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The Four Criteria

by Michael Wolf, SSC | April 18, 2018

rip explaining strength training principles

Every attendee at the Starting Strength Seminar gets a behind-the-curtain-peek on Saturday morning at our organizing principles, by which we choose both the exercises to use in our strength program and how to perform those exercises. We assert, confidently and directly, that to choose our movements and figure out how to perform them, we should pick those that:

  1. Utilize the most muscle mass
  2. Over the longest effective range of motion
  3. In a way that allows us to use the most weight
  4. And thus get stronger

These criteria, presented in this formulation, have proven to be a powerful and effective way to explain a lot about why we do things the way we do. For example, Starting Strength is well known – and sometimes derided – for our conclusion that low bar squats are better than high bar squats for developing strength. Usually the derision comes in the form of an appeal to authority or history, citing a successful coach or lifter who did otherwise and still got brutally strong, or developed a brutally strong team of lifters. Those historical observations are of course true, and we don’t disagree that high bar squats can and have gotten many people very strong. The more relevant questions are:

A) Would those people have gotten even stronger using low bar squats?

and

B) Would other people get stronger using low bar squats compared to high bar?

The Four Criteria suggest an affirmative answer to that question. Until we have reason to believe that EMG Data on muscle activation represents an accurate picture of actual motor unit recruitment – and right now, we do not have compelling reason to believe that (see: Detection of motor unit action potentials with surface electrodes, Motor unit recruitment strategies investigated by surface EMG variables, and common sense) – an analysis based on our best information about muscle structure and physiology suggests that the low bar squat allows the utilization of more muscle mass, meeting Criterion #1. This is the major reason why everyone who learns to do it properly can squat more weight low bar than they can high bar.

We then move on to the next criterion: the longest effective ROM. The word “effective” is the key, because if we ignore it, we can undo Criterion #1. For example, a low bar squat that is still taken as deep as possible will utilize a longer ROM, but due to the muscular anatomy and physiology, this requires that the glutes, the quads, and low back to relax to permit the depth. This undoes Criterion #1 by relaxing muscle mass, and thus follows our conclusion that the squat be taken to just below parallel rather than the commonly cited “ass to grass.”

Going to just below parallel provides us with an easy to see and objective marker to make sure the squat isn’t just being taken less deep as the weight goes up, so weight on the bar provides an “apples to apples” quantitative assessment to determine whether strength gains are occurring. It also represents a depth to which essentially every able-bodied human can squat without having to spend time increasing “flexibility” or “mobility” or any other catchy buzzword that distracts from the task of getting stronger, and at which all the relevant musculature is engaged – not relaxed – and can thus contribute to the movement either isometrically or concentrically.

cathy low bar squat

Next up, we have Criterion #3: the ability to use the most weight. As previously mentioned, the low bar squat fulfills this criterion better than the other squat variants, due to its superior fulfillment of the first two criteria: more muscle mass used, specifically and carefully, over the range of motion that maximizes such use without going so deep that anything is allowed to relax during the movement. Those who take the time, and when necessary, get the coaching required to learn to low bar squat properly to just below parallel with knees out and hip drive, squat more once this skill is mastered and trained, than they previously squatted to below parallel in any other variation.

The exceptions to this rule are so rare that they’re not worth mentioning in an article of this limited length, but the past four years of teaching the lifts to hundreds of Crossfitters before taking them through a linear progression has taught me that many people think they’ve learned to low bar squat when in fact they’ve either just used high bar squat mechanics with the bar down a bit lower OR learned an above-parallel super wide stance vertical-shins squat. Neither of those things is what we mean when we say “low bar squat” here at Starting Strength, and indeed neither of those does a good job of fulfilling our four criteria, either.

The fourth and final criterion – getting stronger – follows directly from the first three. If the lift is performed correctly in such a way that fulfills the first three criteria, the fourth will follow if the programming is appropriate, recovery is managed, and workouts aren’t missed. This isn’t just a good idea. It’s The Law.

We can go on down the line with the Four Criteria and how the rest of the movements and specific techniques chosen for the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression fit them well. That would be nice and neat and give us a real good warm, fuzzy feeling about how great we are. But instead, let’s talk about where things break down a little, and how we deal with that.

Those who read the forums and articles here on StartingStrength.com, as well as Practical Programming for Strength Training (PPST) and The Barbell Prescription, know that even we ourselves don’t follow all these criteria as absolute prescriptions under all circumstances. Probably the best known example is the heavy pulling day on the original, old school Texas Method, which suggests that the lifter alternate weeks between halting deadlifts and rack pulls instead of full-ROM deadlifts. The Barbell Logic Podcast Episode 21 goes into some detail about supplemental and assistance lifts, and suggests many of them have a place in the post-Novice lifter’s programming arsenal. Other examples of using exercise variations and assistance movements outside a strict, absolute interpretation of The Criteria abound within the official SS literature.

competition squat lacey

What happened to our Four Criteria? If they’re right – and we present them at the seminar as if they certainly are – then why would any assistance or supplemental lifts be necessary, ever?

The answer to this question illustrates an important point that carries over to a lot of other things in strength training and life: presumptive status. The Four Criteria are not meant as The Absolute Truth that apply in every possible circumstance and context, for the entirely of every lifter’s career, forever. That would be nice, neat, and simple, but as we ourselves acknowledge all the time when programming rack pulls or close-grip bench (CGBP) or lying triceps extensions (LTE) for our post-Novice lifters, it just isn’t true.

Instead, the four criteria are logical and sound enough to create a strong presumptive status in their favor. It so happens that 99% of the time, a Novice lifter need not look anywhere outside those four criteria to determine everything necessary to know about which lifts to do and how to do them. However, with advancement, training goes from simple, general, and basic to more complex, more specific, and more individual. While a very new post-Novice lifter who was making two squat PRs a week until last week should not suddenly abandon The Four Criteria in favor of excessive complexity, the beginnings of the move towards more complexity, specificity, and individuality do occur.

For example, for a lifter who aspires towards powerlifting, moving from an alternating schedule of bench and press to benching twice a week and pressing once is a reasonable move towards specificity for the immediate post-Novice lifter. However, if the lifter doesn’t want to give up heavy pressing and relegate the press to a light day secondary-status lift, organizing the week around that might prove tricky. A reasonable move would be to bench heavy on Mondays and press heavy on Fridays, allowing the press to be trained in a fresher recovery state than trying to jam heavy presses in on Wednesdays, after having benched heavy only two days earlier. But if we do that, what happens to Wednesdays? We want to program bench twice a week, but how useful and productive will Wednesday’s bench press workout be if Monday’s was a hard, heavy bench workout? And if we make Monday’s lighter so Wednesdays can be heavier, then that will mean Friday’s press workout will always be done in a higher state of fatigue.

A simple solution would be to introduce the close-grip bench press here on Wednesdays, and perform it at a level of difficulty that is just heavy enough to be a work-set, but light enough not to be overly disruptive and fatiguing to Friday’s heavy presses. Doing this using the close-grip bench is a psychologically satisfying way to accomplish this goal without being physiologically counter-productive, because it is a self-limiting variant. The slight shift in muscle mass emphasis from pecs to triceps in the CGBP means that the lifter’s capacity to lift heavy in that variant is slightly reduced. Thus, the same weight used in the CGBP compared to the regular bench press feels slightly harder. It is also something new and different to learn and master. Thus, we can program a lighter bench press, just heavy enough to be “work” that contributes to the weekly workload and tonnage, still be light enough not to overly interfere with Friday’s heavy presses, but be psychologically satisfying to the lifter who still worked hard and accomplished something via a self-limiting variant that presents a slightly different skill to learn and practice.

To return from example to principle: we haven’t abandoned our important Four Criteria. Rather, we have used them in a presumptive way instead of an absolute way. The presumption is that we program the regular bench press – with its use of more muscle mass over the longest effective ROM in a way that allows us to use more weight and gets us stronger. But for an Intermediate lifter who wants to put more emphasis on the bench than the Novice phase does, but also not abandon the press as a main lift, the use of the close-grip bench on Wednesdays is a sufficiently reasonable justification to overturn that presumption in favor of a slight variant.

Alternatively, a newly Intermediate lifter who wants to fully focus on powerlifting and is less interested in the press altogether – at least for now – could very well choose to bench heavy Monday and Friday, and just accept that the press will be lighter and not really a primary lift during this powerlifting focus. In such a case, the introduction of the close-grip bench would likely be unnecessary at this time, since progress on the bench could probably be made just as easily without it.

Important to note here is that we didn’t substitute a single-arm cable crossover or BOSU ball pushup for the bench press. We substituted the close-grip bench. While a sufficiently good reason, such as our example above, may be enough to overturn the presumptive status of The Four Criteria, we still hew closely to those criteria – because they work. We may choose a variant that emphasizes weight over ROM, as in the rack pull. We may choose one that emphasizes ROM over weight, as in the deficit deadlift. We may choose a self-limiting variant, as in the close grip bench example, or the use of paused squats on light squat day.

All of these are valid and reasonable choices that must be made on a case-by-case basis for the post-Novice lifter, whose personal response to training, as well as more individualized goals, may require application of programming that doesn’t strictly follow the novice iteration of The Four Criteria.

This is not an abandonment of The Criteria, nor a slam-dunk argument against them. It is simply an understanding and clarification of their very important place. They are a logical starting point, a presumptive status, which require a strong case for departing from – but that case can be made in sufficiently individualized circumstances. This has never really been in dispute, as PPST’s recommendation of haltings and rack pulls for even early Intermediates suggests, but does seem to require clarification for those who have erroneously understood The Criteria as absolute.

It is my experience that the less Novice a lifter is, the more likely there is to be a good enough reason to move outside The Four Criteria, but that those criteria still provide a very useful framework for thinking about training and for making sure exercises chosen outside of them are not a waste of time, i.e. using close grip bench and LTEs instead of single-arm cable crossovers or Bosu ball pushups for a strength trainee. Using The Four Criteria as a logical starting point with solid presumptive status, while paying close attention to both how post-Novice lifters in general respond to training as well as how any one specific post-Novice lifter responds to training, gives us a very useful framework and set of tools to program effectively for continued increases in strength, demonstrated by PRs, over the long lifetime of a lifter.


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