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The number of sets in routines like Starting Strength or Stronglifts seems absurdly low.

For example, doing Starting Strength, you are on average doing 4.5 sets per week on the bench press. That's crazy low. In Stronglifts it's a bit better at 7.5 but still very low. The Squat is really the only exercise that is getting a reasonable number of volume in these routines, at 9 sets per week in Starting Strength and 15 sets per week in Stronglifts.

I don't doubt that these programs work. But the weekly volume is far below the typically the interval of 10-20 sets per week that I think most people would agree is a reasonable target for optimal muscle gains. So could the programs not be much more improved if one simply added more volume?

What have the creators of these routines said about this question? Why don't they recommend it?

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  • What most people agree upon, unfortunately, has very little relation to the realities of optimal stimulus and recovery. Standard practice is driven more by culture, hearsay, and dogma than it is by science. It has been demonstrated that for beginners, for example, there is no advantage to hypertrophy in training more than once per week. A single set to failure provides all the stimulus that a beginner will be able to recover from in most cases. And even at a more advanced level, such protocol has been used to win amateur bodybuilding contests, for example. More is not necessarily better.
    – POD
    Aug 4 '20 at 3:02
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    Is there a citation for the 10-20 sets per week? It's not as agreed-upon in the circles I run. I feel like tracking down where that came from could be as useful as tracking down why SS disagrees. Aug 4 '20 at 6:12
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    Minimum effective dose... Here’s a secret: A novice doesn’t need 20 sets to grow
    – Frank
    Aug 4 '20 at 9:49
  • I recall a comment in the text of the Strong Lifts program to the effect of "The single most common cause of injury in a weight room is ego."
    – Stephen R
    Aug 5 '20 at 19:29
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Stronglifts and Starting Strength are beginner strength programs designed for all ages and body types. Whether you're young, old, weak, obese, male, female, new to the gym, coming back from an injury, etc. The focus is strength gain as opposed to increasing muscle mass. With these two factors in mind, the programs target the largest muscle groups for a strength based goal.

Starting Strength should almost always be used as a starting platform into a more intermediate program. If you're a testosterone fueled male in your early 20's, you'll likely outgrow the program very quickly. If you're a 70 year old grandma, this will last you a long time (they have videos where they show elderly using this program).

If you're looking for a more advanced program you can check out something like the Calgary Barbell 16-week program. You'll have 15-20+ sets of each various squat, bench, and deadlift exercises n a week.


Addendum: to answer the question asked, of course you could add one more set, you could add more workouts too. You can add deload weeks, you could add RPE sets in, you could run it in blocks, and more. It just isn't Starting Strength anymore at the point. At some point the recipe is too different and it breaks off into another program (e.g. Stronglifts, Madcow, and the Texas Method).

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  • "I tried Starting Strength, but deadlifts hurt my back, so I subbed in bicep curls, and squats hurt my knees, so I subbed in triceps extensions. I didn't get the advertised results, this program sucks" <- I'm sure I've seen posts like that before on various forums :)
    – Dark Hippo
    Aug 4 '20 at 8:02
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Starting Strength feels like a low-volume program because it uses a powerlifting template to push mostly the squat as far as possible, with the goal of turning scrawny young men into thick young men ready to play sports like American football. The template works pretty well for other people and other purposes but "too weak to be on the field safely" -> squatting 405 is its origin story. To this end, it prioritizes escalating intensity over volume.

It does that quite well with nine progressively heavier squat sets of five per week, plus a short list of other barbell exercises with a high return on investment. Done properly this becomes a grueling challenge that gets the trainee well acquainted with a progressive resistance approach to lifting. (This is far more important than the physical effects, the argument goes, because focusing on adding weight to the bar according to a schedule is a more effective template than a more traditional bodybuilding approach based on momentary muscular failure.)

Two rabbits

Once the centrality of pushing the squat is understood, it's clear why Starting Strength doesn't have more volume: adding sets does not contribute to this goal. It is also clear why it's a bad idea to "just add volume" to the program: you will not have a good time with the rapidly increasing weight on the bar. Squatting three days a week, with a little more weight on the bar every single time, is more than enough signal to inform the body that it must grow to adapt to this stress.

People who add extra sets to the program will find themselves spending their recovery budget on that additional volume rather than on the ever-rising intensity of more plates on the bar. This is often unpleasant to experience firsthand, as the discovery comes to you underneath a bar you can't lift.

Plenty of programs accept these limitations and pick a different rabbit for the beginner to chase. For instance, they may reduce squat volume and increase upper-body volume, like Greyskull LP. Or, they may vary the rep ranges in more exercise-targeted sessions, like 5/3/1.

In contrast, the appeal of Starting Strength is in its plain simplicity. This doesn't just make it easy to understand. Its simplicity resists people screwing with it. More complex programs are more amenable to tuning and fiddling, which is often compelling but not optimal for the beginner who knows little — and can lift less. When running Starting Strength the goal is clear: add a little weight to the bar on a frequent schedule. Everything else — the sets of five, the limited exercise selection, the relatively few sets — is in support of that.

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    This is another great point that skipped my mind; which is funny since I remember this program beating me down. If you start with the bar, yeah, Starting Strength goes slow but eventually, you'll get to 300+ lb and it starts to take a toll. After my first 315 3x5, I could barely walk the next day, and then I was supposed to do 320 3x5 the day after. I couldn't imagine adding more volume at that time.
    – C. Lange
    Aug 4 '20 at 18:39

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