Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Linear Progression in Suboptimal Conditions: Tim Gets Strong-ish

by Geoff Bischoff | August 04, 2020

tim before and after progress comparison

Those who’ve done the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression (SSNLP) know the following statement is axiomatic: It works. Every time. Every lifter who follows the SSNLP gets stronger at the four main lifts: Squat, Bench Press, Press, Deadlift.

The program is simple: Squat three times per week, for three sets of five across (at the same weight), adding weight to the bar each workout. The same day you squat, alternate the press and bench, using the same protocol, resulting in three sessions of each pressing movement per two weeks. And deadlift one set of five every session, adding weight each workout.

Obviously, this cannot be sustained indefinitely, so the Blue Book – Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3d Edition; SSBBT3 – includes protocols for continuing to progress for many weeks after the first missed reps. The result is that the program works for everybody who follows it.

But what about when life happens? The forums at are replete with questions along the lines of “What if I can only do 2 sessions per week?” “What if I get sick?” “What if I miss multiple training sessions?” “What if I don’t have a certified coach?” The underlying question is always “Will I still get stronger if I can’t do the program as written?”

My friend Tim blundered into empirically derived answers to all those questions, and the net result was an affirmative answer. “Will I still get stronger?” For Tim, it was a solid “Yes.”

Enter Tim

Tim is 6'2” tall, 30 years old, 173 pounds at the start of training, with some basketball experience as a younger man, and, like many of us, an embarrassing CrossFit phase in his relatively recent past. He’s got a full life: Married, two kids with another on the way, a full-time job, Army officer in the Reserves, and youth pastor at the church where I serve.

In January 2020, he told me he wanted to get strong enough to max the deadlift event in the Army Combat Fitness Test. That would require a triple on test day at 340lbs, so for a non-lifter, it would take some dedicated training. I told him I would coach him using the SSNLP method and that he would need to buy a copy of SSBBT3 and get to reading. Tim was aware that I am not a certified coach, that I am just a guy who went to a SS seminar back in 2018 and has done a lot of reps under the bar.

Intentional Modifications

It will be apparent that the hazards of life threw plenty of modifications into the program for us. I’ll briefly state the three intentional modifications we made to the SSNLP.

1) Additional upper body volume. Tim is bit bird-chested, which will Just Not Do for an Army officer. For as long as he could stand it, I had him do press and bench for sets across at every workout. When he showed signs of slowing down, I still had him press and bench each workout, but he’d do one exercise for sets across, and the other for a top set only. By week 10, we had scaled back to the standard SSNLP alternation of press and bench.

2) Additional deadlift volume. Tim had a hard time learning to set his back and keep the bar in close to his shins on the pull. A better coach would have found a different solution, no doubt. The solution I used was, in Week 8, to take some weight off the bar and have him deadlift for triples across for several weeks. It worked.

3) Occasional top singles. Some days, Tim wanted to test himself, so I let him occasionally take a top single. Never a grinder, never a true 1RM, and always after he had performed his required sets across.

Unintentional Modifications: Life Happens

1) Hip Pain. Tim hit the wall the first day of Week 8. That day, his hip joint started barking at him loud enough that the only lift we finished at full capacity was squats. He started seeing a chiropractor intermittently from then until now, at decreasing frequency; at this point, it’s monthly. Whatever the chiro is doing is either working or the placebo is strong enough that Tim’s been able to lift.

2) Twice Weekly Sessions. Starting Week 9, commercial gyms in our state shut down for the Coronavirus pandemic. We immediately shifted training to the Army gym nearest us, but this added 90 minutes to the sessions due to travel, so we had to scale back to twice weekly. Later in the LP, our units were both activated for civil unrest in the wake of the George Floyd protests, and we had to briefly return to twice weekly training.

3) Knee Pain. Whatever the chiro fixed in the hip seemed to migrate to the opposite knee. This began in week 10 and persisted for half a month but did not prevent any sessions.

4) Minor Illnesses. Early in the LP, Tim got sick for a day. It passed quickly and only wrecked one session. Later, during the period when we were still training in the Army gym, Tim’s wife got sick for a couple days and he had to stay back to care for his young kids while his wife fought through illness. Several other times during the process, Tim reported minor pain or physical symptoms that degraded his performance slightly even if it didn’t wreck a session.

5) 29-day Layoff. On 14 April 2020, the Army base closed its gym because of the ongoing Coronavirus problem, and we were left without a place to train. We were not able to return to barbell training until 14 May 2020. Upon return, we did the prescribed titration workout from SSBBT3 as if it were the first day again, and Tim started out his second stretch of LP at a weight that was lower than we’d left off but much higher than it had been the first time.

Results: Tim Got Stronger

Tim at times fought through pain and at others sought medical intervention. Tim got sick, and so did his family, and he had to miss training for it. Over the course of 23 weeks, Tim had six weeks wherein he could only train twice. Of the remaining 17 weeks, four were lost to him entirely due to a state-wide shutdown of fitness centers. Of the 13 weeks of fully compliant training, four were spent undoing the effects of his long layoff. With all this working against him, did Tim still get stronger? The subtitle of this section gives it away: Yes, Tim got stronger. He also got bigger. All the data below will be split into two sections to account for the full month of inactivity we suffered due to gym closure. I’ll call the sections LP1 and LP2. LP1 lasted approximately 13 weeks; LP2 lasted approximately 7 weeks.


Background: Remember back at the start of all this when I said Tim was 6'2” and 173 pounds? If you read that and immediately thought, “Wow, Tim’s a tall skinny waif,” then you’re right. Right from the beginning, I told Tim to eat as much as he could get his hands on, prioritizing protein but not being terribly picky. Instead of giving excuses about being a hard gainer, he listened, even to the point of doing GOMAD for a few weeks near the beginning.

  • LP1: Start 173 lbs, End 201 lbs
  • LP2: Start 188 lbs, End 197 lbs
  • Net Gain: +24

Notes: Tim gained weight when he trained, lost weight when he stopped. That’s not true of everybody, but Tim is the kind of guy who is naturally thin. But note: His layoff didn’t rob him of all his weight gain, and he’s already well on his way to matching and surpassing his previous high. When we started training, Tim said he’d like to weigh 190 pounds. Once he hit 190, he started saying that it would be nice to be a strong 220. At 6'2” in height, that’s not a bad goal. By Army height and weight standards, even at his highest weight, Tim was still 10 pounds below the maximum you can weigh before they start testing your body fat percentage. If he gains 20 or even 40 more pounds of mostly “strong” weight, he’ll still be well within tolerance.


Background: Tim’s squat started rough. He had serious issues getting into low bar position, due to shoulder flexibility. But since he had no past shoulder trauma, and was a young man, I encouraged him to work to tolerance. Each session was better, and eventually, getting into position became easy. Lower body flexibility went the other direction: Getting him to achieve depth without going ass-to-grass took some work.

  • LP1: Start 105x5x3, End 285x5x3, 315x1
  • LP2: Start 245x5x3, End 305x5x3, 370x1
  • Net Gain: +265

Notes: It’s hard to complain about adding 265 pounds to your squat in 23 weeks. Note that the start of LP2 had him squatting 140 pounds higher than the start of LP1.


Background: Tim has benched before because he’s an American who has been to a gym before. While teaching him the bench, the only major difference in his form was bringing his grip in a bit to achieve vertical forearms.

  • LP1: Start 105x5x3, End 205x5x3, 235x1
  • LP2: Start 165x5x3, End 190x5x3, 230x5, 260x1
  • Net Gain: +155

Notes: The second LP quickly moved to a top set with two lighter sets of five, so he lost a bit of ground on sets across. But since 105x5 on day one was his best set of five, and since he hit 230x5 late in LP, his 5RM went up 125 lbs. Note that the start of LP2 had him benching 60 pounds higher than the start of LP1.


Background: Tim can’t decide if he loves presses or hates them. Prior to SSNLP, he hadn’t done them at all.

  • LP1: Start 65x5x3, End 125x5x3, 135x1
  • LP2: Start 105x5x3, End 120x5x3, 135x5, 145x1
  • Net Gain: +80

Notes: As with bench, LP2 quickly moved to top set followed by back-off sets, so he lost some ground on sets across here, too. Note that the start of LP2 had him pressing 40 pounds higher than the start of LP1.


Background: Tim hated deadlifts until he learned to set his back, then briefly loved them as the pounds started stacking, and then went back to hating them again once the pounds kept stacking.

  • LP1: Start 175x5, End 325x5, 340x1
  • LP2: Start 275x5, 340x5, 375x1
  • Net Gain: +200

Discussion: After scaling deadlifts back midstream to 3x3 to work on Tim setting his back, he finally found the zone he needed to stay tight and pull over midfoot to lockout. Note that the start of LP2 had him pulling 100 pounds higher than the start of LP1. In the end, he added 200 pounds to his deadlift.


Tim got bigger and stronger. And not by just a little.

He began with a four-lift total of 450 (Powerlifting 385, Strengthlifting 345) and ended with a four-lift total of 1,150 (Powerlifting 1,005, Strengthlifting 890), for a 700-pound gain across four lifts. During the same period, he added 22 pounds to his body weight. As of this writing, Tim has transitioned to Texas Method and is primed to gain more on the bar and on his body.

Tim’s SSNLP was suboptimal. He had setbacks in the form of an uncertified rookie coach, illness, government shutdown, military activation, and injury. Tim is not special. Tim got stronger because he showed up, did the program to a high degree of compliance, and didn’t quit. You can do what Tim did. Your bar loads may start and end higher or lower than Tim’s, and your obstacles along the way will be different obstacles, but no less conquerable.

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