Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

My Training Philosophy

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | December 20, 2018

carl raghavan squat wfac

Squatting at Mark Rippetoe’s gym in Wichita Falls, Texas

Strength is the subject that interests me the most, that gets me the most excited and passionate. It’s pretty much all I coach, teach, learn, read, and watch on the internet. And after thirteen years in the fitness industry, I’ve developed a training philosophy that boils down to five principles.

1. Strength Is More Than Physical

Strength training encourages a much healthier way for people to look at their bodies than the standard approaches to fitness. When you walk into the gym, you’re not obsessing over your aesthetics, you’re thinking about how to become a more useful human being. As Bill Starr says, you see training as a simple equation: Patience + Persistence = Progress. This journey is possible for anyone, as long as they're willing to put in the work, and it instills a level of confidence I've never seen in any other method of training.

For many of my clients, the process is addictive. I don’t have to preach or go around screaming from the mountaintops: I just let them experience the training and find their own path into strength. Usually they end up realizing it's awesome all by themselves. Witnessing that transformation can be humbling. Coaching people who never thought they could lift a certain weight, seeing them put their game face on as they approach the bar, watching them crush the lift – it gets me amped up just thinking about it. As long as they’re under an experienced and knowledgeable coach, a lifter will often find they can manage a weight they initially assumed would be impossible. And this experience grows real strength of character – not just a powerful physique.

2. Milo Was Right

Milo of Croton was an extremely successful Greek wrestler back in 540 BC, but today he’s most famous for the method he used to build strength: every day, as the story goes, he picked up a baby calf and walked up hills with it, until eventually it was no longer a calf but a four-year-old bull. The incremental weight gain meant Milo’s training intensity increased every day, but gradually enough for him to make manageable progress over time. This is probably the most famous analogy for linear progression, and it’s what first comes to mind when I think about how to illustrate the dictionary definition.

Not everybody has ready access to a baby bull these days, but the barbell allows us to employ a similar method of progressive loading. The weight can be calibrated to suit any level of strength, whether you’re adding a 50 kg competition plate, a fractional micro-plate or anything in between. The concept of linear progression might be 2,500 years old, but I’ve never found any program more effective. Moreover, when clients see the results, it keeps them excited to train. So I’m guessing if Milo were around today, he’d probably be a Starting Strength Coach too.

carl raghavan teaching starting strength press

Teaching a female lifter how to press correctly with a 5 kg barbell – the weight may be different but the principles remain the same.

3. The Barbell Builds Versatility

Strength is an extraordinarily versatile property, and there’s no more efficient way of acquiring it than with a barbell. Why? Because barbell lifts have a higher strength-to-skill ratio than almost any other type of training.

Strength and skill are both components of any physical movement, of course, but are not always demanded in equal measure. The difference can be illustrated by comparing the overhead press with the freestanding handstand push-up. Both movements train similar muscle groups, but while the handstand push-up requires a highly specific skill set involving flexibility, balance, coordination and precision, the press primarily builds strength. After all, the resistance of the push-up is limited by the weight of the individual, whereas the overhead press has no upper limit.

In practice, this means that the press is more useful than the handstand push-up. Say we have two women, both with enough flexibility to perform either movement and both weighing exactly 50 kg. They are attempting a handstand push-up for the first time. One is able to overhead press her bodyweight while the other can barely do a single ordinary push-up. Who is more likely to get her first handstand push-up quicker? Correct: the stronger girl, the one who can already press 50 kg above her head. The handstand push-up requires a certain level of strength before it can even be performed, while the press is a way to develop that strength. Very few women can press their own bodyweight, but all women can press some weight, and all women can add a pound to the barbell next workout. 

4. Maintain A Gym/Life Balance

It may sound obvious, but it’s important to take a balanced approach to health and training. The reality of a training environment is that it can become competitive, and although this is natural it can create an unhealthy obsession. Now, it’s fine to be obsessive if you're an elite athlete aiming for Olympic gold, but obsession is pointless unless it’s driving you towards a sensible goal – and actively counterproductive unless you remember that the journey is a marathon, not a sprint.

Yet people in the grip of training fever often forget to maintain a gym/life balance. Don’t. Go out, socialize, eat your favorite food, get a little drunk, lose a few hours’ sleep, go dancing with your girlfriend or your mates – whatever lets off steam. Training should be something that enriches your life, not the reason you start crossing ways to have fun off your list. “Remember how we used to eat carbs? Man, those were such awesome times!”

So indulge from time to time. You can still train hard, making gains along the way. Pursue a balance of training and living. Be consistent, smart and patient, and the gains will take care of themselves.

5. “Absorb What’s Useful, Discard What's Useless”

Bruce Lee is one of my all-time greatest idols, someone I’ve admired ever since I was a kid, and I still use his mantra to help me assimilate new principles and information.

But how do you tell the difference? As a perpetual student within the fitness industry, it’s easy to get “paralysis by analysis.” You pay a lot of money to go to a seminar, gobble up what the “expert” tells you, scribble it all down in your little notebook and take it as the gospel truth – until you're faced with a real-life problem. That’s when the rubber meets the road. I discovered this first-hand when I injured my shoulders during a snatch-grip barbell rollout. I didn’t realize how much the injury had affected me until I tried the “shoulder-packing” technique I’d been taught while getting my Russian Kettlebell Certification. To my disbelief, even a 16 kg kettlebell caused me a lot of pain.

What I could do, however, was the overhead barbell press, using an active shrug of my traps. This is the way Starting Strength teaches the press, and the complete opposite of what the RKC teaches. In fact, the RKC would probably consider this overhead position bad for your shoulders, yet that was the one exercise – done correctly – that helped me heal.

Getting injured wasn’t fun, but applying Lee’s mantra helped me cut out the bullshit and focus on what worked: while both the shoulder-packing technique and the active shrug are taught in a certification, in practice the difference was obvious. So I simply absorbed the technique that was useful and discarded the one that wasn’t.

These five principles might sound straightforward, but it’s easy to lose sight of them in the chaos of the fitness-industry trenches, so I try to keep them at the forefront of my mind while training or coaching clients. And I never, ever let myself forget the most basic principle of all – that strength is the most fundamental training goal. If I’ve learned anything from thirteen years in this game, it’s that. Strength is the mother quality. It’s the key to any door. Strength is fitness.

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