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Starting Strength in the Real World

Detailing the Use of the Starting Strength Method Within a Physical Fitness Curriculum

by Gregory Hess | April 26, 2022

The methods, as detailed in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd ed., are best implemented with a small coach to lifter ratio for the most efficient and effective outcomes. With this understood and acknowledged, circumstances exist where knowledgeable coaches must operate in less-than-ideal instructional and training frameworks. The following is an approach to the organization and arrangement of the Starting Strength Method utilized with a large collegiate class.

The elective course entitled “Strength Development” emphasizes basic barbell training as a priority for groups of 17- to 24-year-old military academy students. It is constrained by both the length of the course and the number of students enrolled. One entire course section spans 19 lessons of 55-minute classes, or about half of a traditional collegiate semester. This equates to approximately 17.5 total hours of instruction and practice under the barbell. The typical instructor to student ratio is 1:12, or slightly larger. During the course, students are instructed via the Starting Strength method in the execution of the squat, press, deadlift, bench press, and power clean. There exist no prerequisites for the course; however, the obstacles of having students unlearn incorrect interpretations of the lifts and dispelling artificial programming complexity prove daunting at times.

Primary objectives of the Strength Development course include:

  1. Safely Perform the five barbell lifts with efficiency
  2. Identify and correct basic technique errors in the barbell lifts, with partner feedback and coaching emphasized
  3. Understand biomechanical principles governing barbell training
  4. Understand basic physiological principles governing strength development programming
  5. Explore basic criteria for barbell training and programming considerations
  6. Provide students with a basic knowledge of how to develop strength as a future military leader

The instructors engaged in teaching and coaching the lifts must have a basic knowledge of the teaching methods, understand the four criteria, and to audit the course participating as a student. Unfortunately, extensive barbell training experience is not mandatory for all instructors. Arming the course with the most competent, knowledgeable, and experienced instructors may seem to be an obvious necessity. Regrettably, the best and most invested instructors are not always available when the class is offered during the academic year. Despite this barrier to more-optimal instruction, barbells are lifted in as close an alignment with the Starting Strength model as possible.

The course is organized to provide each student the opportunity to learn each of the lifts, practice each of the lifts, and attempt to train the lifts during the half-semester course. As mentioned previously, classes meet every other academic day for up to 55 minutes. Due to this daily time limitation, the initial learning process occupies 7 of the 19 total lessons. An additional 4 lessons are occupied by other administrative and assessment-based requirements. These 4 lessons include three graded course events. One of the assessments requires students to conduct a comprehensive, on-the-platform instruction of one of the lifts. This helps to emphasize the value of peer coaching, an occurrence that is very much lacking from the general student-body and the institution overall. The other two graded events are a written mid-term quiz and a final exam. Between the mid-term and the final exam, 8 class periods are devoted to full, three-lift workouts.  

Strength Development Lesson Outline

Lesson Topic Key Concepts
1 Intro Lecture Syllabus, The Four Criteria, Stress/Recovery/Adaptation
2 Squat Valsalva Maneuver, Coaching Cues, Grips, Stretch Reflex
3 Squat Incremental Progression
4 Press Active Shoulder
5 Deadlift Posterior Chain
6 Workout A Stress/Recovery/Adaptation
7 Bench Press Bench targets, eye gaze, spotting
8 Power Clean Power Clean positions
9 Power Clean Developing Power and P = (F*d)/t; Power is trainable via strength
10 Workout B Review for Mid-Course Exam
11 Mid-Course Written Evaluation And Peer Platform Coaching Exam
12 Workout A Strength and its Derivatives
13 Workout B Causes and remedies for stalling progress (First Three Questions)
14 Workout A Two-Factor Model (Practice vs. Training vs. Exercise)
15 Workout B
16 Workout A
17 Workout B
18 Workout A/Review
19 Final Written Exam/ Workout B

In preparation for each of the learning lessons, students are expected to review the testable material pertinent to the day’s lift. This includes the teaching method, an instructional lift video, and other article selections. Examples of these article selections include:

This foundational information is organized into a student manual that directly references the Starting Strength sources, and it can be easily accessed by students in an organized manner. Unfortunately, many students tend to follow the path of least resistance, especially when the course is competing for study time with chemistry and physics class. Due to this, nearly all the basic concepts must be revisited multiple times during class meetings.

The large class size is another limitation of the course, which has the potential to create chaotic environments and is less-than-ideal for efficient learning. To mitigate this and promote effective coaching, the racks and platforms are deliberately organized similar to the typical Starting Strength Gym layout, the equipment is setup in two opposing rows. This allows the instructors an effective vantage point for several lifters from the same location. Walking up and down the aisle between the opposed performers, coaching can occur quickly from one platform to another. It is not perfect, but it is superior to a random platform arrangement within the weight room.

west point weight room

Tactics akin to those described by James Rodgers in The Drill Lesson Formant: Managing Large Groups of Students are employed for the actual group instruction. An explanation is provided to obtain buy-in for each lift, a master demonstration is presented as a collective demonstration of correct technique, students then individually imitate the coached mechanics of the lift during breakout sessions, and finally the instructors collectively review with the group. This collective review serves to readdress identified technique issues, reinforce the final product of the lift, and emphasize essential peer coaching concepts and cues.

The end-state goal of each lift’s teaching session is to provide the students the opportunity to obtain a moderate work set weight at five repetitions. This is the same approach used during formal Starting Strength Seminars and Lifting Camps. The students are expected to warm up the movement at bar weight, or reasonable weight for the deadlift, then progress up to a moderately difficult weight for a top set of five. The prescribed number of learning sets during each lift’s initial lesson typically equates to a total of six sets of five repetitions, emphasizing quality movement practice.

Once each of the five lifts are taught and practiced, subsequent lessons are devoted to training the lifts and improving peer coaching. Again, the course only meets every other weekday. The lack of consistency, paired with the students’ need to hone technical lift proficiency, prevents a true training accumulation during the course. Despite this, students are encouraged to incrementally progress the weight on the bar during the daily work sets. The daily workouts are arranged into “Workout A” and “Workout B.” This allows all five lifts to be experienced, practiced, and coached equally during the remaining lessons.

Workout A Workout B
Exercise Work Sets Reps Exercise Work Sets Reps
Squat 3 5 Squat 3 5
Press 3 5 Bench Press 3 5
Deadlift 1 5 Power Clean 5 3

Aside from the formal Strength Development course, other abbreviated versions of group barbell instruction are implemented for both injured and inquiring student populations. This occurs throughout the summer training months and during the school year’s extracurricular time. The intent is to embed the Starting Strength Model for the frailest and most feeble students. These sessions are even more ambitious than the parent Strength Development course construct, given even less time-on-task; however, if one additional student embraces the process of accumulating strength, it makes the trials and tribulations worth the effort.

In closing, the Strength Development course approach to the Starting Strength method has obvious limitations. These barriers are set by the academic institution and are outside the control of the instructors and students. The course aims to enlighten and enable a population that is ripe for the novice effect of training. This is accomplished by reinforcing the four criteria, focusing on technique first, revisiting the Two-Factor Model numerous times, and promoting the ownership of peer coaching. It is ultimately the choice of each individual student to use the methods and lessons learned for progressive, incremental training. Stronger is better. We hope they choose wisely.  

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