Why are Starting Strength and StrongLifts not in the Recommended Routines list?

Read Time: 12 minutes

In short: They aren’t good routines and don’t do what they claim to do for you. They are too low in training volume, the way they try to handle stalls doesn’t make any sense, they create unrealistic expectations of progress rate, and they push you to stay on them a lot longer than you should. Their only possible benefit is their simplicity, which is a need that’s better met by better routines.

Obviously that’s not a sufficient answer, so let’s talk specifics.

The volume is too low, and poorly distributed

Volume is important for muscle growth, especially long term. We have known this for a long time. Mark Rippetoe and Mehdi, authors of Starting Strength (SS) and StrongLifts (SL), do not know this.

SS is much more guilty of this than SL, but they’re both very low volume overall. In addition, the volume is disproportionately distributed towards your lower body. Have you heard the term “T-Rex Mode”? It’s what you’ll get – Big lower body, small upper body. There is too much squatting and not enough everything else.

We’ll start with the upper body volume problems. As an example, in both routines, the only exercise that works your chest directly is the Bench Press. Let’s quantify how much work your chest is getting in terms we can all understand, like total sets over the course of two weeks.

  • Sunday – Nothing
  • Monday – 3/5 sets of Bench Press
  • Tuesday – Nothing
  • Wednesday – Nothing
  • Thursday – Nothing
  • Friday – 3/5 sets of Bench Press
  • Saturday – Nothing
  • Sunday – Nothing
  • Monday – Nothing
  • Tuesday – Nothing
  • Wednesday – 3/5 sets of Bench Press
  • Thursday – Nothing
  • Friday – Nothing
  • Saturday – Nothing

In total, only 9 or 15 sets of any chest exercise, in only three days, over two weeks. Depending on the individual week, you could have 3/5 or 6/10 sets. To put this in perspective, compare that to some other beginners programs:

  • An often recommended beginners’ PPL program, which has 6-8 chest sets (Bench/DB Incline Bench) in a single workout and 16 per week. This is 2.5 to 5 times more chest volume of SS and ~1.5 to 3 times more than that of SL in a single week.
  • 5/3/1 for Beginners, which has 8 bench press sets in a single workout and 16 per week. On top of that, depending on your choice of Push accessory work, you can have 10-30 sets of other chest exercises in a week, for a total of 26-56. This lands anywhere from ~2.6 to 18.5 times more volume than SS and ~2.5 to 11 times more volume than SL in a given week.

You can repeat this math not just with many other routines, but with many other muscles in the upper body as well. Triceps are slightly better because they’re hit by both Bench Press and Overhead Press, but still low compared to most other routines. The comparison gets even more dismal when you look at volume for biceps (no direct work), back (only rows, only in SL), shoulders (only OHP), and everyone’s favorite – abs (no direct work). And contrary to what the creators of these routines will tell you, the idea that you can stimulate adequate strength and growth in your abs (or core in general) just from doing squats and a single set of deadlifts is completely false. This goes likewise with your back – SS itself has no significant back work until you get to “Phase 3” and add chinups, which could be months.

Here’s the picture we’re painting – If you care about upper body aesthetics, strength, or balance, SS and SL are absolutely terrible choices. This is not just a problem for those who are focused on building muscle, so don’t think this isn’t relevant for you if your goal is strength and not aesthetics. Even setting aside the fact that strength is strongly correlated with muscle size, consider that if your goal is to build a stronger bench/overhead press, you are not doing those lifts enough, or often enough, because the volume and frequency are both extremely low. That is also true for row and chin/pull-up (ie, back) strength. Another side effect is that this extremely low volume and frequency does not give you enough practice with those lifts to develop good technique as quickly, which is also important for the expression of strength.

Further compounding this problem is the fact that you’re doing a ton of squatting in both routines compared to the volume of upper body work. Over two weeks, you’re doing 18-30 (SS/SL) sets of squats. Your legs are already bigger, and they will grow more, faster than your entire upper body, and you will look ridiculous for it. This result is so widespread and commonplace that the term “T-Rex Mode” was quite literally coined because of Starting Strength trainees.

Meanwhile, the deadlift volume is so low you may as well not be doing deadlifts at all. Three sets over two weeks for a very important lift for developing strength and muscle in your posterior chain is indefensible. But it’s defended anyway – citing “excessive fatigue” by the authors of these programs. The only problem with this is that CNS fatigue is a bogeyman which is wildly overstated, there is no reason to be afraid of it when deadlifting, and three working sets in two weeks is so far from the overtraining line that it can’t even see the line.

The way they handle stalls is nonsensical

This is an arena in which SL significantly outshines SS in being poorly written. In both programs, if you miss completing all the prescribed reps (twice for SS, three times for SL), you remove 10% of the weight for that lift and work your way back up. As Greg Nuckols very eloquently puts it:

What’s supposed to happen in the couple of weeks while you build back to your old plateau?  Is that when the gains fairy visits to defy the basic principle of progressive overload, thereby granting you a substantially improved response to the exact same stimulus?

But SL takes this a step further – If you continue to stall, you are supposed to reduce your already low total volume to 3 sets of 5, then 3 sets of 3, and finally to a single set of 5. This goes beyond simply nonsensical and into “Quite Literally Knowing Nothing About Training” territory. You may think that description is hyperbole, but it really is such a serious  misunderstanding of everything we know about effective training that one has to question everything else the author of SL might say on the subject.

As Greg Nuckols points out in the above article, the scientific literature agrees almost unanimously on the importance of volume for driving strength and muscle growth. What SL prescribes for dealing with a stall is the exact opposite of everything that you should actually do – add volume to the lift, add accessory work, use different loads and rep ranges while maintaining total volume, increase work capacity. Greg Nuckols discusses the trap of reducing volume further in his article on work capacity:

So, lo and behold, they dial back their training volume and the gains start coming again.  Only they last for a mere 4-8 weeks.  Then they plateau even harder.  Why?  They weren’t getting stronger.  They were peaking.  Their body was accustomed to a certain level of work.  When they reduced the amount of work, supercompensation happened, and they could put more weight on the bar. However, that’s not something that happens indefinitely.  But, the fact is, it “worked” for a while, so this person ends up banging their head against a wall on a super low volume routine wondering why they’re not getting any stronger, not questioning the efficacy of their new routine because it worked initially.

Emphasis ours. In this way, SL tricks you into spending extra time on a routine that is not actually working or breaking your plateau.

They neglect all aspects of strength development except one

Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength, is famous on the internet for his quote about “pounds on the bar through full range of motion”. The narrow focus and emphasis on “pounds on the bar” in these programs is a detriment to long term strength (and especially athletic) development – both physically and mentally.

On the physical side, the problem is that all other aspects of training – such as cardio, conditioning, periodization, and work capacity – are completely neglected. The authors of both routines actively try to discourage trainees from doing cardio because it could affect “pounds on the bar” – despite the fact that we know that regularly doing cardio can improve your recovery between sets, which helps you get more volume done in the same time frame to drive more progress, reduces injury risk, and, when done appropriately, will not interfere with your gains at all. The routines themselves suffer from using a single, stagnant set x rep scheme and contain no periodization, which scientific study has concluded is almost always superior to non-periodized training. Finally, a trainee is told to rest as long as they feel is necessary in order to hit their target reps on the next set, which is detrimental to building work capacity, which is important for long term growth and development. This last has the bonus of making you into the worst part of the meme everyone fears to be – “strong” guy who gets out of breath walking across the room – except without the part where you’re at least strong.

The results of this neglect are something we have seen on r/Fitness and other beginner forums for over a decade. Regardless of how much they squat, trainees are completely out of shape and have become allergic to doing anything that might compromise “pounds on the bar” – no matter how temporary the reduction may be. Reducing rest times, adding cardio and conditioning, adding more volume – all of these things have near immediate negative impacts because the trainee’s work and recovery capacities are so low. They must take several steps back in order to handle the changes that are necessary to continue to grow.

The discouragement and aversion that comes from the above is only the beginning of the mental side of the problems with focusing on only a single dimension of progression. Some of the common mental or motivational roadblocks that happen as a result of training this way for a prolonged period of time are:

  • With only one measure of progression, any reduction in “pounds on the bar” often ends up feeling like an absolute loss of progress. Deloading can feel like a punishment for failure instead of its intended purpose (though misguided implementation) – to help drive further progress by giving a period of extra recovery after an intense training block.
  • It can ingrain a need to see clear progress every training session, which is a reality that only absolute novices can realize and then only very briefly on the scale of a training career. This can cause discouragement and an aversion to any program that does not “progress as fast” (such as: most programs by reputable coaches) as the trainee believes they are doing on routines that add weight every session.
  • The dogmatism from the authors of these programs can cause trainees to convince themselves that, when they inevitably stall out (which is frequently hard), it is not the program that is wrong but they themselves. They can begin to blame factors such as genetics, proportions, or “leverages”, which are non-actionable and overblown. Worse, sometimes the conclusion (often with the help of other novices) is made that they’re not eating enough, and they start eating so far beyond their body’s ability to build muscle that they get very, very fat.

Where can I read some comments on Reddit about this?

But SS and SL are only meant to be short term programs for a few months, so none of this matters

Not if you listen to the authors of those programs, which an unfortunate many people do.

StrongLifts is particularly heinous in this regard. Here is a series of connected quotes directly from the StrongLifts FAQ:

You can also reach the Intermediate I level with StrongLifts 5×5. But you’ll usually have to switch to 3×5/3×3/1×3 to break through plateaus and get there.

This doesn’t mean you should switch to a new training program when you reach these strength goals. You switch program when your current one stops working. As long as the weight increases over time, keep going – even if you’ve reached these strength goals. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Most guys can easily reach the intermediate I level in 12 months.

I recommend you set the Intermediate I goal by this day next year. Set the Beginner goals for within the next six months.

Following the author’s advice will have you doing StrongLifts for a year or more as you chase the (completely arbitrary) “Intermediate I” level.

Starting Strength does not suffer from this problem nearly as much, as it is left open ended and up to the trainee to decide when to move on. This is, in theory, a somewhat good recommendation. In practice, however, it’s been observed over many years that the combination of such a hard focus on “linear progression” (aka, “adding weight every session”) and letting a trainee decide when it’s time to move on are recipes for spending far more time than appropriate on the program trying to eek out as much “linear progress” as possible.

Doesn’t this all apply to the Basic Beginner Routine too? Why is that recommended instead?

There is one actual, important benefit to SS and SL as beginner programs – their simplicity. For many beginners, programs that use percentages and periodization can feel too complicated, intimidating, or overwhelming, on top of the same feelings of just walking into a gym and picking up a barbell for the first time. The Basic Beginner Routine fills this need while also being a superior program.

The core of Greyskull LP, which the Basic Beginner Routine is derived from, has a significant advantage over SS and SL – it uses an AMRAP set as your last set of the day. This has several benefits and partially addresses two of the big problems with SS and SL.

  1. When you fail to complete your prescribed reps and deload, the AMRAP set naturally adds volume.
  2. It helps you to learn to measure your progress in more than one dimension – weight on the bar and reps performed. When you deload, you will set rep PRs for weights you’ve already done. You will also likely set weight and rep PRs as you add weight.
  3. It helps you better explore your limits and helps teach you what approaching real failure feels like while the weight is still low and so are the dangers of failing.

On top of this, the Basic Beginner Routine has some key differences that improve on the groundwork laid by GSLP:

  1. It has a better balance of squat and deadlift volume by alternating these lifts instead of 2x squat, 1x deadlift each week.
  2. It has greater total deadlift volume by using 3×5+ instead of 1×5.
  3. It has greater and more balanced upper body volume than SS through the addition of Barbell Rows and Chinups from Day 1.
  4. It includes cardio and conditioning as part of the routine, rather than actively discouraging you from doing it as SS/SL do.
  5. It keeps rest intervals fixed at a maximum of 3 minutes, rather than giving you room to hang yourself on recovery and work capacity by taking ridiculously long rest times.
  6. It is presented as a routine that is solely for learning barbell lifts, to be run for a maximum of three months, rather than a routine to try to milk “linear progression” out of for as long as you can and at all costs. The deliberately short shelf life helps solve or at least mediate the remaining problems.
  7. It is presented with optional guidelines for accessories to help target muscles you want to grow more as you’re learning the barbell lifts, where SS/SL discourage you from changing or adding to the routine in any way.

Finally, the Basic Beginner Routine takes advantage of a common (but inaccurate) defense of SS/SL – “They are only supposed to be short term programs” – and makes it clear, up front and repeatedly, that it is only supposed to be used a short term program for complete beginners who are learning. This change in framing helps maintain the advantages of starting with a simple program without suffering from the problems of running it for way too long, as SS and SL will have you do.