by Carl Raghavan, SSC | July 14, 2021

man standing at the top of a squat

Training hard is one thing, but recovery is everything! If you’re struggling to make linear progress on Starting Strength, you are most likely under-recovered – not over-trained. How can I be so certain? So dogmatic? Because I’ve been there. I was that very same guy, the one who thought he was an intermediate lifter at 175 lbs soaking wet. I distinctly remember informing Rip that I was an intermediate. Fuck, ignorance is bliss.

When a fresh batch of new and uninformed would-be fitness fanatics decide they want to start training on January 2nd, what do they do? They stop eating and start running. For many reasons, beyond the scope of this article, this is not a wise approach. The majority of these January joggers are weak and skinny-fat. They don’t need to start running and starving; they need to get stronger and make better food choices.

If these January warriors do somehow get lost and stumble into the weight room, where will you find them? Spending an hour on the cross-trainer, maybe. Wiggling around on the floor doing sit-ups. Or possibly doing endless reps with a set of small neon dumbbells. These New Years fitness bloggers – fresh off the couch, tags still on their Lululemons – consequently get very sore. They stop working out, and by February or March they’re back on the couch. Even the super-motivated ones will eventually burn out once they realize what they’re doing isn’t working. These disheartened souls slump back onto their sofas and return to being armchair critics. I’ve heard comments like:

“Oh yeah, I can’t do weights because I bulk too easily.”

“I tried lifting weights once but I was sore for a month.”

“I used to squat but now I have a bad back, knee and shoulder.”

“I did enjoy lifting weights, but got overtrained.”

Wait, what?!!

These things may sometimes be true, but if you’re like most people, you’re probably not so much overtrained as you are under-recovered. Starting Strength is a simple, tough, and effective program, but it’s still easy to fuck it up: don’t eat! Try it, I dare you. Try to recover from squatting 3 days a week, doing 3 sets of 5, and adding 5 pounds a workout for 6 months while eating rabbit food and pea or hemp protein. It won’t work! That’s right, 99% of the time people refuse to eat and then blame the program – or, worse, their coach – when they don’t get the desired results. They google it, end up on PubMed and decide they’re over-trained.

This is because it’s very common to confuse overtraining with under-recovery.

What is over-training?

Simply put, overtraining is when the stress produced by your activities has overtaxed your ability to recover, leaving you struggling to catch up in time for your next session. A lot of variables can affect your recovery. I tend to think of it like a bank account. Once you start spending the bank’s money rather than your own, that takes you into your overdraft. It used to be a familiar place for me. You continue to spend money that’s not yours – on those brand new Air Jordans you’ve just gotta have, or that big trip to Panama. Now you’re on borrowed time. It’s a matter of when, not if, that debt puts you into a financial hole you can’t dig yourself out of. Being deep into your overdraft is analogous to what happens to your recovery system when you overtrain.

Training breaks down your muscles, and sleep and food rebuild them. The reason why Starting Strength recommends that you lift with good technique, that you be consistent, not miss reps, make logical jumps up in weight, and so on is to ensure that the stress of training is realistic, safe, and repeatable for as long as possible. But if you decide to do dumb shit, like running a marathon with no training, doing 10,000 kettlebell swings out of the blue, or five CrossFit workouts on the same day, you will almost certainly regret it. That said, if you’re a newbie, you’re unlikely to be overtraining.

So how do you tell the difference between under-recovery and over-training, then? To a certain extent, it doesn’t matter. But as a general rule of thumb, most people doing a Starting Strength linear progression are most likely under-recovering, not over-training. Because the symptoms are so similar, it takes an element of experience and intuition to judge if a person is truly over-trained, but the usual hallmarks of over-training are a combination of 1.) loss of appetite, 2.) constant muscle soreness, and 3.) weights feeling uncharacteristically heavy. So 225 lbs might feel like 405 lbs, for instance. It can be confusing, since a lot of these can resemble the symptoms of under-recovery as well, but you’re really looking for that triad. It’s also a question of degree: typically, when someone is really over-trained, their symptoms are a lot worse than someone who is simply under-recovered.

Loss of appetite: The most common symptom is losing the desire to eat. You may struggle to eat less than half what you would usually consume, and it may even feel like you’re force-feeding yourself, even though you’re actually in a massive caloric deficit.

Decreased performance: Missing reps on the platform or under the barbell is an obvious one. You may even start committing gross form errors that are out of character. The other possible dip in performance is in the bedroom. It’s a low blow – literally – but you may experience a decline in your libido and sex drive.

Sleep: You may experience insomnia and trouble sleeping. This can be a vicious cycle, as people who struggle to sleep are sometimes also guilty of endlessly scrolling through social media before bed, which makes you even less likely to sleep well.

DOMS: Excessive amounts of Delayed Onset Muscular Soreness (DOMS) can be a quick way of telling that you’re not recovering.

Chronic injuries: Overtraining and under-recovery can cause overuse injuries such as tendinopathies to flare up. (In a lot of cases, tendon pain in Starting Strength lifters is a by-product of incorrect low bar squat form – not over-training.)

Okay, so you’re either under-recovered or overtrained – what do you do? Luckily, there are several ways to tackle both problems. Either way, if you focus on the following advice, you should be back on track pretty quickly.

Food: Most people just have to put more dead animals inside their bellies. Eat plenty of protein and potatoes and veggies – and some jasmine rice wouldn’t go amiss either. Yum. And yes, my carbs are the same color as the lies I tell my wife-to-be: white!

Sleep: Yes, I know you’ve been watching Arnold’s motivational speeches on YouTube and he told you to sleep for 6 hours a night. CUE accent: “Wait a minute, I need more than 6 hours – I tell those people to sleep faster!” If it works for Arnie, it must work for the rest of us mere mortals, right? Sadly, you’re not the Terminator. He’s a different kind of machine. We need all the recovery we can get, and 6 hours won’t cut the mustard for most of you reading this. You should aim for at least 8 hours. More, if possible.

Sleep hygiene: Earlier I touched on our beloved digital dog leashes: the ones glued to our hands for most of the day. It’s best to limit phones, laptops, TV and artificial light as you power down into sleep mode. A good rule of thumb is to avoid any screen time 2 hours before bed and have some sort of consistent routine to help prepare your body and mind for sleep.

Sun: Being stuck indoors, especially during a pandemic, makes you realize the importance of getting outside into the sunlight. Go get some natural vitamin D. It’s a big mood enhancer and great for your mental health, which will in turn have a knock-on effect on improving your recovery.

Last meal: Try to avoid a huge meal close to bed time. Not having an overly full stomach is important to uninterrupted and restful sleep. That goes for excessive amounts of fluids too, because you will wake up at 3am needing to pee. Trust me, I’ve tried this experiment with beer many times and failed.

Stress: This is easy to say and hard to apply, but if there are any variables you can adjust to reduce your stress levels, then that’s a great way to improve your recovery.

Life balance: Of course, some periods in your life will be more stressful than others. Projects and deadlines have to be met – I get that. But trying to cultivate a better work-life balance even when you’re busy will help reduce burn-out in the long term.

The takeaway here? If you’ve just started a Starting Strength linear progression, then this is not the time to “go on a cut.” Fasting through breakfast, doing the cayenne pepper diet for lunch and having nothing but a box of TicTacs for dinner – that’s not going to help you, and it may start leading to some of the symptoms above. You need some serious calories if you want to recover properly from strength training. Not respecting the recovery process could be your downfall, so be smarter than that.

Another classic pitfall is not allowing yourself full rest days. Many clients who are guilty of this schoolboy error won’t tell you. They do it behind your back, because they’re worried about being called out. They know it’s not optimal, but they’re still trying to cram in all their other weekend-warrior hobbies, like BJJ, spin class, running, or CrossFit. This interferes with the novice effect. I always ask these people (once the truth inevitably comes tumbling out), Why do you want to artificially blunt your own progress? It’s not me you’re cheating – it’s you. I want you to achieve your goals. Of course, it’s completely fine to enjoy other sports, and nobody is telling you to give up your favorite hobbies forever, but as a coach I’m taking a long-term view. What’s 6 months off BJJ if it means you get as strong as a gorilla? When you come back to it, you’ll have a significant advantage you didn’t have before. Strength is worth the short-term sacrifice.

What I’m really saying is that you need to be aware of the sometimes competing demands you make on your body. Achieving strength and staying fit for your favorite sport are two very different things. Strength is a structural change; fitness is a chemical change. Building structures takes much longer and creates a more powerful and profound effect than changes in your body’s internal chemistry. You can only push your fitness to a certain ceiling, but getting stronger will dramatically enhance your capacity on all fronts. Yes, if you take time away from a skill-based sport then you will get rusty, but once you get back to practicing you’ll regain those old habits fast, and then you’ll be in an even better position. I mean, I’ve never heard someone lose a competition and say, “I’m too strong – that’s what cost me the W!” So stop being so concerned about what you think you’re losing out on and start focusing on what you’re going to gain with Starting Strength.

Don’t fall into the trap of being under-recovered. Do your 3 sets of 5, 3 days a week. Eat and sleep enough to fuel this process for as long as you can ride the SSLP wave. Make your novice linear progression count. Recover as hard as you lift.

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