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5x5 Struggling to build strength


KimS

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Hello! I'm a 19 year old girl (5'7'', 128 lbs) and I would love to build strength in my lower body. I have been working out regularly for about a year and a half now (3-4x per week weight lifting), but I never focused on pure strength training. I started SL 5x5 a month ago, but I'm already stalling at 90 lbs. on my squat. I'm very frustrated with how weak my lower body is, and I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong. I'm pretty strict about my diet (no grains, no sugars, some dairy, lots of veggies etc.), and I've been eating about 1800 calories a day. Has anyone had this experience? Any advice? 

Edit: Thanks for the advice, folks! I will be posting a form video later today; thanks for offering to check it out!

Edit 2: Squat form video link. I used an unloaded bar (also smaller than normal) because the squat rack was occupied. Under heavier weights, I know that I struggle to stay upright. If there is anything fundamentally wrong here though, I would appreciate some guidance! Thanks so much! 

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First, throw up a form check. There's a good possibility that your form is bad and you're hitting an early plateau because you're not getting all the muscles in the game that you should be. Hopefully it's an easy cue that you can translate under the bar.

 

Next, seriously consider abandoning Stronglifts and getting on programming written by someone strong who is really good at making other people strong. Corey Hayes' Bastardized Block Periodization, Joe DeFranco's Westside for Skinny Bastards, and Greyskull LP all make a lot more sense. SL and SS both operate on doing very low volume, fairly low frequency except squatting, and hoping that you don't have a lifetime of imbalances accumulated that will be exagerated by not addressing them.

 

If the goal is to get really strong then volume is the name of the game, meaning tonnage moved over the course of weeks, months, and years. Doing very low volume does little to build work capacity, hopefully building off the little that you already have to increase limit strength. Doing a mountain of lightweight volume, bodybuilding, does little to increase limit strength but builds tremendous work capacity. If you don't have the work capacity to build from then you won't continue to get stronger. Anyone that has gotten really strong has found a middle ground and capaitalized on both methods either in blocks like Bastardized Block Periodization or simultaneously in Westside for Skinny Bastards.

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First I will agree that the first step is to post up a form video.

 

Next did you start with empty bar?  What sort of work were you doing before?  How much weight were you adding a workout?  Have you stalled 3x and reset yet or just stalled once?

 

I would agree that SL and SS can have some issues running long term, but I seriously doubting you are running into any of those yet.  It can be a dangerous game for a beginner to switch programs frequently.  My biggest praise for SS and SL is they are simple and you don't get overwhelmed by minutia or too many concepts.  I can say that if I tried any of the above programs (except maybe Greyskull, who doesn't really have more volume just AMRAP sets) I probably would have never started or quickly stopped.  I think SL can be a great program to get your feet wet and add weight to the bar without having to think too terribly much.  But I also work out at 5 am and don't do so well with the putting thoughts together. I really liked a free app that told me what to do and only learning 5 movements initially.  YMMV

 

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You mentioned weight training before, SL - are you doing anything besides the pure 5x5 program?

 

How do you mean stalling?  Are you able to complete the full 5 sets of 5 at the 90lb squat?  

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Let's start from the beginning. You're probably fine to continue with StrongLifts for a while yet. It's not a bad programme and it is very, very simple.

Definitely throw up a form check video or, even better, seek out experienced lifters or coaches nearby who can help you get everything right on a regular basis.

What kind of weight training were you doing before?

Honestly, I think you could probably afford to be eating quite a bit more than you are. You are young and on the low end of normal weight and could probably stand to gain some GOOD weight (muscle). Try edging your calories up and eating some more carbs, you might find that your training improves with just that. Keep eating lots of vegetables and getting plenty of protein, but add back in some rice or oats (or even sweet potatoes if you really have issues with grains). It may be a "me" thing, but my performance in the gym improved dramatically when I started eating more carbs.

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First, throw up a form check. There's a good possibility that your form is bad and you're hitting an early plateau because you're not getting all the muscles in the game that you should be. Hopefully it's an easy cue that you can translate under the bar.

 

Next, seriously consider abandoning Stronglifts and getting on programming written by someone strong who is really good at making other people strong. Corey Hayes' Bastardized Block Periodization, Joe DeFranco's Westside for Skinny Bastards, and Greyskull LP all make a lot more sense. SL and SS both operate on doing very low volume, fairly low frequency except squatting, and hoping that you don't have a lifetime of imbalances accumulated that will be exagerated by not addressing them.

 

If the goal is to get really strong then volume is the name of the game, meaning tonnage moved over the course of weeks, months, and years. Doing very low volume does little to build work capacity, hopefully building off the little that you already have to increase limit strength. Doing a mountain of lightweight volume, bodybuilding, does little to increase limit strength but builds tremendous work capacity. If you don't have the work capacity to build from then you won't continue to get stronger. Anyone that has gotten really strong has found a middle ground and capaitalized on both methods either in blocks like Bastardized Block Periodization or simultaneously in Westside for Skinny Bastards.

 

Second, third, fourth and fifth all of this.

 

SL and SS are very simple but they blow.

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Honestly, I think you could probably afford to be eating quite a bit more than you are. You are young and on the low end of normal weight and could probably stand to gain some GOOD weight (muscle). Try edging your calories up and eating some more carbs, you might find that your training improves with just that. Keep eating lots of vegetables and getting plenty of protein, but add back in some rice or oats (or even sweet potatoes if you really have issues with grains). It may be a "me" thing, but my performance in the gym improved dramatically when I started eating more carbs.

And this was my first thought as well.  1800 calories a day is not very much for someone who is lifting 3-4 times a week.

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SpecialSundae,

Usually I have been starting my workouts with deadlifting (last few months, once a week) and then squatting with two 25 lbs dumbbells to failure. I would then drop one dumbbell, and squeeze out a few more reps. Then, I go straight into good-mornings with the same dumbbells and go to failure. Then I go into lunges, where I follow a similar pattern (failure, drop a dumbbell, failure).

I follow a pretty similar rep scheme for upper body. Basically, heaviest, low reps (deadlifting) --> lighter, high reps sequence on 2-3 muscle groups. 

I wasn't focused primarily on strength, but no worries, it wasn't because I thought I would get bulky! I just had different goals at the time.

 

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Edit 2: Squat form video link. I used an unloaded bar (also smaller than normal) because the squat rack was occupied. Under heavier weights, I know that I struggle to stay upright. If there is anything fundamentally wrong here though, I would appreciate some guidance! Thanks so much! 

 

I did not see where you are struggling to stay upright and I like the depth you are getting with your squats.  Eventually, somebody is going to talk to you about your shoes.  In the long term, you do not want to squat with running shoes.

 

The next question I have for you is how are you breathing?  I do not see a long pause at the top of your squat.

 

SS can help you out a lot because she started out right from the top with the same program you are using and she has a lot of experience with these lifts.  Have you checked out her Battle Log?  She has lots of videos.

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I did not see where you are struggling to stay upright and I like the depth you are getting with your squats.  Eventually, somebody is going to talk to you about your shoes.  In the long term, you do not want to squat with running shoes.

 

The next question I have for you is how are you breathing?  I do not see a long pause at the top of your squat.

 

SS can help you out a lot because she started out right from the top with the same program you are using and she has a lot of experience with these lifts.  Have you checked out her Battle Log?  She has lots of videos.

Oh, I meant that I struggle to stay upright under a loaded bar. It's when I'm on my 5th set of 90 lbs. that I start to lean forward. I have been trying to be extra conscious of my breathing, taking a large breath right before going down and exhaling on the way up. I have been told that it might be beneficial to hold my breath on the way up, but I figured breathing technique is something that is pretty specific to the individual.

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Edit 2: Squat form video link. I used an unloaded bar (also smaller than normal) because the squat rack was occupied. Under heavier weights, I know that I struggle to stay upright. If there is anything fundamentally wrong here though, I would appreciate some guidance! Thanks so much!

It's hard to form check a weight that's less that 50% of your max, because we behave very differently with light weights.

You don't look like you're resetting your body after each rep (i.e. making sure you're braced before starting to squat).

It would also help to see a few angles to look at foot positioning.

I'd second the encouragement not to wear running shoes for lifting. They're designed to cushion your feet for impact, when what you want for lifting is a total absence of cushioning.

Breathing technique isn't unique to the individual, at least not as a beginner. Breathe in, push your abdomen out, hold it, squat (down and up), and then breathe out. You do see people in competition screaming through the end of a maximal lift (and therefore breathing out) but they know what they're doing and generally don't do that in the gym for reps.

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Oh, I meant that I struggle to stay upright under a loaded bar. It's when I'm on my 5th set of 90 lbs. that I start to lean forward. I have been trying to be extra conscious of my breathing, taking a large breath right before going down and exhaling on the way up. I have been told that it might be beneficial to hold my breath on the way up, but I figured breathing technique is something that is pretty specific to the individual.

The goal of squats is to transfer power from your legs through your core and back to the bar.  If you need to breathe out, ensure that your abs stay tight whilst doing so*.  Lack of core stability is often the first problem with squats and deadlifts.

 

*Not just slightly flexed, but as tight as you can get them.  Breathing will be difficult because of how hard your abs are activated.  Breathing out often relaxes the abdominal muscles.  If your abs are tight, you can keep your chest up much more easily.  If your abs are slack, you'll tip forward.  Your hips will rise too soon, and then you will be lifting the bar with your back.

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You want to hold your breath during each rep, clenching your abs all around your entire trunk to provide stability, like jfreaksho said. You breath out and in and the top between reps. Youtube "valsalva maneuver squats" or something like "squat breathing" to find what we're talking about.

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