by Mark Rippetoe
“Without an appreciation for the importance of continued, sustainable incremental increases in training loads, there is no appreciation for the most fundamental form of programming.”
Most of the people that join this gym get very little accomplished. I am surprised they pay me. And my gym is better than most in terms of new members using the facilities, because anybody that makes it through the maze of big commercial gyms with professional sales closers and two-year contracts, smaller physical therapist-run “fitness” clubs, and the YMCAs are pretty determined to be here. The typical new gym member comes three of four times on schedule, misses the next two workouts, comes one more time, and then never comes back. You other gym owners reading this will back me up here: most people only think they want to work out in a real gym, and that’s fine because we make money this way. The majority of the human race is composed of lazy slobs that are prodded through their miserable existences by the media, preconceived notions and prejudices, rumor/hearsay/innuendo, bad advice from fools, and the hope for an easy way to do everything. So it’s okay if they pay us our enrollment fees and some dues, come a few times and then disappear. It’s not our fault. Right?
Maybe. It’s true that most people are lazy slobs, but if that lazy slob comes to your gym and you put him on a program that either doesn’t make anything about his fat lazy body change – or you put her on no program at all (“Here are the treadmills and the TV controls. Aerobics is at 6. Hope you come!”) – you can hardly expect them to come back. Perhaps if selling them 24-month paper is your only interest in the situation, this is fine. I don’t write contracts, so my interest has always been having them come back and bring a friend. I have always tried to do my best at making something about their lazy slob bodies change in a positive way as quickly as possible, to catch their interest within that four-workout window of attention.
Now this doesn’t mean that most of my new members don’t quit too. After all, the majority of the human race is composed of lazy slobs, as I said. But I have a better shot at them if I get their attention by making it obvious that the time they spend in my gym will not be wasted. In other words, I know that have about 4 workouts in which to change something – preferably something they can see in the mirror – to even have a chance to keep them paying dues. And I need the money.
As a practical matter, I figured out a long time ago that the easiest way to make the human body look different in the shortest period of time possible was to make it stronger, and that the easiest way to guarantee that this happened was to add weight to the bar every time the member shows up. I would teach them the basic barbell exercises in the first workout, because I found that they worked faster.
I developed a way to teach them quickly and simply to almost everybody that wanted to learn them. Virtually all young guys could squat somewhere between 85 and 145 lbs. for five reps with just a little effort after learning the movement, and I found that three sets of five with that weight worked best. I wrote this down in the training book I had them bring to the workout. Next time they came in, they’d go up 10, or perhaps even 20, pounds for those three sets of five. The same was proportionately true for the other basic exercises. After four workouts I could show the kid an increase in his squat numbers of between 40 and 60 pounds, a bodyweight gain of 5-10 pounds, and a definite improvement in his appearance; it doesn’t take much time for the quads to change shape.
I trained women the same way. If they could squat, we squatted; if they couldn’t we leg pressed until they were strong enough to squat. The program was the same: I titrated the weight up during the teaching of the movement until I found what seemed like a good place to stop – a weight that was heavy enough that it was a little slower, but not so heavy that two more sets couldn’t be done – and then had her do two more sets with that weight. With few exceptions, three sets of five squats across (or three sets of ten leg presses), three sets of presses or bench presses across, and one set of deadlifts (virtually all women can deadlift the first day, even if they can’t squat) worked just fine for everybody. There were exceptions for older women that were exceptionally weak. But the key to everybody’s progress – male or female, young or old, weak or strong, stupid or smart, scared or tough – was the incremental increase provided by starting at a reasonable weight and going up every time they showed up at the gym.
Doing it this way, with just a few simple exercises, allowed me to show them a completely different approach to exercise than they had ever seen, one that focused attention not on the exercises per se, but on the weights being used on them. Virtually every other gym program, then as now, focuses on the use of as many different exercises as the floor has machines, at least eight and maybe twelve in one workout, while I used at most four basic barbell exercises. I had all the standard machines in the old version of the gym, but I stopped using them because they didn’t contribute to my plan for member retention, which was based entirely on making the member look and feel as different as possible in the four-workout window of attention.
This disturbed many people who, driven by the media, preconceived notions and prejudices, rumor/ hearsay/innuendo, bad advice from fools, and the hope for an easy way to do everything, expected machines in their workout. But had I added the machines, the workout would have been too long for most people’s schedule, and they were absolutely unnecessary anyway. This because selectorized machines fitted with a stack of plates on rails in 10 lb. increments that work a small, isolated group of muscles do not lend themselves well to continued incremental increases the way barbell exercises that work large groups of muscles at one time do. My goal was to show new members a linear improvement in the numbers in their training books and a change in their appearance within four workouts; barbells do this and machines do not. So I quit using the damn things, and later got rid of most of them entirely since they weren’t pulling their weight, so to speak.
By setting up my new members programs this way I had an actual product to sell that was palpably valuable in a very short period of time. Even fat people that couldn’t see their thigh muscles could see the linear increase in strength on paper and feel it when they got up off of the toilet. The key was the use of exercises that lent themselves to a linear increase from workout to workout, and the rule that everybody goes up in weight every time they train. The fact that everybody, without exception, showed improvement in important physical parameters within four workouts removed the didn’t-get-anyresults objection to continued participation in the program.
This is wonderful, of course, but after many years of doing things this way it became clear that most
people really didn’t give a shit whether it worked or not. Squats, presses, and deadlifts are harder
than leg extensions and watching TV on the treadmill, and most people still quit. Lazy slobs, etc.
But those that stayed all showed the same pattern in following their linear increases up through the
basic exercises: they made rapid progress every workout at first which finally slowed to a stop as they
got very strong. These people who had stuck with the simple program for the months it had been
productive had gotten strong enough that they were able to produce enough stress during a workout
that an adaptation to the stress could not occur within the time between one workout and the next.
Conversely, they had gotten so adapted to the stress that the work being done during their simple
beginner workout was no longer enough to continue producing a long-term adaptation.
May 25 Training Camp (The Squat) : Chicago, IL
June 7-9 Starting Strength Seminar : Wichita Falls, TX
June 30 Training Camp (The Squat) : Atlanta, GA
July 12-14 Starting Strength Seminar : Denver, CO
August 9-11 Starting Strength Seminar : Springfield, MO
September 6-8 Starting Strength Seminar : Brooklyn, NY
October 11-13 Starting Strength Seminar : Redmond, WA