Why Starting Strength, SL5x5…etc. Often Give You Garbage Chest Development (and how to fix it)

| by Truth Seeker |

via: pixabay.com

Routines like Starting Strength, StrongLifts,  and other derivatives often have unpleasant non-aesthetic side effects.

One of them would be non-existent chest development despite pushing relatively heavy weights during the later stages of the programs.

Why does it happen?

Survival Mode

All those strength routines throw the lifter into survival mode. In other words, your job is to move a bunch of weight from A to B in order to survive. If you don’t, you “die”. Hence why the body activates its strongest muscles at the expense of the weaker ones.

Another problem is that those routines throw too much weight on the bar relative to one’s strength too quickly.

As a result, lifters often start to experience shoulder pain (the joint doesn’t have time to adapt) and resort to powerlifting benching (elbows maximally tucked in).

This technique shifts even more stress on the anterior delts and triceps while robbing the chest of work.

It’s not uncommon for people who finish those routines to be benching their bodyweight or thereabout for reps with no chest to show for it.

Meanwhile, there are people who only do push-ups and dips at the local park and have pecs that they can voluntarily flex. 

This is not a fantasy. Go to your local playground, and you will see many young men with decent chest development (for a natty, of course).

Low volume

Maybe things have changed, but the versions of Starting Strength and SL5x5 that I remember had 3 chest workouts in 2 weeks consisting of respectively 3×5 and 5×5 bench presses.

Let’s do some math: 

(3×5) x 3 = 45 reps in 14 days or about 22-23 reps per week (Starting Strength)

(5×5) x 3 = 75 reps in 14 days or about 32-33 reps per week (SL5x5)

Meanwhile, you are squatting 3 times a week on both programs:

(3×5) x 6 = 90 reps per 14 days or 45 per week (SL5x5)

(5×5) x 6 = 150 reps per 14 days or 75 reps per week (SL5x5)

On top of those lifts, you are also doing deadlifts and power cleans (more glute worship).

It’s not surprising that your glutes become your most developed muscle group on similar programs. After all, those routines are fundamentally glute specialization programs when the cards are on the table.

And by the way, I don’t count the overhead press as a chest exercise because it isn’t. Yes, some upper chest is involved but not enough for anyone to care. Also, as far as I remember, Rippetoe is no longer teaching the strict press, but some low IQ cheat press that robs your delts of work too.

The low volume is detrimental for 2 reasons:

  1. Not enough muscular stimulation.

3×5 bench presses with a heavy weight are hard on the CNS and the joints but not so hard on the muscles.

2. Not enough time under tension to build a mind-muscle connection

Sets of 5 are too short. It’s much easier to activate a muscle when the weight is lighter and you do higher reps.

How To Fix Garbage Chest Development Caused By 5×5 Viruses

Forget About Strength

Some professors may say that benching 80kg or so is not enough to build a chest and that you need to reach 3-4 plates to be a “real man” or whatever.

That’s a lie.

A bodyweight bench press is enough to build your chest muscles provided that you aren’t malnourished (extremely underweight due to not eating).


Plenty of people have built their chests with push-ups and dips. Neither the push-up nor the dip forces you to lift your entire bodyweight.

When you do push-ups you’re lifting about 60-80% of your bodyweight depending on the version.

When you do dips, you’re lifting your entire bodyweight without the forearms. So, the lifted weight is still less than your bodyweight.

Then why should you bench 150kg to get a chest?

If you want to destroy your joints and tear something, keep pressing heavy and eating one cake a day as recommended by the permabulkers.

I can guarantee you that more weight on the bar will EXACERBATE the issue rather than fix it.

Yes, I have never seen a man with a small chest bench press 4 plates, but then again I have never seen a natural bench that much weight without weighing about as much himself.

If you want to live in the real world, keep reading.  If you want fantasies and strength fetishes, this is not the place.

The weight MUST be lowered for the following reasons:

  • To reduce the stress on the shoulder joint so that it can assume a position that engages the chest more.
  • To put you out of survival mode so that you can integrate a weaker muscle group into the pushing chain.

Extra volume

The chest can be trained 2 times a week even when you’re natural with average recovery. The key is to lift lighter weights and stop 1-2 reps before failure.

The extra volume stimulates extra growth and improves your mind-muscle connection and form.

Perform Chest Activation Drills

People who do those routines often don’t know how it feels to have your chest muscles truly firing under load. I was one of those people.

Below are a few tips for activating your chest muscles.

Mode 1: Easy

  1. Put your arms up as if you are going to do a bench press with a wide grip.
  2. Relax your wrists, turn each palm towards the other. Keep your fingers slightly open. (The purpose is to keep the forearm muscles fairly relaxed.)
  3. The elbows should be slightly bent.
  4. Imagine that there’s a spring going from one inner elbow (the bicep insert) to the other.
  5. Now squeeze that spring without flexing or extending your elbows.
  6. Do it until your palms touch.

If you still have a hard time feeling your chest, do the exercise with one arm while placing your free palm on the working pec.

Imagine how the pectoral is shortening to bring your arm closer and closer to your body.

Mode 2: Easy

Do the same drill but in the form of a wall push. Obviously, in this version, your fingers do not touch.

Another option would be to use gymnastic rings elevated to the point where the drill is very easy. In that case, the palms can still touch.

Mode 3: Slightly Harder.

In this mode, do the same exercise but while performing  a push-up your knees. Do not fully lock out your elbows. The goal is to feel the pecs firing.

Mode 4: DB Bench

Grab a pair of very light dumbbells and lay on a bench (flat or with a slight incline).

Use a neutral grip. (Palms facing each other.)

Push your chest out as if you’re trying to touch the ceiling with it.

Lower the weight while flaring the elbows (some elbow tucking is allowed but keep it to a minimum).

The entire time, the neutral grip is preserved.

Lower the weight until you feel a pleasant stretch in the chest.

This is not a fly! It’s a DB press. At the bottom, the elbows should form a 90-degree or a smaller angle.

Now, bring the bells close to one another while only thinking of your elbows (squeezing the imaginary spring once again). Keep the elbows slightly flexed at the top.


Note: The same can be done with a pair of rings lowered to the needed level. The exercise should feel very easy on the joints.

Perform 5 sets of 12-20 reps three times a week. 60-90 seconds of rest. Never to failure (1-2 reps away from it).

If you want to do more exercises, reduce the frequency to 2 times a week and perform them after this movement. Do high reps for the other exercises too.

As you get stronger and have learned how to use the chest, you can lower the reps to 8-12.

Can I still bench?

Yes, the bench press is a good chest exercise when performed for that purpose rather than to just move the weight.

However, as already mentioned, it will be necessary to lower the weight substantially and increase the reps.

Personally, I prefer dumbbells and ring push-ups.

Push-ups Can Give You Poor Chest Development Too

Ego push-ups can also result in poor chest development. People often do ego reps (short range and too much shoulder and triceps) to claim “I can do 100 push-ups.”

Don’t do this.

A quality set of 20 push-ups is worth more than 100 banana push-ups. Truth be told, most people (even advanced bodyweight guys) cannot do 100 push-ups with good form. (It’s either banana mode and/or short-range floor humping.)

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  1. Javier

    Hi truth seeker. What do You think about isommetrics excercises to get strenght?
    What do you think about handsqueezers for grip strenght?
    If I’m Not doing the Main compound lifts, should I train My abs specifically, with frecuency?
    Thank you for your time.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      Strength in what regard? What do you want to be strong at? What movement, exercise?

      If you’re talking about the rubber things, they are fine for a while and will increase your grip strength. But for massive improvement, you will need to do drills with thick handles for example.

      If you need maximum strength in the abs, direct work is 100% necessary. But if you don’t care about that, compound movements (e.g, standing overhead press) will make your abs decently strong.

  2. Javier

    Thanks man.
    By now, I excercise at home. I live in a small apartment so I can’t do the big compound lifts with barbells.I bought a pair of dumbbells and I’m planning to get gymnasts rings. I would like to be strong in general for movements like lifting, throwing and pushing. I don’t have money to go to a mma gym, but I do shadowboxing to get familiar with the movements and to build stamina. But also, I’m interesting in grappling, that’s why I asked about the hand squeezer (they are like tongs) and isommetric excercises (I read Bruce Lee used to do those)

    1. Chess Player

      With no equipment, you can go to the playground and hang from a bar to improve your grip for grappling. I would also do fundamental movements like bear crawls, shrimping, forward shoulder rolls, explosive bridging, etc. Practice the motion of basic submissions like the triangle choke, arm bar, head and arm triangle, guillotine and try to drill them with a friend. Nothing beats going to class, drilling, sparring, getting live feedback from your teammates and instructor, but doing these things on your own will keep you ahead of the average population. Maybe buy a grappling dummy that you can practice on if you don’t have anybody that’s willing.

      1. Javier

        Thanks for the tips chess player.

    2. Truth Seeker Post author

      I will soon post a dumbbell only workout. It won’t be anything unheard of.

      I also train at home at the moment with 2 dumbbells and a bench.

      1. Javier

        About dumbbells excercises, I once read you are not a big fan of the flys, right?

      2. John Sidonis

        Hello from Greece, TruthSeeker. Your site and your opinion is top notch! Have you already uploaded your dumbbell only workout? What are the most useful progressions when you have limited equipment? (I only have two 26kg kettlebells, one bar with 40 kg total plates and a park with pull up and dips bars) First, you add reps? Then you add sets and lastly you minimize the rest interval gradually from 2 minutes to 30 seconds? Thank you in advance.John (Giannis)

      3. John Sidonis

        Hello from Greece TruthSeeker! Your articles are top notch! Have you uploaded the dumbbell only workout you mentioned? Also, what are the most useful progressions with limited equipment? (I have only two 26 kg kettlebells, an ez bar with 40 total plates and a nearby park with pull up and dips bars) First you add reps? Then you add sets and lastly you minimize the rest interval between sets from 2 minutes to 30 seconds for example? Thank you in advance. John.

  3. Ryu

    Arnold, Franco, Reg, and Ronnie all promoted this “myth” that you have to lift big to get big. Somehow, training heavy gives your muscles a magical “look” or density that you can’t get with lighter weights.

    New lifters then started to train in very low rep ranges, from 1-5. ESPECIALLY with the dead, which Ronnie started.

    This is wrong. Branch Warren’s look comes from tren, other drugs, severe dehydration, and GH, not his training method.

    Most lifters will be better served “pumping” up their muscles, especially the chest. I see many to train chest too heavy, and they can’t even seem to get a pump in their chest. To be controversial, I’d say most men lift too heavy and too low reps. You can grow just fine in the 20-25+ range.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      I also think most people are lifting too heavy too. I was also one of them. When I think of the crazy ugly deadlifts, squats and bench presses that I’ve done, I feel shame and gratitude that I didn’t get injured.

      I will never forget the tingles down my spine after I did my best deadlift and then showered at home. My spine was saying: “why do you hate me so much?”.

      1. Jonathan Matthews

        I feel so much better doing 30 rep sets than doing 3-5 reps or 8-10 reps. This matrix is just so full of lies, propaganda and brainwashing of the masses.

  4. Victorio

    Excellent article , one of your best , (side note always go for the kiss was great also and true), what would you recommend for the triceps pumping exercise ? 15 or so rep skull crushers ?or 15 or so reps close grip ? Or something else ? Can’t do dips any longer , shoulders are gone from decades of low rep presses !

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      PJR pullovers – 8 sets of 15 reps (1 minute rest between sets)
      Followed by triceps rope pushdowns with – 5 sets of 20

      This will pump your triceps to the sky.

  5. Eduardo

    Focus in the chest with a short frame is very anti aesthetics.

      1. Edu

        In my opinion, FOCUS in the chest, amplifies visually the narrowness of the shoulders. If you have a narrow frame, preferably prioritize your dorsal and shoulder training, (emphasis lateral deltoid).

  6. WickedOne

    I used to have a similar issue when I was in my early lifting days and that it would feel like all the weight was on my anterior delts rather than my chest. If you can do at least 6 reps on whatever bench weight you choose, you should be able to really feel it in your chest. When you max out that’s when form breakdown occurs and people might start to cheat on their form (lifting butt off the bench, shoulder caving forward, elbows flaring).
    Personally for myself now, my chest is very developed compared to my triceps and front delts. I never fail in the bottom portion of the bench press, and if I do miss a rep it’s always in the middle or close to lockout.

    It just takes time to develop a good chest, especially if you have high standards. I just hit bench press yesterday, I did 150 lbs for 28 reps in one set, and my chest is quite sore, my anterior delts only a little, my triceps not at all.

  7. Iron Berserk

    I did powerbuilding about a year ago. My chest, back, shoulders, and arm looked built but I had a permabulking gut. My best friend and parents would point to my gut. Suffered from joint and tendons when maxing heavy weight for reps 1-3. Played a game of basketball with coworkers and my endurance was piss poor. Did carnivore for a period of 5-6 months to lose the weight. Started doing more bodybuilding and plan to add more cardio. At a lighter weight with some of the muscles regained. No more joint or tendon pain.

  8. Fanofthesite

    God this is so true. When i was powerlifting and benching 300+ i had almost no pecs and i looked like trash. 20 years later now doing just some light dumbells and mostly pushups i actually have pecs, look good, and feel way healthier.

    When i look back im ashamed at how stupid i was. Powerlfiting is the completely pointless and one of the dumbest things you can waste your time on.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      Powerlifting destroys joints in the long run. This is true about naturals and unnaturals. Ed Coan’s body is a wreck and he lifted with good form. This happens because the joints themselves do not increase in size to a notable degree.

      When you add the roids, you receive a consistent stress that the connective tissues and what not simply can’t take. You may have big muscles on drugs, but your joints are still the size of a normal person.

      1. Fanofthesite

        Right? Its crazy how anyone in this day and age with the infk we have nke would ever think powerlifting is healthy in any way. When i started back in 2001 I also had no idea people were on steroids or even what they really did. I tried to keep up with the guys from Westside Barbell while being 100% natural. Deadlift went from 315 to 565 in under a year; permanently damaged me for life. And for what? Nothing at all. So incredibly stupid.

        1. Truth Seeker Post author

          That a solid deadlift increase. But the truth is that lifting heavy ALWAYS destroys bodies in the long run no matter how good your form is. Also, no one does a 1RM with perfect form. Good yes, but never perfect.

  9. Sergio

    Excuse me for telling you but I see that the weights that you mark in your posts and books as a limit are somewhat high sometimes in 100 kg of deadlift I feel discomfort and you mark 250 kg uff

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      The high numbers are for people built for that lift who also train maximally hard to get that lift up. Forget about weight.

    2. fanofthesite

      Absolutely. All of the top lifters from when I was young are now all snapped up beyond recognition. Either their body from the lifting or their organs from the roids. The other day I just read that Andy Bolton had to have a kidney transplant; his failed. No surprise there; I can only imagine the amount of junk he had to inject to be the first man to DL 1000lbs.

      1. pierre farine

        Hi Truth Seeker,
        I hoped you publish the training article soon or a new training book using high reps dumbbells and bodyweight training.

  10. Sergio

    Thank you very much for answering me, but then if I forget the weight, what do I focus on to progress with overload? more series?

    1. pierre farine

      Hi Truth Seeker,
      I hoped you publish the training article soon or a new training book using high reps dumbbells and bodyweight training.

  11. Victorio Roman

    Reread this article, insightful and one of your best. Can you put up a sample workout with these lower weigh load and higher volume system you mention here to see it in working format ?


  12. mattsk1

    I am having some good results revisiting Gryesckull LP but focusing on Strongman with Overhead Press two days a week and 200lb Bag loading before deadlifts on Bench press day. I push my AMRAP sets on my big 4. Do rows every session and Dips on my overhead pressing days. I also do sets of 10 band aways after each set of overhead pressing. My delts, traps, Back and legs are growing good. Squats suck!!! especially after AMRAP Overhead press followed by push presses with out break. Last session I did 5x5x12+4push press with 135lb at bodyweight of 185lb.

  13. Get your passport

    Truth Seeker,

    Did you ever post on going to foreign countries, as the west is largely gone from an intersexual dynamics point of view? That is, even if you have many qualities and can get laid, the culture is remarkably stacked against you if you want long term qualities like loyalty, legacy, etc. By the time any woman gets to be humble at all (of course, we’re all looking for good looking women), she’s too old to even have a decent sized family. Of course, that’s because they forego their 20s, which basically ruins the entire family formation/worth it for men/marriage game. The fact that society or law made young women off limits for men was basically the beginning of the end for marriage, among other things. As I see it, the only option for a succesful man to get youth and some chance for better behavior or normal family formation is a foreign country. Of course, that tends to be the case because most countries outside the west aren’t rich and the women actually need you, or they had to grow up learning how difficult life can be, not how easy it can be.

    Do you have posts or thoughts on this? I haven’t seen them, but think it’s the only option left.

    1. Pierre Farine

      The problem in doing this is that when you bring back your young traditional woman to the West ,sooner or latter she will get degenarate like the majority of the woman in the west.She will leave you or cheat you or both with a man richer and more looking than you.That is the nature of woman.

  14. shredaholic

    Hey Truthseeker,
    I bought your book “The end. Natty Maximization”. Loved it, but I have a question.
    In some of the workout plans in it, we are hitting back and chest for only about 6 sets per week. Do you think that is enough to maximize muscle growth? Asking because mostly it is said that about 8-10 sets per muscle per week is the sweet spot.

    1. Truth Seeker Post author

      You can increase the sets as you progress. I prefer to start with fewer sets and then increase them to trigger more progression rather than to max out right from the start.

  15. Dave

    Truth Seeker, you realize that your chest is a stronger muscle than your shoulders… right? Like that’s the reason that people “cheat” the overhead press by leaning back.

  16. elden_sorcerer

    That is true but even though you paved the road for me, I found my own answers. Mainly, I stopped caring about chest or this or that “development”. I only care about C&J, Snatch, OHP, and squat numbers. And to get there, starting strength-like introduction was mandatory, hence “starting” in the name, which most people seem to miss for some bizzare reason. It is like you reiterated your whole career – genetics. Good “chest genetics” will produce marginally different results (if diff at all) whether you are using SS, or “chest day bro” split.

    But with SS at least you can get the PR highs and euphorias.

    Its all genetics, its true that you could squat 350 for reps and have DYEL class shit legs for untrained eye, vs someone who does leg day with leg extension only, but has bone structure and mass by genetics. But then again, trained eye can spot that guy B would have even more development if he at least for a while trained with high intensity and progressive overload.

    Also I just stopped being analytic of who uses PEDs or not, and ordered my stack (non-injectable, mild), and I don’t give a shit anymore.

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