What is Starting Strength and what is a Starting Strength Gym?

A former client and aspiring coach stopped by the gym the other day and asked some questions about the nature of the Starting Strength method. Here is a cleaned up version of my response:

Most people associate Starting Strength with the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression, but they are not the same thing. Starting Strength is a methodology for strength training built around a few organizing principles:

  1. Training organization should be based on the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle
  2. Exercise selection should favor movements that involve a large amount of muscle mass acting over a large effective range of motion, allowing the use of heavy weights that can be incrementally loaded
  3. The execution of each exercise should be dictated by sound physical and anatomical principles

Principle #1 is the underpinning of all programming for strength development. We must apply a sufficient stress to disrupt homeostasis and then allow for just the right amount of time before applying a new stress. The combined accumulated effect of these stresses results in strength gains over time. Their magnitude and frequency depends on the subject’s level of training advancement.

Principle #2 results in some of the most prominent features of all training programs favored by Starting Strength: the use of barbells and the low-bar back squat. Bilateral lifts tend to involve more musculature and allow for heavier loading. Barbells allow for very precise weight increments to be used. The low-bar squat distributes the work over a larger portion of the human anatomy and allows for a bigger systemic stress to be applied in a more efficient manner. Notice that this principle expresses a preference for these lifts, but does not disqualify others. A program can fit within the Starting Strength model while including accessory exercises that are not barbell based (e.g. chinups and dips) or are even unilateral, as long as this is appropriate for the subject’s level of training advancement.

Principle #3 is why the book Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training devotes dozens of pages to painstakingly describing the proper execution of each lift. It is also the reason why each edition and printing of the book has corrections over the previous one. As with any scientific or engineering endeavor, there is a continuous examination of the model with improvements applied whenever possible.

The Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression is the direct consequence of these principles when applied to the case of training rank novices. These subjects are generally able to recover from a (reasonable) training stress within 48 to 72 hours and will display a positive strength adaptation in that time period. In order to spur further adaptation, a slightly larger stimulus is needed. Depending on age, gender and lifestyle factors, this simple process will generally last somewhere between two and nine months and will constitute the most efficient way for the subject to get stronger within that time frame. More complex programming is simply not necessary.

The novice linear progression will be based, whenever possible, on barbell movements for the reasons outlined above. We will use principle #2 to select the appropriate exercises for each subject, but barring unusual circumstances all trainees will default to the same four basic exercises: squat, press, bench, deadlift, with the possible addition of power cleans and chinups. These movements utilize a large amount of muscle mass over a large effective range of motion and can be loaded with small increments in order to make progress over a long period of time. Accessory work is not relevant at this point. A novice lifter does not need machine single leg extensions to strengthen their quads when squats will do that just fine while also training their glutes, hamstrings, adductors, back extensors, abdominals and their sense of balance.

Once a lifter has completed their novice linear progression, they can and should continue their training based on the Starting Strength method. Programming will change to account for the fact that they are no longer able to recover and adapt from a training stress within 48 to 72 hours. Exercise selection may expand in order to more finely manipulate the dose of stress applied in each workout, to account for personal variation, or to target specific athletic or competitive needs. Principle #2 will still dictate that the majority of the training stress will come from barbell-based movements that will continue to be incrementally loaded, albeit at a slower pace.

So, in summary, Starting Strength is a method and the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression is the program resulting from the application of that method to the case of training novices. The method can be applied to training other populations, but since at any given time most of the lifting population is made of novices, the linear progression gets the most exposure and is commonly associated with Starting Strength as a whole.

The method and the novice program can be applied by anybody regardless of credentials or experience, with different degrees of success. A Starting Strength Coach will apply the principles in an effective manner so that their clients can avoid the many pitfalls that can lead to subpar results. A Starting Strength Gym is a facility where one or more Starting Strength Coaches apply the above principles in an explicit and systematic manner across a client population at multiple levels of training advancement. Clients will benefit from the coach’s efforts as well as from the interaction with other lifters training under the same model. These facilities are also a fertile ground for the creation of new Starting Strength Coaches, since they provide an environment where an aspiring coach can observe the application of the method in a wide range of circumstances and has access to a receptive client population.

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4 Comments on “What is Starting Strength and what is a Starting Strength Gym?”

  1. Lynette Ewart

    What a brilliantly written succinct article. Is it possible to save this as a PDF so I can share it with people who need to be educated to stop their BS?

  2. Shawn

    Great information. I just discovered Starting Strength and began the SSNLP almost four weeks ago. I wish I would have started this in my 20’s but I was simply “working out” not training. But, the training has now started and I am pumped!

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