Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Learning to “Grind”

The Direction of Effort Throughout your Novice Training

by Nick Delgadillo, SSC | September 07, 2017

grinding through the press

There are a few distinct phases that lifters go through in the first three to six months of barbell training in terms of their primary focus. As far as training variables go, for the novice the only thing changing from workout to workout and week to week is the amount of weight that’s on the bar. There is no need for any additional complexity because for a novice, simple works. These facts have implications that go far beyond the simple addition of weight to the bar and the resultant strength gains.

You have the job of adding 5 to 15 lbs to each lift, every week for 12 to 24 weeks. So “primary focus” in this context has nothing to do with training variables, but everything to do with your approach to training day to day. Every time you go into the gym, you are presented with a task that must be completed – because it can be. You know that it can be completed because you’re informed by the experience of countless others in your situation, and with the fact that you completed a similar task 48 hours ago, and 48 hours before that. When you get under a bar and do the fifth rep of the third set of squats at a weight that you’ve never lifted before, you learn quite a bit about yourself.

The mental and emotional benefits of doing something this hard are quite profound and there will come a point where just getting to the gym, or eating, or sleeping isn’t the hard part, but actually getting under the bar and finishing the set is the hardest part. And finishing a hard rep requires the ability to push up on something that very much wants to go down. This tendency slows the bar speed, sometimes to a crawl, and the ability to continue pushing or pulling on it when it slows way down is what we call “grind.”  

The problem is that this point in the novice’s training sometimes comes by surprise. Sometimes it comes sooner than it should due to compromised recovery or the demands of life outside of the gym. Not being caught by surprise will require that you anticipate the grind that’s coming, learn how to manage your subjective experience under the bar, and understand that how you handle the hard workouts at the end of your novice progression will set you up for future success in your intermediate programming and your activities outside the gym. You will also have done something that few have actually done, framing your future interactions with life and your fellow humans.  

The entire process is hard. It’s harder than just exercising, but some parts are much harder than others. When you first start barbell training, your primary focus is on learning the lifts. How long this takes depends on how well you can take in information and apply it. If you can hire a Starting Strength Coach to teach you the lifts, this part of the process goes much faster. If you’ve done things properly, you’ve started at a light weight that allows you to work on your technique for a while with the load being a relatively minor factor. This constitutes the first few weeks of your barbell training. You’re learning the lifts and making the training a habit. Your workouts in this phase take under an hour.  The key here is to not spend most of your novice phase doing the lifts incorrectly.  Form checks are available on the forum and on social media.  There is immense value in spending one or two hours with an SSC at the very start of your training. If there’s one within driving distance, you should not hesitate to set up a session. If there’s not, online coaching with a Starting Strength Coach is readily available. 

As you continue training, you’ll continue to refine technique fixing smaller and smaller issues and getting closer to approximating the model of the lifts. You’ve gotten used to the training schedule and workouts are now taking a little over an hour. At this point, be wary of distractions. You’ll start to question whether you should be adding in some “cardio,” some additional arm work, or other lifts for the “strength imbalances.” If you manage to stay focused and just trust that you’re doing what you need to do, your effort in this phase should be directed at keeping progress going. Managing recovery, making sure to rest enough in between sets, and maintaining strict adherence to good form while adding weight to the bar are of primary consideration. 

In practical terms, at this point try to make every single rep look exactly like the last rep. From the moment you step on to the platform, establish your procedure and checklist for the lift. Focus on the process and get it nailed down. Put the same hand on the bar first each time, take the same number of steps out of the rack every time. Each part of the lift should be deliberate. As you progress further, this serves to minimize the variability from rep to rep so that you are better able to recognize deviations from your process and cue yourself accordingly. 

The most difficult thing for a lifter training on his own to learn is how to grind through a lift. You have to learn that sometimes what your brain is telling you when you’re under the bar is a lie. If you’ve spent time learning the lifts correctly and put effort into refining your technique and process through the earlier phases of your training, you’ll be better able to get yourself through the last phase of novice training. This is where you grind.

Grinding through reps feels completely different at first from what you’re used to feeling under the bar. This can come as a shock since training for the first couple of months isn’t very hard. The key is that you have to learn to redefine what hard is, and that usually needs to occur within the span of a few weeks: a compressed timeframe in terms of your overall training career. Expect that the bar will get heavy, anticipate the grind, and understand that the first two phases of novice training are practice for the hard training that occurs at the end of the novice phase.

At this point, your focus will be on getting the next workout done, getting the next set done, and getting the next rep done. This is where focusing on the process becomes important. Be methodical and ensure that the only variable is the load on the bar. 

You’ll find it useful to video your lifts. Watch your video immediately after each set and compare what you see to what you felt under the bar. Look at the bar speed and look at your form. Do your best to reconcile your subjective experience with what you’re seeing on the video. Act as your own coach and focus on what you need to do on the next rep and not on what you shouldn’t do. Make it your priority to not fail at your task and make an honest assessment of the situation before thinking about moving on to more complex programming. 

The program is simple, and as such the progression from first walking in the door of the gym to lifting near maximal sets of at the end of the novice progression takes some predictable turns. Knowing what to expect will allow you to be proactive in the approach so that you make training happen rather than allowing training to be something that happens to you. If you do this correctly, you may learn that your capabilities far exceed your perceived capacity for performance. There aren’t many things in life that can be done in a 100 square foot area that teach this lesson. Enjoy the process and grind hard. 

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