but then it’s lowered down slowly and under control, stimulating extra muscle growth on the way down. Perhaps more importantly, the torso tends to be a little bit more upright, improving the leverage for your hips and lower back, and thus allowing you to better challenge your upper-back muscles.

When using the barbell row to gain muscle size, the rep range plays a role, too. When lifting in lower rep ranges (1–8 reps), it’s common for the hips and lower back to limit our performance, whereas when lifting in higher rep ranges (10–20 reps), we’re better able to challenge our upper backs. That’s why you’ll see bodybuilders doing 15-rep sets of barbell rows—because they’re doing them to build bigger backs rather than stronger hips. Now, to be fair, some people have torsos that are naturally short and sturdy, such as Mehdi. Other people have torsos that are longer and thus harder to stabilize, such as myself. If you’re reading this and thinking I’m crazy because when you do 5-rep sets of Pendlay rows, you feel them in your upper back, then great. But that’s not the case for most people.

Illustration of a man doing a chin-up.

The other reason that StrongLifts 5×5 isn’t very good at building the upper body is because it doesn’t include any vertical pulling, such as chin-ups or lat pulldowns. Barbell rows are by no means a bad lift, but the chin-up is better for building most of the muscles in our arms and upper backs. Now, not every beginner will be able to do chin-ups right from their first workout, but it’s often worth working towards by including lowered chin-ups, lat pulldowns, and/or biceps curls.

StrongLifts doesn’t have a great selection of upper-body lifts. Low-bar squats are hip-dominant, as are conventional deadlifts, as are barbell rows. The bench press and overhead press are included, but with less than half the emphasis of the squat. There are no chin-ups for the upper back, no lifts for the arms, nothing for the neck, and so on. Still, it’s a decent program for gaining overall muscle size. Just not for gaining size in your upper body.

StrongLifts Uses Advanced Lifts

The big compound lifts are great for building muscle. The barbell squat is the best lift for building bigger quads, the deadlift is the best lift for building a bigger posterior chain, the bench press is the best lift for building a bigger chest, and the overhead press is a great lift for building bigger shoulders. The Pendlay barbell row is, eh, more of a powerlifting/weightlifting thing, but even so, it’s not a bad lift. That means that of the five lifts in the StrongLifts 5×5 program, four of them are great for building muscle. That’s great.

The problem is, these are all advanced barbell lifts, and StrongLifts is mainly used by beginners. What happens is that when new lifters are given a bunch of advanced lifts, we see them struggling to lift with good technique, struggling to squat and bench press to full depth, and we see them being limited by their lower back and grip strength. This makes the workouts more frustrating, it increases the risk of injury, and it throws a wrench into the muscle-building process.

Illustration of a beginner doing a conventional deadlift with a rounded back.
The conventional deadlift.

With advanced barbell lifts like the low-bar squat, barbell row, conventional deadlift, and overhead press, beginners will need to spend several weeks practicing the movements before being able to safely load them heavy enough to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth.

Illustration of a beginner doing a Romanian deadlift.
The Romanian deadlift.

It’s much better to choose simpler variations of the big barbell lifts, such as choosing the Romanian deadlift instead of the conventional deadlift, the goblet squat instead of the low-bar squat, and maybe even push-ups instead of the bench press, depending on the person. These beginner lifts can all be done with just a barbell, and they’re all compound lifts, it’s just that they’re a bit less technical, demanding less coordination, more brute strength. That allows new lifters to learn the lifts more easily, push themselves harder, reduce their risk of injury, and build muscle faster.

Overall, it doesn’t make much sense to start a beginner off with the most advanced barbell lifts. It’s not that the lifts are bad. In fact, they’re quite good. It’s just that they’re advanced lifts that are designed for powerlifting, not for a beginner who’s trying to bulk up.

There Are No Isolation Lifts

StrongLifts doesn’t include isolation lifts because, as Mehdi says, “you can’t lift heavy enough to trigger muscle growth.” But that’s not true. If an isolation lift is brought close to muscular failure, it will stimulate muscle growth in the relevant muscles. For example, if you take a set of biceps curls within a rep of failure, you will stimulate muscle growth in your biceps. The weight might not be that heavy overall, but it’s certainly heavy enough for your biceps.

  • Chin-ups > biceps curls
  • Dips > triceps kickbacks

Is that true? If you want bigger biceps, you should do chin-ups instead of curls? Chin-ups are great for our biceps, definitely, but they can’t compare with curls. Why? Because biceps are a biarticular muscle. They cross both the elbow and the shoulder joint, flexing both the shoulder and the elbow. If you take a look, you can see that the biceps pull the forearm to the shoulder, whereas the brachialis is a pure elbow flexor:

Illustration showing the anatomy of the biceps and brachialis muscles.

What does the chin-up do? It extends the shoulder and flexes the elbow. If your biceps were to fully engage during chin-ups, they would fight against your lats! And so they don’t fully engage. That’s where biceps curls come in. We can lock our elbow in place (or let it drift forward) as we curl the weight up, allowing our biceps to fully engage.

Illustration of a man doing dumbbell biceps curls.

Now, is the biceps curl less functional? No. It works the biceps the way the biceps are meant to be worked, and it engages our upper back and core muscles as stabilizers. The biceps curl works less overall muscle mass than the chin-up, but it’s still a valuable exercise, and it’s the best exercise for building biceps size and strength. And because StrongLifts 5×5 doesn’t have chin-ups, biceps curls are even more essential.

Graph showing differences in pec and triceps growth when doing the bench press.

The same is true with your triceps. They’re another biarticular muscle. We can’t train the long head of the triceps properly with pressing movements, including dips, because the movement at the shoulder joint prevents the triceps from fully engaging (study). Better to include some skullcrushers, too.

Graph showing differences in chest and triceps growth when doing the bench press and triceps extensions.

Some muscles grow perfectly well with compound lifts. The chest is fully engaged with the bench press, the front delts are fully engaged with the overhead press. These are monoarticular muscles. There’s no interference from other joints. So you don’t need isolation lifts for those muscles, although they certainly don’t hurt, especially if you’re a beginner, as we’ll cover in a moment.

Illustration of a man doing skullcrushers to build bigger triceps.
The skullcrusher.

Now, does that mean that you should build your workout routine out of isolation lifts? No. Compound lifts stimulate more overall muscle growth. But if you also include isolation lifts, you can build muscle faster. Perhaps more importantly, you can build that extra muscle where you want it most. And that’s especially true for lifters who are new to barbell training.

Pushing Ourselves Hard Enough

The StrongLifts 5×5 workout program starts with an empty barbell, and then every week more weight is gradually added. This means that, unless you can only do 5–8 reps with the empty barbell, you probably won’t stimulate any muscle growth for at least a few weeks. The reasoning here is that it takes a while to learn advanced barbell lifts, and that’s true—it does.

The problem gets worse, too. Unless they’re naturally quite athletic, new lifters don’t start off with very good coordination, they have trouble fully contracting their muscles, and so they have a hard time stimulating muscle growth. They just aren’t able to push themselves hard enough to fully challenge their muscles. It’s not that they won’t grow at all—beginners grow fairly easily—it’s just that they could grow something like 40% faster if they only had a way to push themselves harder.

Graph showing that beginner lifters build more muscle if they take their sets to muscle failure.

That’s why you’ll see studies showing that beginners build muscle faster when they lift to muscle failure (studystudystudystudy), whereas with intermediate lifters, it’s the opposite—they build muscle faster when they stop their sets shy of failure (studystudystudystudystudy).

Graph showing that intermediate lifters build more muscle if they stop their sets shy of muscle failure.

Now, it’s not as simple as asking beginners to take their sets to failure. If you have beginners doing low-bar squats, conventional deadlifts, overhead presses, and barbell rows to failure, it not only ratchets the injury risk way up, but it also makes it harder to improve lifting technique. Plus, beginners are often limited by stabilizer muscle strength—their grips and lower backs, especially—and so even if they take their sets to failure, they still aren’t pushing their target muscles hard enough.

So one way to help beginners stimulate more muscle growth is to give them simpler lifts that allow them to more easily challenge their muscles. If you’re having trouble learning to do chin-ups, no problem—add in some biceps curls afterwards. Biceps curls are dead simple to learn, your stabilizer muscles won’t be a limiting factor, and they make it super easy to focus on blasting your biceps, allowing you to stimulate more biceps growth, forearm growth, and probably even a bit of extra upper back growth.

Illustration of a man doing dumbbell lateral raises.
The lateral raise.

Or, if you want to build broader shoulders, that might be hard to do with the overhead press, at least during your first few months of training. But if you add in some simple lateral raises, you’ll be able to stimulate your side delts without any issue whatsoever. Plus, you’ll get some extra growth in your rear delts, traps, and forearms.

For training new lifters, I personally like to keep them far from failure on compound lifts, with the goal of teaching good technique, but also choosing single-joint exercises that will let them go to failure safely, getting them a bit of a pump.

Greg Nuckols, Monthly Applications in Strength Sport (MASS)

StrongLifts 5×5 makes it hard for beginners to push themselves hard enough to stimulate much muscle growth. Not only are the compound lifts advanced and difficult to execute, but they’re also too light, and there are no isolation lifts to make up for that deficit. Instead of having beginners struggle with advanced barbell lifts, better to give them simpler compound lifts and combine them with isolation lifts. That way a beginner can build maximal amounts of muscle right from their very first workout.

Before and after photo showing the results from doing Bony to Beastly compared to StrongLifts 5x5.

Making it Better: Outlift 3×9

StrongLifts 5×5 is built on a solid foundation of compound barbell lifts, full-body workouts, and progressive overload. The overall volume is fine for a beginner, too, just with too much of it in the lower body. To make it better for helping a beginner build muscle, we only need to make a few changes:

  • Choose better beginner variations of the big compound lifts, such as swapping low-bar back squats for goblet squats, then progressing to front squats or high-bar squats.
  • Add in lifts for the muscles that aren’t being stimulated properly, including a compound pulling movement (such as a chin-up variation) and isolation lifts for our arms (such as biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises).
  • Raise the rep range from 5 reps up to 9–15 reps per set. This will allow us to lift more total weight each set, allowing us to get equal muscle growth with fewer sets, freeing up room for the extra lifts. That way we can do 5 exercises for 3 sets each instead of doing 3 exercises for 5 sets each.

Workout One

The first workout emphasizes the squat but also includes the bench press and the from-the-floor “Pendlay” barbell row. All three lifts are done for five sets of five repetitions.

  • Goblet squat: 3 sets of 9 repetitions
  • Bench press: 3×9 for bench press, max reps for push-ups
  • Barbell Row: 3×15
  • Lateral raise: 3×15
  • Neck curls:* 3×20

Workout Two

The second workout emphasizes the squat but also includes the overhead press and the conventional deadlift. The deadlift is only done for a single set, given how fatiguing heavy deadlifts can be, especially when done as Mehdi recommends, like a powerlifter—lower the barbell very quickly, reset between each rep.

  • Chin-up**: 3 sets of max reps (lowered if needed)
  • Push-up: 3 sets of max reps (raised if needed)
  • Romanian deadlift: 3 sets of 11 repetitions
  • Biceps curl: 3×11
  • Skullcrusher: 3×11

**Neck curls are great for building a thicker neck, but you can swap these isolation lifts out for anything you like. For example, planks are great for teaching beginners how to keep a neutral spine while lifting, and they’re a good way to build bigger abs and obliques. A lot of our female clients like hip thrusts. This is where you customize the program for your goals.

*Not everyone can do chin-ups right from their very first workout. One solution is to set up a stool under the chin-up bar, start from the top position, hold it for a couple of seconds, and then lower yourself slowly down until you’re at a dead hang. Start with 3–4 lowered reps and gradually add reps over time. The lowered chin-ups combined with the rows and biceps curls will help you develop the strength you need. Alternatively, if you’re training at a full gym, you can do lat pulldowns for 3 sets of 9 repetitions until you’re strong enough to do 3 chin-ups.

To make the workouts faster, you can superset the exercises together, doing a set of chin-ups, resting 60 seconds, doing a set of push-ups, resting another 60 seconds, doing your second set of chin-ups, and so on. That way you’re giving your individual muscles time to regain their strength while doing another lift in the meantime.

The final sets of each exercise can be taken to muscular failure when you feel confident in your technique, especially on isolation lifts. Avoid bringing your lower back to failure, but that shouldn’t be an issue with these lifts. Swap out any lifts that hurt your joints for reasonable alternatives. And add weight whenever you’re able to complete all of your reps in the final set.

Is this the perfect workout to help a beginner build muscle? Not quite. I’d prefer if it were periodized, and I might add a third workout to add a bit more variety to the full-body split. But it’s pretty solid, and its minimalist structure makes it easy to include in a short article.

Summary

StrongLifts 5×5 is a popular program for beginners who are trying to gain muscle size, and with good reason: the program is simple to understand, it focuses on compound barbell lifts, and it uses three full-body workouts per week. The problem is, it uses advanced powerlifting lifts in strength training rep ranges, which makes it a poor choice for beginners and a mediocre choice for building muscle.

Illustration of a skinny-fat guy building muscle and losing fat.

If there’s one area where StrongLifts excels, though, it’s in bulking up the hips and thighs. The low-bar squat is difficult to learn, but it’s a great lift for emphasizing the hips, and training it with five sets per workout, three times per week is a great way to increase your hip strength. Even the variation of barbell row used in StrongLifts seems to be chosen as a way to build greater hip strength at the expense of upper-body size. Depending on your goals, this may be an advantage or a disadvantage.

That’s what I think, anyway. What do you think?

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping nearly ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

How to build 20 to 30 pounds of muscle in 30 days. Even if you have failed before

9 Comments

  1. Gregory Berns on October 7, 2020 at 12:51 pm

    I think stronglifts is great for building strength, but the problem is your joints and muscles get really worn down and after about 3 or more months of doing it. At least at some point you hit a wall and start dropping in strength and muscle and then you don’t gain much at all.

    It’s better to do hypertrophy training with some strength training. It works best for muscle building as you pointed out, and the injuries obtained for those 5×5 reps are only going to slow your progression in muscle building in the long run, based on years of experience. And I think your article proves hypertrophy training with some strength training is the better way for overall healthy muscle in the long run, but I was surprised to see the comment about when those people that build muscle through 5×5 reps, it looks the same. I always thought if I lifted this way my muscles would be hard and dense, and smaller versus 3 sets of 10. That’s good. Now I can build hard dense muscles without the strain. Very interesting and informative article and thanks for the info. Again, I’ll show this research to my local personal trainer.

    • Shane Duquette on October 9, 2020 at 10:36 am

      Yeah, that’s a good point about the injuries and stress on the joints and connective tissues. That’s one of the big issues with repeating a bunch of heavy compound lifts over and over again. It’s much easier on the body to use a wider variety of exercises and rep ranges. Better for stimulating muscle growth, too.

      With that said, our bodies often warn us before we get injured. We often feel our joints getting beat up before we cause any real damage. So if the lifts feel good, they’re doing us good. And then if the lifts start feeling bad on our joints and tendons, probably time to adjust what we’re doing until it feels good again.

  2. kirubel on October 14, 2020 at 3:25 am

    Hi there, I’ve been reading your articles for long and they are great.

    I am a classic ectomorph and I have been working out. So far it has been 3 weeks, and I have gained 2 pounds!

    So my question is: is that good progress? And I’ve been thinking if I gained 1kg in 3 weeks, I might have gained 2 or 3kg if i wasn’t working out. So should I stop working out, gain at least 20 pounds, and then start working out again??

    (Sorry for my english.)

    • Shane Duquette on October 14, 2020 at 9:01 am

      Hey Kirubel, congrats on those 2 pounds! That’s sweet 😀

      Is 2 pounds in 3 weeks good progress? Yeah, absolutely. You’re gaining slightly less than a pound per week. That’s a great rate of weight gain. From here on out, just keep weighing yourself each week and adjusting your calorie intake as needed to keep your rate of weight gain about the same.

      Should you stop working out to gain weight more quickly? No, it’s better to work out while gaining weight. More specifically, it’s better to do hypertrophy training when gaining weight. That way more of the weight you gain will be muscle, less will be fat.

      You’re doing great 🙂

  3. kiru on October 14, 2020 at 9:37 am

    Ok, thanks man. I was working out with a bunch of mesomorphs and they were seeing a big change in their bodies. That’s why I wasn’t happy about mine.

    I want to hear your opinion on my workout program:

    TUE: squat, bench press, overhead press
    THU: dumbbell press, barbell row, bench
    SAT: deadlift, bench press, lat pulldown

    All for 4 sets of 10 reps.

    These exercises are mostly compound but I am afraid to add an isolation for fear of overtraining or burning too many calories.

    Thanks!

    • Shane Duquette on October 14, 2020 at 9:56 am

      If it were me, I’d try to stimulate more of your body each workout. Keeping most of your lifts the same, you could hit every major muscle group each workout by switching it around to something like this:

      TUE: squat, bench press, barbell row
      THU: dumbbell press, dumbbell row, Romanian deadlift
      SAT: deadlift, overhead press, lat pulldown

      You don’t need to worry about burning calories with your workouts. Yes, lifting weights burns some calories. But not that many. And isolation lifts burn relatively few calories compared to the bigger compound lifts. If you want bigger biceps, add in some biceps curls. If you want broader shoulders, add in some lateral raises. To make room for those lifts, you can strip off the fourth set on some of those lifts. For instance, doing 3 sets of 10 on the barbell row, Romanian deadlift, and lat pulldown. But that’s totally up to you. You don’t have to use isolation lifts. Just use them if you want to speed up growth in target areas.

      I hope that helps 🙂

      • kiru on October 17, 2020 at 6:19 am

        Yes, that helps a lot. Thank you very much.

        Last question: I was kind of struggling with what to eat after my workouts. I needed to stabilize my budget. But now i have found THE ONE, I guess. It’s a processed food with 338 calories: 16 grams of carbs, 43 grams of protein, 7 grams of fat, 19 grams of fibre. Is this a good food to eat after working out?

        • Shane Duquette on October 17, 2020 at 8:56 am

          That sounds fine. When trying to build muscle, it can help to eat protein and carbs after working out. You could eat a meal that contains protein and carbs, such as chicken and rice. You could take a supplement, such as a mass gainer. You could have some whey protein and some bread. Some people use skim or chocolate milk. You’ve got a lot of options. It’s really whatever you prefer.

          But yes, that supplement sounds fine. Sounds more like a fat loss supplement, though. The carbs and calories are quite low. For building muscle, you’d usually want to take something that hits with a heavier caloric punch. More like 80 grams of carbs with 40 grams of protein. That’s really not a big deal at all, though 🙂

          • kiru on October 17, 2020 at 1:42 pm

            You just broke my heart, Shane. Now I probably need a lot of calories and protein to heal from that.

            Thank you so much man. I know I ask so many questions, but you understand my situation!

            Thank you again and I will keep informing you about my muscle gain.

            Thanks!



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