Strength Training Programming: A Guide

I used to be an addict.

A program addict.

Programs were my drug. I couldn't get enough of them. I didn't know I had a problem. Meaning, I was just like everyone that watches Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Here's how sick I was:

I remember, many times, going to the gym, warming-up, looking at my program on paper, and then just…leaving.

I didn't know if my program was going to work. And I didn't want to waste my time. I thought sitting in front of the computer trying to find the perfect program was a better thing to do.

It wasn't.

Because I never found the perfect program.

But I did break free of this self-described program purgatory (without drinking a Dos Equis).

How?

Easy:

I started doing the perfect program.

Which shouldn't make sense. (I would know. I'm the one trying to confuse you in a [feeble] attempt to retain your attention.) I never found the perfect program, yet I started doing the perfect program.

Let me explain…

I didn't find the perfect program. I built it. Myself. Which, in hindsight, isn't exactly groundbreaking. When you have a craving for a certain kind of food, sometimes you're better off throwing away the shitty takeout menus and simply cooking something for yourself.

And cooking exactly what you want.

Most people can't build their own programs. They're too busy swimming in low food chain thinking (see: models), hopping from one program to the next. They don't zoom out and learn the art of programming.

But you? You're in luck. Because that's what this is about. Programming. More specifically, my strength training programming philosophy.

Which, I'm sure, doesn't sound very sexy. And for good reason: it isn't very sexy. Programming is to programs as cooking is to recipes, and there are a lot more recipe books on bookshelves.

But good chef's aren't slave to recipes.

They know how to cook.

So I'm not going to give you my perfect program. Not here, at least. I mean, you can give me money and I'll give it to you. Right now. That's an option.

But that's not why I'm writing this. I'm writing this in an attempt to give you something much more valuable than any one single program…(even my perfect program).

I'm going to show you how to cook.


Knowledge is a cumulative process. There's rarely original ideas, just different ways to combine ideas that already exist.

I didn't pop out the womb. started much like the rest. dumb.

i was a self-conscious nerd, trying to do this thing, find my way through fitness (or whatever you want to call it).

i didn't have a “fitness” background. i didn't play sports.

I liked to draw and play video games. The extent of my Christmas list (most years) was thirty different sketchbooks, fancy pens or pencils, and Pokémon Yellow DON'T FORGET POKéMON YELLOW OR I'LL MURDER YOU IN YOUR SLEEP PIKACHU CAN SURF I WANT TO SURF WITH PIKACHUUUUU

pikachu surf pokemon yellow

You mean I have to move my body in front of other people that I can barely communicate with on a good day? And they will be looking at me and judging me? HAHAhahahAHAHaHAhAh

public gyms and me wouldn't work. My only shot was building a garage gym and working alone, which is exactly what I did.

i was a member of some online communities, my home being a tricking (freestyle acrobatics) forum, Tricks Tutorials.

(you might associate tricking with fitness. since this ‘movement culture' thing exploded in recent days…but, back then, tricking was like skateboarding. it was just this cool thing i did. errr. tried to do.)

Antifragile Skill Anthony Mychal

there was a small “fitness” subset within the bigger tricking community and i sort of picked out one dude as a mentor.

(hi Adam!)

and i peppered the shit out of him with TRBL questions.

five reps or four? how many sets? what's the best program? what's your experience with butt secks? should i have a 401k or a roth ira?

if someone were to email me and ask me these questions today, i'd reply with so many vulgarities. they'd probably quit “fitness.”

i got lucky; he was nice.

but he must have seen i was a live wire, sparking every which direction. i needed to be grounded.

“go buy, read, and then do Starting Strength.”

he told me to do this.

so I did.

I bought it.

i read it in one day.

and then everything changed

Starting Strength is common today, but, back then (2006ish), it was nothing (popularity-wise). my self-proclaimed mentor was cutting edge. and i was lucky to have picked him because i needed ss.

it was a book.

but it became my coach.

i remember reading though the book and being blown away. not only did it help me from a technical perspective (with body position and exercise technique), but it also transformed my outlook on strength training.

(because it was basically non-existant)

i had a standard barbell at the time, which oxford defines as “a shitty version of an Olympic barbell that's about as sturdy as a string of toothpicks glued together”

i had a cheap ass bench. third world countries have better benches, really. my shoulders didn't fit through the uprights.

considering i was a skinny-fat dude with narrow as piss shoulders, i'm starting to wonder if my bench was actually a toddler play toy made by Fisher-Price.

and this equipment set up was actually a second iteration.

first was some adjustable dumbbells my parents got me one Christmas, which (based on my previous Christmas lists) had to have been a curve ball.

but kudos to my ‘rents. I woke up on December 25th and there were boxes of heavy iron things in my garage. Even though they had already contacted the local scrap yard to see how much money they'd be able to resell the iron for.

Despite doing absolutely nothing with these dumbbells, I bought more equipment. I thought more stuff would solve my problems. How original.

and the new stuff i bought still sucked. I used the uprights of my terrible to (somehow) zercher squat. I deadlifted. I knew what was good, and I was going through the motions, but I wasn’t really connected to my training.

I didn’t have sight beyond sight.

reading ss was like realizing i wanted to take a road trip across the country, but my mode of transportation was a barbie jeep power wheels.

so the first thing i did was upgrade. i bought an olympic barbell and a good squat stand. a better bench. My garage gym upgrade was complete…once I shimmed up sides of the rack and bench on account of the crooked floor, of course.

it wasn't a lot, but ss didn't call for a lot.

my parents were still able to park in the garage, is what i'm saying, which was a big deal for me because that was our arrangement. no matter what i did, that CR-V needed to be able to fit.

My garage gym upgrade was complete…

…once I shimmed up sides of the rack and bench on account of the crooked floor, of course.

and then i did the thing.

Which is why everything changed when I read (and followed) Starting Strength. It shifted the paradigm, in some way, like

Here doth lie Starting Strength. Read it. Then you will know the truth. And the truth will set you free.

at the time, for me.

I wouldn't be where I am today without my Starting Strength backbone. I owe many beers to Rippetoe and Kilgore, and they're welcome to cash in whenever they please.

 

 

(You know how it goes.)

I intend on getting to WHY, eventually.

But not now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Guide to Programming, Part 1: Starting Strength

 

 

 

Because what I bring to the table is sort of a Bruce Lee'd version of Starting Strength. Me Jeet Kune Doing the shit out of SS. Taking what I found most useful, rejecting what I found useless, adding my own…

OIH GREAT A LITTLE PRICK TRYING TO BE ALL SORTS OF CONTRIVERSIAL BY UNDERMINING A LONG WITHSTANDING COACH WHAT ARE YOUR CREDENTIALS BRO

i'm glad opinions are like assholes.

 

 

 

 

 

 


PART I

STARTING STRENGTH GUTS

 

 


PART II

WHY, LOGISTICS


Starr, Hepburn, Fives

Let's start granular, with the sets and reps. Why are most exercises bound to (3×5)? Truth be told, I don't (fully) know.

Bill Starr had a big influence on Rippetoe, and Starr was a fan of (5×5), which is what the program in his book, The Strongest Shall Survive, uses. Starr writes why he uses (5×5), citing a study showing that (4-6×4-6) was the best set and rep “zone” to build a combination of strength and size. (5×5) is the middle ground of that zone.

Starr's (5×5), however, was actually more of a [4×5](1×5), which is to say: four escalating warm-up sets with 5 reps followed by 1 set at your heaviest weight.

Really, (5×5) goes back. Way back. Back to Doug Hepburn in the the early 1900's. Reg Park (one of Arnold Schwarzenegger's idols) also used it in the 1960's. Although, according to this article, Park's 5×5 was actually [2×5](3×5), which is to say: two escalating warm-up sets with 5 reps followed by 3 sets across at heavier weights.

As Park explained it, 5×5 includes two progressively heavier warm-up sets and three sets at the same weight. He suggested increasing weights at approximately the same interval, for example:

Back squat: first set 135×5, second set 185×5, followed by three sets of 225×5.

Perhaps this is where Rippetoe gets (3×5) from. Who knows. A lot of people, probably. But not me. So. Oops.

The power clean is done for lower reps in order to avoid technical breakdown. In general, the Olympic lifts (and their derivatives) are done for triples, doubles, or singles these days. Old timers used to do them for higher reps (like 5's). CrossFitters do them for even higher reps.

In general, you want to avoid huge technical breakdown. Fatigue causes technical breakdown. So, as a beginner, that's a line you have to respect.

The deadlift is done for one single set of five because the stress of the deadlift (if done for higher volume) can interfere with recovery for the back squats. Rippetoe prizes the back squat.

Enough volume? 

(3×5) might not seem like a lot of volume, especially thrown against a bodybuilding backdrop. But you have to consider the entire context of the program. If you add up (3×5) across three weekly training sessions, you get (9×5). Translated into typical bodybuilder strategies of training once per week, this certainly isn't pickles. Going into the gym and doing nine sets of five reps with a heavy weight in one single training session is daunting.

Alas, Starting Strength isn't a maximum mass (body)building program. It's a strength training program, which isn't to say you won't build muscle mass on Starting Strength. You probably will, as strength growth is correlated to muscle growth. Most people that want to build more muscle should get strong (if they already aren't).

Since Starting Strength is a strength program, we can look at Prilepin's chart, which shows recommended sets and reps at given weights. This chart is a product of Russian research done on Olympic weightlifters, so it's typically used a backdrop for more strengthy pursuits.

prilepin's chart

You can see that (3×5) falls well within a decent range for strength purposes.

Training split

Thanks to bodybuilding magazines, most people enter strength training with a body part split training mindset. We think training should look like this: train chest on Monday, train legs on Tuesday, train arms on Wednesday, etc…

The construction of Starting Strength can be hard to swallow if you come from the mainstream fitness world because Starting Strength is more of a full body routine rather than a body part split routine.

Time for some training split semantics…

A lot of shit is shat over training splits, and usually for all the wrong reasons.

 

 

 

 

Training splits are simply a way to manage stress and recovery. That's all. And in order to discuss the utility of any one training split, you have to consider the context of the entire program.

When you're a beginner, you can't stress yourself much. Meaning, you recover quickly. Meaning, you're ready to train at (or beyond) your highest capacity without a lot of time in between sessions. This is the rock that Starting Strength is built upon.

Assume you keep linear progression (adding five pounds to the bar), you simply adjust the days per week you squat.

  • Squat once per week: 260 pounds added to the bar in one year.
  • Squat twice per week: 520 pounds added to the bar in one year.
  • Squat thrice per week: 780 pounds added to the bar in one year.

If you want to get strong, why train a lift once per week? Why not go to the gym and do a lift more frequently if it means getting strong faster?

Of course, if I'm asking this question, I also have to ask: why not squat SEVEN times per week? The answer to this one is simple: recovery.

Recovery

You might have heard of the 48 hour rule. The 48 hour rule says it takes the body 48 hours to recover from a bout of high intensity training. Train Monday, rest 48 hours, you're fresh Wednesday.

This is where Starting Strength gets the M-W-F three day per week training template.

The 48 hour works is a decent starting recommendation, but, eventually, hefty dumps will be taken on the 48 hour rule. The 48 hour rule puts “recovery” into too narrow of a box. Alas, assuming a lower Level, in terms of being fresh enough to repeat high intensity performances performances, the 48 hour rule holds up well. Train on Monday and, come Wednesday, you’ll be fresh enough to repeat Monday’s performance.

Funnelosophy

Think of a funnel. One of those devices that helps you put over-poured milk back into the carton without having to calculate angles, wind resistance, and other pesky matters of physics.

Pouring water into this funnel represents an expression of strength. The water filtering through the funnel represents the recovery process. When the funnel is clear, you're recovered. Where's water in the funnel, you're stressed.

Now, at Level 1, you can’t consciously pour a lot of liquid into the funnel. So it's kind of like being able to pour a thimble full of water into the funnel.

Funnel engineering allows small pours to flow through without hassle. So you have a clear and clean funnel quickly after Level 1 pours. This is why you don't have to take a recovery day after you walk up a flight of steps.

When you just begin strength training, you're not pouring all that much, so you still have a quick (relatively) turn around time — the aforementioned 48 hours. Train (pour). And within 48 hours, the funnel will be clear and ready for another pour.

Overflow

Since we're talking funnelosophy, we might as well extrapolate into the future. As you get stronger, you're gradually increasing the amount of stress you can impose upon your body. You're gradually pouring more and more liquid into the funnel

A thimble of water becomes one shot glass. One shot glass becomes two shot glasses. And as your pour increases in volume, there will come a point in time when the pours are too large to filter through in 48 hours. So, at some point, residual water is still sitting in the basin after 48 hours.

Instead of entering the training session with an empty and clear funnel, there’s residual water in the basin. But you pour more in anyway because, quite frankly, you never really know the status of your funnel.

Water backs up further in the funnel. And, as the trend continues, you’ll hit a point where the funnel overflows. The actual manifestation of this: a failure to increase weight on the bar. This is stalling.

Hello

The stall is greatly misunderstood. It's seen as a negative because you're no longer getting stronger. Progress stops.

But if you were able to add weight to the bar every single training session, you'd be able to get strong ad infinitium.

As long as you play the linear progression game correctly, stalling is a good thing. It means you're getting stronger. It means you're able to stress yourself to such an extent that you can't recover in 48 hours anymore.

Stalling comes from your body’s inability to recover from a heavy workload; you aren't getting weaker, you're simply fatigued.

So consider your absolute performance output to be a function of two variables:

  1. Your ability to perform
  2. Being fresh enough (recovered) allow for (1) to actually happen at its utmost capacity

Hello

The funnel analogy helps personify linear progression and the process of stalling, but, as with most analogies used to simplify complex phenomena, you have to embrace the ignorance.

The back squat stresses the lower back, as does the deadlift. Two different exercises, but similar stress signatures. So deadlift “pours” impact squat “pours” and so on…

All of this is simply to clarify that not every exercise will stall at the same time.

There are a bunch of factors that influence when one single exercise will stall on a linear progression, most of which are a direct result of absolute strength potential in a given exercise.

Bigger muscles have greater strength potential. So most upper body exercises stall earlier than lower body exercises because the muscles of the upper body are smaller (and weaker).

Likewise, single joint (isolation) exercises will stall earlier than multi-joint (compound) exercises. Less muscle mass means less strength potential.

A general breakdown:

Lower body, less technique, more joints and muscles, bigger muscles, less range of motion, less complexity = more strength potential, longer sustained progress.

Upper body, more technique, less joints and muscles, smaller muscles, more range of motion = less strength potential, shorter sustained progress.

Other reasons for stalling are less mechanical; you have more influence over them. As I mentioned, your ability to perform is a function of recovery. Recovery can be boiled (extremely boiled) into: sleep, food, and competing stressors.

Your recovery will suck if you (a) aren't sleeping enough, (b) aren't eating enough nutrients and energy, and (c) aren't eliminating subconscious stress reserves by worrying about the weather and other general life happenings.

x

Once you stall, you need more complex programming, something that facilitates more recovery. But advanced programming is beyond the scope of this text.

You can see, however, how changes in training intensity and training frequency can change the training split selection.

One of the reasons Starting Strength works is because excess is avoided. The high frequency at which the body is trained means you're always tight rope walking between stress and recovery. If you add a bunch more on top of what's already there, you'll stall quicker.

When bodybuilder does a ton of exercises in one training session, it's a HUGE pour into the funnel. So he takes a long break before training those same exercises. He needs time for the liquid to filter through the funnel.

 

Single v. dual…?

Specializing and advanced programming techniques doesn’t inherently mean: use a body part split routine.

The body part split routine is largely a single factor programming model. The idea is that you train, say, Monday. Fatigue yourself a bunch. And then recover fully before entering another training session next Monday.

This works for bodybuilders because they can do a lot of different exercises for different body parts to ensure even development. And a consequence of this is a shit ton of stress, so, hey, why not rest an entire week? It fits the lifestyle and it’s fine.

But what if, say, you play ultimate frisbee on Wednesdays? Suddenly thrashing your legs on Monday doesn’t sound like that great of an idea.

There’s also a dual factor programming model, which acknowledges and allows for fatigued training. Meaning you don’t dig yourself into as huge as a hole in one single session and you use fatigued accumulated over time to dig the hole.

 

 


PART III

WHY, EXERCISES


Max load

Why does Starting Strength include the exercises that it does? On first pass, the exercises are max load bearing, which is something I talked about here (link to muscle).

beyond, well, let me explain things first…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

x

patterns hit at local, and variance within. (different types stress different parts – incline vs. decline, flare v. non-flare).

bodybuilding, mainstram. stop there. but no…

more than local stress, also have global stress — which is to say, makes your body mobilize more.

rabbit hole, thing I like to focus on more than anything else is load.

Highest are macro. Less are micro.

 

 

x.

now, truth be told, done all of this for greater good. because programming can and should consider.

Beyond…

It doesn't take a genuis to see that SS is obviously a powerlifting program.

Powerlifting is a sport that…

Three out of the five base lifts are within powerlifting, and the other two are done to facilitate progress.

for me? NO

but, well, that's…

 

 

Before alluded to fact that programming within SS faciliates the powerlifts, and now have enough to know why.

can decode…

macrosquat 1 – macrosquat 1 –

macropull 1 – macropull 2

The scheme for the pattersn is such that, the second exercise is a “lighter” exercise. Even if trained maximally, less stress. Meaning serves as a lighter day, inherently.

In funnel parlance, less of a drop.

So imagine if bench press was only lift…

stall quicker.

why not just have a “light” day…?

why squat? good question. Rippetoe eventually encourages front squat inclusion for same reason, but, at the start, he feels it interferes with back squat technique.

PART III

At this point in time, an ending might seem abrupt. But, really, the above contains all the lessons you need.

First, pick exercises that accomplish certain goal. Starting Strength is powerlifting driven. Not your end, then, well, recognize.

Second, gradually get stronger using simple progression techniques.

Third, realize that exercises are stressors. Take time to recover, especially as you get stronger.

Fourth, as you get stronger you need to fluctuate stressors to keep funnel happy. This can be done a bunch of ways. Light day. Or picking another exercise that similar flavor, yet delivers different.

 

 


This is a massive guide and a work in progress. I update it a few times per week. If you're subscribed to my free weekly column, you'll know when it gets updated.


Trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of?

Maybe you’re a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

(These weekly columns don’t get posted to the site.)

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