Review of beginner weight lifting programs

After completing seven consecutive months of weight training, it’s been fascinating to watch my body change and grow. It’s been about 15 years since I last lifted weights, and my body jumped back into the routine quickly.

The biggest challenge I’ve had is finding a program that allows for consistent strength gains. I think this is a perpetual search  for most strength trainees. I’ve now tried several programs with varying success. I’ll review the Stronglifts 5×5 and Greyskull LP programs in this article. I hope the information helps other strength trainees find a productive program more quickly, with less trial and error.

For the first three months of my lifting program, I used information on the exrx.net website to design a weightlifting program focusing on four basic, compound lifts: overhead press, bench press, squat, and deadlift. Since I was untrained, with the exception of many years’ rock climbing and hiking, my strength developed quickly. Improving my form is the most important driver of my strength gains during these months.

By the end of the first 90 days, I was using a weekly cycle of weight increases, doing one heavy set of three repetitions at 90% of my one-rep max, and a light set of 8 reps at 78% of my one-rep max. I felt like this wasn’t enough volume to continue driving my progress, and I felt like I’d skipped over a true beginner’s program, so I decided to try the Stronglifts 5×5 program (SL5x5). I tried this for the next eight weeks.

SL5x5 is a linear progression (LP) program, in which the trainee tries to set a new personal record (PR) for each lift performed during a workout. While I feel the Stronglifts 5×5 program is a great place to start weight training, Mehdi, the program’s promoter, does not think this program is ideal for people who can squat at least 220 lbs. (100 kg).*

I agree with Mehdi’s assessment of SL5x5. I was already squatting 255 lbs for five reps before starting this program, and my 5-rep max (5RM) for squat did not increase on this program or the Greyskull LP program: I’ll say more about the Greyskull LP program later. I think Mehdi makes this recommendation because SL5x5 has the trainee squatting and deadlifting heavy weights on the same days, which makes new PR’s hard to attain when both lifts are at difficult weights. When I couldn’t make progress on the 5×5 program only one work set, I switched to the Greyskull LP program.

The Greyskull LP program is another beginning, linear progression program. It uses the same lifts as SL5x5, but it puts the deadlift in a separate workout from the squat, so these lifts don’t interfere with each other as much. However, I found a similar problem with this program over time: as the intensity of each lift increases (i.e. the weight gets heavier), the volume of weight lifted in each workout stays the same (i.e. a trainee does the same number of sets and reps), which means that the body can’t recover in the two days in between each workout, and the trainee accumulates too much fatigue to continue setting new PR’s each workout. This happened to me, and that is an indication that it’s time to change the weight training program.

In my case, I reduced the frequency of workouts in which I try to set PR’s. In the linear progression programs, I was doing this every workout. Now, I try to set new PR’s in each lift once a week. The rest of the week I do more reps with a lighter weight: these volume workouts should push my muscles to grow without making my muscles accumulate fatigue, like I did under the LP programs. In essence, I’m back to the program I was doing before I started the LP programs.

Did the beginner programs increase my strength at all? My 5-rep max (5RM) for deadlift has increased 45 lbs. as of this writing, from 315 to 360. My 5RM for squat has not increased from 255. Overhead press has improved 2.5 lbs. to 112.5 lbs., and bench press is up 8.75 lbs. to 158.75 lbs. My form is better than it was before going through the beginner programs: doing more volume at lighter weights helped me improve some form problems — this is probably the greatest benefit I found by doing the LP programs.

Have you done any of these programs? What’s your experience been?

 

Notes:

* I think this weight limit is directed at men, and women who are proportionate to this level of strength on a chart of women’s squat standards will see similar results; however, I’m not an exercise scientist — that’s just my amateur opinion. On a tangent, I feel that most weight lifting standards are focused on men, and there needs to be a more inclusive description of strength standards and training practices online to include women. There are many female strength trainees out there who need good information.

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