What is the Starting Strength Routine?
As the name may suggest, “Starting Strength” (SS) is a barbell-based resistance program aimed at the strength training beginner.
It All Starts with the Starting Strength Book
The original Starting Strength book was released in 2005 and was authored by Strength & Conditioning coach and author, Mark Rippetoe.
Rippetoe has been involved in the fitness industry for over 40 years as a coach and an athlete, where he competed as a powerlifter for 10 years. He has coached national and international athletes and has written many books, journals and articles during his time in the industry.
Rippetoe channeled all of his knowledge and experience into this seminal book and the result is a simple, succinct and effective training guide on how to start strength training.
While you don’t need the book to complete the program (which is shown below), it is a must-have for any true strength training devotee. There are very few books that hold the same prominence throughout the fitness community.
There have been 2 updated versions since the book was originally published, with the 3rd edition being released most recently in 2011. The book has sold over 250,000 worldwide and has helped many people get to grips with barbell strength training.
Although the program is a large part of the book, it also provides an in-depth guide on the 5 “big” lifts utilized in the program. The Starting Strength guide provides all the information required in order to safely and effectively perform the exercises and grow in strength.
Taking a Look at the Starting Strength Program
In an age where countless strength programs and workouts exists, Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength Program is a no-nonsense, scientifically-grounded plan which not only gets results, but gets them fast. There are a couple reasons for this, as we’ll get into below.
It also provides an excellent foundation–one that many advanced and truly elite lifters make their start with.
For any new lifter, starting a strength training program can be daunting proposition. All of the conflicting nonsense strewn out across the web doesn’t help.
That’s where the Starting Strength novice program comes in. It takes many of the complex but important sports conditioning “rules” (periodization is a big one) and puts them in a format that beginners can not only understand but become motivated by.
It is a sensible place to begin as the program is clearly mapped out in the book, it is not over complicated, it sticks to the fundamentals of strength training, and it gradually progresses the individual through to completion of the program. It’s methodical, clever and very difficult to go wrong!
It is also very accessible as you can purchase the Starting Strength program book and ebook online (again, not necessary as the plan and pdf is outlined below but still a great idea if you’re serious about building muscle and strength).
The Starting Strength program can be broken down into 3 distinct phases and every individual will progress through these phases at different rates.
- During Phase 1, the emphasis is on laying foundations through the learning of 4 exercises.
- Once competent, the individual should move on to phase 2 which builds on the newly-laid foundations by bringing in an explosive strength element in the power clean.
- The introduction of Phase 3, which is likely to be the longest phase of the three, introduces another new exercise in the chin-up and continues to apply a linear progression principle.
Besides just the novice program, there is also guidance on how to proceed into an intermediate or advanced strength training program. This provides the full game plan on how individuals can continue to progress with their strength (and muscle).
Breaking Down The Secret: Starting Strength Linear Progression
Starting Strength may sometimes be called the starting strength linear progression program which simply refers to a principle known as linear periodization (LP) that is found in other great beginner plans like Greyskull LP and Ice Cream Fitness (which are both adaptations of SS).
What does this mean?
Simple put, SS requires you to increase the weight on the barbell for each exercise with every session. These incremental increases of weight and consequent increase in strength and muscle mass happens in a linear fashion: load and strength steadily increase in a straight, upward line.
There are different methods that can be adopted when designing a strength program with LP being just one of many. It just so happens that LP provides amazing results for beginners. If you have an interest in learning more about program design, Rippetoe’s “Practical Programming for Strength Training” is a must.
Before moving on, make no mistake…
One titanic benefit of being a strength training novice is that initially, your body will adapt rapidly to the training and will result in significant improvements to lean body mass and strength (which is why you can increase the weight with the majority of exercises every single workout).
Although it will vary from person to person, the untrained individual usually finds that each workout they can add an additional 20lbs for the deadlift, 10lbs for the squat and 5lbs for upper body exercises.
After a few weeks, these incremental increased are expected to drop to 10lbs, 5lbs and 2.5lbs respectively–but that’s still insanely fast considering intermediate and advanced lifters make struggle to make progress throughout the course of an entire macro-cycle (6-8 week program).
Enjoy it and use the rapid results as extra motivation!
Starting Strength Routine
One of the great things about the Starting Strength plan is the fact that there are just 2 simple workouts – A and B – which should be alternated when training.
You will train just 3 times per week under this program and it is asked that you follow a straightforward pattern of one day on, one day off to allow your body a day to recover between bouts of training.
The most common example is training on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and using the other 4 days for rest and recovery.
The routine will look like this:
Week 1 Week 2
|Monday||Workout A||Monday||Workout B|
|Wednesday||Workout B||Wednesday||Workout A|
|Friday||Workout A||Friday||Workout B|
Starting Strength PDF
Looking for a starting strength pdf version of the plan that is simple, concise, and easy to take on the go?
Although the pdf outlines the workouts each week, It can’t be stressed enough that you should also buy the book or ebook to get the full picture and maximize your results.
Starting Strength Workout
Both workouts (A and B) are full body workouts that incorporate compound lifts which utilize numerous muscle groups across many joints. It’s one of the secrets to why it works so darn well.
The Starting Strength workout routines are very different from many other beginner workouts and programs in that, for the first 1-3 weeks, there are only 4 exercises covered; the squat, deadlift, overhead press and bench press.
This is a good thing.
If you can’t squat 225 pounds comfortably, you have no business doing curls and tricep extensions.
Compound movements elicit large hormonal spikes that lead to major strength and muscle gains. Compare the feeling of a hard squat workout vs. doing curls and pull-ups. They don’t compare.
Furthermore, completing isolation exercises makes for a poor use of time when starting out. Just don’t do it. Follow the plan as it was designed.
In Phase 1, both the Squat and Overhead Press are to be performed for 3 sets of 5 repetitions and this will become the pattern for the entire program.
The deadlift meanwhile is to be performed for just 1 set but once again uses 5 repetitions.
Resting between sets is important too. Research shows that rest times of 3-5 minutes are best when chronic (lasting) strength adaptations are desired. This simply has to do with adapting to handle increased workloads. As you get stronger, you will require more and more “work” to make muscular and strength adaptations–and those tough sets require you to rest longer than you would if you were doing calisthenics and push-ups.
As the weeks go on you progresses through the phases, more exercises are added into the program–such as the power clean. Because the routine structure remains the same throughout the differing phases, it makes adding in new exercises very easy. By the time the novice reaches the final phase, the workouts haven’t changed significantly since the first phase.
The workouts are simple, hold to the fundamentals of strength training, and are easy to execute making it very appealing for a novice.
Starting Strength Template for Workout A and B
Note: Listed sets do not include warm up sets which should be completed prior to beginning the “working sets”. If possible, exercises should be completed in the order in which they are listed (unless the bench or rack is taken–keep the show moving and pick the next exercise to complete while you wait).
Ensure to always rest for 3 – 5 minutes between every set.
PHASE 1 (est. 1-3 weeks)
Workout A Workout B
|Squat||5 reps x 3 sets||Squat||5 reps x 3 set|
|OH Press or Bench||5 x 3||OH Press or Bench||5 x 3|
|Deadlift||5 x 1||Deadlift||5 x 1|
PHASE 2 (est. Weeks to Months)
Workout A Workout B
|Squat||5 x 3||Squat||5 reps x 3 set|
|OH Press or Bench||5 x 3||OH Press or Bench||5 x 3|
|Deadlift or Clean||5 x 1 or 3 x 5||Deadlift or Clean||5 x 1 or 3 x 5|
Workout A Workout B
|Squat||5 x 3||Squat||5 x 3|
|OH Press or Bench||5 x 3||OH Press or Bench||5 x 3|
|Deadlift or Clean||5 x 1 or 3 x 5||Chin-ups||Failure x 3 or *|
*5 x 3 on Weighted Chin-Ups
Pretty straightforward right?
Again, it is still highly recommend that you read the Starting Strength book–whether that is before or after getting started. The knowledge gained from reading the book will easily teach you more about strength training that the garbage you can find on many “top” fitness sites.
This knowledge only means more strength and more muscle. Why would you handicap your results by not getting the book? You will spend hundreds on gimmicky supplements but not even a fraction on something that will actually help you? Your loss.
There is also a fourth phase which is known as the Advanced Novice stage. Once again, the structure remains unchanged with the only difference being that light squats are scheduled in one day a week alongside two days of heavy squats.
Starting Strength Routine Multi-Joint Exercises
As stated, all of the Starting Strength exercises are full-body barbell exercises. There are several benefits to using compound movements, some of which were explained earlier.
In short, by using compound movements (squats, bench press, deadlifts, overhead press, power cleans) more muscle groups are targeted with less overall exercises. Benching, for example, will work the chest, forearm extensors, triceps, deltoids (shoulders), and back if done properly. Contrast this with a chest machine which only works the chest.
Furthermore, compound movements are found in training protocols that include high volume, mid to high intensity, short rest times (3-5 minutes), and stress as much muscle mass as possible. When this happens, research shows the body releases a set of anabolic hormones that are extremely advantageous to gaining strength and muscle: testosterone and the family of hormones that are collectively referred to as growth hormones.
A highly-functional exercises which is arguably one of the best movements known to man–second only to deadlifts. When done properly, squats engage the entire body.
While the quads are responsible for providing upwards force, the hamstrings and glutes are needed for hip extension at the top. This entire time, the feet should be planted and “claw” the ground while the upper back remains extremely tight with the shoulders down and back.
Mark Rippetoe breaks it down in his video:
The purpose of the having the deadlift in starting strength is to develop what is known as the posterior-chain. The posterior-chain is an easy way to refer to all musculature found around the hips and glutes.
Deadlifts are the king of all lifts. Becoming strong at deadlifts will lend itself to jacked legs and glutes and a thick back.
But from a practical stand-point, the lift is one of maximal hip extension: the hips must fully extend from a flexed position on the ground at the start of the lift–while back muscles must not only stabilize the bar but keep it close to the body as well (engagement of the lats).
Watch Mark Rippetoe breakdown the deadlift movement in 5 simple steps:
Often referred to as the “bro” chest exercise, the bench press exercise is actually useful for much more than just chest development. Done properly, the chest, delts, triceps, forearms, glutes, back, and legs should all be tense and working to drive the bar up.
Once again, Mark breaks down his perspective on proper execution of the bench press in yet another video from his channel:
The Press or Overhead Press (OHP) is a tough exercise that challenges the core, and of course is known as the best exercise for shoulder strength development.
Proper form during the overhead press can be challenging because the body naturally wants to hyperextend the lower back in order to put itself into a more biomechanically advantageous position. In simple terms, your body is making the lift easier by shifting weight onto more muscle groups.
This is bad.
First off, it simply isn’t optimal for shoulder strength and muscular development. But secondly–and perhaps more importantly–it is a great way to get injured. By aggressively hyperextending the lower back and disregarding form, you handicap not only current progress but future results when you do inevitably get injured.
Drop the weight and do it right. You will be glad you did.
Mark’s video on how to perform the OHP sums it up nicely:
This compound lift that bucks the “3×5 starting strength” trend is the power clean. The lift is specifically programmed for sets of 3 reps rather than the traditional 5.
This is predominantly because of the type of exercise and explosive nature of the movement. The purpose of including the power clean is to improve one’s explosive strength which then carries over to exercises like the squat and deadlift.
If you are having difficulties with the power clean, substituting it with a bent row or pendlay row is acceptable. If you are an athlete in any form, you should definitely try to complete the power cleans, however.
Mark Rippetoe ties everything together with his final lift video:
Starting Strength 5×5
Many believe 5 reps for 5 sets (5×5) to be the optimum number for increasing strength and as such 5×5 is used by many powerlifters and athletes (and is found in the famous 8 week program).
What’s so special about 5 sets and 5 repetitions?
Over the years numerous studies have been conducted to investigate the effects of different rep ranges on strength. Based on many of these studies, the hypothesis was that completing 1-5 reps would build muscular strength, 6-12 would cause muscular hypertrophy (increased muscular size) and more than 12 reps would improve muscular endurance.
This explains why many powerlifting programs do not tend to exceed more than 5 reps and why 5×5 is so popular for strength building and powerbuilding.
Surprisingly, more recent studies are beginning to suggest that both methods–high weight and low reps vs. low weight and high reps–may be equally as effective at building strength and muscle size.
So then is doing 5 repetitions wrong?
Building strength goes far beyond just completing the “correct” number of reps. Outlined in our ultimate muscle and strength guide, strength is made up of several components. Without re-hashing everything in the guide, 5 reps provides for great neuro-muscular conditioning and provides a baseline for intensity–aka the weight will be heavy but not in the 1-3 rep range.
So why 5 sets instead of 3 (5×5 vs. 3×5 in the normal SS plan)?
The evidence is conclusive here. Volume is the driving factor behind strength and muscle growth. More total repetitions is better. By doing five sets instead of three, it’s simply a way of doing more volume.
Intermediate programs like the Texas Method utilize the 5×5 protocol for resistance training, so why doesn’t the Novice Program?
Firstly, remember that this is not a powerlifting program or a powerbuilding plan. Yes, the goal is to get stronger and bigger. However, it is tailored towards beginners.
And explained earlier in the article, if you are a beginner that is a great thing!
The only thing that makes you “intermediate” or “advanced” is simply that it takes you longer to progress. So instead of putting on 10 pounds of lean body mass in one year, you put on 2-3.
Stop worrying about what arbitrary classification you fall into and focus on progressing. The more you can progress with a “novice” plan, the better! That’s like having your cake and being able to eat it too.
And Mark says the same exact thing here. This is one time being a “noob” is a good thing. According the Mark, the effect is so strong that–when a novice trains correctly–it can lead to more results in strength and muscle than an advanced lifter experiences on steroids.
Yes, it’s that powerful.
Secondly, 5×5 for every exercise in this program would be too much for a beginner and it would simply not be effective.
Beginners are not capable of dealing with high training volumes because…they’re beginners. Trying to train too hard from the start with a large amount of volume will lead to less progress because they are unable to recover. All while lifting harder and putting themselves at high risk for injury: a lose, lose, lose situation.
If you are untrained, you have the benefit of the “novice effect” and therefore it is not necessary to go very heavy to elicit strength improvements. The novice needs to select a weight which is challenging but allows proper form to occur for maximal improvements in motor skills (such as balance and coordination), as well as strength levels.
Instead of worrying about doing more reps, it is far more important for a novice to pick a plan and stick to it. Doing the “easy” plan all year round is way better than trying to jump in too deep with an advanced plan and burning out after 3 weeks.
Just don’t do it.
But when you are ready to progress to a more difficult plan (and you will know this when you stop progressing with SS), check out Texas Method Training–it’s a brainchild of Mark’s seminal program.
Tracking Your Starting Strength Progress
Recording and assessing your progress is essential for any program. How can you accurately judge your progress or make appropriate adjustments without data to back it up?
You can download the spreadsheet, download the app or even make your own to allow you to track the weight lifted for each lift as the weeks go by.
In addition to tracking your lifts, it is also recommended that you keep a daily or weekly weight journal so that you can make the necessary meal plan adjustments to either gain weight or lose weight.
The majority of people using SS should be focused on gaining lean body mass. The only times this will not apply is when your body-fat percentage is over 20% (for males).
Starting Strength App
If you are a fan of using apps, the Starting Strength Official app is a great option to track your progress while getting a taste of additional helpful features as well.
- Entire program for quick reference
- Training tips
- Exercise demonstrations
- Session-to-session tracking
- Progress reports to visualize your improvements
Starting Strength Results: Before and After
You have probably come across starting strength before and after photos which may give you an idea of effectiveness of this program, if adhered to.
Make no mistake, this is an effective program and individuals have made significant progress towards getting bigger and stronger by following this program. Like any workout routine, however, it only works as hard as you do.
Consistency, a willingness to work hard, and unwavering determination are traits that will take you far not only in lifting but in life–adopt them as your own values.
There are many reasons this plan works so well.
- A focus on compound movements
- Healthy amount of volume
- Periodization to aid in progression
- “Novice effect”
Explained earlier, many (if not all) who use SS take advantage of the “Novice Effect”. Simply put, this is when an untrained individual starts strength training and becomes very strong, very quickly. Several studies have confirmed this tendency for beginners to advance rapidly in the realm of strength and muscle.
This time period of accelerated progress can last anywhere from 6 months to 2 years depending on the individual. As progress comes to a halt, however, a more in-depth powerlifting plan will be required to continue making progress.
Common Errors of the Starting Strength Program
The main reason why people make mistakes, fail or abandon this program typically falls into one of two categories.
- Lack of adherence in terms of training and nutrition: laziness
- The individual has not read the book or used any of the accompanying Starting Strength reference materials and therefore does not have the true understanding or knowledge to safely, capably and effectively execute the program.
If you’re on Physiqz, there’s a good chance the first doesn’t apply at all. You’re motivated and you’re here to see results.
Do yourself a huge favor and pick up the book. Your results will speak for themselves.
Beyond that, it comes down to training smart and setting yourself up for success. Here’s some common blunders:
- Training too heavy
- Using improper form (training too heavy!)
- Training inconsistently (missing workouts)
- Not following the program (trying to make your own adjustments)
- Not following a meal plan for success
When a novice chooses a weight that is too heavy, form breaks down and the potential for injury is heightened dramatically. It is essential that an appropriate load is selected, adequate rest periods are taken (3-5 minutes), and correct movement patterns are studied and practiced.
But above all else, failure to follow the routine is the biggest reason for failing to see results. While it may sound silly, you’d be surprised how many people complete 10% of a plan just to complain that it did nothing for them.
Just make the decision, and then do it.
Planning is immensely powerful. Schedule times during your week that you plan to workout. When the time comes, you may be surprised at your willpower. But don’t be fooled–it’s going to take willpower at first before the habit is established.
You will be sore. It will not be fun. It will be the opposite of fun. But if you persevere through the rough patch of getting started, it will soon become a habit and almost–if not outright–enjoyable.
But you can NOT forget nutrition. It plays a monumental role in your progress (some may even say diet is more important). For substantial changes in strength, an individual must be placed in calorie surplus which is where they are consuming more calories per day than their body requires. This is why, explained earlier, this plan should not be used to lose weight unless an individual is significantly overweight.
Completing the strength training routine is a proven, time-tested method to increase strength and pack on muscle. It’s simple to follow, but powerfully effective. Mixed with dedication and grit, starting strength is recognized as the best method for anyone diving into strength training.
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