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Why Do People Fail with Starting Strength?

One story, from a novice. I recently quit SS far short of the gains I could’ve gotten from it and still weak, but not necessarily a “failure.”

As an older guy (42 y.o., overweight, untrained) with other commitments in my life, I couldn’t keep up with the recovery. Looking after two kids by myself, I can’t be falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon three days a week, which was starting to become normal.

Without a doubt, this is me, and not the program - for as long as I was able to keep up, the program worked exactly as advertised. I put on 10 pounds in 3 months, my shirts are fitting looser in the belly but tighter in the shoulders. It made me confident with my form in the major exercises and got me to the point that I could begin 5/3/1 with something besides an empty bar.

So you can probably file me under YNDTP, but in my case it’s worth it to switch to a plan where I can still run around with my kids and stay up past 8pm. Wish I’d had the interest and motivation I have now 10 years ago…

I think the main problem with SS is it’s boring.

Noobs want to do something more interesting.

My first strength training program was SS, i admit that i didn’t follow the program(the nutrition mostly) perfectly and i didn’t see the progress that i could have. I started out at 130lbs BW and ended at maybe 150. that being said, i did get stronger. I just didn’t have the knowledge and understanding to get everything out of it that I should have out of the program.

All that being said, i took the entire month of December off from the gym due to an insane work schedule and getting pretty sick. BW dropped from 175 to ~165. When i started training again in January i used SS to start light and work back up to some challenging weights. BW is up to 180 and I’m still riding this program out. I was going to switch to something else once my lifts started to stall, but i figured screw it, why not see where this can take me.

Estimating one rep maxes off of some rep work on my last sets, my bench is up 15lbs and squat is up 25lbs, dead lift not increasing yet, but I’m sure it’s doing fine. I think this program does get a bad rep for whatever reason, but i think it is pretty effective, and who doesn’t like squatting everyday? Sorry this is running a little long, but i believe in the program and I’ve seen it work, as long as you are willing to eat and sleep enough to keep up. I’m trying out that GOMAD goodness. The weight increase has stopped and i want to try and power through to 200lbs, I’m just really bad at sticking to any sort of eating strategies.

I honestly think that the form of progression is the biggest issue. You start with a weight that is really light and quickly get to one that is hard - and then you essentially get to a point where you are supposed to add five pounds to your 5rm every other day. I’Ve had much more success with consistently lifting weights that are hard but manageable, adding five pounds whenever I got to a certain number of reps. I generally think that programs that do not tell you to do x reps, no more and no less, work way better. This is also the main reason I’ve used 531 for the past six months and reached numbers that are still low but way higher than anything I could ever reach doing 5x5 routines.

@ja3 – your case isn’t YNDTP. You did the program for 3 months, progressed, and have now moved onto something else. Perfectly fine, in my book.

@Yogi – I agree, this is definitely a factor. But honestly I can’t really relate to it. Even as I noob, I would not have found making rapid progress on the big lifts boring. I started lifting for results, not entertainment. Which goes back to the idea that it’s about the lifter, not the program.

[quote]nighthawkz wrote:
I honestly think that the form of progression is the biggest issue. You start with a weight that is really light and quickly get to one that is hard - and then you essentially get to a point where you are supposed to add five pounds to your 5rm every other day. I’Ve had much more success with consistently lifting weights that are hard but manageable, adding five pounds whenever I got to a certain number of reps. I generally think that programs that do not tell you to do x reps, no more and no less, work way better. This is also the main reason I’ve used 531 for the past six months and reached numbers that are still low but way higher than anything I could ever reach doing 5x5 routines.[/quote]

FWIW, this is an example of what I was trying to say in my first post. Some guys, be it a mental block or a physical one, seem to get stuck at surprisingly low weights because for whatever reason they just can’t get all sets of 5…but give them a little different scheme and he’ll be able to move past that barrier, for whatever reason.

I have no issue with people doing SS and milking it as far as they can. But I guess I’m saying that if someone stalls at a lowing weight, like 155, and moves in to 5/3/1 or Texas Method - programs that are still based in the same principles but occasionally allow the lifter to marshal their best effort in ONE set - mentally, they might be able to get through that barrier.

I think we’re all in agreement that it comes down to the individual lifter, and stuff OUTSIDE the program like proper rest and nutrition, just as much as the program itself.

So I guess what the OP leads us to is that the program is just fine, but if things outside the program are not in order, lifters can “fail” - which is really true of any program, right?

[quote]ActivitiesGuy wrote:
So I guess what the OP leads us to is that the program is just fine, but if things outside the program are not in order, lifters can “fail” - which is really true of any program, right?[/quote]

Agreed. I think the big issue is that people believe something’s wrong with them if they fail on a certain program. Sure, they may be right - but sometimes they’re not. I gave SL 5x5 and SS a try several times and always stalled at the same weights but since people said that these programs ALWAYS work, I kept running at the brick wall. Thinking of the time I wasted like this makes me cringe.

Big compound lifts are cool, they work a lot of muscles. But they don’t work all the muscles equally. Especially if you’re bad at a lift, or you have a really “weird” build, or some kind of postural imbalance or something. If you are tall, and rode bikes a lot as a kid you could be quad dominant, have no hamstrings, and be a really poor squatter. The more you squat with a shitty squat, the worse you get.

Sometimes even beginners need to use isolation moves to build up muscles or address weaknesses. You’d think I was crazy to suggest a beginner routine of all high rep isolation work, but it’s ok to do all compound lifts in low rep ranges? Some combination is usually better than a cookie cutter, one size fits all approach.

Like Activities Guy said, different rep ranges are a mental change/break or excitement/motivation. They also allow you to use different weights and different bar speeds. You learn to grind, you learn to explode, and you learn to groove your lifts with the heavy/light/medium weights. The variety makes you better at the lifts, without getting into complicated max effort/dynamic effort stuff.

When you use the linear 5x5 approach your workouts get more and more and more similar, until your lifting the exact same weights over and over. Just as you need variety, you get even less. When ever I use this approach, I get worse, technique wise.

Over the course of 3-4 months, I got my deadlfit up to a max of 300ish before my grip started failing on me. In comparison, my bench never went over a max of 125ish. My squat was a max of 195ish with horrible depth and control. This is with starting from the bar.

Bodyweight went from a skinny-fat 148ish to a fat 165 within that time as well.

As far as I’m concerned, SS purely as written didn’t work for me. I suspect that occurred for a couple of reasons, most of them listed in the thread-

  • I had shitty form.

Since I self-taught myself all the forms, it makes sense that I couldn’t progress in weights properly the first couple of months.

  • I had mobility issues.

I distinctly remember being unable to descend in the squat without having something weird happen in my hamstrings the first couple of months. It took a lot of stretching, random-mobility work, and just squatting very frequently, to get me mobile enough to squat.

And my bench finally saw some improvements once I started doing face-pulls and other scapular exercises.

-I feared the weight.

I think the deadlift improved as expected because I literally had no fear of failure. If I failed, I could just drop the bar or just collapse onto the ground. If I failed on the bench press, then I’d be pinned by the weight. I’m pretty sure this fear is preventing me from really pushing the bench press even now.

Those are the major things. Long story short- I think SS works fine if you have a PT/training partner who is assisting you in the gym. If not, not so much. It may work if you’re used to hard sport practices and you have no fear of pushing yourself, but I don’t think most beginners who didn’t do sports can do that.

… Or it could be that my brother stole all my strength and athleticism genes. Because that guy gets to benching 200lb+ within just a month or so of bench training. Ditto for squatting.

^see, another thing we have to define here is what it means for someone to “fail” on SS. To this point it seems like we’ve implied that not getting past a certain point means failure, but I don think that’s true (the program is called Starting Strength, after all, not Eternal Strength).

While obviously lifting with shitty form is not the goal, magick, I don’t know if I’d describe your experience as someone “failing” with SS. You started with an empty bar, got some weights onto the bar, and presumably have moved on and progressed with a different program.

Magick, did you read the book “Starting Strength” before starting the program? 90% of the book is about correct form on the basic barbell lifts.

[quote]ActivitiesGuy wrote:
^see, another thing we have to define here is what it means for someone to “fail” on SS. To this point it seems like we’ve implied that not getting past a certain point means failure, but I don think that’s true (the program is called Starting Strength, after all, not Eternal Strength).

While obviously lifting with shitty form is not the goal, magick, I don’t know if I’d describe your experience as someone “failing” with SS. You started with an empty bar, got some weights onto the bar, and presumably have moved on and progressed with a different program. [/quote]

Exactly.

Some guys, because of previous athletic background, work, or just luck, are strong before ever touching a barbell. And those same guys are likely to make much faster progression. Just because some dude hit 225x5 bench press in 3 months doing SS, doesn’t mean someone else only hitting 155x5 in 3 months doing SS, is failing.

OP’s post basically says, “I did something similar to starting strength and now I do reps with 2.5xbw on deadlifts; why can’t other people?” There are so, so many reasons why, the great majority of which have nothing to do with any kind of personal failing.

Hey OP, what is your bench 5RM in pounds, out of curiosity?

[quote]craze9 wrote:
Magick, did you read the book “Starting Strength” before starting the program? 90% of the book is about correct form on the basic barbell lifts. [/quote]

Of course I did. How else do you think I would have been able to self-teach myself?

But attempting to apply things you’ve never done before without even knowing whether you’re doing it properly is sort of hard.

[quote]magick wrote:

[quote]craze9 wrote:
Magick, did you read the book “Starting Strength” before starting the program? 90% of the book is about correct form on the basic barbell lifts. [/quote]

Of course I did. How else do you think I would have been able to self-teach myself?

But attempting to apply things you’ve never done before without even knowing whether you’re doing it properly is sort of hard.[/quote]

It is sort of hard, sure, but it’s doable and it’s how many (most?) lifters have learned to lift. I’ve never had a coach or personal trainer. To say you need one to succeed with SS is an exaggeration.

You say the fear of getting pinned under the bar during a bench press still affects you… can’t you just ask someone at the gym for a spot on difficult sets? Or set up a power rack?

If you have a cellphone with a camera, and who doesn’t nowadays, you can go a long way “self coaching.”

I rewatch the SS dvd every now and again just to remind myself of some of the cues etc. Even advanced lifters never truly perfect their form. Bad things can slip in if you aren’t having someone watch your form, or aren’t checking it yourself.

For the original question: I’d suppose SS has some failures because it’s main demographic is BEGINNERS. This means people who likely have never trained or haven’t developed the habit of it. Assuming they DTFP, which many don’t, it’s still a large group of people dabbling in a hew “hobby” and some will not catch on to it.

Doesn’t mean the program is flawed.

It’s been mentioned a few times, but to give my opinion, people confuse a beginner lifting routine with a beginner EXERCISE routine. The reality is, most people don’t understand that you should get in shape to lift, rather than lift to get in shape.

Instead of having a solid foundation of basic athleticism from sports/calisthenics, people jump straight into Starting Strength after decades of sitting on their ass and eating junk. This makes progress very difficult, as the majority of their time in the gym is spent just learning how to move their body/develop coordination rather than actually get bigger/stronger. Pair this with an inability to determine between soreness and injury and no experience with how to push themselves, and they quickly burn out, make no progress, and in many cases get injured.

Most people don’t want to hear it, but when they come onto a lifting forum asking for which routine to follow, when they are a rank beginner, it should probably be one with lots of bodyweight work, conditioning, sled dragging, sports, etc. After that foundation is developed, then lifting would be a good idea.

^^^ I agree with this. Big difference between jumping into Starting Strength unable to do pushups or a single pullup versus someone with some solid foundational strength. I believe even the former can benefit from Starting Strength, but it will be much more of an uphill battle, especially without individualized coaching.

This is actually perhaps the biggest single factor relating to the failure rate of SS, when I think about it – it’s the lifter, not the program, yes, but the kind of beginner lifters likely to able to teach themselves the lifts well and follow the program correctly tend to be guys with some kind of athletic background, I’d wager. I can definitely understand how someone totally untrained and used to sitting on the couch might be overwhelmed trying to do Starting Strength as their first real exposure to exercise, without a coach or trainer helping them.

That was sort of my unspoken point.

The name is sort of deceptive, though people who read Rippetoe’s book would probably notice that the guy never intended it to be used by couch-potatoes and otherwise people with virtually no strength.

Yet people keep saying “do SS” when beginners ask what they should do to build strength.

SS is targeted at people with virtually no strength.

If someone actually has strength, they are probably past SS as a program.

Even the couch potato can do it. Assuming one isn’t completely feeble that they can’t even squat or press an empty bar, they’ll be fine on SS. About the only problem I, a lifelong couch potato, had when beginning SS was my fat belly impeding proper form on standard DL. So I learned sumo since I wasn’t interested in dropping 100 lbs before starting to get stronger. The fat belly never got in the way of benching, pressing, or squatting (with toes pointed out, as long as I didn’t try to go ass-to-ankles).

It’s a great recommendation to beginner’s because it A: teaches proper form, and B: is so fkn simple it shouldn’t be messed up. Yet amazingly enough it is. Partly because of the beginner demographic being ignorant. That means not knowing. It doesn’t mean stupid.

Also partly because many beginners aren’t experienced enough to know how to handle the bumps along the road.

[quote]SevenDragons wrote:

It’s a great recommendation to beginner’s because it A: teaches proper form, and B: is so fkn simple it shouldn’t be messed up. Yet amazingly enough it is. Partly because of the beginner demographic being ignorant. That means not knowing. It doesn’t mean stupid.

Also partly because many beginners aren’t experienced enough to know how to handle the bumps along the road. [/quote]

It is one thing to read and see what proper form is, and another thing entirely to be able to replicate it. Most people aren’t even flexible enough to squat properly, for one thing.