Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

3 Sets of 5

by Karl Schudt | July 27, 2017

program outline

So you’ve decided that you want to get stronger. Good for you! It’s one of the best things you can do for yourself. You’ve decided to use barbells. Well done! Barbells are the best way to get stronger, much better than machines, kettlebells, or bodyweight exercises. You eagerly head to the Internet, the repository of all knowledge, to figure out how to proceed. Confusion sets in. How many sets and reps should you do? What program should you follow? There are lots of Internet experts with different opinions.

There is a popular program out there on the Internet that has novices (that’s you) train by doing five sets of five (5x5) on squats, three times a week. Starting Strength proposes that you do three sets of five (3x5) on squats, three times a week. Which is better?

You are a very eager new lifter. You’ve got dreams of muscle. You want to squat 600lbs and become a beast among men. Five is more than three, more is better, and so five sets should be better than three. Shouldn’t you dive right in and do as much as possible?

No, you should not. In fact, you should be as efficient as possible. Wouldn’t you like to make money without working? At least, wouldn’t you want not to have to work as hard as you do? You should want the greatest return from the least amount of work. Strength training is similar. I like being strong. I’m not as fond of the process of getting strong. It’s not that lifting isn’t fun or rewarding in itself: A really heavy set of squats or deadlifts can be a life-changing experience. When you conquer your fear, unrack the bar, hear the music change pitch due to the blood pressure spike, see stars, nearly fail on the second rep, but grind out three more reps by the skin of your teeth, you learn that your limits aren’t what you thought they were. I think it makes me a better person, but I’m content to go through these life-changing experiences as few times a week as possible. Strive to be strategically lazy, to do the minimum amount of work that will achieve your goals.

Hans Selye’s theory of the General Adaptation Syndrome will help us understand how to be efficient. When an organism undergoes something stressful such as a set of squats, there are three stages in its response:

  1. Alarm or shock: the body is unused to what just happened to it. You are weaker immediately after a training session.
  2. Adaptation or resistance: the body changes itself to protect against #1. In weightlifting, we call this “getting stronger.”
  3. Exhaustion/overtraining.

Mark Rippetoe compares training to tanning in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. If you go out in the sun for 30 minutes a day, day after day, you will only get a little bit tan, because you’ll have adapted to the stimulus that the sun gives you. After the first time out tanning, you aren’t alarming your skin anymore. It takes the 30 minutes of exposure and is unaffected, and you never get to stage 2, adaptation. In order to get a deeper tan, you’ve got to spend more time or get closer to the sun.

What if you wanted to get tan in a hurry? Assume for the sake of this paragraph that you have a milk-white complexion. Because pasty white skin is unattractive, you go to the beach and lay out for two hours per side. What happens? You will burn, and your summer is ruined. You’ve gotten to stage 3. Now, you need to wait for the blisters to go away, and you may have permanently damaged your skin. If you are a redhead, you will probably die. Oops.

Ideally you want to go from stage 1 to stage 2, increase the stimulus, and repeat, and come out looking like George Hamilton. (Google him. It’s glorious.) The most efficient way to get tan is to get the right amount of sun, increasing over time, and not to get too much and derail your progress. We want to do the same thing in barbell training: get the right amount of stimulus, increase it over time, and don’t get too much. This is the fastest way to become strong.

It might help to borrow a concept from Jonathon Sullivan. Think of training with barbells as medicine. If 500mg of medicine relieves symptoms, would 1000mg be better? At some point the dose becomes toxic. Through long experience, for most trainees, three sets of five has been found to be an effective dose that allows the trainee to recover and adapt enough to train again in two days. In short, 5x5 three times a week is too much. There’s too much stimulus, not enough recovery, and lifters stall or regress. They go from stage 1 to stage 3, instead of stage 2. We see it all the time: lifters doing 5x5 three times a week stall early at a light weight. Putting them on a 3x5 program generally gets them unstuck. In fact, this is exactly the strategy that the Other Program proposes when you get stuck. You might as well just do three sets of five at the beginning and not get stuck.

If that’s the case, why not 1x5 or 2x5? This can work for an advanced lifter because he or she is capable of doing a very heavy true limit set. For novices, this is appropriate for the deadlift because most of them will be handling the heaviest weight in this lift. A novice can’t really grind out a limit squat, bench press, or press yet. So, a novice needs more than one set. Two sets would work for a while, but experience has shown that three sets works better, both because of the increased stimulus to drive adaptation, and because it gives you and your coach more time to correct form faults. Two sets wouldn’t be enough stimulus for very long, and three sets give you 15 reps to get it right, each time you go to the gym.

Just do the program, get through your linear progression, be efficient, and you’ll be fine. There will be time for five sets of five later when you are stronger and better able to make use of them.

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