Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Dogma or Doctrine?

by Capt James Rodgers | April 13, 2021

mark rippetoe teaching the starting strength method

A criticism of the Starting Strength method is that its approach is dogmatic, that it does not account for individual differences, and that its rigorous application of standards for the execution of programming of the lifts constitutes some sort of a belief system, not an optimized approach to achieving a certain end.

The popular understanding of the term dogma is that it means some sort of unquestioning belief. Its primary use in an argument is as a means to insult an intellectual opponent or to denigrate their position. To call someone dogmatic or to say that they are following dogma is to insinuate that they have not put a lot of deep thought into what they are arguing or doing, and are just blindly following someone else’s direction. To call someone dogmatic in their beliefs is to imply that they lack intellectual agency or capacity. Using the term in this manner is wrong for two reasons. First, it is unfair to the originators of the term, and second, it is inaccurate.

Here is what dogma actually means, according to the Roman Catholic Church: “The word “dogma” (Gr. dogma, from dokein) signifies, in the writings of the ancient classical authors, sometimes, an opinion or that which seems true to a person; sometimes, the philosophical doctrines or tenets, and especially the distinctive philosophical doctrines, of a particular school of philosophers; and sometimes, a public decree or ordinance, as dogma poieisthai.” Simple enough, right? In plain English, a dogma (in the religious sense) is a revealed, absolute, and indisputable truth. Dogmas form the absolute essential basis of a system of religious belief. If you do not accept dogmas as true, your ability to adhere to a belief system falls apart. The Roman Catholic Church has about 255 of them. This list, as with all things religious, is subject to dispute.

To be “dogmatic” is to have unquestioning faith in certain components of a belief system. This obviously does not apply to the Starting Strength method, because it is a strength training system, not a 2,000 year old religion. So far as I can tell, there are only three things that must be unquestioningly accepted as true for Starting Strength to work:

  1. Gravity is real.
  2. Basic arithmetic is real.
  3. Biological systems adapt to stress.

If you are able to interact with reality and read this article while not accepting those three things as true, then I am impressed. Congratulations for making it this far.

Starting Strength is Primarily Doctrine

Doctrine is different from dogma, in that doctrine does not have to be unquestionably accepted as truth for it to be useful. “Doctrine” is Latin for teaching. It is a tool to spread information and knowledge. Doctrine is an omnipresent feature in military organizations since it is the most efficient way to transmit hard-earned lessons about the best way to win an armed conflict to a bunch of people who have never been in an armed conflict. Starting Strength has a lot of doctrine, and these doctrines are based upon observation and experience, and are a useful method to transmit knowledge to a new lifter who would otherwise have no experience with strength training. The doctrine is spread across a few books and hundreds of articles and videos, and is available to the general public. The doctrine has a simple and coherent purpose, which is to give people a method they can use to improve the quality of their lives by getting stronger in a simple, safe, and efficient manner.

So the next time someone accuses you of being dogmatic because you think that fives are best for strength training, that the low-bar squat is the way to go, and that abs don’t matter for quality of life, you can look that person square in the eye and say “I’m not being dogmatic. I’m following doctrine.”

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