Get back to the basics and build your foundational strength. Here’s how.
What do you get when you combine 30 years of coaching experience with a deep-seated need to teach as many people as possible the benefits of lifting heavy iron? You get Mark Rippetoe, a guy who’s written one of the most comprehensive and important books explaining the basics of strength training, a term he calls “starting strength.”
Q: One thing about your Starting Strength program that I’ve noticed, primarily because of the Internet, is lifters are confused about the principles. One person read the book and figured they knew how to do it, then they told someone else who tweaked it a bit, and they told two friends, and they told two friends.
Here’s the million-dollar question. What is the Starting Strength program and why does it seem to work so well?
The Starting Strength program consists of the use of basic barbell exercises. We primarily rely on the squat, bench press, the deadlift, the press, and the power clean. And we combined those exercises into very short, simple workouts.
When we specifically speak of the Starting Strength program, we’re talking about its application to noviceathletes. This is extremely important to understand, and this is kind of the premise for Practical Programming for Strength Training, our second book.
When a person first starts training, I mean first rattle out of the box, an 18-year old kid comes in the gym and starts training, he’s so unadapted that riding a bicycle will make his bench press go up. The further removed you are from your potential to adapt, the quicker and easier adaptation is.
The Starting Strength program takes into account the fact that there are just a few basic exercises that, when done in a program of strict linear increase – come in, do 3x5 after your warm-up, go up 10 pounds in your next workout, and do that until it doesn’t work anymore – they produce a total body adaptation that’s superior to the use of exercises that dilute the body into body parts.
In other words, we don’t think, “legs.” We think, “squat.” We don’t attempt to assemble a complete workout from bodyparts. We don’t have muscle groups that are favorites; we don’t think in terms of muscle groups. We think in terms of movements.
I don’t really coach but seven or eight exercises. We squat, and press overhead, we deadlift, we bench press, we clean, we snatch. We occasionally do barbell rows, but we don’t really use barbell rows in our Starting Strength program.
Q: Any reason for not using rows much?
It’s a decent assistance exercise, and so are dips. I don’t really want to put chins or pull-ups in that list, because they’re essential upper body exercises. I think chin-ups and barbell rows are in two different categories. But we don’t really use barbell rows, and I think that’s one of the puzzling things that developed on the Internet.
I think rows are in a lot of these spin-offs of my program because people need another exercise off the floor besides deadlifts, but everybody’s afraid to learn the clean. I don’t really understand it, except that, in people’s minds, rows are easier to learn. They look slow, they don’t look as complicated.
I think I did a decent job of explaining the clean in the Starting Strength book, and I think it’s a much better exercise than the barbell row. Because it can’t be done slowly. That’s why we use it. It’s an explosive lift.
Q: You’re okay with recreational lifters using the Olympic lifts? Do you think Average Joes can benefit from them?
Sure! Yes. For the same reasons, they can’t be done slowly. You have to explode to do a snatch and a power clean. And explosive training recruits more motor units than slow training.
To do things very, very slowly because it makes your muscles burn seems rather silly to me. It’s like making your pecs burn. Just gotta get the pump, right?
Q: Aw come on, everyone loves the occasional pump. Another major criticism of the Starting Strength program comes from squatting three times a week. People say it’s “bad” for the lower back. Just like they say you shouldn’t squat and deadlift in the same workout.
Sure you can… if you’re a novice. (laughs)
Q: So it all comes back to experience being part of the program design?
Yeah. The point of the whole thing is that your training program must reflect your level of training advancement. You wouldn’t put a person who’s been a competitive lifter for 10 years on this simple, novice program because they won’t benefit from it.
By the same token, you don’t start an inexperienced 18 year old kid on a Louie Simmons program. That’s not what it’s for. Westside programs are for competitive powerlifters who are, by definition, intermediate or advanced lifters.
But kids that are just starting out can squat three days a week and pull three days a week. They need that. Because if they don’t, they’re wasting the opportunity to get strong quickly. And that’s what our whole program is about. It’s about making the most of the period of time when you can make the most rapid, easy progress.
Q: But is Starting Strength effective regardless of someone’s eventual goal? Would the “I wanna be a bodybuilder”-guy and the “I wanna be a powerlifter”-guy both start with this plan?
Right, because all beginners have the same problem. It doesn’t matter what they want to do eventually. If I have a 6-foot kid who weighs 155 pounds, what’s his problem? Whether he wants to be a bodybuilder, he wants to be a powerlifter, an Olympic weightlifter, or a thrower, what’s his problem?
He’s little. He’s 6-foot and weighs 155. And our program is the best way to get him to 6-foot, 195.
Q: So it’s a good plan for size, too? I guess calling the book “Starting Size and Strength” would’ve been too long.
Oh, yeah. The primary effect of our program is muscular bodyweight gain. That’s where our famous gallon of milk a day program comes in. A gallon of whole milk, each day, is our standard recommendation for people who need to gain weight.
And nothing works better than a linear progression on simple barbell exercises, that has you go up in weight every workout, while you’re gaining weight because you’re drinking a gallon of milk a day. I have seen people put on 50 pounds of muscular bodyweight. We do it all the time, and it works beautifully.
I’ll go on record as saying that steroids don’t work as well as this. This program works better for novices than steroids. Absolutely yes.
Q: Even though it’s a non-traditional plan with lower reps and lower volume?
Quite the contrary, I think this is a much more traditional program. It just depends on how far back you go for the tradition. If you go back to Arthur Jones in 1974, and Nautilus, with the modern health club model, then yeah, this is probably non-traditional.
But all of my training comes from Bill Starr and the old guys back in the '50s. I’ve not invented anything here. All I’ve done is write it back down. If you look at writings from years ago, like Stuart McRobert, and Bradley J. Steiner in Ironman, and Bill back in the Strength and Health magazine days, they’ll all tell you the same thing.
Keep it simple. Get strong. Add more weight when you train, as often as you can. Eat clean and eat a lot. Get good sleep, and you’ll make progress. All I did was detail it for people who don’t have access to that old information.
Q: You said the Starting Strength program could work for an 18-year old kid, but you have lots of experience coaching younger kids too. A lot of people think little kids and weights shouldn’t mix.
We start with little kids.
Q: Like what, elementary school? Junior high?
Sure, anyone. But you have to teach them the correct movements. See, this is one of the problems I have with most of the people in the medical community. Just like they say squats are bad for the knees. Well, you don’t get to define a squat as a quarter squat. That’s not what a squat is, boys and girls.
A squat is the full range of motion exercise that involves you lowering a bar held on your body eccentrically, and then raising it up after your femurs have broken the plane of parallel to the ground. That’s the squat.
And you can do that wrong or you can do that right. But you don’t get to do it high and call it a “squat” or call it “bad for the knees.” You don’t teach little kids how to do these exercises incorrectly, and then come back and say that the problems caused by doing them incorrectly are the fault of barbell training.
Furthermore, they’re not strong enough to use enough weight to hurt themselves, which is one real good argument against quarter squats. You can lift big weights in quarter squats. But if you have to go all the way down below parallel, and stand all the way back up with the weight, you’re not going to be able to do it until you get really strong. That goes for adults and children.
Now, what’s normally thrown out is epiphysial fractures. That’s mythology. Find me the examples of epiphysial damage done in barbell training done correctly. There aren’t any. It’s pediatrician bullshit, and it essentially boils down to people speaking outside their specialty. Pediatricians, doctors, and orthopedic surgeons are trained in medicine, in how to repair things that are already damaged.
That does not mean they know how to exercise. Just because your mechanic knows how to work on your car doesn’t mean he knows how to get you around downtown Boston.
Kids are fine training with proper instruction, with full range of motion exercise, with correct coaching. It’s not any worse than it is to have them doing gymnastics when they’re four or five.
I have a bar in my gym that weighs 11 pounds. I can make that bar weigh 12 pounds next time. And then I can make it weigh 13 pounds, and 80 pounds, and finally 245 pounds. I can make my barbell directly scalable to the ability of an eight year old kid.
Conversely, you put that same eight year old, 75-pound kid on a soccer field and have him run head-on into another 75-pound kid, is that event scalable? Uh… no. “Hey, undeveloped epiphyses. Still open epiphyses!” And then put cleats on him, have him spin and kick and get hit in the knees.
Yet, how many orthopedic surgeons and pediatricians will recommend against kids playing soccer, versus recommending against kids participating in barbell training programs? Doesn’t make any sense, does it?
Q: No, but that’s the norm.
The norm. The conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom is that soccer, which is in fact the most dangerous sport on earth, is fine for kids, but barbell training will stunt their growth. Stupid shit like that.
Q: Speaking of stupid shit, or rather, crazy shit, a section of your book Strong Enough?: Thoughts from Thirty Years of Barbell Training talked about the mental benefits of 20-rep squats. Can you go a bit more into that?
This isn’t something I dreamed up. Strossen’s written about it. Perry Rader’s old programs from the '40s and '50s involved 20-rep squats. 20-rep squats are not a beginner’s thing, because beginners can’t possibly do them correctly. But for an intermediate lifter who wants to take six or eight weeks and grow some legs, 20-rep squats do a marvelous job.
It does make you tough. But most people can’t stand to do the damn thing. If you’re doing it right, you won’t go more than six or eight weeks. You just can’t. At least I couldn’t, and I’m kind of stupid about that kind of stuff.
For an actual, no shit, set of 20 squats, you’re going to pick a weight that you previously thought was your 10-rep max. And you’re going to do 10 reps with it. Then you’re going to do the 11th rep, and you’re gonna breathe a little bit. And finally, you’re gonna finish the 19th rep, and Jesus is gonna be talking to you about this time.
Then you’re gonna finish the 20th rep, and you’ll somehow get it back in the rack, and then you collapse. You’ll get tunnel vision and your hearing will change while you’re trying to catch your breath. All kinds of weird peripheral central nervous system effects will take place.
What you normally find is that you’re laying on the ground, and you think, “Oh my God, I’m so glad that’s over with.” And then after about five minutes, the realization occurs, “I gotta do this again next week with another ten pounds. Oh shit.”
Most people can’t deal with that for a long period of time. But it’s terribly useful for short periods of time.
Q: To switch gears, even though you’re primarily a strength coach, summer’s here and we all get a little 6-pack happy. Do you have any tips about fat loss for recreational lifters or athletes?
Oh, sure… Zone Diet.
Q: No, seriously.
Barry Sears’ Zone Diet works every time I’ve seen it tried. I know lots of people in CrossFit that need to gain weight, in my opinion. But I also know lots and lots of people in CrossFit that are carrying 8% bodyfat, and they all got there by doing CrossFit-type training and the Zone Diet.
It’s weird how fast it works. Every time I put people on the Zone Diet, their CrossFit performance improves and their bodyfat goes down. If you want to drop a bunch of fat in two months, go straight to CrossFit and the Zone Diet. Say what you want to, but it works better than anything else I’ve ever seen.
Q: It’s been interesting stuff so far, but unfortunately, we have to wrap up. Any closing thoughts?
Again, I haven’t invented anything in these methods. I’ve just organized all the stuff I’ve learned from Bill Starr and lots of other people into an easily managed, easily followed method.
Now, one thing I probably could take credit for doing is just taking the time to describe these five exercises in more detail than anybody else has ever done. And if I’ve made an actual contribution to the literature, it’s probably in that respect. We saw a need for a book that spent more than two pages on squatting.
T Nation: You’ve definitely given us that, and so much more. I appreciate you taking the time to explain things.
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