Stronglifts vs Starting Strength: Programs Compared

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 1, 2022

Out of the dozens of novice strength training routines, stronglifts and starting strength are considered to be among the most efficient and effective - and are the most frequently recommended to any aspiring weightlifter.

However, some confusion is found between these two programs, as they share quite a number of similarities and are targeted towards the exact same sort of demographic.

As such, lifters (novices especially) should take a deeper dive into the specific details that set the stronglifts program apart from its starting strength program counterpart.

To put it simply, the main difference between stronglifts and starting strength is in the selection of exercises - as well as the volume performed in such exercises. 

Stronglifts focuses more on proportionality and gross lifting volume, whereas starting strength incorporates certain aspects of Olympic weightlifting so as to build athletic ability on top of raw physical strength.

What is Stronglifts?

Stronglifts 5x5 is a type of novice resistance training program with a focus on maintaining linear progression and whole-body muscular development in a systematic manner.

It places a particular emphasis on heavy compound exercises performed for low volume sets, usually 5 repetitions per set, as is clued in by the name. This is contrasting to the rather sparse isolation exercise volume that is directly included in most versions of the training program.

The Program looks like on Week 1:

Monday AWednesday BFriday A
Squat (5x5 - 20kg/45lbs)Squat (5x5 - 22.5kg/50lbs)Squat (5x5 - 25kg/55lbs)
Bench Press (5x5 - 20kg/45lbs)Overhead Press (5x5 - 20kg/45lbs)Bench Press (5x5 - 22.5kg/50lb)
Barbell Row (5x5 - 30kg/65lbs)Deadlift (1x5 - 40kg/95lbs)Barbell Row (5x5 - 32.5kg/70lbs)

You then take Saturday and Sunday off to recover. Week 2 then alternates Days A and B. Meaning your Monday now uses workout B and vice versa.

Monday BWednesday AFriday B
Squat (5x5 - 27.5kg/60lbs)Squat (5x5 - 30kg/65lbs)Squat (5x5 - 32.5kg/70lbs)
Overhead Press (5x5 - 22.5kg/50lbs)Bench Press (5x5 - 25kg/55lb)Overhead Press (5x5 - 25kg/55lbs)
Deadlift (1x5 - 45kg/105lbs)Barbell Row (5x5 - 35kg/75lbs)Deadlift (1x5 - 50kg/115lbs)

Week 3 would then switch back to the week 1 setup following the same pattern of 2.5 kg or 5 lb increases.

Furthermore, stronglifts holds a high pace of linear progression at 2.5 kilograms or 5 pounds being added to all lifts per workout session, and with each training week featuring at least three of such workout sessions.

Required Equipment

Though it is entirely possible to substitute certain exercises within stronglifts 5x5, the traditional version of the program requires a standard straight barbell, a set of weight plates and a power cage or squat rack. 

power rack

Additionally, exercisers may find it far more comfortable to own a bench press rack instead of performing the bench press exercise within their squat rack or power cage.

Benefits of Stronglifts 5x5

Greatly Improved Strength

Stronglifts is a highly effective strength training program - so much so, in fact, that regular practitioners who combine it with proper nutritive intake and adequate rest can gain as much as 15 pounds or approximately 7 kilograms on their total lifts per week.

Of course, this will naturally slow down due to the diminishing returns of muscular adaptation, but is nonetheless quite rapid for novice level lifters.

Proportional Muscle Mass

Unlike other strength-focused training programs, stronglifts places a particular emphasis on developing all parts of the body in an equal fashion - meaning that the exercises specifically selected for stronglifts workouts all target different muscle groups.

Steady Progression

Being geared towards novices who can progress in a rapid fashion; following stronglifts allows lifters to structure their progression in such a way that they can account for minute differences in their development, essentially smoothing out their progress over time.

Target Demographic

Stronglifts is primarily targeted towards novice lifters with no previous training experience, hopefully with the added benefit of professional supervision - or, at least, with the novice lifter having enough responsibility to perform stronglift’s heavy compound exercises with proper form.

What is Starting Strength?

Starting strength is a highly popular novice resistance training program with a focus on building pure muscular strength and power in as short a time as possible.

Starting strength places an especially large focus on the muscles of the lower body, featuring high volume squat and deadlift sets with high levels of resistance.

The program setup typically looks like this. Assuming Day 1 is a Monday:

Monday AWednesday BFriday A
Squat (3x5)Squat (3x5)Squat (3x5)
Bench Press (3x5)Overhead Press (3x5)Bench Press (3x5)
Deadlift (1x5)Power Clean (5x3)Deadlift (1x5)

The lifter then takes Saturday and Sunday off to recover. Week 2 then alternates B for A:

Monday BWednesday AFriday B
Squat (3x5)Squat (3x5)Squat (3x5)
Overhead Press (3x5)Bench Press (3x5)Overhead Press (3x5)
Power Clean (5x3)Deadlift (1x5)Power Clean (5x3)

Week 3 would then go back to the setup of week 1.

Unlike in stronglifts, starting strength primarily features 3 sets of 5 repetitions each, with deadlifts being kept at a maximum of one working weight set so as to avoid overtraining or excessive fatigue.

These factors combined with the addition of the power clean exercise and a rather intuitive method of ensuring progressive overload leads to one of the best possible novice strength training programs out there.

Required Equipment

Much like other novice level strength training exercises, starting strength requires a standard straight barbell, a set of weight plates and a power cage or squat rack.

squat rack

Just as is the case with stronglifts 5x5, starting strength can also be made easier through the addition of a bench press rack or small increment plates that allow for smoother linear progression to be achieved.

Benefits of Starting Strength

Greatly Improved Strength

Being an entirely strength-focused training program, the rapid progression featured by starting strength will eventually result in large improvements in muscular strength over time - totalling as much as 15 pounds or approximately 7 kilograms being added to a lifter’s lifts per training week.

This, of course, requires that the lifter also consume an adequate amount of calories and protein, as well as rest long enough to allow their muscle mass to recover appropriately.

Greatly Improved Power and Explosiveness

Due to the inclusion of the power clean and a particular focus on heavy lower body compound exercises, starting strength is particularly effective at improving the power and explosiveness of the lifter - carrying over to athletic activities or other situations where explosiveness is required.

Greatly Improved Athletic Ability

Just as the power and explosiveness of the lifter is developed by starting strength, so too are other sports-specific skills that are often employed by athletes so as to excel in their chosen sport. 

Improved muscular strength, body composition and several other less specific skills such as proprioception are all developed efficiently by starting strength, making it an excellent training program for novice athletes.

Steady Progression

Starting strength features regular progressive overload, going so far as to add up to 2.5 kilograms or 5 pounds to the exerciser’s lower body lifts per workout, while the deadlift increases at 10 pounds or 5 kilograms per workout. This creates a steady state of progression, taking full advantage of the “newbie gains” effect and maximizing the efficiency of strength development.

Target Demographic

Starting strength is targeted towards novice lifters who have a desire to develop their muscular strength as quickly and efficiently as possible, with aspiring powerlifters in particular being the most suitable demographic for starting strength.

How to Pick the Right Novice Lifting Program

Going over the various minute differences of stronglifts and starting strength, we can see that there is actually little difference between the two in terms of rate of progression or muscle groups worked.

In fact, the two sole differences between starting strength and stronglifts have to do with the presence of a single exercise, and the total volume of other compound exercises that they otherwise share in common.

As such, choosing the correct program among these two choices is simply a matter of what the lifter values more; muscular proportionality or explosiveness and power. For the former, stronglifts is the better candidate, whereas starting strength excels at developing the latter two aspects of athleticism.

Exercise Selection of Stronglifts and Starting Strength

Both stronglifts and starting strength share the inclusion of the barbell squat, the barbell deadlift, the military press or overhead press as well as the barbell bench press - or what are otherwise known as the staple compound lifts due to their effectiveness at building strength and muscle mass.

Stronglifts and Starting Strength in Terms of Explosiveness and Power

Though both stronglifts and starting strength are equally effective at developing muscular strength, the presence of the power clean in the traditional starting strength program equates to novice exercisers having the early opportunity to develop their physical power in a structured manner.

In comparison, stronglifts foregoes the power clean in favor of the barbell row - a slow and controlled back muscle exercise that does not develop explosiveness in the same manner as the power clean.

Stronglifts or Starting Strength for Bodybuilding

Neither stronglifts nor starting strength are considered to be novice bodybuilding programs, but are nonetheless employed because of their efficiency and effectiveness and introducing novice lifters to proper training methods.

When picking between the two for the purposes of bodybuilding, it is stronglifts that is arguably superior to starting strength - both because of the fact that stronglifts features more volume per exercise, as well as the fact that it includes a back muscle compound movement, aiding in the development of muscular proportionality.

Compound Volume of Stronglifts and Starting Strength 

Generally, starting strength features less total volume per compound exercise than stronglifts. 

There is some debate as to whether lower volume is better or worse for novice exercisers, but in the end the difference is otherwise negligible as stronglifts simply features two more sets of 5 repetitions than starting strength, potentially resulting in greater hypertrophy at the expense of some resistance.

All in all, the total compound volume of each workout is only a small factor, and is up to the lifter to decide on what is more effective for their development.

In Conclusion

So - which program is best? In truth, both stronglifts and starting strength are excellent training programs that can be rated at approximately the same level of effectiveness and complexity. The better program to pick is down to the lifter’s goals, and the amount of time they have for working out.

For individuals that value proportionality and muscle mass more, stronglifts is the better choice - while starting strength is arguably more effective for athletes or those wishing to develop sports-specific skills in a more efficient manner instead.

References

1. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Vigotsky AD, Peterson M. Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. J Sports Sci Med. 2016 Dec 1;15(4):715-722. PMID: 27928218; PMCID: PMC5131226.

2. Rippetoe M, Bradford S. Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training Ch. 2. Aasgaard Company; 2012.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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