How I Tried to Prove Rip Wrong

by Rob Brouillard DPT | December 01, 2021

brouillard deadlifting

As a physical therapist, I’m no stranger to exercise. I’ve exercised regularly since I was a junior in high school who puked and quit after the first day of wrestling tryouts, and decided to finally get in shape. I ran to get in shape for the Air Force, and never understood the military’s logic that I needed to be on the fat boy program, even though I had better fitness scores than most of my group. I kept doing judo, and in Japan another airman got me into lifting weights, teaching me about form and intensity. Looking back, it was better than nothing, though it was mostly the workout of the month from some bodybuilding magazine, like doing 10 sets of 10 with a 20-second eccentric phase on the leg press. German volume training, I think it was called.

I got through physical therapy school at Long Beach State in California, four years of undergrad and three years of grad school. I learned the “science” of exercise, but our only physical requirement was the bench press, leg press, and 1.5 mile run. There was some grade based on how you did compared to your bodyweight, and I found the run quite grueling at a 6:30 pace. I got my CSCS after graduating, hoping it would enhance my paycheck. The Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist credential consists of a multiple choice test and having a four-year degree – it didn't help.

After college I had so much free time I trained for a marathon and hit my mark of 4 hours. It felt empowering to go out for a 2-hour run on the weekend and not even suffer.

Fast forward 6 years or so. I was now a spry 40-something, generally struggling with depression. I kept exercising, knowing it was good for me. At our employee gym there were two guys who were always on the bench press. I’d get in the gym, do 8 or 10 exercises in a circuit, run through it 2 or 3 times and then run for 20 or 30 minutes. And they’d still be on the bench press. So of course I dubbed them the “bench press bros.” They worked out twice a week – every day was chest day. After benching they’d do some dumbbell flyes, machine pec flyes, and some curls and triceps press downs. We’d bullshit a little, and they were working at 400-430 lb personal records, which they had taken 5 years to get. I asked them once how they knew they would get a new personal record, and surprisingly they said they really had no idea. Sometimes they felt like crap and lifted great, sometimes the opposite. It made me – get ready for it – think.

I “knew” exercise, after all. I had read about the Bulgarians and their training cycles. I “knew” it was more scientific than that. So I thought I’d look up some info and give them the definitive training program to get their bench press higher in a predictable manner.

As I perused the vomitorium of information that is the internet, I quickly discovered that most information was crap and click bait. But there were a bunch of links to Starting Strength. It wasn’t what I was looking for, but it was quite interesting reading, and obviously not the usual tripe. After reading about it, I got the blue book and began barbell training, for the first time in my life. I also began listening to Rip’s podcast. I recognized he was quite well read, and understood that pain and tissue damage were not always related. He knew subtleties which had taken me years to learn, and I could not find fault with anything he said related to the field of injury and rehab.

Three sets of 5? Add a bit of weight every time? Eat more? Was it really that simple? It blew my mind that I had never heard of this formula. I thought about this for weeks, wondering why didn’t I see this information anywhere else. My hypothesis was that Rip couldn’t possibly be right.

Training had to be more complicated. So my goal was to try to follow the program and prove that I couldn’t get stronger. Then I could get back to running on the treadmill to get hot and sweaty a few times a week. I decided that until I got through proving Rip was wrong, I would only have one goal: get stronger. I wouldn’t care about my abs (which I have never seen anyway, being a bit pudgy in the middle) or looking great in a bathing suit. I recalled my foray while in the Air Force, trying extreme dieting and exercise routines. Looking back at some of my behaviors and recalling my feelings, I realize now I was toying with body dysmorphia and some anorexic behaviors, which are not at all healthy. Just get stronger, I thought.


I was 5’9, 165 lb, 45 years old. I had recently started TRT, was feeling much better mentally, and it made sense to do some weight training now that my hormones were in normal physiological range and I could recover. I watched videos, read just about every article on Starting Strength and started listening to the podcast. I trained the same days as the bench press bros. After a month or so I felt I was past the point of being a “new” trainee. Definitely still a novice, but more comfortable with the program, adding weight, and knowing what to expect in the days after training. I felt I could push and not break with “all that weight” on my back.

What I learned first: As a novice lifter I found I slept horribly the night I lifted. I had thought I would be so fatigued that sleep would come easily, but I remember difficulty falling asleep compared to other nights. My hypothesis was that putting a heavy bar on my back or trying to pick up something extremely heavy (for me at the time) put my nervous system in a heightened sense of arousal, perhaps similar to a fight-or-flight response. In my quest for good sleep I listened to some podcasts and read some books about the subject; Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep was ground breaking stuff. After several months of trial and error I eventually found a routine that worked for me:

  1. Wake in AM. It is quite dark where I live, so I used a SAD lamp for 10 min to cue the brain it’s daytime
  2. After workout, drink a smoothie. Eat dinner
  3. Short walk
  4. Shower, spend 3+ minutes with cold rinse. Edge of shivering.
  5. Stop looking at cell phone after 8:30, turn night mode on.
  6. Watch TV with wife, sip ice water
  7. Read until tired (usually 10-20 min)
  8. Go to bed about the same time every night
  9. Typically fall asleep in 10 min or less.

Years later, a body monitor confirmed that I was getting at least 7 hours of good quality sleep per night.


This was the game changer. I can see why so much is made about eating enough. I think back on all my attempts at working out before, when I was in my 20’s and had all the time in the world, and I was eating lean chicken and trying to change my body by working out 5 days a week and getting nowhere. Rip’s articles and podcasts got through to me. So I ate more. I learned that you can’t go directly from 2000 calories a day to 3500! I felt uncomfortably full – like after Thanksgiving – every day. Then I learned to titrate the calories up by a few hundred as my tolerance increased.

I think the best information was from Stan “Rhino” Efferding. After hearing the podcast on SS, I watched all his content and found some video of him going through his entire vertical diet system during a conference in Sweden, I think. I started making my own monster mash for my lunches every day; they were cheap and easy. I read most of the references he gave for the reasoning behind his advice and found it sound. The first week I started salting everything, I think I bumped up all weights 10%. I was putting on a couple pounds a month. I was getting a body composition done every 6 months by my hormone doc, and things were looking fine. My size Large shirts stopped fitting; they were getting tight around the shoulders. I realized I was stronger than I had ever been in my life, with just a year of training.

I had started lifting in 2019. By October, my bodyweight had increased 20 lb to 185. I could squat 335, deadlift 350, bench 265, and press 135. If you have a nice chuckle over these modest numbers, remember: this was the strongest I had ever been. No wonder I'd struggled with sports!

The Other Stuff

I had tried to hold on to my other training, like running, for a while. I did pull ups and weighted dips. As the months went by I found I was getting plenty of training stimulus from the four lifts and didn’t need to spend the time with other exercises. Each movement took about 30 minutes with warm-up sets and resting, and three movements left me pretty gassed out by the end. I knew the last movement would not be the best performance, so that was factored into exercise order selection. Managing total stress was important. I’m married, have two kids which are now 8 and 11, a mortgage, full time job as a physical therapist at the VA, and enjoy doing glass art. So I felt I could consistently give two days a week to training, and once and a while three days a week. I began to wonder if I could hit the arbitrary goal of a 200 lb press, 300 lb bench, 400 lb squat, and 500 lb deadlift. If I could hit those numbers, I guess I could admit Rip knew what he was talking about.

The Middle?

By early 2021 I weighed 200 lb. I could squat 385, deadlift 390, Press 175, but my bench hadn’t changed much. I signed up for a squat and deadlift seminar when SS came to Boise.

The novice linear progression is hailed as so important, so sacrosanct even, that I refused to call myself an intermediate lifter until almost 2 years had gone by. I progressed more slowly due to only lifting two days per week, not following the program precisely and adding 5 lb every time, and also the usual hiccups most people had when gyms closed for Covid, but eventually I did reach the point where I could not add weight every week and started to tweak the programming with the typical 5 sets of 3, or only adding 5 lb every other week.

Now, I realize I am getting away from SS methods at this point. Maybe I’m just not that tough. But let’s recall that I’m over 45 years old with a typically stressful life. I realized there was more than one way to get stronger after a certain point. Once you’re past the novice stage, it seems to be important to find something that works and stick with it, or to be able to adjust a single parameter and experiment with that.

As I pushed on I came to an important epiphany about loading. When I’m doing a set of 5 reps (deadlift for example) the first 3 go up okay, but the 4th is very difficult. The 5th is almost impossible. The 4th and 5th reps show a definite decrease in velocity. I was trying to determine what was the minimum effective dose to drive adaptation. I found some strength training advocates saying once velocity slows down, it’s time to stop. Others would say push through to failure. I concluded that the twenty-something can push into a tremendous amount of tonnage and do a crazy amount of loading (such as the Texas Method), and deal with the consequences of fatigue and be able to lay around the house and sleep the next two days to recover, whereas I might have to stay much closer to the minimum effective dose.

Throughout all this I continued to see my numbers improve and continually made progress. I watched in horror at the form of 95% of all lifters at the local gym, wishing I could give them just a bit of advice, like “Get the bar off your neck while doing squats.” I was no Starting Strength Coach, but at least I knew that much!

SS Comes to Boise

Despite the pandemic and all that mess, Nick came out to Idaho for a coaching camp and I was excited to finally get some live coaching. I had been doing it all by filming myself. I had tried a trainer but he didn’t know anything about the nuances of barbell training. The squat and deadlift seminar was extremely instructive. At that point I had been squatting 365 for 3 sets of 5 and of course I was too upright. After the form correction, I reduced my load and spent five weeks slowly increasing to incorporate the form improvements. The seminar was so worth the time and money – I was given a bucketful of cues and a much better understanding of how the movement should feel.

Currently, I weigh 215 lb., Squat 455, Deadlift 465, Bench 315, and Press 190. I decided to try doing press and deadlift twice each week and alternate squat and bench. I obviously recognized I couldn’t do two heavy days of deadlifts, and further learned that I did better doing heavy deadlifts every ten days instead of every seven. I think I may deadlift 500 lb and press 200 in early 2022 which would be about three years from starting to actually train for strength.

Discuss in Forums

Starting Strength Weekly Report

Highlights from the StartingStrength Community. Browse archives.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.