What is “Starting Strength”?

by CJ Gotcher | January 03, 2018

When most people talk about Starting Strength, I feel like Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride. “You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Starting Strength is not the low bar back squat or the “high-hips” clean. Starting Strength is not the novice linear progression spreadsheet you found on the internet. Starting Strength is not the “chest down” cue or the coach’s lean.

Starting Strength is bigger than all of these, and if you’re out preaching the Gospel of Rippetoe to the dark corners of /fit while pulling “tips” from the videos or the blue book out of context, you’re missing out.

Starting Strength is a systematic approach to barbell training made up of a series of concepts which, when applied together, develop stronger, more capable lifters. We low bar squat, do our “fahves,” and use the cues we do because we think they are the best choices for our lifter at that moment according to the models, and understanding these models can make you a better lifter, coach, and keyboard warrior.

The Moment Model

At the heart of Starting Strength is the Moment Model, as described in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. In short, our bodies and the surrounding environment are subject to the laws of classical mechanics. Our body can then be modeled as a system of levers (bones) which rotate at fulcrums (joints) when force is applied along the lever. The farther away the force is from the fulcrum and the closer the angle of the force is to perpendicular, the greater the force of rotation around the joint.

tom campitelli coaching the squat

If your eyes glazed over during that last paragraph, consider why this is relevant: a barbell can be modeled as a force at one point of a lever pushing down. If unopposed, this force would round the back (rotation of the spinal segments) and make the back angle more horizontal (rotation at the hip). The major hip and back extensor muscles also apply force, resisting the barbell and trying to rotate the hips and spinal segments in the other direction (“open” and “flat”).

This explains why we use the low bar position when we can. By applying the same principles to both the knee and hip extensors, you see that we can directly control how much of the total work is done at the hip and at the knee by how far we set the hips back. The low-bar position allows us to set the hips farther back into the larger posterior chain muscle mass than in high-bar, while still keeping the center of mass in balance above the base of support, and that this allows us to selectively work the greatest amount of muscle mass over the most efficient range of motion.

This may still be a bit technical, but as Einstein said, you can only make something so simple. This analysis of moments and masses, physics and anatomy, is unique because it doesn’t rely on the intuition of one person or the common wisdom of the brollective. The moment model is not a suspicion, guess, or commandment from heaven. It’s a collection of arguments that can be debated, not just believed. They come from the application of physical law to the lifts, and because of this, they can be and have been challenged, and have been refined and perfected as a result. 

This approach enables us to challenge unverified claims with arguments. By the Moment Model:

  • It is commonly argued that a lifter should squat on the heels to activate the posterior chain. Although “heels” may be a useful overcue for a lifter who is too forward, any time the combined lifter/barbell center of mass is not vertical to the base of support, the lifter has to expend extra energy to remain in balance that could be better applied to lifting the bar. Additionally, if the lifter moves the combined center of mass by keeping a more upright back, the moment arm on the hip is reduced, reducing the involvement of the hip extensors, a key element of the “posterior chain.” 
  • It is common practice to emphasize a higher chest in the squat for its own sake, a more vertical back being seen as superior or more “mature.” Goblet squats and front squats may even be prescribed as correctives to “teach” the back angle and “strengthen the position.” In reality, keeping a rigid back is critical, but the back angle is the result of the bar’s position on the back, the mass of the bar and plates, the distribution of mass on the lifter, and the lengths of the trunk/back, thigh/femur, and leg/shin segments. Assuming a fixed bar position and segment lengths, you can only consciously choose your back angle when the weight is light – such as in an air squat – and not suffer the consequences of sub-optimal mechanics.
  • Some coaches will cue “pulling yourself down” in the squat. As we’ve seen, gravity, via the barbell, is doing a damned fine job of pulling us down. In a heavy squat, the extensors are working hard eccentrically in the descent, slowing the barbell from crushing the lifter. Any work done by the hip flexors would add to the work the extensors have to resist, so hip flexors just don’t do this
  • Any deadlift that leaves the floor while the arms or shins are perfectly vertical is submaximal. If the bar is in contact with the shins while they are vertical, the bar is behind mid-foot, the moment arm at the knee is so small that the quadriceps are unable to effectively contribute to the lift, and the lats are not in the best position to control the bar over the mid-foot.

This is only a small sample of the misconceptions that an understanding of the movement can correct, misconceptions which can and do lead to missed lifts. However, because everyone is subject to the same physical laws, this approach applies to all lifters. Barring radical differences in anatomy (usually injury or deformity), we can find an optimal squat, deadlift, press, bench, or clean for every lifter through the process of applying the teaching method. More important than challenging these misconceptions is that, when a lifter questions why we do something one way, we can say more than just “that’s how we teach it.”

This means there is no special “collegiate female basketball player squat.” There’s a squat, and even if I work with basketball players for years, coaching through their unique height and limb proportions, I can apply the same squat model to a short, 45-year-old computer programmer without the common mistake of trying to make my short lifter’s squat “look” like those tall basketball players’ squats. Both “look” different while performing a correct squat, because correct is based on the mechanical analysis, not the coach’s opinion of the way it should look.

Finally, these principles don’t just apply to the “Big 5” lifts. I can and have used the lessons I learned in understanding the core strength lifts across a wide range of movements. A handstand pushup is in balance if the lifter’s center of mass is directly over the base of support (in this case, the hand), and that center of mass must consistently remain a little forward of the center of balance if the lifter is to walk (fall forward under control). The overhead squat involves all the elements of the press overhead position and the submaximal squat. Understanding moment arms helps us effectively scale bodyweight movements and explains many form faults, many of which are caused by the lifter mistakenly attempting to shorten a segment length to lessen the moment on a straining muscle group. Understanding the Moment Model changes how you see movement in a way that most coaches simply don’t grasp.

Programming Practically

The second concept behind Starting Strength is our approach to building a training program, outlined in Practical Programming for Strength Training and The Barbell Prescription. At the core of this model is our definition of training as distinct from exercise. We define exercise as physical activity directed towards physical improvement where the beginning and end of the effort is each workout. For most, exercise fills the time by getting them hot and sweaty. Exercise is worlds better than inactivity, and some types are better than others, but it’s not training.

matt reynolds coaching the deadlift

Training is physical activity directed towards improving an objectively measured, specific physical attribute over time. It is the process of intentionally accumulating a particular physiological adaptation – like strength or endurance – over a predetermined period of consciously applied effort. Even for those with modest goals, coaching experience has demonstrated that training is vastly more effective than undirected physical activity and is a more efficient use of the trainee’s time than mere exercise.

We also distinguish between training: the accumulation of a physiological adaptation, and practice: the development of a set of physical skills. Although strength is relevant across sports, we do not bench press on the tennis court or do barbell squats on the field, so we do not waste time trying to make a “tennis-specific” bench press or an “athletic-stance” single-leg unstable squat. These contortions are the worst of both worlds, providing insufficient stimulus to get strong while being too dissimilar to the sport’s actual movement patterns to be useful practice. We build stronger athletes through training, and then athletes take that strength to their sports practice to yield greater performance.

Exercise can be totally random so long as it’s fun, keeps people happy, their goals are modest, and they don’t care about their rate of progress. To meet a hard goal or to do it within a specific, challenging time frame, you have to train. Training forces us to face the challenge of programming: the intelligent manipulation of adaptation variables to most efficiently reach that goal.

We start simple, changing one variable – the load on the bar – from workout to workout, until simple stops working. At its most basic, this is the “Starting Strength Program” (what we call the Novice Linear Progression or NLP). But load is just one of the variables involved in programming, and the model can be applied throughout a lifter’s career, because the NLP is not “The Program.” It is a snapshot of one programming solution at a common point in the training of every lifter, but it doesn’t last long before the lifter and coach will need to personalize the program with resets, additional exercises, or more complex “Advanced-Novice” and “Intermediate” programming.

Some lifters will never do “the program” as written. The 45-year-old shift-working firefighter looking for a little extra muscle mass and the 65-year-old previously-sedentary retiree looking to restore and maintain basic strength for life may never train 3 days a week or do power cleans according to the A-B template, and yet still be doing “The Program.”

This does not, however, mean that anything goes.

  • The program is not variation for its own sake, “muscle confusion,” or “shocking the system.” We stick to the lifts and efforts that work, building skill and strength in the basics before adding complexity.
  • Strength is our reference. We routinely develop strength for people who see it as an accessory to their sport by manipulating the basic training variables to account for the stress of their sport practice while improving strength and minimize interference between them.
  • Because we’re training and not exercising, one missed workout or one bad day is not a crisis of character. That workout is one data point on a long graph of progress pushing ever upwards. When life hits, as it always does, we adjust as needed and press on.
  • We don’t ego-stroke, programming PRs on an endless pantheon of circus-trick exercises. This can lead to an endless carousel-of-no-progress, providing hundreds of new “PRs” on shiny, loud, irrelevant movements while progress on the core lifts stalls.
  • We recognize the power of the Novice effect – the way all lifters improve at the very beginning, even with non-specific exercise. After all, something is better than nothing, at first. Because of this, we are not surprised when kettlebell swings improve a squat – at first. We are also not surprised when the squat stalls again shortly thereafter, and we know the proper stimulus to apply in order to get it moving up again.
  • We don’t needlessly slow the progression of load to “own the weight.” We are there to get stronger, not win style points, and we recognize that spending 2 months going from a good-looking, safe 225 squat to a “beautiful” 225 squat is 2 wasted months. When you can squat 405, 225 will look prettier and you’ll be stronger.
  • Finally, we adjust. We don’t blame our genes or assume we “just weren’t built for a strong squat.” If strength gains stall, that is the signal to adapt the training. We test and experiment with ourselves and our lifters, carefully shifting the training variables using objective measures like the scale and the weight on the bar as our North Star.

The Coaching Model

Applying the two core concepts at the professional level requires a different kind of coach than the $10/hour pinsetter at your neighborhood Globo Gym or the “Weekend Wonder” with the shiny new certificate in hand and a glint in the eye. The minimum level of knowledge is high. To understand and execute the model, a coach must have a basic understanding of anatomy, physiology, and classical mechanics. The coach must then be familiar with the lifts through personal experience under the bar and analysis, watching thousands of reps with an eye for the mechanics and positions involved. This learning process cannot be skipped, as coaching goes far beyond a set of easy rules of thumb (“Chest up good. Chest down bad.”) and what looks right.

Once the coach understands the movement well enough to see the model behind it, he must then be able to communicate that model to the lifter. This teaching stage can’t be skipped because it builds a mental image for how the lift should look and feel and pre-loads the cues the coach will use later to correct the lifter in real time. We have a set teaching progression for each of the key lifts to accomplish this task, but like a good teacher, a good coach needs to be able to employ a wide array of teaching strategies to get the message across.

niki coaches a lifter using the teaching method

If the coach has done his job, the lifter has a better understanding of what he’s supposed to do, the basics of a shared language with the coach, and will start lifting. Here, the coach’s task gets more challenging because the goal is to improve the lifter’s movement while it’s happening, where a correction can have the greatest impact on the learning process. To do that, the coach must first evaluate the lifter’s movement, identifying if and where it diverges from the model, discerning the cause of the faults, and then prioritizing the most important issues to address.

Then, the coach has to take this evaluation and translate it, in real time, into a message that will cause the desired change. This is the cue. Cueing is a unique challenge, as a set of heavy squats is both quick and taxing on the lifter’s concentration. The coach must be able to turn an evaluation into short, concise cues in a variety of ways at the right moment for the lifter to process the cue and do something with it.

Finally, because the skill of a coach is in getting the lifter to move the way the coach wants them to, we measure the effectiveness of the cue, and the coach, by how well the lifter receives the cue and gets closer to the model, not whether he said the “right” cue according to the “Starting Strength Authorized Cue List™.”    

The Starting Strength Coach (SSC) Credential is not easy to earn, and beyond the skill required, it’s a different perspective on what a coach is supposed to be than much of what is seen in the industry.

SSCs are not just facilitators: opening the doors, turning on the music, and responding if someone misses a payment or gets hurt. They’re not circus ringleaders, wrangling a class of frenetic balls of energy hell-bent on getting injured and making sweat angels. They’re not primarily cheerleaders, accountants, entertainers, or therapists (though elements of these occasionally creep up into our line of work).

The SSC is a diagnostician, carefully analyzing movement, programming, and goals to prescribe the next step towards success.

The SSC is a teacher and communicator. After a year spent working with an SSC, lifters should know a lot more about their bodies, their capabilities, and the process of strength training than when they started.

The SSC is a creative professional, not a “Big Mac.” We are expected to think, not to repeat by rote. We apply the moment model and the programming paradigm to the specific lifter we’re working with in that moment. We argue about the models. We refine them. This sometimes confuses people when they see me doing banded accessory work or Beau cueing an overly exaggerated hip drive on an older lifter. Where they see deviations from the model, I see the expert application of the model in unique circumstances, and this expertise is what the SSC brings to the table.  

Beyond The Models

Starting Strength began as a small group’s approach to evaluating, programming, and coaching the lifts. Over time, it’s developed into something a great deal more. Yes, Starting Strength is the Moment Model. Starting Strength is an approach to programming. Starting Strength is its coaches and the standards it sets for those who look to apply those models.

Beyond those, it’s become an international community of lifters, coaches, family, and friends. Through Facebook, the forum, Starting Strength Online Coaching, and Starting Strength Gyms and black iron gyms around the world, lifters are getting together to share ideas, encourage each other, and get stronger. This growing community unashamedly encourages certain core values: critical thinking, perseverance, creativity, and discipline. It accepts and encourages everyone willing to put in the work on the iron regardless of age, sex, race, nation, or creed.

Starting Strength lifters reject cultural standards around “abz” and whether women “should” be strong. Starting Strength lifters reject the glossy-magazine cover promise that constantly buying into this issue’s new and improved program will bring them “toned muscle, aesthetic size, and sex appeal in no time at all!” Starting Strength lifters encouraged and challenged me, and have, with no exaggeration, changed my life.

We keep it as simple as needed, but no simpler. We don’t celebrate pain and suffering, but we accept that training will be hard. We know that easy doesn’t work, and nothing works fast. If you’re looking for more than movement tips or advice from the latest “guru,” look into understanding the Moment Model. Challenge it. Use it. See it in your own lifts and those of people around you. If you’re looking for answers to why you’ve stalled and how to get back on track, apply the core principles from the programming approach.

If you’re looking for better coaching or to become a better coach, closely evaluate the coaching model. Watch the SS Coaches in videos, get a form check, and if you possibly can, attend a seminar or hire a coach to see the Starting Strength standard.

And if you’re looking to get stronger, if you’re tired of the “exercise-trend-of-the-week” culture in the store-shelf fitness magazines, join the community. Become a Starting Strength lifter.

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