Starting Strength is a program designed to help athletes build size and strength as fast as reasonably possible.

If you follow the program as outlined, and if you get proper rest and nutrition, you should be able to lift more weight every week, and you should see meaningful muscle growth over the course of the program.

Even if you’ve been lifting weights for a while, don’t assume that you’re an “experienced” lifter. You can go to the gym day in and day out, but if you’re not measuring your workouts and getting stronger, what you’re currently doing is not working.

And don’t let the “starting” part of the title deter you. Former college athletes have benefited from this program. Chances are that you too will benefit from this program.

So let’s jump in.

Program Overview

The Starting Strength program was designed by legendary strength coach, Mark Rippetoe. Like all strength training programs worth anything, it is focused on the primary compound lifts: squat, deadlift, bench press, shoulder press and power clean. It’s nothing fancy, but these lifts are the best way to build strength and induce muscle growth. Period.

You’ll be doing a full-body workout three days a week on non-consecutive days (e.g., M/W/F). The workouts are dead simple, but very effective if done with proper form and at the proper weight. The goal is to add weight to the bar every time you lift. But don’t add weight unless you completed all 15 reps in the previous workout.

It might seem crazy to add weight every time, but due to the novice effect, your body should respond at a rapid rate when you first start lifting. If you reach a point where you can’t add weight for 2 or 3 consecutive workouts, you take a small step back to let your body recover, then move up from there. The protocol for stalling is discussed below.

After mastering your lifting technique and building a foundation of strength on this program, you will be better prepared to move on to an intermediate program to continue progressing.

If you want an in-depth understanding of the science and philosophy behind the program, you should read Mark’s book, Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. It has everything you need to know about proper technique and the application of the program.

The Starting Strength Routine

The program is laid out in three phases. Each phase is designed to introduce your body to the movements at increasingly heavier weights.

Don’t move faster than the program outlines. You will develop the necessary flexibility and balance in the early phases to be able to properly perform the movements at much heavier weights in the later phases. As much as you might not like it, the best way to increase strength is to do it in a smooth, mostly linear trajectory.

starting-strength-graph

If you add weight in big leaps, you’re only setting yourself up for failure, because your body needs time to adapt.

Where to Start

On the first day of the program, you need to establish a starting point for the squat, shoulder press and deadlift. The second day introduces the bench press, so you’ll need to establish a starting point there as well.

The general guideline is to use a weight that allows you to do 3 sets of 5 reps without getting fatigued and losing speed under the bar by the time you get to the third set.

Keep in mind that you’ll be lifting every other day for five days a week. You don’t want to use a weight that will produce extreme muscle soreness and inhibit your subsequent workouts. Also remember that the goal is to add weight to the bar on every workout so that you progress upward on a linear trajectory. If you start out too heavy, you will slow down quickly, and you won’t get the desired adaptations in your body.

Phase 1

Phase 1 has a very simple structure that repeats itself every two weeks. This phase usually lasts 2-4 weeks (repeating the A, B, A, B sequence), but can last for several months if needed to ensure proper technique and mobility. If nothing else, you should move on to Phase 2 once your deadlift weight is well ahead of your squat weight, and the deadlift becomes more difficult such that you need more rest between deadlift workouts.

Week A

Monday Wednesday Friday
Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5
Shoulder Press – 3 x 5 Bench Press – 3 x 5 Shoulder Press – 3 x 5
Deadlift – 1 x 5 Deadlift – 1 x 5 Deadlift – 1 x 5

Week B

Monday Wednesday Friday
Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5
Bench Press – 3 x 5 Shoulder Press – 3 x 5 Bench Press – 3 x 5
Deadlift – 1 x 5 Deadlift – 1 x 5 Deadlift – 1 x 5

Phase 2

Phase 2, also with a repeating two-week structure, introduces the power clean once a week to provide a break from heavy deadlifting while still developing the muscles. Selecting a weight for the power clean should follow the same principle as the other lifts: use a weight that allows you to perform 3 sets of 5 with proper form and without losing too much speed by the last set. This phase will likely last from 2-4 weeks, but could be extended for several months if necessary.

Week A

Monday Wednesday Friday
Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5
Shoulder Press – 3 x 5 Bench Press – 3 x 5 Shoulder Press – 3 x 5
Deadlift – 1 x 5 Power Clean – 3 x 5 Deadlift – 1 x 5

Week B

Monday Wednesday Friday
Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5
Bench Press – 3 x 5 Shoulder Press – 3 x 5 Bench Press – 3 x 5
Power Clean – 3 x 5 Deadlift – 1 x 5 Power Clean – 3 x 5

Phase 3

In Phase 3, you add a few assistance exercises: chin-ups, pull-ups and back extensions. These are incorporated into the routine to provide yet more recovery time between deadlifts, as the weight is likely getting much heavier. You’ll also start doing a lighter squat day for additional recovery from squatting.

For the chin-ups and pull-ups, don’t worry if you can’t get the full 15 reps for every set. Just do as many as you can for each set. If you reach a point where you can do all 3 sets of 15 on the chin-ups and pull-ups, then use a weight belt to add weight to these exercises.

At this point in the program, it’s not uncommon to start increasing weight by only 2.5 pound increments. This is because your body will have reached an inflection point where rapid gains start to diminish, and smaller increases are necessary to maintain a linear progression.

You’ll probably stay in this phase for several months.

Week A

Monday Wednesday Friday
Squat – 3 x 5 Light Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5
Shoulder Press – 3 x 5 Bench Press – 3 x 5 Shoulder Press – 3 x 5
Deadlift – 1 x 5 Back Extensions – 3 x 15 Power Clean – 3 x 5
Chin-Ups – 3 x 15

Week B

Monday Wednesday Friday
Squat – 3 x 5 Light Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5
Bench Press – 3 x 5 Shoulder Press – 3 x 5 Bench Press – 3 x 5
Back Extensions – 3 x 15 Deadlift – 1 x 5 Back Extensions – 3 x 15
Pull-Ups – 3 x 15 Chin-Ups – 3 x 15

Week C

Monday Wednesday Friday
Squat – 3 x 5 Light Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5
Shoulder Press – 3 x 5 Bench Press – 3 x 5 Shoulder Press – 3 x 5
Power Clean – 3 x 5 Back Extensions – 3 x 15 Deadlift – 1 x 5
Pull-Ups – 3 x 15

Week D

Monday Wednesday Friday
Squat – 3 x 5 Light Squat – 3 x 5 Squat – 3 x 5
Bench Press – 3 x 5 Shoulder Press – 3 x 5 Bench Press – 3 x 5
Back Extensions – 3 x 5 Power Clean – 3 x 5 Back Extensions – 3 x 5
Chin-Ups – 3 x 15  Pull-Ups – 3 x 15

Stalling

During the program you may reach a point where you are unable to increase the weight on a movement for two workouts in a row. This is considered a stall. When this happens, the protocol is to decrease the weight on the next workout to 90% of the weight attempted on the failed attempts. This gives your body some extra recovery time for that exercise.

After the reset to 90%, simply continue to add weight from there as you normally would. Don’t feel discouraged if this happens. Sometimes you need to take two steps back in order to take four steps forward.

If after several months in Phase 3, you stall three or four times on any of the exercises, you will likely want to move on to an intermediate program like Wendler 5/3/1.

Warming Up

Whether you’re young or old, warming up is an extremely important part of weightlifting. It serves two purposes: to warm up the muscles and joints to prevent injury, and to practice the movement before it starts getting heavy.

This second component is especially important for weightlifting. It helps you develop the motor pathway for the movement so you can focus on exerting maximum effort rather than on worrying about your form. Not that form is unimportant, but once you’ve mastered the form, it becomes second nature.

If you’re working out on a cold day, it’s a good idea to start the workout with a light jog, some time on an exercise bike, or a few hundred meters on a rowing machine (best option).

Then for every movement in the workout, you’ll want to perform 2-5 warmup sets that increase in weight and decrease in reps until you get to the work sets. Start with 2 sets of 5 on an empty bar, then add weight while decreasing reps. It will look something like the following:

  • 2 x 5 @ 45 lbs (empty bar)
  • 1 x 5 @ 70 lbs
  • 1 x 3 @ 105 lbs
  • 1 x 1 @ 140 lbs
  • Begin working sets

Warm-up sets don’t have to be an exact science, but don’t skip them. In his book, Mark says that “the warm-ups [should] save gas for the heavier sets, while still being heavy enough that the first work set is not a shock.”

Rest Between Sets

This program is about building strength, not muscle endurance. Accordingly, you need to give yourself enough time between sets to allow for sufficient recovery from the previous set. For beginners, this might only be a couple minutes since the weights are relatively low. But as a general rule of thumb, you should usually rest between 3-5 minutes between sets.

The idea is to allow you to exert as much effort as possible during each set. The more weight you move, the more your likely your body is to respond. So don’t let fatigue limit your ability to exert maximum force.

Nutrition

As with any strength training program (or any athletic endeavor for that matter), proper nutrition is key. When it comes to building strength and growing muscle, if you don’t eat enough, you won’t get bigger or stronger as fast as you could with adequate nutrition.

Adequate nutrition probably means eating more than you would think. Mark recommends drinking a gallon of milk each day. This is pretty extreme, and perhaps not very healthy, but it in a lot of ways, it gets the job done. If you want a healthier alternative, you might try supplementing your daily meals with something like Huel instead. It’s completely plant-based, which (usually) means better for you and better for the planet.

The main point here is to eat a lot. As best you can, eat whole foods. Supplements and meal replacements can certainly be helpful, but they’re almost never as nutritious and filling as real, unprocessed foods. Getting enough quality macro and micro nutrients in your diet is at least half the battle (if not more) when trying to get bigger and stronger.

Following the Starting Strength Program

Starting Strength is pretty easy to grasp, but it requires you to record what you do each time so that you can add weight on every workout and progress at an optimal rate. Some people use binders or spreadsheets, but Fytt allows you to easily record your workouts so you always know what you’ve done, and what you need to do next.

If you don’t have much weightlifting or other athletic experience, no problem. If you’ve been lifting for years, you probably can still benefit greatly from this type of training. Many gym-goers have not taken a disciplined, consistent approach to strength training that has enabled them to progressively lift more and more weight for an extended period of time.

Following this program correctly should make you significantly stronger than you are now.

Don’t just blindly follow a program. Fytt has built automated, dynamic an strength training program that algorithmically adjust as you go to keep you training at an optimal level.
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