Applications of Starting Strength and Practical Programming to Powerlifting Competition: Abigail Smashes the Glass Ceiling

by Geoff Bischoff | July 13, 2022

abby pulling in competition

Life is better strong than weak. Spend time under the barbell doing serious training and you will know this is true. If you’re a novice, no better program exists than the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression (SSNLP).

The word “novice” turns some away, thinking, “I’ve been lifting things for years, I’m obviously not a novice.” But in this context, novice refers simply to someone physiologically capable of adding weight to the barbell every session, 3 days a week. Nearly every lifter in any commercial gym is a novice lifter. I was, though I’d been “lifting” for a decade when I undertook the SSNLP. You probably are, too.

The SSNLP is simple. Focus on 4 main lifts: Squat, Bench Press, Press, and Deadlift. Squat 3 times per week, for 3 matched sets of 5, adding weight to the bar each workout. The same day you squat, alternate the press and bench, using the same protocol, resulting in 3 sessions of each pressing movement every 2 weeks. Deadlift one set of 5 every session, adding weight each workout. When linear progression falters, the Blue Book (Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3d EditionSSBBT3) includes protocols for continuing to progress for many weeks after the first missed reps.

But at some point, the SSNLP finally comes to an end. You mourn the death of your blessed and glorious novice period, perhaps pouring out a bit of bourbon on your change-plates and muttering a quick eulogy, and you have to figure out what's next. (I mean, what next after wiping the bourbon off the change-plates. You’re still going to need those.)

There’s a temptation to sprint off in search of something vastly different from what you’ve been doing because, hey, novice stuff isn’t working anymore, you want a different result, so you understand intuitively that you need a different input to achieve a different output. So you browse 12-week “percent-1RM templates” or start sniffing around the well-peed-on fire hydrant of some other conjugate or block training variant.

But that’s not for you. Not yet. Remember what worked before: Manipulation of the smallest number of variables possible. The main variables available to the strength trainee are load, exercise selection, volume, and tonnage. The principle of minimum intervention hasn’t died with your novice phase. An excellent source for maintaining the principle of minimum intervention is the Gray Book (Practical Programming for Strength Training, 3d Edition; PPST3), which teaches you how to be an intermediate lifter. In this context, intermediate refers to someone physiologically capable of adding weight to the barbell approximately every week.

At this point programming becomes more individualized. Now, you’re getting stronger for something. What that something is – becoming a better fighter, bicyclist, swimmer, soldier, or athlete – will dictate to a great extent how you manage your intermediate period of training.

All of this was floating around in my head on Memorial Day Weekend 2021 when I encountered a young lady who wanted to get stronger for the specific purpose of competing in powerlifting.

Starting Strength is not a powerlifting program. I’ve been told so in person by Mark Rippetoe, and if he doesn’t know what his model exists for, then I can’t imagine who does. But I’d been using the model in my own training for that specific purpose for some time, and it worked pretty okay, so I figured …

Why the hell not?

I “Meet” Abby

I’m an Active Duty Army Chaplain, not a full-time barbell coach; I only coach one or two dedicated souls at a time, on the principle “if you show up, I’ll show up.” They know I’m not Starting Strength certified, and they’re okay with that.

It was late May 2021, around Memorial Day weekend. I’d recently begun coaching a platoon leader from my Alpha company named Dov. We were in the early days of a great training run when he mentioned that he had a sister who was pretty strong and liked to lift, she lived in New Jersey, she was currently between coaches.

I responded with some version of “Cool story bruh.” If I was going to coach her it would have to be online. I’d never delivered online coaching and wasn’t keen on doing so. Work was busy. Family was busy.

But that weekend I was in a hotel due to some detached duty, bored, chatting on a laptop with Dov, and one of us brought up his sister, Abby. He introduced us in a group chat. She wanted to get stronger on the Big Three (Squat, Bench, Deadlift), wanted maximal single-rep output, and had a vague idea of maybe competing someday if she was ever “good enough.”

Once the awkward “I’m not a weirdo, you’re not a weirdo” phase necessary to every online interaction was over, I told her I could get her stronger if she stuck with the program. A few days later, I had an assessment workout from her on video, and we got after it.

Abby the Woman

Abby began training with me at age 31, 5'5”, 190 lb bodyweight. She is a nurse, engaged in hospital work, often on call in her area as a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner). Her husband is a local police officer. She loves her husband and her dogs and her family. I stood as officiant for her brother Dov’s wedding last year, and met their parents. Her dad described her as strong-willed, maverick. But he had a gleam in his eye when he said it that I grasp intuitively, as I’m also dad to a strong-willed girl. Her mom described Abby with a knowing smile and a head-shake. I didn’t pry, but I’d stake reputation and paycheck on this: I bet Abby was equal parts heaven and hell growing up, and her parents spent roughly equal time being intensely proud and exasperated. I do not doubt that they love her fiercely. Abby grew up around people who believed in her ability, and she has come to trust in her own ability.

Abby the Lifter: Assets and Challenges

Abby came with numerous assets; here are three:

1. Developed strength. She came into the game pretty strong, from a few years of lifting on her own. She already had video of gym PRs of 285 Squat (225x5), 85 Press (85x5), 165 Bench (135x5), 315 Deadlift (275x3).

2. Developed coordination. She knew how to do the lifts. Despite my concern that her first squat video would be hot garbage from a Baghdad burn pit, she presented me with a solid, largely model-correct, set of 5 at 225. Her bench was so picture-perfect, I barely had to coach it: I only had to program it. Her deadlift was solid, she was already hook-gripping all sets, and understood back-setting better than any other lifter I’ve worked with, male or female.

3. Developed will. Her dedication to training execution is borderline religious. She attacks the barbell with a courage I seldom encounter even among military men. It serves her well.

Abby’s challenges were primarily external:

1. Busy work schedule. When Abby and I started, she was working three nursing jobs, slicing in strength training wherever she could. Over time, the jobs whittled down to one (the SANE work), and her training availability improved.

2. Busy family schedule. Abby’s in-laws are ill and in frequent need of home care and visitation, which Abby often provides.

Coaching Abby

LP Phase:

  • Squat: 175x5x3 start, 230x5x3 end
  • Bench: 115x5x3 start, 130x5x3 end
  • Press: 45x8x3 start, 80x5x3 end
  • Deadlift: 215x5x2 start, 275x3 end

I started Abby with a traditional SSNLP as if she were a brand new lifter, with some slight upper-body modifications I’ve found useful for experienced lifters. Upper body lifts quickly reduced from 5-lb to 2.5-lb jumps. Her LP was a short 6-ish weeks due to previous lifting work.

Early Intermediate

  • Squat: 235x5, 245x3, start; 270x5, 285x3, 315x1 end
  • Bench: 130x5, 145x3 start; 145x5, 162.5x3, 170x1 (157.5 Competition-Paused) end
  • Press: 85x5 start; 102.5x5, 105x3, 112.5x2 end
  • Deadlift: 235x5, 275x3 start; 310x5, 320x3, 355x1 end

Abby transitioned organically into intermediate programming generally resembling a Texas Method set-up, with a volume day to start the week, a light day midweek, and an intensity day to end the week. Because Abby is motivated by powerlifting, partway through this block we prioritized bench, dropping her press sessions to once-weekly on light day.

Notably during this block of training, I reached a point where I could not adequately explain in text form what I needed Abby to do on some lifts. I needed someone shouting cues in real time. I recommended she visit Coach Rich Killian, SSC, the nearest option to her. She complied, and it was a great experience for her. She came back cleaner and crisper under the bar. Hats off to Coach K; I couldn’t have done it without you.

This period included some scale-downs and modifications for minor injuries. It was also during this time that I began to assign Competition Paused Bench singles to her programming to prep her for an as-yet-unscheduled powerlifting meet. This period of training lasted approximately 5 months until Christmas Eve 2021, at which time Abby did a mock meet, since I figured the best Christmas gift I could give her would be the confidence of lifetime PRs.

Middle Intermediate and Meet Prep

  • Squat: 270x5, 285x3, 315x1 start; 285x5, 320x3, 375x1 end
  • Bench: 145x5, 162.5x3, 170x1 (157.5 Comp-Paused) start; 167.5x5, 175x3, 207.5x1 (200 Comp-Paused) end
  • Press: 102.5x5, 105x3, 112.5x2 start; 112.5x5, 120x3, 132.5x1
  • Deadlift: 320x3, 355x1 start; 335x3, 390x1 end

Coming off of a 9/9 multiple-PR mock meet performance, Abby greeted 2022 with a strong desire for competition prep. She found a small federation competition in Flagstaff, Arizona, the “Power Sloth Powerlifting Classic,” scheduled for 28 May 2022, which let her compete alongside her friend Melly, whom I also coach. That date would also mark a convenient “Year in the Life” benchmark on Abby’s training with me.

We continued training the status-quo ante, but with more programmed singles. We also replaced 5s with 3s as the primary instrument of progression.

Meet Day

I coached Abby and Melly on Meet Day from a folding chair at a bluegrass music festival in Missouri, which thankfully had good phone and data reception. I had help from Abby’s husband Jay, who enforced nap time and monitored the platform for timing. Jay’s encouraging presence and ready hands were an indispensable element of their success that day. Melly had a good day, going 7/9 and hitting PRs on squat and bench. Abby, on the other hand, had a full-on Cinderella Princess Dream Day, with a lever-belt replacing the glass slippers.

I went home that day with some heartburn from food truck nachos. Abby went home with all the gold the meet coordinators had to offer – and one of the meet coordinator’s shirts.

abby bench press in powerlifting competition

The meet staff were wearing snazzy “Power Sloth” emblazoned flannel shirts (flannel shirts being practically a legal requirement for residence in Flagstaff). Abby said she wanted one and was told they were for staff only. So, Abby made a bet with the meet coordinator, a bear of a man who goes by “Sully.” If Abby could break 200 lb on the bench press on her third attempt, he’d give her a shirt. She did, and he did, and the rest is a matter of photographic record.

Manage your expectations, I told her. Concentrate on your lifts, go 9/9, make 3 PRs on your final attempts, and expect to come in maybe middle-of-the-pack. Damn if she didn’t make me a liar on nearly all of that. Abby won it all. Her 3rd attempts are listed below, contrasted with her lifetime bests prior to starting with me:

  • Squat: 285 start, 386 end
  • Bench: 165 start, 204 end
  • Deadlift: 315 start, 407 end

Overall: Best in Weight Class; Best Female Lifter; Federation Record: Total; Federation Record: Squat; Federation Record: Bench Press; Federation Record: Deadlift

Aftermath and Conclusion

In a year of training, as an already experienced lifter, Abby added 227 lb to her powerlifting total. She displayed her hard-earned strength by demolishing her peers in front of a crowd that included friends, strangers, and judges.

Maybe you’ve never competed in or attended a lifting meet. I encourage you, correct this deficiency quickly. The ambient energy around the lifting platform is electric, even at a small-venue event. Whether your third attempt is 150 or 950, strangers will shout your name as you grind through a rep, cheer when you compete it, or commiserate if you miss. Abby now knows this to be true. She’s been bitten by the competitive bug now.

A survey of nearby USPA State records show that she’d be a solid contender in her weight class in several states. We’re making plans for a sanctioned qualifying meet so she can go to USPA Nationals in 2023. Power Sloths has offered to sponsor her. If Providence favors her health and training, I expect her to acquit herself admirably. Training is already moving that direction. As I write this, meet-recovery is done and Abby’s already making 5-rep PRs on bench and 3-rep PRs on deadlift, with squat PRs to follow in about 10 more days if all goes to plan.

Through this process, many times, Abby has thanked me for my help. I remind her on every one of those occasions that I have performed zero reps of her squat, bench press, press, or deadlift. Less often, I tell her a deeper truth: It’s been my honor and pleasure to see her succeed.

As for me: I’ve seen the Starting Strength model turn skinny turds into middlin’-strong beefsteaks (me). I’ve seen the model turn average Joes into “commercial gym top five-percenters” (my friends Tim, Dov, Seth). I’ve seen it turn old folks into stronger, more capable old folks (my parents). I’ve seen it turn post-partum homemakers into more solid, more confident women (my wife, Julie; Abby's friend Melly).

But I’ve never before encountered and coached someone who is possessed of both the killer instinct necessary to repeatedly approach a heavier bar than last week, alongside a generous genetic and structural gifting from the Hand of Providence. I’ve never coached a potential elite competitive lifter until I met Abby. It’s been an eye-opening experience.

Starting Strength is still not a powerlifting program, in that it was not conceived or designed with the sport of powerlifting as its chief end. But it does make you stronger – it worked for Abby.

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