T Nation

Why Do People Fail with Starting Strength?


This is mostly just idle curiosity, but why do many beginners using SS seem to fail at getting much stronger, at least before switching programs?

My n=1. In the past 3 months, I added 40lbs to my 5RM in a deadlift variation, training on average 4-5 times per week with 2 sets of 5. The weight increased 10-15lbs per session, and every time I topped out, I reset back to ~70% 5RM and cycled back up.

So, ~9 sets of 5 every week, using linear progression with resets.

Versus... Starting Strength... which is 9 sets of 5 every week, using linear progression with resets. That's for squats, which many people argue are a lot easier to recover from than deadlifts.

As far as the food and weight gain argument, my bodyweight hasn't changed. I've fluctuated plus or minus a couple pounds in that time period, but it's very negligible.

From a relative strength standpoint, my 5RM went from ~2.4x BW to ~2.6x BW, so while I don't feel comfortable saying I'm "intermediate", I'm also not a beginner. I'd expect a beginner to do even better with this programming.

Obviously this isn't a direct comparison -- but very similar weekly loading and progression -- and again, n=1, but at this point I'm having a hard time understanding why so many people seem to struggle with the program.

About the only difference I notice is that I "reset" to 70% 5RM instead of 90%. But that can't be it, can it?


I think most people who struggle with Starting Strength would probably struggle with any serious strength program.

Stories of that program's perceived failure are quite common, as it is a beginner program and will thus attract plenty of people who just lack what is necessary to have any real success with lifting. Another term for these types would be "quitters", and if you spend any time in a commercial gym you will see them come and go all the time. Couple that with the internet reputation SS has and it should not be surprising that there are very loud critics, eager to blame this program or that for their own failures at applying the principles necessary for success.

Of course, there is probably a subset of lifters who do things right in and out of the weight room and still struggle with that program for some reason, but I believe they are a small minority, especially in the beginner population.


I used starting strength for about 8 months when I first starting lifting. I did not fail at gaining strength, but that was just my experience. I found it to be a very useful program even though I didn't eat properly while on it. The reason I switched programs was because I found that once I stalled on each of the lifts three times and couldn't keep a steady progression that it was time to try something new. It was also becoming harder and harder to recover (which probably had to do with not eating enough).

My opinion on why someone would fail to gain strength on the program would be that they either did not put in the proper effort required, or did not start at a low enough weight to actually progress each workout.


twojarslave has already made one key point: that many people doing it are beginners that would have a high failure/dropout rate with any program.

ThePunisher might show up and chime in here - I hope he does - because he said something once that I thought really captured this well, though. That some people who start with something like SS or StrongLifts, rather than learning to truly push themselves, start to almost anticipate the first deload or stall coming around squats with 155, they try it and fail, "deload" to 115 or whatever and start building up again, and then stall at 155 because that's where it starts to get hard. It might be that they need to just learn to grind their way through, or that they're not eating enough, or - though it's hard for some "Just shut up and lift and eat" types to accept - that maybe they do need to switch to something with a little different method of progression.

I actually think switching to something like 5/3/1 or Texas Method earlier in training life is a good idea. SS or SL can get you that first set of big wheels on the bar, maybe a lot more for some people. But for that kid who "stalls" at 3x5x155 every time, maybe what he needs is a cycle of 5/3/1 where he can do a triple with 165, or a single with 175, or a workout where he ramps up and hits a big "1+" set that ends up in cranking out 7x165 when he's fresh.


I don't agree that they do. I think Starting Strength, when it's followed to the letter (meaning the full training and nutrition advice) delivers the intended results time after time after time.

To be fair, this really answers your question. Starting Strength has always been about coordinating muscular bodyweight gains with strength gains. Rippetoe has talked at length about his opinion on the effects of ample nutrition for recovery.

Every Starting Strength success story has basically always included a significant bodyweight increase. 30 pounds of bodyweight in two months or so is not unusual.

As Rip would say, it's because they're NDTFP... not doing the fucking program. People will not eat enough to see weekly bodyweight gains, or they'll not do the cleans, or they'll add arm work, or whatever "seemingly minor change" they want to make. You can't say you're making meatloaf, then decide to use ground chicken instead of beef and complain when it comes out different than expected.


I always get seem to grief when I "speak up" for Starting Strength, but it's only because it's insane to me the amount of unjustified criticism it gets. (Not singling you out, Rez.) I'm not saying it's a must-do for every beginner, but the plan very clearly works when it's followed.

Some years back, I put up some Starting Strength progress pics I had tracked down:

^ Guys gaining 30-35 pounds of bodyweight in about two months while increasing strength in a big way. Like 150 pounds on the squat and dead, 70 on bench. The 6'2" 18-yr old kid pictured above "only" gained 20 pounds in three months (161 to 181) and put 35 pounds on his bench, 65 on his squat, and 50 on his dead. The Starting Strength forum also, obviously, has a bunch of people who've tracked their results.


Short answer: because people are stupid.

Less short answer: I'm not sure it's actually true that "many beginners using SS seem to fail." It may seem that way because of posts on this and other internet forums, but people who are successful tend to have less reason to post. Also, perhaps, the kind of people who manage to fuck-up a straightforward program like SS tend to also be the kind of people who want to post on the internet about how things just aren't working out for them.

That is to say, if someone isn't getting results from the program, they're probably not following it correctly or not recovering (sleeping / eating) properly. It's not a magic program, but the people who fail are usually doing something pretty basic wrong.


I agree with your basic point about trying a different program when you stall, but the 155 squat seems to be setting the bar pretty low. I mean, I would be inclined to bet money that no healthy young male training in Rippetoe's gym (i.e. under his supervision) has ever failed to progress beyond a 155x5 squat on starting strength. I think if that's happening, something is wrong.


I guess maybe what I've seen online has just biased me, since I've seen plenty of cases where people can't even squat bodyweight, or deadlift 1.5x bodyweight before they "finish the program". Some don't even seem to make it that far before they've reset 5+ times.

Even at the higher end, I've rarely seen a case where someone actually got into the high 300s deadlifting, or low 300s squatting. Both of which seem they should be quite doable with that kind of programming.

It's good to see some counterexamples though.

That said, mentally, Starting Strength wasn't a good fit for me back when I was more of a beginner. Not because it was too much work, but more a matter of not having developed much patience, and wanting to work harder than the program called for. I think Greyskull is probably a better fit in that case, just because the effort put into the 5+ sets keep you from messing with the progression.

The point about my bodyweight was more to say that "the programming seems to work well for increasing strength, even without any changes in bodyweight".

I really have no doubt anymore that Starting Strength works, and that it can work for a lot longer than most people [that I've seen] seem to run it.


The program's simplicity is its undoing for many beginners who want to complicate it.


I agree. Unfortunately, most kids trying SS aren't doing it in Rippetoe's gym, under his supervision. And while I agree that 155 is setting a very low bar, we definitely HAVE had at least a few examples on this forum of kids "stalling" at very low weights (has anyone seen Bull Scientist lately? Flight1?)

Do I happen to share the belief from Chris C. that most of the guys failing to progress are probably suffering from YNDTP? Probably, yes. If you actually follow the program to the letter, it works. To get a bit dorky, I think we're haggling a bit about the difference between "efficacy" (ability of something to work when implemented properly under ideal conditions) versus "effectiveness" (how well it actually works when applied in the real world, including failures due to operator error).

For example, suppose I develop a drug. I give it to 100 people, they all take the recommended dose at the recommended time, and it works for 98 of them. Sha-zam! We have a product that is efficacious.

Now we prescribe the drug to another 1000 people, send them home, and hope they follow the package directions. 750 of them do so, and 98 percent of THEM do really well. But 150 people forgot to take the morning dose AND the nighttime dose, and another 100 took one pill instead of two, etc. Superb "efficacy" but less superb "effectiveness" because the people don't always follow the directions.

So: if the kids aren't going to really attack the program right, or have Mark Rippetoe supervising them, and they stall at 155 for whatever reason, they might be better served by moving on to a different program. Like I said in my first post, for kids that just have a mental hurdle, maybe handling an even heavier weight for a few lower-rep sets, like they might do in something 5/3/1, would get them over that mental block of 155 being too heavy. Or in something like Texas Method, if they work up to a 5RM for one set and hit 165 for 5 reps, maybe next time they'll be able to finish all 3 sets of 5 with 155 because now they believe in themselves and no longer view 155 as this unassailable demon.


I suppose that's a good way to put it.

What's surprised me, about my own training, was how well 8-10 sets of 5 a week, with linear progression and resets, has actually worked. I almost got in my way a few times though by not wanting to reset enough... i.e., 70% felt way too easy that I was wasting my time. But after a couple cycles, I believe in it.

So coming back to the original question, it doesn't really seem to me that the problem is in the programming... except for, maybe, the 90% reset instead of 70-80%.

And I'm sure actually forcing bodyweight gains and increased protein makes it easier, but I don't think that's really the problem either.

Really the only thing I see is the mental hurdles, nothing else in the program itself. High efficacy, but not particularly high effectiveness.


Because it seems easy when you start,
It gets friggin hard
It doesn't give you pumped arms and a huge chest
Patience and planning is a rare virtur


I'm not sure I understand your reasoning. What good is the program if it doesn't give you a huge chest?


Poor work ethic.
Poor nutrition.
Not resting enough.
Poor technique.
External stress.
Differing goals; your interpretation of failure may be their success.
Poor genetics (leverages, recovery abilities, predisposition to illness, predisposition to injury).

Basically, the same as any other strength program. I think a lot of people make some great gains doing Starting Strength and similar programs.


Point taken about efficacy vs effectiveness. I guess I'm just not sure the effectiveness is lower for SS than for 5/3/1 or Texas Method. All involve using your brain a little to program progress in the big lifts, and feature some challenging workouts (a Texas Method Volume Day is going to tend to be longer and tougher than the average SS workout). The book Practical Programming (3rd Ed), at least, really spells everything relating to the SS program very clearly. Most people who fail, I suspect, never actually read it.

That is to say, I think most of the people failing with SS are doing so for motivational / psychological reasons that wouldn't necessarily be resolved by the programs you mention (both of which I like). A program with a higher efficacy for these people might actually be something more like a body part split, because the higher reps / volume / "beach muscle" work might feel more accessible and productive and easier to do, week-in and week-out.

In other words, while I agree that with a genuine stall, switching to 5/3/1 would be a good idea, I'm not sure it would work for a guy stalling at 155. Because if we assume this is a lifter who could figure out and correctly implement 5/3/1 or Texas Method, I'd say that's a lifter who could probably just reset and make another round of solid progress with SS.


The problem lies with the person doing the program.

When I was a kid, I trained in a shitty little gym where everyone only did bro splits. There was no such thing as a beginner not being able to squat 155lbs after 3 months. Never fucking happened. The big guys taking beginners under their wings saw to that. Keep in mind where I lived at that time, most kids started at bodyweights of around 100lbs and had a diet of 50g - 70g of protein a day while gaining weight. No one ever used supplements.

Are bro splits better than SS?


Poor work ethic.
Poor nutrition.
Not resting enough.
Poor technique.
External stress.
Differing goals; your interpretation of failure may be their success.
Poor genetics (leverages, recovery abilities, predisposition to illness, predisposition to injury).

Basically, the same as any other strength program. I think a lot of people make some great gains doing Starting Strength and similar programs.


"Point taken about efficacy vs effectiveness"

What? This is a joke?


Maybe it sucks?