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If you want to look like a badass — thick upper body, powerful legs, and a ripped midsection — you have to get strong. Strength training is the key to transform your physique because it targets multiple muscle groups at once, forces your muscles to grow, and changes your hormone levels. But there are so many different strength programs to choose from; which one is best?
Well, if you know anything about strength training, you’ve heard of the StrongLifts 5×5 program.
“It’s simple and it’s effective for building muscle, getting stronger, and burning fat,” says Mehdi, the founder of the StrongLifts program. “You’re going to look good, but you’re also going to get stronger at the same time.”
How strong? Even the most inexperienced lifter will hit a 225-pound back squat for five reps within 12 weeks; within a year, a lot of people eventually hit a 300-pound back squat, a 400-pound deadlift, and a 225-pound bench press. If you want these kinds of gains — and all the physique improvements that comes with it — read on for how the StrongLifts program gets results and gets them fast.
A lifting program with five sets of five reps isn’t a new concept — it was originally created ages ago by Reg Park and included a variety of exercises, including the Big Three: the back squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. Years later, Bill Starr created a simpler version with the Big Three and just a few other total-body moves like the power clean and overhead press.
The StrongLifts 5×5 then added and substituted a few exercises and further evolved to create what they have today. Thousands of beginners around the world flock to this program and many have seen amazing results. If done along with a great diet, many men can change their body.
“Adding something like 20 pounds of muscle while lowering your body fat — that’s very typical of someone who sticks with the program,” Mehdi explains.
The StrongLifts 5×5 Program alternates between two workouts, three times a week with at least one full day of rest between workouts. All exercises are performed in straight sets with anywhere from one minute to five minutes of rest between sets. Add five pounds to each lift every workout until you miss reps (i.e. you can only get four instead of five). If you fail on a certain exercise, repeat that same weight the next time around; if you get it the next time, continue increasing the weight. If you fail three consecutive times on an exercise, deload by dropping the weight 10 percent. Then, continue with the same progressive overload system.
As for cardio, it’s fine after a workout or on your off-days, but don’t go overboard.
“I do cardio myself,” Mehdi says, “but if you do too much, you’ll be interfering with recovery between heavy squats.”
Simply put, compound exercises work and the programming in StrongLifts gives you a plan to improve them.
“There’s no magic about compound exercises,” explains Mehdi. “Most people are using isolation exercises, but compound moves use more weight, which puts more stress on your muscles to grow.”
If you want to add muscle, you must get stronger. A 2013 study from Japan found that just eight weeks of a squat-based program. The structure of StrongLifts provides beginners with a plan to increase their numbers.
“Most guys go to the gym without a plan,” Mehdi says, “and the saying says, ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail.’”
With the StrongLifts 5×5 Program, every time you go to the gym, you know exactly what to do — how many reps, how many sets, and how much weight to use.
“You can also see a clear progression, which is very motivating,” Mehdi adds. They’ve also developed an app that’s like having your personal StrongLifts 5×5 coach in the gym, telling you exactly what to do that day. The program uses “progressive overload,” which is the system of gradually adding more intensity to each exercise to force the body to adapt. It instills the notion that you need to do more to continue challenging your body and get more results. Once you hit a plateau, it reduces intensity to give your body (and mind) a break before throwing you right back into the program. Often, you’ll find that certain numbers represent mental barriers rather than physical barriers.
It introduces beginners to the world of strength — simple, basic, and compound exercises that practically hit every body part. The truth is that beginners don’t need to waste their time on bicep curls and tricep pulldowns. Beginners should be placing the lack of strength problem ahead of the lack of arm size problem. The time for hypertrophy will come later that is once you’ve built a foundation of strength.
StrongLifts also debunks the myth that “back squats are bad for your knees” and “deadlifts are bad for your back.” Researchers from Duke University found that “the squat does not compromise knee stability, and can enhance stability if performed correctly.” As for the deadlift, it teaches people how to bend at their hip under load, which is an essential movement pattern. Also, if done correctly, a deadlift training can fix back pain, improve your posture, and increase vertical jump. Most importantly, Mehdi teaches mental strength: how to push through obstacles, ignore the critics, and want something with real passion.
If you’re dealing with injuries, here’s the key: ask why you’re hurt in the first place.
“Things like squats and deadlifts are natural movements you’re going to have to do anyway,” says Mehdi. “For a lot of people, their knees hurt and their back hurts because they’re not doing the exercise correctly.”
He recommends giving it a try with the correct technique and seeing if you still have pain.
Eventually, there will come a time where you can’t continue to add weight every workout and you’ll have to use something that cycles different intensities on the back squat, deadlift, and bench press. Once you finish the program, a lot of people switch to the Madcow 5×5 program, especially if they want to continue to build serious strength. Others switch to sports-specific programs or maintenance routines. No matter what they choose, however, heavy, compound movements are always the way to go. Exercises that target a lot of muscles at the same time are still going to lead to the most strength.