In short: They aren’t good routines and don’t do what they claim to do for you. 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 total volume is bad and so is how it’s distributed
Volume is important for muscle growth, especially long term.
SS is much more guilty of this than SL, but they’re both pretty 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 9-15 sets of a chest exercise over two weeks. To put this in perspective, compare that to:
- 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 3x the chest volume of SS and 2x that of SL in the same time period.
- 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 is on average 4.5x the volume SS provides and 2.7x the volume SL provides in the same time period.
- Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Split from Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, which has 6-8 chest sets (Bench/Incline Bench) in a single workout and 18-24 sets in the course of a week. This is on average 4.6x the chest volume of SS and 2.8x the chest volume of SL in the same time period.
Are you noticing a pattern? You can repeat this 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 and OHP, but still low compared to many 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, or in your arms from minimal sets of rows, bench, and OHP, is so absurd it defies description. 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 indefensibly 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, which is also important for 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 will grow more 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.
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”. The only problem with this is that CNS fatigue is a bogeyman which is wildly overstated and there is no reason to be afraid of it when deadlifting.
The way they handle stalls is nonsensical
This is an arena in which SL significantly outshines SS in being ridiculous. 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.
As 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 nearly the polar opposite of everything that you should actually do – add volume, use different rep ranges, 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.
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 extreme 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 neglected in the extreme. 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 regularly doing cardio can improve your recovery between sets, which helps you get more volume done in the same time frame, 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.
The results of this neglect are something we have seen on r/Fitness and other beginner forums over and over. Regardless of how much they squat, trainees are completely out of shape and have become almost 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.
- 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 (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 largely 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 fat.
Where can I read some comments on Reddit about this?
- u/Trap_City_Bitch announcing r/gainit’s removal SL from their Wiki
- u/Uniquaa on beginner programs in general
- u/Gary_Oldman_AMA on the pros and cons of SL
- u/LegDaySkipper on GZCLP vs SL
- u/MythicalStrength on why the author of SL is not a good source of training advice
- u/MythicalStrength on beginner programs in general
- u/purplespengler on the original removal from the Wiki
- u/purplespengler on r/gainit’s removal of SL from their Wiki
But SS and SL are only meant to be short term programs for a few months, so this isn’t a big deal
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 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 creator’s advice has you doing StrongLifts for a year or more as you chase the (largely arbitrary) “Intermediate I” level.
Starting Strength does not suffer from this problem nearly as much, as it is left very 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” 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 Phrak’s GSLP too? Why is that recommended instead?
There is one niche that SS/SL fill that we feel is important – simplicity. For many beginners, programs that use percentages and periodization can feel intimidating or overwhelming. One of the reasons SL has been so successful in spite of being a bad program is that it has a mobile app that holds your hand every step of the way. Greyskull LP fills a similar niche while also being a superior program.
The core of Greyskull LP 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 solves two of the big problems with SS and SL.
- When you fail to complete your prescribed reps and deload, the AMRAP set naturally adds volume.
- 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.
- 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, what’s presented in the Basic Beginner routine is not the original version of Phrak’s GSLP. It has many key differences:
- It has a better balance of squat and deadlift volume by alternating these lifts instead of 2x squat, 1x deadlift each week.
- It has greater total deadlift volume by using 3×5+ instead of 1×5.
- It has greater and more balanced upper body volume than SS through the addition of Barbell Rows and Chinups from Day One.
- It includes cardio and conditioning as part of the routine, rather than actively discouraging you from doing it as SS/SL do.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.