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

Review of StrongLifts 5×5 for Building Muscle

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 said 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.

However, it seems that StrongLifts may actually be ripped from Starting Strength. If Mark Rippetoe is to be believed—and his account seems credible to me—then Mehdi ordered Starting Strength, was sent a copy, asked to be an affiliate, and was refused. At that point, Mehdi created a slightly modified version: StrongLifts 5×5.

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 bulking 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 from the floor, and with an explosive lifting tempo, 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 skull crushers, 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 skull crushers to build bigger triceps.
The skull crusher.

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 squats: 3 sets of 9 repetitions
  • Bench press (or push-ups): 3×9 for bench press, max reps for push-ups
  • Barbell Rows: 3×15
  • Lateral raises: 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-ups**: 3 sets of max reps (lowered if needed)
  • Push-ups (or overhead press): 3 sets of max reps for push-ups (raised if needed), 3×9 for overhead press.
  • Romanian deadlifts: 3 sets of 11 repetitions
  • Biceps curls: 3×11
  • Skull crushers: 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.


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 of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell. He's a certified conditioning coach with a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained 70 pounds and has over a decade of experience helping over 10,000 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


  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.


    • 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.


          • Eurico on December 13, 2020 at 10:01 am

            Hello! Great article!

            Well, I’m going to start this program because I think that it is the best for my goals.

            But, for example, I want to do the progressions in a slow way. For example, in the app they say that we can add 2.5 kg in every exercise. (In the deadlifts they say 5kg.) But I was pretending to add 1 kg only (0.5kg plates in each side) to avoid injuries and to keep improving. My question is, do you think that I’ll have the same results this way?

            And in the Deadlifts, should I keep the 5kg increase every week, or I can slow down this one too (like 2kg or 3kg by week)?


          • Shane Duquette on December 13, 2020 at 1:30 pm

            Hey Eurico, thank you!

            That’s a good question, and it’s impossible to answer without knowing how close to failure you’re lifting. If you’re taking your sets within a couple reps of failure, you’ll build muscle just fine. You’ll need to keep adding weight fast enough that your sets stay challenging enough. And beginners can gain strength quite quickly because they’re rapidly improving their coordination AND building muscle fairly fast. That’s why these programs often recommend being fairly aggressive with the load progression, adding quite a lot of weight each workout.

            So what you could do is take your final set to failure each workout. See how many reps you can actually do. Not forever, just until you learn what it feels like to flirt with muscle failure. If you find that pushing yourself to failure allows you to get, say, 5 extra reps, it means you haven’t been lifting hard enough to stimulate much, if any, muscle growth. You need to add more weight or do more reps per set. Or, if you take a set to failure and only get 1–2 extra reps, great, that’s enough to build muscle at full speed.

            Now, with that said, progress is progress. You don’t HAVE to rush it. You could add a bit of weight every workout, take your time with it, get gradually stronger. Will you be gaining muscle and strength at full speed? No. But you’ll get there eventually. After all, eventually adding even just a kilo to your lifts every week will be impossibly fast. So with enough time, you’d catch up.

            StrongLifts recommends starting with the barbell and working your way up, right? That means that the first month or three of the program might not stimulate any muscle growth. But that’s okay. It’s just a slow, easy introduction. You get a couple months of practice before it kicks into gear.

            I hope that helps.

  4. Andrew on December 4, 2020 at 2:59 pm

    Such an impressive article.
    Thank you

  5. Renan on December 16, 2020 at 9:44 am

    Congratulations for this awesome site! So much information about everything!

    Shane, I have a doubt. I’m from Brazil and I’m getting prepared for a physical test to join the army here. So, Im looking at StrongLifts to help me build strength and etc. What I want to know is that as a beginner, in your opinion, can I add pull ups to this program? I’m asking because in the physical test for the army, you need to do a great number of pull ups.

    Anyway, can add some chin ups too?

    Thanks! Your website is incredible!

    • Shane Duquette on December 16, 2020 at 10:25 am

      Thank you, Renan!

      If you want to do a program like this, you might want to consider doing Starting Strength instead. There are fewer sets per exercise, freeing up more energy to add extra lifts, such as pull-ups and chin-ups. That might suit you a bit better.

      Good luck preparing for the army, man! 🙂

  6. Eben on December 28, 2020 at 11:09 am

    I don’t normally read blogs much, nor do I comment on posts even on youtube, but this article was impressive in scope and depth.

    I had impressive gains on Stronglifts 5×5. In 8 months I gained about 40 pounds of muscle on my skinny 163 lbs frame. My body looked like it changed from ectomorph (albeit not severely ecto) to mesomorph. I could lift weights never thought possible (for myself) of which deadlift was my favourite.

    Then I started adding things in. See, my thighs and butt got BIG, my back was thick and even my chest looked good, but I wanted more size on my shoulders and arms, so I added bicep curls, lateral raises, parallel rows and high pulls. This, I think, included added stress on already inflamed shoulders, and one fateful day I tackled my brother and we fell wrong and SNAP, or should I say, SLAP-tear!

    Goodbye mass-building. Goodbye heavy lifting. Hello, years of rehab.

    Will you gain size on Stronglifts 5×5? Yes, better than most programs out there. You will build a very good, uhm, chassis, foundation of mass. But listen to your joints. Know when to ease off or ease into something more forgiving.

    You could start Stronglifts and progress to a more hypertrophy-focussed program as seen above.

    OR, you could just do this program.

    Anyway, that is my 2 cents worth. I really appreciate the amount of work you put into the article. It is good enough to print out. (And that’s coming from someone who used to have his own personal training business back in the day!)

    • Shane Duquette on December 28, 2020 at 11:56 am

      Thank you so much, Eben! 🙂

      Oi, I’m sorry to hear about the slap-tear. I hope you healed up okay.

  7. James on January 2, 2021 at 3:39 pm

    I am interested in your outlift program. Will there be meal plan help if I add the community/coaching service?

    Thank You

    • Shane Duquette on January 2, 2021 at 4:19 pm

      Hey James, we can help you figure out what to eat, how much of it, and how to adjust based on the results you’re getting. But we don’t really do meal plans, per se. We prefer to build on what you currently eat by adding in foods that you enjoy and have access to. And in the community, you can create a meal plan based on our guidelines, based on what you like, and then get feedback on how to improve it. If that’s what you want help with, then yeah!

  8. Alex on January 6, 2021 at 3:51 am

    Firstly, a very interesting article with in-depth explanations and expertise. Thank you!
    I am thinking of running a 5×5 because I really like the format and its simplicity. I do not have a lot of experience to weightlifting so I would like an expert’s opinion on the program I have designed, just to make sure it is going to give me some good results given my nutrition & sleep are also on point. So I will do a slightly changed full body 5×5 3 days a week. There will be workout A and workout B which I will alternate each time:

    Workout A:
    Barbell Back Squats 5×5
    Bench press 5×5
    Seated cable row 3x 8-10
    Tricep extensions 2×10

    Workout B:
    Trap bar deadlifts 5×5
    Overhead press 5×5
    Pullups 3x 8-10
    Bicep curls 2×10

    The reason I do not include heavy rows or conventional deadlifts is that I also play basketball and do not want to put a lot of strain on my lower back.

    Your insight would be extremely helpful! Thank you!

    • Shane Duquette on January 6, 2021 at 9:01 am

      My pleasure, man! I’m glad you liked it.

      I think your workout program will work well 🙂

      We’ve got a section in there with a sample workout, too.

  9. Mike Beatty on January 20, 2021 at 2:49 am

    This is awesome Shane!

    I actually did the 5×5 for 12 weeks at the end of last year. I saw some pretty good results but I totally get what you mean about the strain it can cause (especially for complete beginners) and it’s leg heavy. I think I went from about 40kg squats to 110kg, which was pretty impressive.

    In 2018 I ran a marathon and got pretty skinny. I read the Four Hour Body and followed Tim’s advice for gaining 6kg in a month. This was after a few years without lifting much at all and he made a lot of the same points you made here. Lifting more reps & slower to build muscle.

    Thanks for sharing this though man!


    P.S. How do you do these awesome graphics?

    • Shane Duquette on February 3, 2021 at 10:22 am

      Hey Mike, thank you 🙂

      40kg to 110kg is amazing! Congratulations, man.

      There isn’t much evidence to support doing slower reps. Check out our article on lifting tempo.

      I draw the illustrations in Adobe Illustrator.

  10. Shannon on March 8, 2021 at 11:54 am

    This is great info and just what I needed to point me in the right direction. I’m a female beginner and I want to focus a bit more on my upper body starting out because I have poor upper body strength. I appreciate the thorough breakdown and the suggested workouts.

    • Shane Duquette on March 9, 2021 at 8:25 am

      Thank you, Shannon! Our pleasure 😀

      Let us know if you have any questions, and good luck!

  11. Kamil on September 20, 2021 at 12:56 pm

    Hi Shane! I just came across your Stronglifts 5×5 review through a quick search on Google, you seem like you know what you are talking about, I am currently 3 weeks into the 5×5 program myself and I’m definitely getting stronger, I wanted to ask your advice on burning fat on the adductors(inner thighs)? I’m aware that spot reduction is not possible but will squats and deadlifting or hypertrophy overall help me reduce this fat? Thanks

    • Shane Duquette on September 21, 2021 at 12:45 pm

      Hey Kamil, thank you!

      You’re right, yeah. Spot reduction is kind of technically possible in some cases. For instance, if you exercise while losing fat, you’ll lose more visceral fat—more of the fat underneath your abs. But practically speaking, yeah, to burn fat, you just want to focus on burning fat overall. To do that, you’d lift weights, eat plenty of protein (around a gram of protein per pound bodyweight per day), and lose weight by eating fewer calories than you burn—a calorie deficit.

      Squats and deadlifts will, if anything, bulk up your adductors, making those muscles bigger. It won’t have any impact on the fat there, no. But you may lose fat overall, at which point you’ll lose fat in your thighs.

      I hope that helps, and good luck, man! 😀

  12. david on October 31, 2021 at 2:35 pm

    Thank you Shane and Marco for this excellent article!

    I’m a bit confused about your proposal for the 2nd workout. You mention the squat and overhead press, but they aren’t listed in the sets and rep bullets. Is the intention to add squat 3×9 and OHP 3×9 before the chin-ups?

    • Shane Duquette on October 31, 2021 at 3:52 pm

      Oh, good point. You’d swap the push-ups for overhead presses.

      I’m not a huge fan of overhead presses for total beginners. I think push-ups often give similar benefits with fewer mobility issues. But if you can do the overhead press with good technique, you’d do them instead of push-ups in that second workout.

      • david on October 31, 2021 at 4:00 pm

        Got it. I’ve done 5×5 for a few months before the pandemic, but I do have some shoulder issues so that might be a good idea. Maybe with pike pushups to emphasize shoulders over chest?

        Would you open the 2nd workout with squats as well? Or only workout 1?

        Thanks for the quick reply!!

        • Shane Duquette on November 1, 2021 at 9:59 am

          No problem!

          I find that push-ups done with the hands underneath the shoulders do a pretty good job of bulking up the shoulders for most people. Raising your feet or doing pike push-ups would be a good way to increase that emphasis, yeah. Even better if you use parallettes or raise your hands up, allowing for a deeper range of motion.

          I would start each workout with the lift you’re most eager to improve at. It’s the lift that will get your best energy. If you want balanced growth, I’d start one workout with lower-body lifts, the other with upper-body lifts. Maybe one workout starts with a circuit of squats and Romanian deadlifts, the next starts with a circuit of chin-ups and push-ups. That way every major muscle group has a chance to be worked early in the workout.

          On the other hand, if you want to focus on improving your squat, you could start each workout with squats.

  13. John on November 2, 2021 at 10:38 am


    Thanks for the great and detailed article!

    What kind of weights and progression would you use in the proposed 3×9 program?

    • Shane Duquette on November 3, 2021 at 10:52 am

      Our pleasure, John!

      We’ve got a full article on progressive overload. You can use any of the strategies there: adding weight, adding reps, or using a deeper range of motion. You could also combine that with adding sets if you wanted, especially if you’re running into plateaus.

      As a default, I’d add a bit of weight when you’re able to get all of your reps (e.g. 9 reps) in your last set for that exercise. So if you’re getting 9,9,8, keep using the same weight for another week. Next week, if you’re able to get 9,9,9, then increase the weight for the next workout.

      But there’s no single best form of progression. All you need is a sensible approach to progressive overload. Going from 9,9,9 to 10,10,9 is just as good as adding weight.

  14. David on January 27, 2022 at 7:30 pm

    Shane,what do you think about a 6×6 scheme? The reps are in the “hypertrophy” range and the extra set add a little more weekly volume since Stronglifts is only 7.5 sets per week on average.

    • Shane Duquette on January 29, 2022 at 10:15 am

      Hey David, good question.

      When you do fewer reps per set, you need more sets to maximize muscle growth. Instead of doing 3 sets of 10, you do 4 sets of 8. Instead of doing 4 sets of 8, you do 5 sets of 5. That’s why 5×5 kind of makes sense from a muscle-building perspective. It’s not efficient, but at least the volume is there.

      If you’re adding an extra rep, you don’t need an extra set. If anything, it would be the other way around. As in, you’d do 4×6 instead of 5×5. But different people are different. Some people benefit from higher training volumes. If you’re one of those people, there’s nothing wrong with doing 6×6.

      Another thing to keep in mind is what your main goal is. If you want to get better at a specific lift, it might make sense to get more practice with that specific lift. For example, if you want to get better at the bench press, do a lot of sets of the bench press split up over 2–3 workouts per week. But if your goal is to build muscle, you might want to use a greater variety of exercises. For example, instead of doing 6 sets of the bench press, do 3 sets of the bench press and 3 sets of push-ups, or maybe 4 sets of the bench press and 2 sets of the pec deck machine. That way your muscles are worked just as hard, you have a better shot at stimulating a greater variety of muscle fibres, and your joints get a break from the repetitive strain of doing the same heavy lifts over and over again.

      Anyway, this is all to say that you’ve got options. If you want to try 6×6, just work your way there gradually. In the first week, do 2–3 sets. Then add a set each week as needed/desired. When you get to 6 sets, see how it goes. Maybe after a couple of weeks of that, you take a deload and work your way back up. You’ll have to play it by ear.

      • David on January 29, 2022 at 6:09 pm

        Thanks for the answer, Shane. Yeah, I thought about doing 4×6, but I think there is not enough weekly volume if I want to keep the setup of Stronglifts (which I like). 6×6 in the context of Stronglifts would be 6 sets in one week and 12 sets in the other one. 9 sets per week on average, which is a perfect volume for beginners. The only drawback that comes to mind is that the workouts would be time-consuming, leaving almost no place for isolation lifts. It doesn’t worry me because I plan to follow this routine only for a few months. After that, I will move to an intermediate routine and give my arms the love they deserve 🙂

        • Shane Duquette on January 31, 2022 at 8:36 am

          Sounds good to me!

          Doing fewer sets would free up time for isolation lifts, but it’s no problem doing it your way. I think you’ll do great.

  15. Victor on February 17, 2022 at 2:44 pm

    Just stumbled upon this article and love the 3×9 workout program! I had a question in regards to the frequency of workouts. As an intermediate lifter, I’m trying this variation:

    Week 1 (all same weight and rep range)
    Mon: Workout A
    Tue: Workout B
    Wed: A
    Thur: B

    Then every following week keep the same workout rotation but increase the weight range by 2.5 or 5lbs until lift failure on last set. If I can’t reach 9 on set 3 then I’d remain at the same weight.

    Is this too frequent of workouts without resting in between? And is the progressive overload enough on a weekly basis?


  16. MJ on March 2, 2022 at 10:56 am

    “then Mehdi ordered Starting Strength, was sent a copy, asked to be an affiliate, and was refused. At that point, Mehdi created a slightly modified version: StrongLifts 5×5.”

    Mehdi states right in the introduction to SL that he didn’t invent the program. Maybe some quick research before you make shit up about people’s character.

    “StrongLifts 5×5 is based on the 5×5 routine. I didn’t invent 5×5 – I just wrote a definitive guide on it in 2007 and created apps for it in 2010. It’s not clear who invented the 5×5 routine but it seems to have been around for almost 100 years now. Here’s a short history on its origins…”

    • Shane Duquette on March 3, 2022 at 12:21 pm

      Your quote cuts out the part of my sentence where I say that this is Mark Rippetoe’s claim about the origin of StrongLifts, not mine. I’m just mentioning Rippetoe’s version of the story. I think it makes sense. Starting Strength came out first and StrongLifts is almost exactly the same. It looks MUCH more similar to Rippetoe’s 3×5 Starting Strength program than the old 5×5 programs. But I’m not saying Rippetoe’s claim is true. I have no idea.

      Ethically, I think it makes sense to give credit to the creator. If Mark Rippetoe is claiming that Mehdi copied him, I think that ought to be mentioned.

  17. Paps on March 20, 2022 at 8:15 pm

    Hey shane! So I saw not many people commented on your 3×9 routine but I’m actually quite interested in trying it out. I’ve tried 5×5 before but always felt it was lower body dominant and it was taxing on my lower back. I see you mentioned “Is this the perfect workout to help a beginner build muscle? Not quite.”.. what exactly would you do to make it ideal? Or what would you recommend? I’m not an absolute beginner but it’s been about 5 months since I’ve worked out so am looking to pick between either your 3×9 or perhaps an upper/lower split. Initially I was looking to start back up with 5×5 before stumbling upon your article. Thanks!

    • Paps on March 21, 2022 at 5:32 am

      One thing to note: I’m what you would consider “skinny fat” at the moment. I initially did a cut about two years ago that yielded decent results but I jumped on a bulk way too quick, ended up getting discouraged and have been out of the gym for quite some time. So while I’m familiar with the lifts, I would by no means consider myself an intermediate. I can’t even squat my own body weight yet (160 lbs). Any advice would help. I’m deff more interested in visuals as opposed to strength (another reason I liked this program, it has neck training which I know having a thicker neck always looks better).

    • Shane Duquette on March 21, 2022 at 1:54 pm

      Hey Pap, yeah! The lower back is a big emphasis in 5×5 programs, which makes sense since a lot of them are rooted in powerlifting. Powerlifting is really taxing on the lower back. You have to build it up really strong. Hypertrophy training is a bit different.

      We’ve got a more conventional workout program in our reverse pyramid training article. We’ve got a couple in our 4-day split article, too. Those are more intermediate programs, though. We don’t have a comprehensive article up for beginners yet.

      The workout in this article is pretty solid, though! If you like the look of it, go for it! You’ll do great 🙂

      (We do have our flagship bulking program, but that’s a paid program. We do plan on releasing free stuff. It’s just not out yet.)

      • Paps on March 21, 2022 at 3:39 pm

        Got it. How long would you run this program for? As mentioned I would still consider myself a beginner and am coming from a “skinny fat” perspective. And would you say this is more beginner friendly than say the upper lower splits? I primarily like this one because of the inclusion of neck training as well. Also, would this program offer the 10+ sets per body part that I’ve seen mentioned in your article? That’s the number to maximize muscle gain right?

        • Shane Duquette on March 22, 2022 at 10:15 am

          I normally run a phase (aka a mesocycle) for around 5 weeks. But I’m not strict about it. If it’s working well and I’m not feeling beat up, I stick with it. When I start feeling beat-up or if I notice something I can improve, I switch up some variables. That could mean choosing different exercise variations, slightly different rep ranges, or maybe using a slightly different approach, such as using pyramid or reverse pyramid training instead of straight sets for a certain exercise.

          In our paid periodized programs, we have a series of 5-week phases that combine together to make a full program (aka a macrocycle). So we’d run something like this for 5 weeks, then we’d progress the lifts (going from goblet squats to front squats), swap in some new accessory lifts (such as going from barbell curls to cable curls), and adjust the rep range a bit (such as going from 9-rep sets of squats to 6-rep sets of squats). But you don’t have to do all of this stuff, and you don’t have to do it so often.

          I think if you’re adding weight, adding reps, or adding depth to most of your lifts each week, and if all of your joints and tendons are feeling good, you can stick with the program. If your results start to plateau, make sure you’re eating enough food to gain weight! That might be what’s holding you back. But if that doesn’t fix it, and if a lot of your lifts start getting stuck, I’d switch to something else that’s similar but slightly different, ideally in a way that addresses your specific issues. As in, keep the lifts that feel good on your joints, give you some muscle tension/pump/soreness, and that allow you to make progress from week to week. Choose different variations for the lifts that cause you more problems.

          3-day full-body routines tend to be the most beginner-friendly. That way your stabilizer muscles, hands, forearms, and traps get rest days between your workouts. If you want an extra day of training, though, upper/lower splits are pretty friendly, too.

          You can add neck training to upper/lower splits, too. Just add some neck curls and neck extensions twice per week.

          The volume here starts pretty low. That’s perfectly fine for beginners who are just getting started, especially because the exercise selection is great and the rep range is perfect. But once you acclimatize to doing 3 sets per exercise, you could go up to 4, then 5. And then drop back down to 2–3 as a deload. That’s one of the benefits of periodization. You can scale the training volume up. In our programs, we often start with 2 sets per exercise in the first week, 3 in the second, 4 in the third and fourth, 5 in the fifth, and then we drop back down to 2 sets at the start of the next phase.

          The volume here is solid, though. And if you’re making progress from week to week, you’ll do great. If an exercise isn’t making your muscles pumped, tired, or sore, or if you’re struggling to improve from week to week, consider adding more sets.

          • Paps on March 26, 2022 at 7:49 pm

            Makes sense Shane! Thanks so much for all your help. I did have another question, would I be okay doing squats for 6 reps instead of 9? Simply because squats can be taxing on my knees, not sure if higher reps would make that worse. Your thoughts?

            Also if I were to do trapbar deadlifts, could I get away with doing them for sets of 9? For similar reasoning. Thanks again! I really appreciate it.

          • Shane Duquette on March 26, 2022 at 9:55 pm

            Yeah, totally! Nothing wrong with doing 6 reps instead of 9. (Or 12 reps instead of 9.)

            Higher reps are often easier on the joints. But I’m not a joint expert, and if lower reps suit your knees better, no worries. I would also choose a squat style that feels good on your knees, even if that’s not a front squat (although front squats are often great for the knees).

            Yep, you can do trapbar deadlifts. That’s a great variation. And you can adjust the repetition range there, too.

  18. Smooshie on April 5, 2022 at 4:33 pm

    I think one thing your article sort of addresses, but not entirely, is the ease of Stronglifts. There is 1 app, the workouts are pre-loaded, and the tracker is built it. That is a huge selling point. All the info you provide about the benefits and pros and cons of each exercise is correct, but the simplicity of the workout app on the phone is a huge draw.

    • Shane Duquette on April 5, 2022 at 6:05 pm

      Yep, that’s a great point. I think that’s a huge benefit to programs like StrongLifts. The counterargument is that some of the lifts are harder to do. Even though the program seems simpler, you might actually wind up with a steeper learning curve. Your workouts might take longer than they need to, too, because 5 sets are overkill. But that depends, and you’re right that it’s very streamlined. I think that’s a big advantage to it for sure.

      And I’m kind of nitpicking here. If a friend told me they were doing StrongLifts (or CrossFit, whatever) I’d be stoked for them. I’d encourage them. I’d tell them that was sweet.

      Lifting weights is great. I’m just talking about min-maxing details. But the main thing is actually lifting weights. If you like the StrongLifts experience, absolutely go for it 🙂

  19. Quentin on May 22, 2022 at 10:32 pm

    Hi Shane – Want to say I’ve done strong lifts for about 2 months. Instead of Every other day I’ve done MTWTH and then rest going up 5 lbs each day.

    I can say that my lower back and joints are sore and I’ve switched to every other day as of this week because I need rest and way too sore. I’m considering switching to the 3×9 for the next 5 weeks to see how I feel.

    My goal is to build strength and muscle. I started at 5”11 165 4/16 and am 178 as of 5/22. Lots of bulking and water intake. Thoughts?

  20. Baxter on May 31, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    I just drop in a couple of concept 2 work outs a week in between and it irons things out. I also take a week out every so often and do nothing…my favourite exercise of all

  21. Tom on June 24, 2022 at 7:33 pm

    I’m 58 and can attest to benefits of doing majority of work in the 7 – 12 rep range. I’ve had good success doing 5/3/1 followed by 3 x 10 to failure on each set, reduce weight to stay at 10 reps. Have you had any experience coaching 50+ year old lifters ? Wondering if I can do Bench 3 x 9 on Monday and Incline 3×9 on Thursday without being sore and having it negatively affect next Monday’s bench routine. Thanks.

  22. Jase on July 7, 2022 at 10:16 am

    Here in this article:

    Nathan Jones states that “Rep range does not matter for hypertrophy (at least up to 30 reps/set for trained lifters and 100 reps/set for untrained old people), so long as the effort per set is equal. Muscles seem to grow the same whether you lift 3 reps to failure or 100 reps to failure.”

    It conflicts with the systematic review you posted…

    • Shane Duquette on July 9, 2022 at 6:26 pm

      Hey Jase, your comment got automatically flagged because you posted a link. Sorry about that. In future, you could just reference the title of the article instead of posting the link. Stronger by Science is a great site, though, so in this case it doesn’t matter.

      Greg Nuckols has an article that more directly covers the hypertrophy rep range. I think it’s newer, too, although I’m not sure how old that Nathan Jones article is.

      It kind of conflicts with the systematic review, depending on how you see these things. There’s always the issue of a study having enough statistical power to detect an effect. If we’re talking about sets of 6–20 reps stimulating the same amount of muscle growth, it could be that 10-rep sets stimulate SLIGHTLY more muscle growth than 6-rep sets, it’s just that the study couldn’t detect the difference. It could also be that 5-rep sets and 6-rep sets stimulate virtually the same amount of muscle growth, it’s just that 5-rep sets fell JUST below some threshold.

      When I hear Greg Nuckols saying that sets of 4–40 reps are equally good for stimulating muscle growth, Mike Israetel saying 5–30 reps, and James Krieger saying 6–20 reps, I don’t really see a disagreement, per se. They’re all giving very similar ranges. Their cutoffs are just at slightly different points. And in all cases, the hearts of their hypertrophy training programs are focused on sets of around 6–15 reps.

      I think this meta-analysis gives us some objective cut-off points, and I think it’s the best we have so far, so that’s what we use.

      And then if you look at our practical recommendations, I think they’re basically identical. Greg Nuckols, if I recall correctly, is saying to spend most of your time training in the middle of the hypertrophy rep range while occasionally going lower or higher. That’s what we recommend, too. I think the proportion of time we spend in any given rep range is pretty similar, too.

  23. Paps on October 1, 2022 at 1:11 am

    Hey there! Had a quick question. I’ve been following the program for a bit and have been seeing good progress. I currently work out mon-wed-fri and wanted to use saturday as an extra accessory day for bis/tris/abs/calves. Is this a good idea?

    I specifically wanted to add more arm work since we only do direct work on wed (curls/skull crushers) so figured doing a few extra sets on saturday would be enough rest time. Thanks again for the great info!

    • Paps on October 8, 2022 at 4:26 am

      Hey there! Just following up

    • Shane Duquette on December 8, 2022 at 12:22 pm

      Hey Paps, sorry for missing this!

      Yeah, man, absolutely! Nothing wrong with adding in an extra day for neglected muscles. I love that idea 🙂

  24. Ppur on January 7, 2023 at 2:51 pm

    I’m beginner on SL 5×5.

    On these higher reps, lower sets workouts, how much do you worry about warm ups. Do you also build up to the weight as in 5×5?
    Or is there a full body warm up that should be enough?

    • Shane Duquette on January 21, 2023 at 9:22 am

      Warm-ups can be really helpful. You can do a full-body warm-up routine before lifting, yeah. I think that’s often a really good idea for beginners. You won’t need as many warm-up SETS when lifting in higher rep ranges, but you might still need one or two.

      Your working sets should always be challenging enough. Make sure you aren’t leaving more than 0–3 reps in reserve. If the sets are too easy, they won’t stimulate very much muscle growth. If you hit failure by accident sometimes, that’s totally fine. That’s part of the learning process. That’s how you learn how close to failure you are.

      I hope that helps, and good luck, man!

  25. Mark F on November 2, 2023 at 1:51 pm

    I’ve used the StrongLifts program several times over the years. The biggest issue I had was that I’ve worked a desk job for 30 years. My lower back is horrible. The rapid advance on the squat and deadlift and usually resulted in a pinched nerve, forcing me to sit out the gym for weeks while it healed.

    Fortunately, one of my favorite things about the program is the app. I don’t know when the change was made but being able to set the frequency of the 5lb progression helped. For the squat and deadlift, I only set the progression to every 3rd workout. I also changed the deadlift from a 1×5 to a 5×5.

    While the muscle progression might not be there, I’ve been able to avoid the injuries that kept happening under the default program. Modifications to the app have also allowed me to add exercises. I’ve added in biceps/triceps curls, lat pulldowns, facepulls, hyperextensions, and leg lifts.

    • Shane Duquette on November 4, 2023 at 9:38 am

      Sounds like you’re making great use of the app. Those are all clever adjustments to the workout routine.

  26. Mark Taylor on November 9, 2023 at 7:33 am

    Hey absolutely great article, I loved and agree with every word.

    I haven’t read all the comments yet so not sure if its been mentioned, the first Stronglifts routine ( that I remember seeing at least) actually was a bit fuller with additional lifts, probably pretty similar to the modifications made towards the end of the article. No idea why it was stripped back to its current form. I remember this from ages ago, 2008 maybe?
    I was actually searching “Old Stronglifts routine” trying to find the old one to give it a bash again and that’s how I came across this article. Would be interesting if anyone still has a copy or screenshot of it.

    Thanks a lot guys.

    • Shane Duquette on November 9, 2023 at 11:05 am

      Thank you, Mark!

      I only started lifting in 2010. I might have missed that first version. When I first saw the StrongLifts routine, it was already heavily simplified. You could add exercises like chin-ups, but the default routine was the minimalist 5×5 one outlined in the article above.

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