First Things First

by Mark Rippetoe | October 04, 2023

pip points out anatomical structures at a seminar

“Because that's the way we do it” is never an acceptable answer to a question. Neither is “It's always worked for me,” or “That's the way I was taught, and I've always done it this way.” If someone asks a question about what you're doing, an answer like this demonstrates that you haven't thought about why you're doing it. Why is occasionally important, especially if an analysis is to be accomplished that allows the process to be applied across varying situations. That which cannot be analyzed cannot be validated, and if I'm just supposed to believe you, you're a priest, not a professional service provider. When I ask the plumber why he lays the sewer pipe the way he does, he can tell me that shit always runs downhill, and that's a First Principle.

Barbell strength training is no different. If you know what you're trying to do, it is possible to determine the best way to do it after a correct analysis. And the best way might not be The Way It's Always Been Done, if your correct analysis tells you otherwise. When this happens, people will be dismissive of your efforts, since nobody likes to 1.) have their mind changed, 2.) have to learn something new, especially when they thought they already knew it, or 3.) look like a fool.

We were not prepared for this when I wrote the first edition of the book, but pushback was minimal since the first edition was not particularly deviant from the accepted conventional wisdom. As I continued to write, I corrected errors carried over from my having accepted the conventional wisdom. I developed the ability to think and analyze while I wrote, I came to some different conclusions. Over the past 20 years we have developed some rather solid explanations about things that had previously not been explained, or even asked about – explanations that lead to better methods of executing and teaching the barbell exercises. Why turned out to be very important.

Things like: what is the most efficient position from which to pull the bar off of the floor; what is the best way to squat the heaviest weight; what is the best grip to use in the bench press to involve the most muscle mass; what is the best way to press the heaviest weight overhead; how does heavy pulling mechanics apply to the Olympic lifts. These questions are not answered by claiming that everybody lifts heavy weights their own way, because that is certainly as hell not true. The answers were determined by careful observation of lots of heavy lifts, and recognizing the common patterns of execution – this is the what-part of the explanation.

The why-part was then derived from basic physical science, with a lot of help from several engineer buddies who were interested in a more analytical approach to lifting weights. Lifting weights is an understandable mechanical process – not an art – to which the laws of physics apply, and this becomes obvious with just a little examination (I don't remember any Doctors – MD or otherwise – contributing to this process).

First, and most importantly, strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance. Force is measured in pounds. The more pounds you can lift, the stronger you are. Your body, being alive, can adapt to its environment, since this is necessary for all life to continue and has been a feature of living things since the proverbial Day One. It's perhaps the primary function of your DNA. So if you slowly change your environment by lifting progressively and incrementally heavier weights, you adapt to that changing environment by getting stronger. This is First Principle Number One.


Observations of heavy lifts demonstrate the existence of very predictable patterns in the movement of the body under heavy barbells. YouTube was instrumental in this process, in that enormous numbers of lifts can be viewed in real speed and frame-by-frame, and without which the patterns characteristic of the mechanics involved could not have been observed, and therefore explained. These tools were not available before the 1990s, so coaches operating 40 years ago may be excused for being wrong about some things. When Taranenko cleaned 266 in 1988, in a little over 1 second, it would have been very hard to appreciate the details of what was happening. The why-part of those details would have been even harder to determine if you didn't know they were there. That excuse no longer exists.

In the weight room, gravity operates in one direction, which is easily understood. When we lift weights, we work against gravity. Machine-based exercises are specifically designed to work around this constraint in order to isolate muscle groups from their normal musculoskeletal/mechanical environment. They remove the balance component from the exercise, and thus abandon that aspect of the adaptation. Squats, deadlifts, presses, and the Olympic lifts train balance as well as strength, since it is possible to fall down while you're doing them. When you don't fall down, balance has been maintained and thus trained, and balance is important for all daily human applications of force-production capacity.

Any work performed against gravity must be done in the opposite direction. Any other motion is something other than work done against gravity, and therefore represents a lack of efficiency even though it is sometimes necessary depending on the musculoskeletal requirements of the lift. The lighter the weight on the bar, the more inefficiency the system can tolerate, and vice versa: the heavier the weight, the more efficient the mechanics must be. Even at World Record weights, it helps to be stronger than you have to be to lift the weight, since some inefficiency will always be present. If an observed inefficiency in a completed lift gets interpreted as correct technique due to the failure to understand the First Principles, this misunderstanding can become codified in coaching dogma. This has happened many times.

And the way to get stronger is to progressively add weight to the basic barbell exercises. This very basic First Principle is always in operation whether you understand it or not.

For movement patterns executed while standing on the floor, the middle of the foot is the center of balance, and the combined center of mass (CCOM) of the lifter's body and the barbell are the two points to consider. The heavier the bar relative to the bodyweight of the lifter, the closer the CCOM is to the barbell. For this lifter/barbell system to be in balance, the CCOM must be directly vertical to the Center of Balance, i.e. the mid-foot. Any deviation from this alignment represents inefficiency that will require the production of more force than would be necessary during the movement of the barbell.

In barbell training, leverage is the tool we use to move the load. Muscles provide the force, and your body segments – arms, legs, hips, and torso – apply the force to the barbell. A Moment Arm (also known as a “lever arm”) is the distance between the barbell (upon which gravity is acting vertically) and the point of rotation from which the force to move it is being applied (the joint or joints – knees and hips, etc.). It behaves like a hand turning a wrench: the longer the distance the hand is from the bolt being turned by the wrench, the more leverage the hand can apply. But the load on the bar applies force back along the lever – like the bolt is turning the wrench – and you have to be strong enough to operate the wrench. These concepts are discussed at length in the Blue Book.


The details of the way the musculoskeletal anatomy applies mechanical force to the barbell are also discussed at length in the Blue Book. If the purpose of strength training is to 1.) involve the greatest amount of muscle mass 2.) over the longest effective range of motion 3.) for the purpose of lifting the most weight 4.) for the greatest increase in strength, musculoskeletal anatomy must be considered alongside mechanics.

Musculoskeletal anatomy explains the fact that the shoulders are just in front of the bar with nearly vertical shins and high hips when a heavy deadlift comes off the floor. This is a phenomenon that is not immediately obvious since it seems like the arms should hang vertically, and they can't. And that the same position is the most efficient from which to accelerate the bar upward in a clean or snatch, even though they are light enough to be done from a different position inefficiently. More acceleration efficiency means a higher bar path with the same weight, and thus the ability to pull a heavier weight high enough to rack.

Musculoskeletal anatomy determines grip width in the bench press, while mechanics primarily determines grip width in the press. Musculoskeletal anatomy determines back angle, stance width, and the movement pattern in the squat, while its derivative movement, the front squat, is dictated by the mechanical rules of catching a full-squat clean. Squatting improves the front squat, while the opposite is not true. The front squat is not a strength training movement, but rather a part of the sport of Olympic lifting (refer to the purpose of strength training above), and Olympic lifters must train the front squat even though no other sport benefits from it.

Chins, and barbell rows for more advanced trainees, are examples of the normal human movement pattern of pulling something towards you. Like deadlifting the bar off the floor, the movement uses the lats, although in a different function. Grip style and width varies the arm muscle mass involved in the movement. Since we're trying to involve the most muscle mass possible, we use a supine grip for chins so the biceps get trained.

The upshot of this discussion is that barbell strength training is provably the best way to get stronger by directly affecting the force production capacity of the body using its normal movement patterns under an incrementally progressive loading program. If these movement patterns are strengthened, all of their derivative sub-patterns are also strengthened. And it is possible to determine the best way to execute each pattern for the purposes of lifting heavier weights, thus qualitatively analyzing the activity and enabling quantitative, predictable, and programmed improvement over time. We say “Five Pounds a Workout” as shorthand for the process, and once all the complicated stuff is over with, it really is that simple.  

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