Common Beginner Strength Programs

STARTING STRENGTH

Starting Strength is one of the most popular general strength routines out there. It alternates two workouts (day 1 and day 2) based around sets of 5 with a linear progression. So the weights are increased each workout. There are 5 exercises (squat, bench, press, deadlift and power clean) split between workouts 1 and 2.

It’s usually done three days a week, evenly spaced out throughout the week, for example on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. 

As a general strength program for new lifters this setup works very well. Newer lifters can add more weight each workout (and make progress fastest by doing so) and it focuses on major compound exercises that provide the best return on investment in terms of size and strength gains.

However, there are a couple issues with the program, the first being the inclusion of power cleans for new lifters. 

The Olympic lifts are highly technical and optimally executing a power clean is a skill that is best taught by a knowledgeable coach. At the very least a lifter should have a very solid base of squatting, front squatting and deadlifting in place and adequate mobility before embarking on an Olympic lifting specific program to develop these skills. There are many other safer exercises that are easier to learn that could be substituted for power cleans that would result in the same athletic development for a beginner.

Starting Strength also suffers from a lack of back work - specifically a focus on rear delts and mid back, areas that almost everyone is woefully underdeveloped in. This very common imbalance can lead to internal rotation of the shoulders, shoulder impingement, reduced performance and postural problems.

These issues are further compounded when there is an abundance of pressing and no pulling work to supplement it. Horizontal pulls (rows) and vertical pulls (chins, pull-ups, etc) help to balance upper body development and are incredible valuable to newer lifters.

Finally, the program is very repetitive. This is a bit of an issue with any template style workout program but starting strength only uses 5 exercises for the exact same sets of the exact same reps every week with the only variable being adding weight to the bar.

While this isn’t inherently wrong, many lifters may find this repetition and lack of variation boring and be less likely to be consistent with their training.

 

STRONG LIFTS 5x5

A similar and hugely popular program is StrongLifts 5x5. This program is pretty much identical in structure to Starting Strength, but offers slightly more volume (5x5 as compared to 3x5) and has rows in place of power cleans. Although the program needlessly recommends every trainee begin with just the bar, if you skip that step and start with an appropriate weight this program is almost identical to starting strength in terms of pros and cons.



OTHER 5x5 ROUTINES

There are a number of other  5x5 programs, similar to Starting Strength and Strong Lifts. The most popular include the Texas Method and Madcow/Bill Starr’s 5x5.

Most of these programs share many similarities to Starting Strength, they focus on sets of 5, a limited pool of exercises, linear progression, and a repeated training week.

Many of these programs substitute barbell rows for power cleans (a solid alteration for most lifters) and offer a slightly more advanced programming structure with “heavy”, “light” and “medium” days.

These programs have a slower rate of progression, adding weight to the bar only once a week as opposed to every training session. For this reason they are more appropriate for a later stage novice or intermediate lifter who already has some lifting experience and isn’t able to simply add more to the bar every time.

Like Starting Strength, most 5x5 programs don’t have enough emphasis on mid-back work and can suffer by being repetitive.
There are many subtle variations, but here’s an example of a week of training using the Texas Method. Here, Monday is a high volume workout, Wednesday is a light day, and Friday is a higher intensity day.

 

 

5/3/1 PROGRAM

Another popular option for programming is 5/3/1. It’s worth noting that 5/3/1 is really more of a template, there have been multiple books published on it with a huge number of variations (over 500 pages of content) that make it impossible to examine all the possible variants. For our purposes here, we’ll look at the original and most popular version of the program.

5/3/1 has you performing each major exercise once per week (squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press) with week one being 3x5, week two 3x3 and week three being 1x5, 1x3, and then 1x1.  The weights are based off a training max (90% of your actual 1RM) and the final set is done for AMRAP (as many reps as possible). The fourth week is a deload and then the cycle is repeated with the weights bumped up slightly.

WEEK 1: 1x5@65%, 1x5@75%, 1x5+@85%
WEEK 2: 1x3@70%, 1x3@80%, 1x3+@90%
WEEK 3: 1x5@75%, 1x3@85%, 1x1+@95%
WEEK 4 (deload): 1x5@40%, 1x5@50%, 1x5@60%*percentages are based on 90% of your actual 1RM
*”+” means doing AMRAP in that set.

Here's how a week of training would break down:

MONDAY
A.     Overhead Press.  Use prescribed rep scheme for the week of training you’re in.
B.    Accessory work. focusing on building the shoulders and arms.  Usually includes 2 exercises

TUESDAY
A.    Deadlift. Use prescribed rep scheme for the week of training you’re in. 
B.    Accessory work for the back. Usually includes 2 exercises

THURSDAY
A.     Bench Press.  Use prescribed rep scheme for the week of training you’re in.
B.    Accessory work focusing on the arms and chest.  Usually includes 2 exercises.

FRIDAY or SATURDAY
A.    Back Squat. Use prescribed rep scheme for the week of training you’re in.
B.    Accessory work for the legs. Usually includes 2 exercises.

There is some variation to the training week, the rep scheme changes each week and the inclusion of AMRAP sets allow you to set PRs, plus there are numerous options for assistance exercises so boredom is less of an issue as compared to our previous examples

The main issue with 5/3/1 is that it just doesn’t provide a lot of total work for each exercise. Each exercises is only done for 3 sets, once a week, and the weights you handle in training (i.e. the percentage of your max) are very low. Every fourth week is a deload which isn’t necessary for new lifters. Additionally, the weight increases are very slow, newer lifters can generally increase weight at a much faster rate than what is prescribed in 5/3/1.

 

WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN PROGRESS STALLS?

Stalling out on a program is inevitable, especially with a linear progression style training template like the ones discussed. Stalling happens when you are unable to complete all the prescribed reps at the prescribed weight.

The simplest way to handle this is to “reset”. Simply drop the weights back down to what you were using 3-4 weeks before and start over there. The lighter weights should be easy for you and you can build back up, eventually returning to and overcoming the weights that you stalled at the first time.

This will work for a time but eventually you won’t be able to “reset” your way out of a stall. 

At this point you may need variation in terms of rep scheme, periodization and the rate and/or method of progression. You may benefit from a more “intermediate” style program with some more variation and longer periods of progression.