Program Comparison: Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Vs. StrongLifts 5 x 5 Vs. Starting Strength

How do you choose the best program for your needs?

There are so many workout programs out there it’s nearly impossible to definitively brand one as superior to another without context of an athlete’s needs, wants, and specificity. Over the next few months, I’ll be comparing workout programs I’ve followed and writing brief objective comparisons. Today, we’re going to cover Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1, StrongLifts 5 x 5, and Starting Strength.

All of these programs have grown in popularity throughout multiple strength circles, and tend to get recommended to barbell training novices and intermediates. StrongLifts 5 x 5 and Starting Strength are often the first recommendations for the beginner still building their foundation, then Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 often comes soon after as a lifter’s confidence grows and they become an intermediate.

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This article will be an overview of the three programs and will attempt to assess the pros and cons that come along with each.

Program Backgrounds

Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1

Jim Wendler’s program originates from the year 2008. Wendler has said that he created the program originally to help himself stop thinking in the weight room and to simply get in, get out, and move weight in-between. It’s relatively simple in design, and incorporates a deload on the fourth week.

StrongLifts 5 x 5

The concept of 5 x 5 workouts isn’t anything new, and they’ve been around for years in the strength community. Although, for this article we’ll talk about Mehdi’s StrongLifts 5 x 5 program. In 2007, Mehdi created the StrongLifts website and has since amassed a massive following through the use of his easy to follow workout design.

Starting Strength

Starting Strength probably doesn’t need much of an intro, as most in the strength industry know of coach Mark Rippetoe and his longstanding teachings of the barbell fundamentals. The concept of the Starting Strength program has been around the longest and continues to stand the test of time.

Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1

Program Overview

For this article, we’re going to discuss the basic structure of 5/3/1. I’m not going down the rabbit hole of the programs that offer various accessory work for different athletes (buy Wendler’s book for that!), as that would get very confusing when comparing these three routines. Wendler’s 5/3/1 is focused around four compound movements the overhead press, squat, deadlift, and bench press.

Every workout will be formatted to complement one of the four movements and the percentages used are based off of 90% of an athlete’s 1-RM. The last set of every workout is designed to be an AMRAP. Every fourth week there’s a deload, and the long-term goal is to build up slow.

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Weekly Workout Structure for Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1

Week 13 x 5
Week 23 x 3
Week 35, 3, 1
Week 4Deload

 

One of, if not the most important considerations when working through 5/3/1 is the understanding of the percentages used during each week. Consistency of the percentages used will allow you to accurately track progress and push for rep goals/PRs.

Weekly Loading Percentages Per 90% of 1-RM

Below is an example of what each week’s loading will look like for the rep scheme used.

Week 15 x 65%, 5 x 75%, 5 x 85%+
Week 23 x 70%, 3 x 80%, 3 x 90%+
Week 35 x 75%, 3 x 85%, 1 x 95%+
Week 45 x 40%, 5 x 50%, 5 x 60%

 

After the completion of four weeks, the lifter will then progress their bench and overhead press 1-RM calculations by 5 pounds, along with their squat and deadlift by 10 lbs. This allows for a steady linear progression, while the deload also helps with premature burnout.

It’s generally advised to split the upper + lower body days to avoid fatigue, aka avoid doing a deadlift back-to-back with a squat day. Additionally, taking rest days as needed in-between workouts is also recommended.

5/3/1 Pros

  • Simple loading scheme, and can be a great intro to learning how to program percentages with lifts.
  • Can be performed in 3 or 4 days, so those with limited time may find it useful.
  • Built in deloads and modest lifting intensities to prevent burnout.
  • AMRAPs allow a lifter to stay motivated and pursue a goal every workout.

5/3/1 Cons

  • Without knowledge of your 1-RM, it may be tough to accurately use.
  • Some athletes may want more exposure to each compound movement, as opposed to once a week.

Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 Is Ideal For: Intermediate Lifters

StrongLifts 5 x 5

StrongLifts 5 x 5 is arguably the simplest program on this list. It includes two workouts composed of five different movements. These movements include the squat, deadlift, overhead press, bench press, and barbell row. The rep scheme is consistent, along with the loading scheme per each workout.

This workout routine is designed to progress an athlete slow through a simple linear periodized program, aka long-term one direction steady progress. For true beginners, it’s recommended starting very light (even using the bar) and for the barbell novice a starting weight of 50% of your 5-RM is recommended.

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Weekly Workout Structure for StrongLifts 5 x 5

The workouts (A & B) are rotated every workout with one day of rest in-between.

Workout AWorkout B
Squat 5 x 5Squat 5 x 5
Bench Press 5 x 5Overhead Press 5 x 5
Barbell Row 5 x 5Deadlift 1 x 5

 

It’s recommended to start light because every workout you’ll aim to increase the weight on the bar by 5 lbs (deadlift 10 lbs). If you’re able to hit the assigned weight for the reps provided, then you’ll progress with the weight jump, or you’ll hold off and repeat the weight if you missed reps/came close to failing.

StrongLifts 5 x 5 Pros

  • Simple, easy to follow workout structure
  • Great way to focus on movements and learn barbell fundamentals
  • Can help a lifter learn how to load and gauge their abilities with small weight jumps.

StrongLifts 5 x 5 Cons

  • Lacks accessories, and may not be enough to build a balanced body.
  • Can lead to burnout quickly as the weight accumulates over time.

StrongLifts 5 x 5 Is Ideal For: Novice Lifters

Starting Strength

Legendary strength coach Mark Rippetoe has grown in popularity due to his contributions in the strength world that take the “no BS” approach. Starting Strength’s routine comes with three phases and is designed to teach barbell fundamentals with the bench, squat, deadlift, and press, along with introducing power oriented moves like the power clean.

Starting Strength’s goal is to take advantage of the Novice Effect, which is the rapid increase in gains when a true novice begins lifting (also called Newbie Gains). Below I’ll cover each phase of Starting Strength’s routine.

Weekly Workout Structures for Starting Strength

Phase 1

For Starting Strength, a lifter will rotate the workouts each time they’re in the gym, and for the press/bench press they’ll complete whichever they didn’t perform in the previous workout. This phase will last several weeks and once a lifter becomes confident and competent in the movements they can then progress to Phase 2.

Jumps can be made accordingly to a lifter’s abilities, and a lifter may find they’re able to increase their weight a bit more the first few workouts, then have to taper it off to something like 5 lbs as they progress. A lifter will have to judge how their body feels with various increases. The important thing is that they’re not missing reps.

Day ADay B
Squat 3 x 5Squat 3 x 5
Press/Bench Press 3 x 5Press/Bench Press 3 x 5
Deadlift 1 x 5Deadlift 1 x 5

 

Phase 2

Unlike Phase 1, Phase 2 will vary in length and lifters will have to adjust this phase length accordingly for their own progress. By this time, there should be a fundamental understanding of the movements and a solid strength foundation built. Day A and Day B will be rotated and will both have a rest day in-between them.

Phase 2 is similar to Phase 1, but takes out one of the deadlifts and includes a power clean for five sets of triples. Loading should be done in a similar manner, but again, a lifter should pay attention to how their body is handling loads and increase accordingly.

Day ADay B
Squat 3 x 5Squat 3 x 5
Press/Bench Press 3 x 5Press/Bench Press 3 x 5
Deadlift 1 x 5Power Clean 5 x 3

 

Phase 3

The final phase of Starting Strength involves the most variability and by now an athlete is thought to have built a strong enough foundation for the addition of chin-ups. The first two exercises of Day A and Day B will remain consistent, but the third exercises will vary each day.

For example, the deadlift and power clean will be rotated similar to how press and bench press are, but the difference is that there’s a day in-between them. With chin-ups, Rippetoe suggests performing three sets to fatigue, and once a lifter can complete 3 x 10 with their bodyweight, then they can incorporate weighted chin-ups into the program. If a  lifter is here, then it’s advised they perform weighted chin-ups for 3 x 5 every other workout and alternate them with bodyweight to fatigue days.

Loading will again be similar and should be adjust accordingly per a lifter’s needs, more than likely jumps will be much less in weight.

Day ADay B
Squat 3 x 5Squat 3 x 5
Press/Bench Press 3 x 5Press/Bench Press 3 x 5
Deadlift 1 x 5 / Power Clean 5 x 3Chin-Ups

 

Starting Strength Pros

  • Allows a lifter to learn how to load for their needs while providing direction.
  • Ample information about the program online, on forums, and in books.
  • Provides fundamental barbell movements, while integrating a power-based movement into the program
  • Simple, proven, easy to follow program

Starting Strength Cons

  • May be tough for a lifter to gauge jumps in compounds as they progress further into Phase 3 of the program.

Starting Strength Is Ideal For: Novice & Newer Intermediate Lifters

Wrapping Up

This article isn’t intended to claim one program as being better than the other, and many are going to have their opinions on which they prefer. Hopefully this article helped shine light on some of the fundamental differences that come along with each program. Keep in mind, we didn’t dive into accessories that can programmed per each routine, or talk smaller details such as recommended rest times and tempos.

If you’re curious about the ins and outs of each program, then I’d recommend reading their full breakdowns to decide if each is right for you.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @daveprasad95 Instagram page.

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