Your Priorities as a New Strength Trainee

by Ray Gillenwater, SSC | July 22, 2020

deadlifting starting strength gym

Strength training is the best use of time in the gym if your goal is to make continual, measurable progress, to improve your ability to produce force, to increase your bone density and build muscle mass, to improve athletic performance, to make your back hurt less, or to generally get your health in order. The Starting Strength approach to strength training is a proven process that works every time it is applied correctly. Applying it correctly means prioritizing the following aspects of your training and recovery. 

Priority One is Technique 

Executing a barbell lift correctly is a technical skill that has physical consequences. Sound technique means maximizing the positive ones and preventing the negative ones. Technique is the difference between a guy that can’t get his squat past the 200s and complains about sore knees and a guy of the same age and athletic ability that squats 405 lbs with less joint pain than he had before he became a lifter. Every rep has the potential to reinforce a movement pattern that, if performed incorrectly, will create a problem that will eventually interfere with progress. 

To ensure that your technique is as close to the model as possible, scour the website for relevant articles, watch the coaching and technique videos on the YouTube channel, and listen to the podcast. If you enjoy “geeking out” on topics, you’ll have an endless resource to explore. If you’re unable or unwilling to dedicate time to learning in addition to time spent training, hire a coach. A coach is a sound investment regardless of your depth of theoretical understanding, but is absolutely necessary if you haven’t put in the time to do the research. A good coach will ensure that you are moving safely and efficiently, in line with the model. If there are no Starting Strength Gyms near you, search for a local Starting Strength Coach on the directory, or hire a Starting Strength Online Coach.

coach at a starting strength gym fixes bar position

Priority Two is Programming

The only way to improve physically is to expose yourself to the adequate level of Stress that forces your body to recover and adapt. The barbell is the primary tool that’s used to apply a force-production stress in the “stress/recovery/adaptation” cycle for strength training. Stress must be precisely dosed with appropriate programming, which includes the number of days per week in the gym, exercise selection, total sets performed, reps per set, and weight on the bar. Failing to plan your workouts will prevent you from achieving your desired outcome, if the goal is to get progressively stronger consistently, and for more than just a few weeks or months.

Decades of trial and error have been well documented – we already know exactly how to do this, and there is no need to deviate from the program, especially if you’re new to strength training. There is a deep well of knowledge on the website to aid in your understanding of how to make adjustments based on age, sex, health status, and athletic capability. Not enough stress will impede progress. Too much stress increases the risk of minor injury, and will also cause unnecessary plateaus or regressions.

If you have a coach, the coach manages your programming. If your coach is not a Starting Strength Coach, confirm at minimum his enrollment in the Coach Prep Course. If you do not have a coach, read Practical Programming for Strength Training 3rd edition, read the programming articles on the website, and review the most common programming errors on the board. Become familiar with the three phases of the Novice Linear Progression, and how to transition each lift through the novice and intermediate phases of training advancement. Measure your success by an upward trend in your logbook – the goal is to consistently add weight to the bar, because that is the very definition of a strength increase.

coach helps a trainee at a starting strength gym

Priority Three is Nutrition

Strength training requires habit changes inside and outside of the gym. The training aspects of the program that occur inside of the gym fall into the “stress” category. Stress isn’t the end, it’s the means to the end of getting stronger. Recovery from the stress accumulated under the bar is what facilitates the profound Adaptation that occurs from lifting heavy weights. One of the two most important aspects of recovery is nutrition – your body needs the physical material (in the form of food) to repair stressed tissue and create new tissue, and it’s your job to provide adequate quantities of it, with an optimal macronutrient profile. Habit changes are hard, especially with something as deeply ingrained as your daily food choices. You will get the greatest return on your training investment if you put in the effort to eat correctly. 

If you are unwilling to make material changes to your eating habits, do the bare minimum and drink two 50 g shakes (100 g total) of 100% Whey Protein Isolate per day (35/70 g for women). If you are new to training and are on the upper end of the obese range on the BMI scale, drink these shakes before meals to decrease your hunger level and reduce your overall caloric intake. If you’re new to training and your bodyfat percentage is under ~30% (~35% for women), drink these shakes as snacks between three to four totals meals per day (depending on your body individual caloric needs).

If your bodyfat is higher than you’d like it to be, make getting stronger your primary goal, eat your protein, and optimize your daily caloric intake to maximize the growth of muscle tissue while minimizing the growth of fat. Rapid novice gains occur during the first several months of training and shouldn’t be compromised with a conflicting goal like bodyfat loss. Health and aesthetics are always improved by a well-executed novice phase, regardless of body composition specifics. Just focus on getting stronger. 

If you want to further optimize your diet for the growth of lean tissue, learn the basics of nutrition for strength training by reading Robert Santana’s articles []. Learn about food selection and plan your meals based on your caloric needs. Participate on the nutrition form. If you can afford it, hire a nutrition coach to expedite the trial and error process of finding the foods that are palatable, affordable, and appropriate for your macronutrient goals. 

Priority Four is Sleep 

Sleep has been referred to as the most anabolic substance on earth. Inadequate sleep will diminish your strength gains, and whether you know it or not bad sleep always means inadequate recovery. If it's been years since you slept well, you may have forgotten what it's like. You really need to try to get seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night. If you have trouble sleeping, are tired throughout the day, or snore, you have a problem. 

Change habits that negatively impact your sleep like computer screen usage before bed. Many people sleep badly because of their old low-quality mattress. If you sleep better in a decent hotel than you do at home, it may well be that a new mattress should be your next purchase, and sooner rather than later. New mattress technology has been recently developed that make excellent quality sleep much more affordable than before. 

Don't neglect the importance of your nasal health to your sleep quality. Learn to clean out your nose with saline on a regular basis – if you work outside, this is especially important. And you may find it helpful to use an oxymetazoline nasal spray along with an over-the-counter nasal steroid spray to establish a more open airway right before bed – sleep quality is important enough to consider these medication options. If all other approaches fail, consider getting a sleep study done. If your poor sleep situation is caused by sleep apnea, a CPAP may improve the quality of your sleep and your ability to recover from training. 

Read Rip’s article on “The First Three Questions.” If you are following the program precisely, are training correctly, eating appropriately, and sleeping adequately but continue to plateau and aren’t seeing the level of progress of your peers in the gym or on the forum, get your testosterone checked. Low testosterone is extremely common and is easily addressed. Do the research on symptoms and contact a local testosterone clinic to get your levels tested. For aging trainees that feel beat up, more emotionally sensitive than they used to be, and overall “not like themselves,” testosterone replacement therapy can significantly enhance physical performance and psychological health. 

Priority Five is Commitment 

Psychology is the biggest barrier that stands between most trainees and their goals. Learning technique and programming, or hiring someone to coach you, requires a belief that the outcome will be worth the effort. Since productive people typically have more things to do than time in the day, it is important to be clear with yourself about your realistic level of commitment to ensure that it's sufficient to achieve your goals. Between work and family, it may not be feasible to train more than twice per week, for 45 minutes per day. It’s better to set a goal that you can achieve instead of attempting to follow a training schedule that’s more ambitious than your other priorities will allow. Three days per week for 60-90 minutes is all that’s needed for a complete training program, but something is better than nothing in a situation where you cannot invest that much time. 

If you need to rationalize your decision to sacrifice other important priorities and commit to training consistently, consider this: in your first several decades of life, strength enhances nearly every meaningful aspect of your existence. And in your last several decades, it is the difference between frailty and resiliency.

trainee enters a starting strength gym

Learn how to lift, organize your training into a program that’s appropriate for your specific situation, eat at least 1 g of protein per pound of bodyweight per day, prioritize sleep, fully commit to this process, and after a few months you will feel better, perform better, and look better than you ever have – or at least since the last time you lifted heavy. If you’re a skeptic, do it for four weeks before you make up your mind. There’s a reason we have had zero members take us up on our money-back guarantee in the gyms.

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.