Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

The Difference Between Starting Strength and Powerlifting

by Matt Reynolds and Mark Rippetoe | February 18, 2016

Since Starting Strength’s first publication, powerlifters have criticized its recommendations. Their chief complaint has been about the way it teaches the lifts.

It’s true that many powerlifters do not squat according to the Starting Strength method. They do not bench the way we bench and our coaches wouldn’t teach the sumo deadlift to 99.9% of our lifters.

Rather than shooting down one method for another, the best question to ask is: Why does Starting Strength teach the methods it does and why do powerlifters do what they do? Believe it or not, there are good reasons for both.

When I first attended a Starting Strength Seminar in 2010, I was a long-time competitive powerlifter and had my pro status in the sport of strongman. Mark Rippetoe’s emphasis on proven concepts from physics — like compression, tension, and moment forces — to explain the lifts, challenged me to reevaluate what I knew about barbell training.

Rip laid out an impenetrable argument for getting strong. Perform exercises that:

  1. use the most muscle mass,
  2. use the greatest effective range of motion, and
  3. use the most weight possible (with proper form).

Most powerlifters would subscribe to Rip’s first and third criteria. However, they would NOT subscribe to the 2nd criterion. Instead of lifting for the greatest effective range of motion, they lift weights over the shortest legal range of motion required by their federation.

This is a critical distinction between powerlifting and Starting Strength. It is why we see powerlifters perform ultra-wide-stance squats, sumo deadlifts, and ultra-wide grip bench presses with huge arches where they touch their bellies rather than their chest. All of these “form tweaks” exist for one reason: they decrease the range of motion, allowing the powerlifter to lift more weight in a competitive setting.

Powerlifters perform the competition lifts to get the highest total they can, whereas Starting Strength focuses on getting people generally strong. The differences may be subtle, but they result in different executions of the basic barbell lifts based on the way we use moment (rotational) force.

For the uninitiated, you can think about moment force as “leverage,” and it affects the way we stay in balance over the middle of our feet during a squat. We bend over at the torso, assuming a more horizontal back angle, and letting our shoulders come forward as our hips move back and our knees move out. The more a segment (the back, thigh, or shin) sticks out in front of or behind the middle of the foot, the more it must be balanced by the compensating displacement of the other segments. The angles provided by the joints and the length of the attached segments create moment forces on those segments and around the joints.

In order for us to gain strength, we must overcome these moment forces on the different segments of our body, and use our own moment force to lift the weight. For example, in a Starting Strength Squat (or what some call the “low-bar back squat”) we see a very horizontal back angle.  By placing the longest moment arm and thus the most moment force on the biggest muscles of the body – the glutes, hamstrings, groin muscles, and back muscles – we allow the biggest muscles to get the most work and get strong.

starting strength training squat

If we compare this with a typical wide-stance, high-bar powerlifting squat, we notice two things. First, the torso on the powerlifter will be much more vertical, thus placing less moment force on the back and hips. Second, because of the ultra-wide stance, the thigh segments will be shorter relative to the sagittal plane, and thus, like the back, have less moment/rotational force on them as well. Additionally, the wider stance – and the lax rules on squat depth enforced by most powerlifting federations – shortens the range of motion on the squat, meaning that the powerlifter does less total work against gravity than the SS lifter, even with the same amount of weight on the bar.

powerlifting competition squat

[Used with permission West Point Powerlifting]

The total moment on the body of the powerlifter isn’t actually reduced in their version of the squat, but rather transferred from the sagittal (side) plane to the frontal plane, redirected off the back and moved primarily to the thighs – and thus the equipment (the suit and knee wraps) that the rules of the sport permits.

So, who is building stronger lifters?

Answering that question requires a review of the definition of strength: the production of force against an external resistance. Is a lifter that moves 600 pounds over a distance of 30 inches stronger than a lifter that moves 750 pounds over a distance of 15 inches? It is mathematically obvious who does the most work against gravity, since work is Force x Distance. But the powerlifter (and his equipment) moved more weight.

Starting Strength’s goal is not to train world-class powerlifters. It is, rather, to make normal, average people stronger. Powerlifters lift in a way that allows them to move the bar the shortest legal range of motion in order to lift the most weight. Followers of Starting Strength lift in a way that utilizes the most muscle mass needed to overcome maximal necessary moment in order to get generally strong. Adding a little more weight to the bar isn’t the singular goal (as it is in powerlifting), but rather one of three things that we know will help make us stronger:

  1. use the most muscle mass,
  2. use the greatest effective range of motion, and
  3. use the most weight possible (with proper form).

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