Why You Won't Do the Program, Part 1

by Mark Rippetoe and stef bradford, PhD, SSC | June 15, 2022

basic barbell exercise collage

The Program Is Too Simple

“There are only 6 exercises! That can't work. Look at all the other exercises being left out, and all the muscles this program ignores.”

It is absolutely true that Starting Strength is not based on muscle groups, or any other individual component of gross anatomy. Starting Strength is based on normal human movement patterns that have been tailored to involve as much muscle mass as possible over the longest effective range of motion. Nothing is left out – every muscle group in the human body is trained in the program, and the program consists of a very few barbell exercises. This never changes – the program never gets complicated, and even advanced lifters never use more than 7 or 8 exercises.

The perception that a muscle must be worked in isolation to be trained is a function of the exercise machine industry, the PE-degree mills in 4-year colleges, and the Physical Therapy profession (Physical Therapy being the final arbiter of all things related to exercise). These entities have separated the musculoskeletal system into origin/insertion/contractile function, under the assumption that these separate units, when contracted against resistance separately using enough exercises and machines, can be strengthened.

The problem is that the human body does not function as separate origin/insertion/contraction components, and no normal human movement is accomplished by any one of these components in isolation. Muscles are the motors that operate the skeletal levers that allow muscle contraction to be expressed as movement. For example, picking something up off of the floor uses essentially every muscle in the body as they operate the entire skeletal leverage system, from the soles of the feet to the top of the skull to the bar in the hands. This marvelous complexity cannot be appreciated as a mere collection of origins and insertions getting shorter, because that's not what happens. You cannot isolate the quads or the hamstrings while standing on the ground.

What actually happens is far more elegant, especially when you consider that a young man who has been training for 8 months can deadlift 400 pounds without losing his balance and falling down – and while at no time giving any thought to a single origin/insertion/contracting muscle belly. The deadlifter thinks about the deadlift as a movement, reminding himself to push the floor away from the bar and to keep his back tight while he does it, and his musculoskeletal system performs the incredibly complex task of coordinating the movement of the separate components of the whole kinetic chain between the floor and the bar in his hands, without his conscious direction. There is no need to babysit his glute medius – and in fact he can't even if he wants to, because the motor neurons that operate the glute medius are also operating the other hip extensors at the same time.

Meanwhile, the anterior, posterior, lateral, and inferior muscles of the trunk are stabilizing the spine for efficient force transfer, the hamstrings and the hip and knee extensors are coordinating force production off the floor, the feet are coordinating with the shank muscles to maintain balance, the traps and shoulders are stabilizing the bar over the mid-foot, and about a hundred other tasks are being managed between the 400-pound bar and the floor without the individual direction of the lifter.

This is the nature of barbell training: the reliance upon the neuromuscular system to control itself while the lifter provides a couple of simple and very general reminders about the gross movement pattern, and the gumption to not stop pulling when it gets heavy. All the components work, and all the components are trained. Complex things are occurring, even though the program itself is very simple.

Now, what happens on a leg extension machine? Nothing much, and certainly nothing that involves not falling down with 400 pounds hanging from your arms.

For that matter, why does no one ever say, “Running is too simple. It can't possibly work.” Or they might say, “Running is simple. Anyone can do it, and you can start today!” as an endorsement of it's simplicity. For all the things wrong with long slow distance (LSD), they correctly view it from a “holistic” perspective: many systems are working at the same time, even though you're just putting one foot in front of the other, and that's good. No sane person ever advises you to “fire” your glute medius when you jog, because it's already happening so that you don't fall down.

When you're running, swimming, or riding a bicycle, nobody tries to divide the movements into separate muscle groups for individual attention the way they do for strength development. The cardiovascular and metabolic systems are always considered as systems, not as separate parts that must be teased out. A runner might practice coming off the start blocks and stride mechanics, a swimmer might practice turn-arounds, but nobody with any sense assembles an endurance workout from the pieces, like they do strength training. Cardiovascular development is always considered to be developing the interdependent systems as a whole. But squats and deadlifts are not – squats are “leg day” and deadlifts are “back day.”

It may be that the sets/reps/weight format we use encourages the perception of discrete units: 1 set of 5 probably encourages the concept of “separateness” even though the effects of the exercise are systemic by design. But squats and deadlifts cannot be reduced to origin/insertion/contraction analysis, because all the muscles are moving all the levers at the same time, and the overwhelming complexity of this does not allow for micromanagement. Measuring exercise by accumulated time probably encourages aggregate thinking about running and swimming: you just keep running and you get hot, sweaty, and tired. Strength training has a different effect: strength accumulates over a series of workouts, any soreness is delayed, and profound soreness may not even occur after the first week. Running is an hour, and strength training is several different exercises; running is cardio, while strength training is a bunch of different stuff thrown together. Thus, the confusion and misunderstanding.

Starting Strength uses only a few exercises, because the combined effects of the squat, the press, the deadlift, the bench press, the power clean, and chin-ups train all the muscles in the body, in the way they normally function as components of the skeletal anatomy. Nothing is left out, because we have designed the exercises in a way that leaves nothing out. And when incremental increases in load are applied every time you perform them, all of them get stronger, because they have no choice. If a muscle – or a movement pattern – lifts a heavier weight, it is by definition stronger than it was. If your deadlift goes from 135 to 400, the movement pattern – and every muscle that contributes to the movement pattern – has gotten stronger.

It is not only unnecessary to think about separate muscle groups, it is unproductive to work them with this piecemeal approach. Working together, your deadlift can go from 135 to 400 in a few months. What can your leg extension do in that same time?

  • Part 2
  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Part 5
  • Part 6
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