Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World


by Jim Steel | October 21, 2020

close up of a low bar barbell squat

A few years back, when I was still the head strength coach at the University of Pennsylvania, I walked into the equipment room in the basketball arena to visit my friend Johnny. I'd drop by Johnny's office every few days or so to grab him to go get a coffee (pumpkin spice latte for Johnny), or to get him to walk down to Billy's food cart to get a cheesesteak, or to just hang out with him and discuss how the Deep State was screwing the world over. Johnny was always way ahead of his time on that stuff.

On one of these visits, Johnny had another visitor. When I walked in, Johnny introduced me to Dylan, the new assistant squash coach at Penn. My first thought was that Dylan was a nice twenty-something kid who was awfully spindly. I mean, I could have picked my teeth with his arms. He stood six-feet four and weighed in at 178 pounds. Johnny told me that Dylan was interested in getting bigger and stronger, was reading my columns, and had been perusing the Starting Strength website also. I voiced my approval of his reading habits, but in my head I was thinking, “In order for this kid to gain any size and strength at all, he’s gonna have to have a miracle or chain himself to the squat rack, and in between sets, eat a steak and pound some milk. And do it for years.”

But he started training in the weight room and asking advice from my assistant coach Cristi Bartlett, who Dylan observed deadlifting 515 one day. That got him all fired up and propelled him to start researching everything, and he would email me once in a while, asking me questions. Then around a year later, I left Penn and Dylan, and I lost touch. A few months back, he sent me an email telling me that he was flying out to Wichita Falls to attend a Starting Strength Seminar. I told him to come by the weight room facility where I was training some baseball players and we would go over his form in the lifts so he wouldn't get yelled at too much by Rip at the seminar. When Dylan walked in, I was amazed. He had gotten much bigger. This once-emaciated kid now weighed 205 pounds (he had actually lost some weight during the Covid lockdown) and was rapidly approaching a respectable size.

I asked him just what he had been doing to put on size, and he explained that he was doing the Starting Strength program and was eating his ass off. Perfect, I said. We worked on some stuff and when he got back from the seminar, he gave me a call about getting together and training him a few days a week. He told me that he just wanted to perform the squat, press and deadlift, and that he felt those three lifts were just what he needed, and that he didn't feel the need to do all the “extra stuff,” the assistance work that most people did in the weight room.

To me, that was a breath of fresh air. With all the people out there focusing on their “ancillary” muscles – doing curls and pushdowns and suspension bands and the like – Dylan had decided that being bigger and stronger was what he wanted and that those three lifts provided him with what he needed most. I have to admit that I miss being around someone who is super-motivated to get stronger. And once I started training Dylan, I knew that he was serious right away, he understood how to push through on a hard lift, and he listened when he was being coached. It has been 8 weeks now since I began training Dylan, and he now weighs 235 pounds. He began just a few years back having a squat best of 135 pounds for 5 reps, and just the other day the son of a bitch squatted a relatively easy 405. He is only 26, and when he really fills out, he will weigh around 275 pounds.

mid deadlift

When anyone “drinks the Kool Aid” and goes all the way in, deep into the discipline of training and eating, and where thoughts of lifting dominate the attention, I am fascinated by the genesis of the whole thing. I decided to delve deeper into just what brought all of this on with Dylan by asking him a few questions.

What got you interested in lifting weights?

I started lifting weights in August 2018. I read Taleb’s Antifragile that summer and I was convinced of the benefits of deadlifting. I then dug the Blue Book out of my closet that a mentor had given me in 2015. I also started consuming all the Starting Strength videos and articles.

I’ve always been an iconoclast, trying new things, not believing what I hear, and in the squash (the sport) world a big squat and deadlift would be sacrilege. So, you have everyone in squash saying lifting weights is bad for you (you’ll be too slow, too much muscle is bad, etc.). I listened to them for a long time. But after Taleb and the Blue Book I thought, wait a minute, the people saying this are really scrawny and slack-jawed, so let me give this lifting thing a try.

What did your program consist of when you first began?

I started the NLP that Starting Strength recommends by myself. No coaching. Probably silly in hindsight, but I had been doing things with a coach for so long that I really wanted to do this myself. I started loading the bar a little more each week and did my three sets of five.

Did you have experience lifting as a college athlete?

Very little, and it was just exercise when I did lift. I went to Franklin & Marshall to play squash, a small D3 liberal arts school, that had a small gym for athletes with some great power racks. But all I would do is some split squat variations. We didn’t have any strength coaches, and I’m not sure how great the program would have been if we had. I definitely rolled around on a few Bosu balls to increase my core strength.

Was there a point when you fell in love with it?

There’s two moments I can recall that fired me up. I was home for thanksgiving 2018 and my brother and I placed a $10 bet that he could guess my weight. I stepped on the scale and I weighed 178. I’m 6’4” – that’s terrible. I started taking my training seriously that Monday. That’s when it switched from exercising to training for me.

And the second moment was a couple weeks later. I was lifting in the UPenn gym at the time and I came across the video of one the female coaches deadlifting 515. That's huge! I don’t even know if I was deadlifting 275 yet. I emailed her and asked for help. She cleaned up my deadlifts the most, fixed my other lifts, and got me eating more. I was still doing NLP and she added a little more volume in. I went from 178 at Thanksgiving 2018 to 225 in March 2019.

What have you gotten out of training?

How much time you got? Tangibly, the results are pretty obvious. Being bigger and stronger just feels great. I love the “Why do you look like a linebacker?” or “Are you on HGH?” comments.

Athletically, I’ve noticed a huge difference. All this stuff Rippetoe talks about in “Strength and Its Derivatives” is true. On the squash court my accuracy and precision, a huge portion of this very technical game, has gone way up even though I’m practicing way less than I ever have. In addition, my endurance has stayed the same but I’m 40lbs heavier. Submaximal reps are much easier with huge increases in maximal strength. Plus, I’ve also always been a sub-par mover on the court, but now when I get wrongfooted, it’s much easier to regain balance and execute the technical portion of the shot once I do get to the ball, even though I’m in a compromised position.

Then there are two intangible aspects that come to mind. Firstly, I’ve come to have a deeper self-awareness. The bar doesn’t lie to you. I can’t talk about what I could lift – every week the bar tells me exactly where I am. I don’t know if that type of quantitative feedback exists anywhere else in this world. Now I try to look at myself a little more honestly in some of the more qualitative aspects of life.

Secondly, I’ve definitely become a lot tougher mentally. I was squatting 355 the other day, and when I got down to the bottom of the last rep, no one was there to help me up. Or to tell me I was doing a good job. There’s no oxygen down there either. After a steady grind, I got the weight back up and re-racked it, and I knew that was going to be the hardest thing I did that week. I’ve worked with sports psychologists and talked about being mentally tougher all the time as a Pro Athlete. And I always thought I was pretty tough. Heavy sets of 5 squats and deadlifts has completely changed my definition of what tough means.

What was your bodyweight when you first started? Bodyweight now?

In August 2018 I was probably around 175. In late June 2020 I was 205, when I was able to get back in the gym consistently. I’m now 236 and climbing.

What are your best lifts now versus when you started?

My Squat has gone from 135x5 to 405x1, my deadlift has gone from 155x5 to 435x3, and my press from 65x5 to 155x1.

What does a typical day of eating look like for you?

I've been trying to get 4-5 600-1000 meals in a day:

  1. 6 eggs, bacon and oatmeal
  2. 3/4lb ground beef, sweet potatoes and broccoli
  3. 3/4lb chicken breast and sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts
  4. 3/4lb chicken/beef with Spaghetti or Rice

I always use a bunch of olive oil. And then will drink 1-2 protein shakes with some whole milk.

What have you learned in this ongoing process of striving to get bigger and stronger?

That consistency is the key both in the weight room and in eating.

I think that Dylan has hit upon a winning strategy here; basic exercises, lots of food, and heavy weights. All of that, along with enthusiasm for training, equals a formula for success.

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