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Starting Strength in the Real World


The First Rep

by Daniel Raimondi, SSC | October 19, 2017

taking the first rep

The novice progression begins by finding a weight that can be performed with good technique, which slows the lift down slightly. This represents enough of a stress on day 1 to begin the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle, but not so much of a stress that the trainee cannot recover within 48 hours. If the starting weights are chosen properly, the novice progression does not get truly difficult for several weeks into the program, since novice trainees are not truly capable of gauging the difficulty of a set.

The novice progression appeals to many people for the very fact that we capitalize on the “novice effect.” Novices, by definition, are capable of adding weight each session for quite some time, and seeing the weight go up each session is highly motivating. Not only do we produce the highly valuable effect of physical strength, we also – as Matt Reynolds often describes – prepare the mind to handle heavier and heavier loads. This mental component is often overlooked, and is something that carries over into everyday life.           

At a certain point in a novice lifter’s linear progression, the planned training session for the day becomes nerve wracking. When you go in to the gym on Monday and squat 310 pounds for 3 sets of 5 with great difficulty, and know that on Wednesday you’ll be adding 5 pounds, mental anxiety can distract the lifter from the task at hand. If you’re focused on the difficulty of an upcoming set, or what you think it will feel like in the moment, your technique might suffer, reps could be missed, and the workout could be compromised.           

One simple tool I’ve used myself and with my lifters to get them dialed in is to tell them simply to focus on the first rep. If, for example, one of my ladies squats 130 pounds for 3 tough sets of 5, the following workout she may be very nervous about 135. Not only is this more weight, but it’s also the jump to a big plate, a milestone for many lifters. Assuming her recovery has been in place between workouts, squatting 135 for 5 reps should be within her abilities. 

In this situation, I usually tell my lifters to focus on performing just the first rep of the new weight, and nothing else. Instead of worrying about how hard the full set of 5 will be, focus on executing the first rep with perfect technique and full confidence, and forget about the weight pressing down on your back. 

This subtle shift in mindset accomplishes a few things. First, and foremost, if you’ve squatted 310 for 3 sets of 5, you can definitely squat 1 great rep with 315 (assuming you didn’t do anything stupid between workouts). Sure, the entire set might be tough, but it probably won’t be truly challenging until later in the set, usually around reps 4 and 5. Put all of your focus on executing the first rep with great technique, beginning with your set up. Once you’ve done the first rep, then focus on the second, and only think about each rep along the way, one at a time as separate events, rather than worrying about how hard you believe the whole set will feel. 

Lifting weights makes you physically stronger, and it will mentally prepare you for many obstacles in life, not the least of which is simply this: in most things, to be successful, you simply need to unrack the bar, take a big breath, and begin, even if you don’t feel ready. Focus on just doing that first rep, and usually, the set of 5 will happen.


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