The problem with beginner strength programs
Type 'beginner strength programs' into Google and you're guaranteed to come across Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength and its various adaptations, such as Stronglifts 5x5. Rip is a big name in strength training, and for good reason: his program is simple, effective, and has worked for thousands of athletes.
Starting Strength works because of a simple principle: progressive overload. This means it's based on adding weight to the bar each session. Session 1 might see you squatting 100 kilograms, 105kg in session 2, 110 in session 3, and so on.
A week of Starting Strength (phase 1) looks something like this:
Press/Bench Press* 3x5
Press/Bench Press* 3x5
Press/Bench Press* 3x5
Starting Strength: Pros and Cons
First the good: Starting Strength is simple, and based around a handful of compound movements (eventually you add in chin ups and power cleans), making it easy to learn and stick to. And by keeping training in a low rep range and focusing on progressive overload the program ensures that intensity is high enough to encourage decent strength gains.
And... that's about it. Starting Strength is a great cut and paste program that will work well enough for the majority of lifters. Intense enough to elicit some strength gains, and simple enough that anyone can learn it. But for those who want optimal strength gains, and are willing to learn more than a handful of lifts, there are better ways to train.
One of the program's biggest strengths – its simplicity – is also a weakness. The lack of exercise variation, particularly the lack of horizontal pulling and unilateral movements, means preexisting strength imbalances will be cemented, and new ones may be encouraged.
One common consequence of strength imbalances is internal rotation of the shoulders – caused by an excessive ratio of horizontal pushing to horizontal pulling movements. By including no horizontal pulls Starting Strength encourages this problem in novices. This not only increases the risk of injury, but hampers strength potential by leaving weak links unaddressed.
But what really makes Starting Strength sub-optimal for maximum strength gains is its lack of volume, to understand this we need to look at how strength is built in the first place.
How we get stronger
The ability to add weight to the bar each session depends on accruing enough training stress to elicit neuromuscular adaptations. These adaptations include connective tissue strengthening (Urlando and Hawkins, 2007), increases in the brain's ability to recruit motor units, fire them in the correct sequence, and co-ordinate movement between different muscles (Sale, 1988), and growth and proliferation of muscle fibres, known as hypertrophy (Folland and Williams, 2007).
The training stress necessary to elicit these adaptations can be applied by manipulating two variables: intensity (how heavy the weights are) and volume (how many sets and reps are performed). And this is where Starting Strength stumbles.
There's a reason nobody gets stronger by doing heavy singles at 100% of their One Rep Max every session, or by spending 45 minutes pressing a 1kg pink dumbbell over their heads – though you're likely to see people trying both at the average commercial gym.
This is because volume and intensity are both necessary for strength gains, but neither is sufficient alone. Recent meta-studies show that higher volume training – usually defined as 10+ sets per week – elicits significantly more gains in both strength (Ralston et al., 2017) and hypertrophy, which contributes to strength (Schoenfeld and Grgic, 2017) than low volume training – 1-5 sets per week – when intensity is kept constant.
The only exercise that approaches high volume on Starting Strength is the squat (9 sets per week), while upper body movements are all done at between 3 and 6 sets per week. This might explain the common joke that Starting Strength produces T-Rexs: big legs, little arms.
Volume, volume, volume
The research is pretty clear on Starting Strength's failings, but my problems with the program stem from a much simpler reason: it never worked for me. I'd join a gym, follow Starting Strength, make negligible progress, and quit after a month or two. This went on for a couple of years, until I eventually gave up completely.
After a year or so of being sedentary I decided to give it another go. I bought an olympic bar, a keg, a pair of squat stands, a couple of hundred kilos of tri-grip plates, and made a decision: just do more work. This turned out to be a good move. After multiple abortive attempts at getting stronger on Starting Strength I was suddenly making rapid strength gains. In the first 6 weeks I made the following progress:
Body weight: 105kg to 115kg
Floor press: 60kg x8 to 120kg x1
Overhead press: 50kg x5 to 90kg x3
Squat: 100kg x5 to 160kg x5
Deadlift: 100kg x5 to 180kg x3
Pendlay row 70kg x5 to 120kg x5
This kind of progress is unusual, but not unheard of. Keep in mind that I was weak when I started due to being sedentary, I was heavy, I was eating over 6000 calories a day while training, including 300 grams of protein, I was young with healthy hormone levels, and I slept at least 12 hours every night. But the same was true each time I tried Starting Strength. The only variable that changed was my program. Here's what I did:
Disclaimer: this is just what worked for me, with limited equipment and lots of time to train, eat, and sleep. If I were to design a program today it would like quite different. That said, this should give you an idea of the kind of volume that I consider optimal.
Frequency: 6 days a week. Push/Pull/Legs/Push/Pull/Legs/Rest
Floor press 3x5, 3x10
OHP 3x5, 3x10
Keg OHP 3x8-12
Push ups 3x20
Plate front raise 3x10
Plate lateral raise 3x10
Barbell skull crusher 3x8-12
Pendlay Row 3x5
Inverted row 3x15
1 arm plate row 3x8-12
Keg curl 3x5
Barbell curl 3x8-12
Plate hammer curl 3x8-12
Zercher squat 3x10
Step up squat 3x10
Bodyweight squat 3x50
Keg swings 3x20
Decline sit up 3x30
Leg raise 3x20
I'm not suggesting that anyone copies the above exactly. It may be overkill for some, and with access to more equipment I'd have done things differently. But if the usual beginner programs aren't cutting it for you, or you've started to plateau, you might just need to do more work.
Folland, J. and Williams, A. (2007). The Adaptations to Strength Training. Sports Medicine, 37(2), pp.145-168.
Ralston, G., Kilgore, L., Wyatt, F. and Baker, J. (2017). The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine, 47(12), pp.2585-2601.
SALE, D. (1988). Neural adaptation to resistance training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 20(Sup 1), pp.S135-S145.
Schoenfeld, B. and Grgic, J. (2017). Evidence-Based Guidelines for Resistance Training Volume to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy. Strength and Conditioning Journal, p.1.
URLANDO, A. and HAWKINS, D. (2007). Achilles Tendon Adaptation during Strength Training in Young Adults. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 39(7), pp.1147-1152.
Image: Francesco Melozzi/Flickr