I’ve been absent from regular posting because I’ve been doing the work and experimenting. After receiving my purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in August, I decided to shift my focus from 5 years of sport specific skill acquisition back to a phase of general physical attribute building.
We’re always told as BJJ practitioners that strength is less important than skill and there is some truth to that if your opponent has significantly less knowledge than you. But the stronger grappler will win, other things being equal.
I wanted to see what skill plus strength would do for me. I had been aware of Mark Rippetoe and his Starting Strength model since probably 2008 or so, though I never was interested enough to actually dig into the nitty-gritty and read the book.
On a lark I started watching their podcasts, then their coaching/form videos, and pretty soon was finding myself obsessing over the movements and the details of the programming and its pure simplicity. I bought the book and learned the programming and have been obsessed with learning and implementing their approach since.
I am currently using this method, as well as coaching my wife, my mother (68 years old), a BJJ training partner (21 years old), and my Grandfather (83 years old). I am using this exact program, with proper dosing of the weight and movements, and they are ALL reporting improvements in their life outside the gym.
Here’s the first post about my experiences and some background.
What Is Starting Strength?
Starting Strength is all about strength acquisition. Mark Rippetoe (The coach and author of the program) posits that Strength is the most important of all physical attributes. It is how we interact with our external environment. Strength is the production of force against an external load. That external load might be a barbell, a grappling opponent, running a marathon, swinging a baseball bat, pushing a stalled car, carrying a bag of groceries, getting yourself off the toilet, or picking up your grandchild.
The program isn’t for power-lifters, contrary to the opinion of detractors. It is for you, your mom, your grandpa, and your high school football team. It is for people who need to be stronger than they are today. YOU need to be stronger than you are today. Because your life will improve.
The goal of the program is to build strength by taking advantage of the Stress/Recovery/Adaptation cycle that all living things utilize to adapt to their external environment. Starting Strength has settled on 4 compound (multiple joint) barbell movements to achieve this end. The exercises were chosen because they use the most muscle mass, over the longest effective range of motion, using the fewest movements necessary (but no fewer), in a way that can be readily tracked.
The Movements (in order of importance)
The (low-bar) Squat. This is the king of the lifts and the cornerstone of the program. The SS lowbar squat is described in excruciating detail in the Starting Strength book, and there are a LOT of good videos on their method of coaching and cuing the squat. It’s going to look different than the squat you see in fitness magazines (which is the high bar variation). For years I thought I was in a low bar position, but it wasn’t until I learned that I needed the bar below the spine of the scapulae (the bony ridge you feel on your shoulder blades) that I really felt like I was squatting well. It has been a game changer for me.
The Deadlift. Picking a barbell off of the floor from a dead stop. The SS 5 part deadlift setup is repeatable, reliable, and makes sure that every pull you do off the floor is properly set up and safe.
The Over Head Press. The most important pressing movement. Pushing a barbell from chin to overhead. Shoulder health has always been problematic for me as a grappler. Their setup and coaching cues for the OHP have increased my strength and thus my shoulder health exponentially.
The Bench Press. The coaching cues of the bench press, as with the other movements, involves having a defined spot to hold your eyes so you can make repeatable movements that safely groove the movement and allow more strength development. This is my weakest lift, but it’s way better than it was.
The program is dead simple. First you determine a weight that you can perform with perfect form, but adding more weight will cause your form to degrade. That’s your starting weight. You take the 4 movements, and break them into two workouts. A and B. Each of the exercises will be preceded by 5 warm up sets of the movement, preparing the muscles for the top sets.
You will complete the workout, and the next time you do that movement, you will add 5lbs to the bar. You will do that until 5 lbs is too much to add, and you’ll add 2.5lbs (with micro plates). You will do that until it doesn’t work and you’ll do something else. This will take about 2-4 months, depending on various personal factors and how conservatively you started with your weight selection.
- Squat 3 sets of 5 reps
- Press 3 sets of 5 reps
- Deadlift 1 set of 5 reps
- Squat 3 sets of 5 reps (with 5 lbs more on the bar than last time)
- Bench Press 3 sets of 5 reps
- Deadlift 1 set of 5 reps (with 5 lbs more than last time)
If you’re under 40, train 3 days per week, and just keep alternating A and B in each subsequent workout. If you fail to achieve a prescribed number of reps, note the total reps achieved in your logbook, and next workout use the same weight, and try to complete more total reps.
Once you are deadlifting your bodyweight, you can swap the Power Clean out on workout B so you give your body a chance to rest from heavy deadlifts on workout A days, while developing power (expression of strength quickly). This is really all you need to know for the first 6-8 weeks. In a follow up post I’ll share my experiences, my gym setup, my lessons learned and the benefits beyond strength.
Current Personal Results
My lift numbers when I started Aug 1 were (for sets of 5):
Squat: 115 Press: 95 Deadlift: 135 Bench: 115 BodyWeight: 194
Yesterday, Nov 21 they were (for sets of 5) :
Squat: 315 Press: 132.5 Deadlift: 330 Bench 200 BodyWeight 205
This is OBJECTIVELY stronger. Subjectively I am much harder to deal with on the mats. This has been a HUGE triumph for me. I also appear more muscular and feel better. I’m almost to the end of my novice linear phase and I’ll have to get more complicated. But in 4 months I’ve done good work.
I’ll do more on this in another post, but my mom, wife, grandfather, and training partner are all getting stronger. They report things like better balance, easier to get up stairs, easier to move dog food around, better flexibility, and a host of other things. It works every time it’s tried. It doesn’t matter what their numbers compared to mine, or yours to mine, what matters is you get a little stronger than you were yesterday. That’s progress.
Feel free to reach out to me if you want further info. I’m happy to help and want you to be stronger.
The Starting Strength Book : Recommended if you want all the info in one place, with extreme detail and explanation. Great to have in your library. Get the paper back so you can make notes.
The Barbell Prescription: If you are over 40, you should get this book instead, if you only wanted to buy one. It contains programming for those into their 90’s, ways to dose the movements when someone is too weak to do a bodyweight squat, and substitutes and alternatives if degeneration or prior injuries prevent someone from doing one of the movements.
If you like listening to podcasts, Barbell Logic has a series on getting started. Matt Reynolds uses the SS model and they talk endlessly about the topic. I really enjoy it. Here is episode 1.