Most of you in the powerlifting community have probably heard of popular old school programming methods. The likes of Starting strength, Conjugate and Bulgarian method. These programs were popular back in the day, but a lot has changed since then. Much of the science behind these methods is now considered outdated.
For those in the competitive powerlifting community this is a well known fact but most of these programs are targeted for beginners. Let’s take a look at one of these beginner programs from Starting Strength.
Starting Strength Explained
History of Starting Strength
Starting Strength is a barbell training manual published in 2005 by Mark Rippetoe. It’s famous for focusing exclusively on barbell movements with an extremely low-volume approach. According to their website, Starting Strength “makes use of the body’s most basic movement patterns… to force the adaptations necessary for increased strength.”
Like all popular powerlifting programs, Starting Strength stood out for its focus on compound lifts and making linear progress. The starting strength workout is “not a list of new exercises from the fitness magazines designed by Physical Therapists [sic] for injured sedentary people.” Instead, it’s a long-term program for building muscle. By adding weight in slow but steady increments, it joins 5/3/1 in popularizing the idea of building strength as a marathon, not a sprint.
It was a big hit when it came out. The Starting Strength routine helped popularize powerlifting (or at least barbell training) in the mainstream, and it’s still popular today. Within the strength community, it inspired tons of new research that’s uncovered huge breakthroughs in the way we train athletes. Unfortunately, though, the program itself has not exactly aged well.
The Training Program
The training program relies purely on barbell training without any accessory lifts. It claims that compound lifts are all you need to see full body muscle gains.
Does it work? Sure. But, it isn’t the most optimal way if you’re trying to make progress fast.
Without accessories, you’ll be progressing much more slowly than you have to. This is because accessories play a much bigger role in technique reinforcement than most people thought at the time Starting Strength first came out. Back then, strength and size (i.e. hypertrophy) were seen as two distinct training goals.
Of course strength and size go together. But you have to train very differently for strength than you do for size. Low volume is best for building strength, while high volume is best for building size. But if you really wanted to focus on strength above all else, size was nothing more than a means to an end.
but Starting Strength only programs 3 sets of 5 squats and bench, plus only 1 set of 5 deadlifts for its first day. Without accessories, progress moves unnecessarily slowly.
As a disclaimer, I would like to point out that almost any kind of training will show results for a beginner. But for any beginner looking to maximize strength and size, the best bet is using a combination of barbell training and hypertrophy work.
This hypertrophy work is the so-called “bodybuilder” workouts that in combination with barbell training have been dubbed as the “powerbuilder” workouts. By appropriately balancing barbell and hypertrophy, beginners can achieve much greater stimulus while still allowing for recovery.
Now let’s talk about recovery. How much is too much? How much is too little? To answer this, we need to talk about MEV and MRV.
Starting Strength is all about the minimum effective volume, or MEV. It targets the bare minimum required to stimulate a growth response from the muscle. It gives you the kind of workouts where you just show up.
On the other hand, modern-day training aims for the maximal recoverable volume, or MRV. Focusing on the MRV promotes the greatest amount of stimulus possible without overtraining, which yields faster results.
While MRV is great for beginners, it’s expected to go down as you get stronger.
It really is simple. If you’re not very strong, you can do a lot more work since you’re not using much weight. But if you’re really strong, you can’t handle that much volume. The heavier the weight, the greater the fatigue on your muscles.
As you can see, most modern beginner powerlifting programs have an understanding of how MRV and MEV relate to training.
Let’s take a look at Starting Strengths take on technique, especially in the squat. Rippetoe recommends leaning so far forward that your nipples point to the ground, leaving your hip hinge to do most of the work.
Does that work for some? Sure, if you’re hinge-dominant and have a long torso and femurs. If you’re quad-dominant or have short femurs, though, it makes no sense to squat that way. And since beginners don’t know much about the sport, they won’t think of these things. They’ll just do what the program says.
Plus, the program doesn’t teach fundamentals. Keeping the bar over the mid foot. Bracing. The basic building blocks of proper squat technique aren’t covered in Starting Strength, but that’s what beginners need most.
The verdict: Far from bad, but not the best.
Starting Strength is a decent starting point if you’ve never even touched a barbell. But, it’s not optimal for results in powerlifting for beginners. It simply makes progress take much longer than necessary. On top of that, it insists upon one very specific technique that won’t be right for every lifter. That’s why I always recommend taking the initiative to do it right from the start.
In short, don’t get drawn in by how simple and easy it sounds. Do the research or talk to a coach, and your gains will thank you later.