With thousands of users, StrongLifts 5x5 is one of the most popular strength training programs on the market today. With simple progressive free-weight exercises and a commitment of just 3 days a week, the StrongLifts program promises to build muscle and burn fat quickly and efficiently. But what if you're no longer in your 20s—or 30s? Will it work for you too? And, perhaps more importantly, is StrongLifts for older adults safe? In this article, we're going to answers these questions and more so you can make the best choice for your fitness goals.
StrongLifts 5x5: The Basics
The StrongLifts program is based on the work of Bill Starr, who developed the first 5x5 program in the 1970s and whose work has since been modified and further popularized by Mark Rippetoe as well as a mysterious individual known only as Madcow.
The StrongLifts 5x5 version of Bill Starr's original work is made up of two different workouts—workout A and workout B—each of which contains three 45-minute exercises performed three times a week on alternating days, with rest days in between.
Why is it called StrongLifts 5x5?
In addition to the fact that the program contains just five different exercises—squats, bench press, barbell row, overhead press, and deadlift—four of the five exercises are repeated five times for five repetitions.
The exception to this rule is the deadlift exercise, which is performed once for five repetitions. Why? According to the creator of StrongLifts 5x5, Mehdi, deadlifting is extremely hard on the body, so more than one rep would only slow your strength gains—a view not necessarily shared by every lifter.
The key to the program's effectiveness is said to be the fact that each of its five exercises involves compound lifts, which work multiple muscle groups in the lower and upper body simultaneously.
Another factor that sets StrongLifts 5x5 apart from other types of weightlifting programs is that it begins with light weights, in the form of an empty bar, and builds on the amount of weight added to the barbell by 5 pounds with the successful completion of each exercise.
However, "successful completion of each exercise" is the operative phrase here.
Any time you're unable to complete the recommended sets and repetitions with a particular weight, you stay at that weight until you're successful. And if you fail to complete your workout after three consecutive attempts, you deload, or go back to however much weight you were last successful with and try the higher weight at a later workout.
Based on its combination of exercises as well as its focus on getting as strong as possible as quickly as possible—and looking more defined in the process—you might say that StrongLifts 5x5 combines the appearance goals of bodybuilding with the strength goals of powerlifting.
StrongLifts 5x5: The Exercises
As mentioned, the StrongLifts program is built around five core exercises:
- Bench press
- Barbell row
- Overhead press
Let's now take a closer look at each of these and the role they play in the StrongLifts program.
Squats are a fitness powerhouse. In fact, many experts say if you can do only one exercise, make it squats. Why? Because this deceptively simple resistance exercise works every muscle in your lower body, strengthening your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves and even helping your hip, knee, and ankle joints become stronger and more resilient. And this can help you stay healthy and active all the years of your life.
With all these benefits, it's no wonder squats are basically the foundation upon which StrongLifts 5x5 is built.
As with any exercise, the key to getting the most out of squats is ensuring they're done using proper form.
A basic squat is performed by placing feet shoulder width apart, holding your arms in front of you for balance, placing the majority of your weight on your heels, sitting back (like you're sitting in a chair), and then returning to a standing position, squeezing your glutes as you rise up.
With StrongLifts 5x5, however, squats are performed using dumbbells (with the aid of a power rack for heavier weights). According to stronglifts.com, the proper technique for performing this version of the squat is the following:
- Stand with the dumbbell bar on the upper back and feet shoulder width apart.
- Perform the squat by pushing the knees to the side and moving hips back.
- Squat until the hips are lower than the knees.
- Pull up, keeping the knees out and the chest up.
- Lock the hips and knees on standing.
2. Bench Press
One of the oldest of modern exercises, the bench press is a mainstay of every bodybuilder and powerlifter's workout routine. However, to be effective—and safe—it must be carried out using proper form:
- Using a home or gym bench press (not a Smith machine), lie down with your eyes directly under the bar.
- Grip the bar firmly between fingers and thumbs a little more than shoulder width apart.
- Straighten the arms to unrack the bar and lower to midchest.
- Return the bar to its starting position by straightening the arms.
3. Barbell Row
Like the other exercises in StrongLifts 5x5, barbell rows work the entire body, especially the upper and lower back, arms, and hips. To perform this exercise correctly, stronglifts.com recommends the following guidelines:
- While standing, place the midfoot under the bar.
- Bending over, grip the bar firmly between fingers and thumbs, palms down, a little more than shoulder width apart.
- With knees unlocked and hips high, straighten the back and lift the chest.
- Pull up the bar, raising it to your lower chest, and then lower back to the floor.
4. Overhead Press
The overhead press is another compound lift that's great at strengthening your legs, back, shoulders, and core. However, because the maneuver relies mainly on the small muscles of the body, it's also difficult to do and will showcase any weaknesses more readily than the other exercises included in StrongLifts 5x5.
In addition, using improper technique can irritate the shoulders, so it's a good idea to be clear about proper form before beginning the overhead press:
- While standing, grip the bar firmly between fingers and thumbs, palms up, and bring the bar to the front of the shoulders.
- Press the bar toward the ceiling until it's over your head and in line with the shoulders and midfoot.
- Once fully raised, lock the elbows and "shrug" the shoulders toward the ceiling.
- Lower the bar to the starting position.
Like squats, deadlifts are considered an important exercise for anyone wishing to build total-body strength that lasts a lifetime. And because deadlifts work many muscle groups that are often ignored by other exercises, they can even help prevent low back pain and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears—a common injury that often requires surgery.
To perform deadlifting properly, stronglifts.com recommends the following technique:
- While standing, place your feet under the barbell at midfoot.
- Bend over and grip the bar between fingers and thumbs, palms down, a little more than shoulder width apart.
- Bend the knees until the shins make contact with the bar.
- After taking and holding a deep breath, lift the barbell to an erect position by straightening the lower back and lifting the chest (the bar should slide up your shins).
- Lower the barbell to the starting position.
StrongLifts for Older Adults: Is It Something You Should Try?
Like other strength training programs, StrongLifts 5x5 can hurt you if you don't approach it the right way. This is especially true if you're an older adult.
After all, while staying fit becomes even more vital as we age, expecting our bodies to train the same way they once did can be a recipe for disaster.
However, because StrongLifts 5x5 is built with beginners in mind, it can be an excellent way for older adults to increase their muscle strength. Still, to get the most gains out of this program, it's important to follow the guidelines below.
1. Start at the Beginning
Because StrongLifts 5x5 starts you off with an empty bar, it's almost impossible to go wrong here. However, many people think lifting an empty bar is pretty silly and decide to skip it and jump right into the free weights.
But when you think about it, it's actually a great safety precaution because it allows you to get your form right before you start piling on extra weight.
So even if you think your starting strength is way above an empty bar, don't skip this part. It could mean the difference between meeting your strength goals and being sidelined with an unnecessary injury.
2. Don't Forget to Warm Up
Because the StrongLifts program doesn't come with a built-in warm-up period, it's easy to forget to include this in your training program.
But warm muscles are more flexible and less prone to injury, so be sure to incorporate 5 or 10 minutes of light cardio and stretching before you begin weight training.
3. Don't Overdo It
Built in to the StrongLifts program is a rapid compounding of the weight used in each workout. Although the amount of weight added is relatively small, and you're asked not to progress to the next level until you're able to successfully complete a workout with the current weight, just because you can complete a workout doesn't necessarily mean you're ready to progress.
So if you struggle with a particular weight or have trouble maintaining proper form, listen to your body and stick with the current weight or deload and rest or work with a lighter weight until you're completely comfortable performing the exercise.
The same goes for the 3-day-a-week regimen.
As we age, the body needs more rest than it did when it was younger, so if your workouts leave you feeling exhausted, give yourself more time to recover. You may progress more slowly with the program than a younger individual does, but you'll be progressing in a manner that respects your body and keeps you safe.
4. Supplement with Amino Acids
Amino acids are popular among exercise enthusiasts of all types because they boost endurance, reduce recovery time, and build muscle. However, many older adults don't realize that these building blocks of protein also play an extremely important role in helping us hold on to muscle as we age.
You see, as we age, the body's ability to build new muscle protein naturally declines. However, by adding additional essential amino acids to our diet, we can combat this anabolic resistance, build muscle, and increase lean body mass.
What's more, just like a 20-something exercise aficionado, amino acids can help older adults increase endurance and speed recovery time.
In conclusion, StrongLifts 5x5 is a strength training program that's perfectly suited to beginning lifters. And with exercises that can be tailored to suit the needs of just about anyone, it's also a great choice for older adults who are new to weight training.
However, as with any strength training program, don't hesitate to consult with a professional trainer for additional help with your technique. And, as always, don't hesitate to speak with a qualified health care provider if you have any health concerns that may interfere with your ability to safely participate in this or any other exercise program.