Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Interpreting Failure

by Andrew Lewis, SSC | May 24, 2022

failing a squat in a power rack

The Starting Strength linear progression starts off quite easy. It's a fun time to improve technique, make rapid strength gains, and (mostly) not get too sore. Soon after starting, however, progress gets harder and harder. The technical accuracy and precision become more and more critical. Eating and sleeping require more and more deliberateness. Confidence to finish all the required sets dwindles more and more until the day that failure finally occurs. Failure occurs for three primary reasons: giving up, technical failure, and strength failure – each addressed in order of likelihood for a novice. Determining which occurred requires feedback in one form or another. The best feedback is a coach. The next best feedback is a video recording of the set.

Giving Up

The most likely scenario for failure is perceiving incapability and not continuing to produce force against the bar: giving up. This is most common in the deadlift but can happen with any of the lifts. A ubiquitous experience is to do a rep, push for what feels like ten seconds, stop pushing, then review the video only to see that you pushed for only half a second. This happens all the time. That's why it can be helpful to try to push for at least a five-second count using an objective time measure. Typically, the experience is that by the time the lifter gets to "two" the rep is successfully completed.

Technical Failure

Technical deviations from ideal mechanics can be annoyingly small but still produce failure. The difference between a two-month and a four-month linear progression could be the correct use of hip drive in the squat. It may seem like a tiny part of the squat, but it's essential, and even minor mistakes in the hip drive, balance, or bar path can lead to the inability to overcome the weight of the bar. The press requires a reaching and tight hip throw and an efficient bar path (get it back over your shoulders early). The bench press frequently fails if the bar moves inferior (toward the navel) on the ascent. A coach or a video recording will be helpful to identify deviations from correct mechanics in a way that feeling the rep cannot.

Strength Failure

If the attempt was genuine and the technique was correct, but the force produced to finish was insufficient, it's a failure due to a lack of strength. This is obvious, but why there was insufficient strength is not obvious. Similarly, the obvious solution is to produce more force, but how is the less obvious part. The First Three Questions address this problem.

"How long are you resting between sets?"

"How big a jump are you taking in weight on the bar between workouts?"

"How much, and what, are you eating, and are you getting enough sleep?"

These address a few parts that are critical to the Stress/Recovery/Adaptation model. The lifter could be under-recovered, and therefore, not able to display the adaptation that didn't happen (increased strength). The adaptation may not have been large enough for a 10lb jump in the squat, but a 5lb jump would work. Excessive warm ups and insufficient rest between sets can leave the lifter fatigued and incapable of producing enough force to complete the reps. Address these three questions first, and if these aspects aren't the problem, look at other factors that affect recovery and stress, and make sure the quantities are correct.

What Now?

Diagnosing the problem after failure is important, but there needs to be a follow-up plan. If it's a technique failure or giving up on an early rep, the solution is to try again. Right now. Today. Not in two days. There may need to be a few minutes of rest, but you should not wait until next workout. These are problems that can be solved now. For example, if it's the first or second rep of a set of five deadlifts, re-chalk your hands and try again. However, if it was the fifth rep of the last set of three squats, and the other two sets were completed for five reps, then make a note, and do it correctly (or don't give up) next workout.

However, if strength is the issue, the root cause will need to be addressed and then reattempted on the next cycle. The "next cycle" for the novice is the next workout. For a late novice, it's the next heavy day. For intermediates and above, it's more than two workouts later. Giving up and technical failure are the most common early failure modes for a novice, but can plague intermediate and advanced lifters too. Strength failures will happen eventually to everyone and preventing and fixing those failures is a large part of the mastery of programming.

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.