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I was recently looking through the Stronglifts 5x5 workout, and I was wondering about its effectiveness. The program has some lofty claims (most do), has a ton of anecdotal evidence supporting it, and appears to be quite successful given their "15 million visitors and 23 thousand members." That being said, the nerd in me really wants to understand why something works, and the site didn't really communicate that point.

Before I spend 12 weeks on what could be just another "fad routine," I was wondering if anyone knew of any research or studies done on the Stronglift routine, and whether or not the program's effectiveness can be scientifically proven or refuted.

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I'm on the third week of this program, it seems to be a working for an all-day-sitter computer engineer. At least it gives a mental boost because of lifting previously unimaginable weights. –  Seçkin Savaşçı Oct 8 '12 at 18:35
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Stronglifts and Starting Strength are both based on fairly solid scientific evidence, however, neither program as a whole has been properly scientifically evaluated. You can summarize each like this: "Take advantage of the novice effect and large compound lifts to allow incremental increases every workout for months."

The novice effect has been demonstrated in the literature: untrained individuals gain strength more quickly than any other group.

The usefulness of compound lifts in developing functional strength and allowing incremental increases is also fairly established. For example, squats have been shown to be well correlated with sprint times and vertical jump height.

Working out in the 5-rep regime (both programs advocate 5-rep sets) has also been shown to correlate with strength gains rather than hypertrophy (size) or endurance.

So, if you're a novice lifter (meaning that you can recover from your lifting your 5-rep max in about 2 days), and your goal is getting strong, both Stronglifts and Starting Strength should work for you. They're supported by research, and tons of empirical results.

Here are two articles that explain the reasoning behind these programs:

There is less scientific evidence for choosing Stronglifts over Starting Strength, or choosing Starting Strength over Stronglifts.

The differences are basically small details. Stronglifts uses 5 sets at the work weight, while Starting Strength uses 3 sets at the work weight. Starting Strength incorporates power cleans, but Stronglifts doesn't. Stronglifts says add at most 5lbs per lifting session. Starting Strength says add up 10-20lbs per session for the bigger lifts like deadlifts, at least at the start, when you're able to make quick gains in technique and strength. Starting Strength (the books) seems to have a more complete description of the program and techniques behind all of the lifts than Stronglifts provides.

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Even if you go with Stronglifts, you should still read Starting Strength. –  Mongus Pong Mar 15 '12 at 13:45
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I will say, if you don't want that used car salesman in every email to you, pick Starting Strength. Rip is very practical, even when he brings out his bravado. Medhi is much less so. –  Berin Loritsch Sep 27 '13 at 11:00
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We get a lot of this type of question: "we know X, but can we scientifically prove X?" The answer, almost invariably in the field of strength training, is no.

Science is dead; long live science

There's an enormous number of variables in strength training: nutrition, hormones, time of year, mood, prior training, genetics, exercise selection, proper form, proper coaching, degree of coaching, rest, program interruptions, mobility...the list goes on. I have yet to see more than a handful of studies that control adequately for even a few of these. (To get an idea of some of these problems, see 2011 in Strength Training (PDF), a strength-science literature review by someone affiliated with Mark Rippetoe, who authored Starting Strength, which is very similar to StrongLifts.)

Another massive problem with any scientific evidence regarding strength training is the problem of the novice effect. To wit: if someone's been sitting on a couch for ten years, getting them to do any exercise at all will produce immediate and dramatic changes. From this fact springs a million advertising claims.

So a dozen untrained grandmothers can improve their eyebrow-muscle endurance by using a calf raise machine eight times a day while eating nothing but graham crackers. Great. But what would have happened if they had done squats, deadlifts and chin-ups? Or marathon training? Or if they did squats, did they do them correctly? According to which standard? (And why do we care about eyebrow-muscle endurance, anyway?) This kind of science, where variables are controlled and compared in a useful manner, is apparently hard to produce.

"Science" in sports, bodybuilding, fitness, and strength training is almost always of the N=1 variety. That is to say, people experiment on themselves. (Or the people they coach, making N>1, but N is still too heterogeneous to make it peer reviewable.) Kurtis Frank has an excellent observation on this point:

[Empiricism is one of the foundations from which science is built.] That is what most coaches and athletes who get results are doing. They run a trial, find a result (good or bad) and design future trials to try and isolate the variable. A temporal relation always exists in these trials, there is usually some modicum of control placed on the subjects (don’t do cardio on this powerlifting regimen, I want to see if it works without cardio fucking up your gains), and people are ‘on to something’ when their results are compared and contrasted against other person’s results at athletic conferences.

Its not indexed in medline, they don’t use nice laboratory methods or questionnaires, and they don’t write everything they do up and submit it for peer review. That being said though, it is empirical evidence gained by the scientific method (or some very similar beast) that is tested and retested to try and find ‘what’ works.

But...what now?

You want science about a lifting or fitness program? Ask somebody who did it personally. Ask a coach who had fifty high school football players do it. Do it yourself. Read up on basic science, paeans to the program, and critiques of the program.

StrongLifts is a lot like Starting Strength, and both of them are a lot like any other 3x5 or 5x5 novice barbell program. You squat, then next time you squat more weight. It works. Barbell lifting is not based on made-up mysticism like "muscle confusion" and it isn't an infomercial trying to get you to buy some overpriced coat hanger with a treadmill attachment. Lifting weights (like fixing your diet, running, and playing sports) is one of those things that works.

And once you're squatting, deadlifting and pressing heavy barbells, your adherence to the program--eating enough, resting enough, lifting the weight correctly--is way, way more important than the program you choose. It's not science, but it's true.

*

Oh, the scientific principle that the program is based on is supercompensation. That's why programs like StrongLifts and Starting Strength work. You lift, your body is stimulated to grow, you lift heavier. Repeat until it doesn't work anymore, at which point you're much stronger. For further reading, Rippetoe and Kilgore's book Practical Programming is a fine choice.

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A coat hanger with a treadmill attachment... I think you're on to something there! –  Moses Mar 13 '12 at 0:17
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