I have undergoing rehab for knee, elbow and shoulder injuries right now for having used poor form and more importantly pushing myself hard for too little muscle mass that I have. Previously I was doing Jillian Michaels' workout videos and some yoga dvds'.

I guess it's high time to gain muscle mass after I recover. Earlier I used to workout with very light dumbell, never lifted heavy before. Will I benefit with the novice effect while doing Stronglifts 5X5?

I can't afford bench/power cage, so can I replace barbell squats with goblet squat and bench press with floor dumbell press without making the program unbalanced in any way?

Are warm up sets the only warm up preceeding the workout?

Edited to add: I'm 25 YO female, stand 5' 4.5" tall and weigh 100 lbs (I am an ectomorph basically). I tend to eat 1600-2000 calories when I'm active. Now lesser since I'm all sedentary except for the rehab. I have been working out since 1.5 years. Was active (martial arts) for 3.5 years before but stopped due to hectic schedule/laziness/excuses...

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    You are asking three different questions at once, please ask them separately.
    – Baarn
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 14:27

2 Answers 2


Stronglifts 5x5 is best suited for healthy people who can at least handle an empty bar. You are starting from an unhealthy point, so it's probably not the best option for you. The bottom line is that you want to start with something you can do properly without joint pain. Your muscles may get sore and that's OK, but you don't want sharp pain after training. Additionally because of the difficulty you had with bad form, I would recommend some changes until you get some strength and muscle size to help support proper squats.

For you, I would recommend starting with 3x8 (3 sets of 8 reps). If you happen to not get all 8 reps on the last set repeat. If you're stuck there after three times, change it to 4 sets of 6 reps. And then to 6 sets of 4 reps. The 6x4 seemed to work well for my daughter. The 3x8 is there to help put some muscle mass on your body.

Will you benefit from the novice effect?

I'm unaware of your age, but I'm guessing you are a woman. My daughter experienced the newbie gains, increasing strength pretty quickly. Her strength gains are limited by the fact that she is a girl, particularly with upper body strength. That lasted for about 3 months, and now the strength is progressing a little more slowly.

I didn't have her do Stronglifts 5x5, but a program I adapted for her that used the same principles. The core movements were the same, but there was a bit more variety in assistance work. Just know that women tend to be capable of performing more reps than men at a certain percentage of their current max. For example, the difference between a 5 rep max and a 1 rep max for a woman might be as little as 5lbs. If I guy can do a weight for 5 reps, he can perform a 1 rep max much higher.

Programming Substitutions

Floor presses are an excellent substitution for bench press. However, I would use dumbbells as assistance and use a barbell for the main work if you can. I'm assuming you have access to a barbell in addition to dumbbells. The important thing is that you are able to keep increasing weight.

Goblet squats however are not great for a main movement. They are fine for warmups or as assistance work, but your upper body strength will limit your lower body development. Without anything to put the bar on while you get under it, there's very little I can recommend. If you have access to a proper gym, you can do leg presses and leg curls. It's not the best training economy, but you can increase the load on them better than you can with goblet squats.

I will say this: use goblet squats until your upper body is limiting what you can squat. Then you need to figure out how to squat or afford a squat rack (it doesn't have to be a full power cage).

You have the right mentality as far as substituting similar movements.

Are warm up sets the only warmup needed?

Initially, if you aren't involved in any other sports or activities that might be enough. However, I've found that the same things that help me during my pre-workout also help my daughter who is involved in two sports:

  • Mash: foam roll your legs and back. This helps loosen up stiff muscles.
  • Activate: basically some body weight work to get your body prepped to do the next movement. For example, body weight squats to full depth for 2 sets of 10 reps--focusing on activating the gluteus muscles.
  • Warmup: do your warmup sets

This progression is helpful to get your body moving properly. Save stretching for after you train. If you focus on having good posture both while training and when you are at rest, it will help address the issues you had on the Jillian Michael's workouts.

Assistance Work

I recommend having one main movement per workout. That would be squats, floor press, deadlifts, and overhead press. After that you can have 3-4 assistance movements.

  • Always do something for your core: planks, sit ups, horizontal leg raises, back extensions.
  • Do something related to your main movement: examples would be doing rows for floor pressing, flexed arm hangs or pull ups for overhead pressing, hamstring work for squats and deadlifts.
  • Do something to fix your posture or body alignment: examples would be reverse flies and front dumbbell raises to fix hunched over shoulders, curls to provide joint stability for your elbows, or anything that helps your pelvic alignment.

All the assistance work would be for relatively low weight and at least 8-10 reps if not 15-20. You'll only need a couple sets. It's a lot of work, but it will help improve your posture which in turn improves your ability to perform the techniques with proper form. The assistance work also helps you become more injury resistant.

It will put some muscle on you, so your body weight may go up. If you are very thin, you'll see yourself getting a little thicker, but everything will be firm. If you are slightly heavy, you may find your weight go higher or it may remain the same as you fit your clothes better. Just be mentally prepared for that. The important thing is that you are happy with what you see in the mirror.

  • Thanks a lot for the elaborate reply... learnt a lot in this one... and yes I have a bad posture before computer and during study and that probably carried over to my workout and also the other way round... Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 11:37

While I cannot compete with the wisdom and experience of Berin, I want to add my point of view on StrongLift 5x5 and similar programs.

I am in rehab for having pushed too hard and injured my shoulders. This has given me the opportunity to a lot of personal research. I know now what I am going to do when my rehab is over, and it has little to do with barbells.

You want to gain muscle. So do I. I am going to explain why I think it is a bad idea for someone in my situation (and perhaps in yours too) to begin the way leading to muscle gain by weightlifting compound exercises. It doesn't mean that you should never do weightlifting, but rather that (I think) you should do other kind of things first.

People that have been all their lifes doing some kind of sports or physically demanding jobs, don't grasp what being weak feels like. For them, an empty 20 kg olympic barbell is a good starting point. Not for me. Here are some thoughts:

1. Deadlifts

Randomly reading in different forums, I have learnt with horror that it is not uncommon for people to get herniated disks from doing deadlifts without proper form. Paradoxically, the same people are happy that the same exercise, performed with lighter weights and proper form, alleviates their pain months after the injury (hey, there is even one of such testimonies in the Stronglifts report itself!). Believe me, you don't want a herniated or ruptured disk that is going to stay with you for the rest of your life.

The lesson is: unless your form is perfect, it is very easy to do a lot of damage to your spine with deadlifts. And, how easy is to have bad form Deadlifting? Well, Bruce Lee himself got a herniated disk by improperly doing Good-mornings, a quite similar exercise to Deadlifts, at least regarding the lower back. Are you telling me that Bruce Lee had poor control of his body?

Failing to maintain proper form is extremely easy if your are weak. Specially with compound exercises because antagonist muscles must counteract and balance one another. You may struggle to have perfect form while deadlifting, but if your abdominal muscles are weak and don't stand the tension in the middle of the lift, your lower back will curve and thus be very vulnerable.

I am not saying that one should avoid Deadlifts forever, but it may be a good idea to invest some time first, strengthening your core muscles with safer exercises (safer because it is much easier to maintain proper form, and because they don't use external weights) There are many of them: Bridges or Bird Dogs or Supermans for the spinal erectors; Plank or Leg Raises or Sit-ups for your abdominal muscles; Side Planks for your obliques...

One easy way to integrate those exercises in a single one to strengthen your core and abs, is the Rotisserie invented by Scooby.

I short words, I think that, if you cannot stand a plank position for a couple of minutes or do a bunch of situps without wanting to puke, it is probably suicidal to start doing deadlifts.

The same goes for Bent-Over Rows and Back Squats with barbells. Great exercises, yes, but only after you have a minimum of strength and are properly trained to perform them with strictly proper form, otherwise they may be a quick way to injure your lower back. Building a minimum level of core strength by safer means before attempting these lifts is not a bad idea.

2. Bench Press and Overhead Press

During both the bench and the overhead press, it is very important that the shoulder blades and the shoulders in general are stable in their correct position during the lift. A collection of different muscles is responsible for that. The movement of the scapulas is complex and depends upon the well balanced action of that muscles. Again, if that muscles are weak, it is very likely that you will injure your shoulders under a 20 kg barbell. That is probably why Berin recommends you to bench press from the floor, not on a bench. Because the floor gives a better support for your back and restricts the motion to a range that is safer for your shoulders.

But, again, there are safer exercises to strengthen the muscles around your shoulder girdles and upper body in general, in a more natural and balanced way, involving more muscles at the same time. The Pushups. During Pushups, your pectorals and front deltoids are actively working, but the important thing is that the muscles around your scapulas are receiving an isometric workout, helping them become progressively stronger. You can start by doing very easy variations like the Wall Push-Ups, then you may progress to Incline Pushups, after that you have the Kneeling Pushups.

These exercises involve the same muscles as the Bench Press and the Overhead Press and some more, but are easier and safer and they will prepare your body for heavy weights. Additionally, they involve more core stabilizer work, adding safety to your future workouts. Again, I think that, if you cannot perform these exercises, then picking up a 20kg barbell is asking for injuries.

There are more things I don't like in SL5x5. I started doing the Shoulder Dislocations Mehdi recommends (if you don't know what exercise Shoulder Dislocations is, then the better for you). This is a passive stretch exercise that would give you more flexibility around your shoulders. Again, this is good for people that have at least some level of muscular strength. But I did them for a while and noticed with horror how my shoulders became loose and started doing craking noises. Passive stretches might be a good way to improve your ROM when you have strong muscles attached to that joints. If that is not the case, the only thing you get is loose joints, prone to injury. Mehdi constantly does a lot of assertions like the benefits of the shoulder dislocations and other things with no solid background, and you can easily notice that by reading any older version of the StrongLifts report, where you see how he has evolved. For instance, until recently, he stated that the weightlifting belt was useless and only gave a false sensation of safety. He then corrected that in the following version of the report. So, if you still insist in doing a 5x5 program, read Rippetoe's book, at least it has a very good description of the proper form of the lifts.

In summary, if your body is weak and you are prone to bad form, weightlifting and 5x5 programs might not be the best choice to start from (although you may turn to them in the future). Progressive calisthenics exercises are my bet.

You can find a very easy to follow, free progressive calisthenics program in youtube. Here are the links (the guys call themselves calisthenicskingz, I think they have another website where they sell the gloves or something):

  1. Beginner Calisthenics Program by calisthenicskingz
  2. Intermediate Calisthenics Program by calisthenicskingz

There is an advanced level too.

But I am going to follow an even more progressive and better structured program, as laid in the book Convict Conditioning. I gave more information about the book in this answer

Another option, if you love weights, are the workouts in Scooby's webpage. He has them structured in several levels, and does emphasize safety a lot. He has a lot of videos with very detailed explanations about all aspects of weightlifting and the proper form of the exercises, and all is free. If you follow his programs, you will nevertheless start by doing pushups, but the following levels is done with dumbbells and barbells, he is a weightlifter.

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    Thanks Mephisto! Going progressive seems to be a much better idea to me. I was myself wondering whether I should start with external weights or not. Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 11:39
  • I was a bit lost with Mehdi's program - I thought it was more oriented towards men who are already doing some lifting. Being an ectomorph women (low upper body strength and overall low muscle mass and hence lower strength), I am still in doubt. Your perspective is different from Berin's but both the replies will help me weigh my options... Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 11:54
  • @SwatiPriyadarsini Berin is an athlete, he's been doing martial arts or something for years, and recently he's been competing in weightlifting. He usually gives the very best and useful answers I have seen in this site, rich in information and suggestions. I am no expert at all. I started weightlifting some months ago and naively got a lot of tendonitis around my shoulders, which has forced me to look for information. Thus my advise cannot be compared to Berin, but in any case, collect information and think well by yourself what suits you best, specially coming from shoulder injuries.
    – Mephisto
    Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 23:54

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