Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Training in the Time of COVID-19: Part 2

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | August 26, 2020

dressed for house arrest

Last you heard from me, I was doing some work with gymnastics rings and kettlebells. Well, that lasted all of six weeks, because exercise sucks. It doesn’t have a big-enough “why” to keep me motivated. What’s the point? Why am I doing this? To stay in shape? Round is a shape – how about I just stay round?

To be healthy or to stay fit is simply not a big enough reason to get me out of bed in the morning. I can’t just go through the motions because I know it’s “good for me.” Same goes for broccoli: veggies are what my food eats. I train with barbells because I love it, not because it’s healthy. Even if I became a billionaire tomorrow and never had to work another day in my life, I would still lift and teach strength-training with barbells. Okay, maybe I’d have my own indoor basketball court too (half court: full court is for the pros, who actually get paid to run).

Training at a gym is a huge reason why I stay consistent and hit PRs every year. I can’t mentally focus or get into the zone in my flat. I like having a separate space that’s dedicated solely to training. The atmosphere at a good gym is hugely motivating, but I also find it helpful to separate my place of work from my place of rest. Home is a space where I want to chill and unwind. It’s not a place where everyone likes to train. Being forced to do something like home training doesn’t work for everyone. For me, my COVID exercise plan was a fad, and as with all fads – crash diets, whatever – there will eventually be some push-back. I didn’t realize the lockdown would last this long, and the novelty has long since worn off.

The upshot is that for the past couple of months, I haven’t been training at all. I know, I know: but hear me out. I’m a strength-lifter first, then everything else second. I understand that’s not everyone else’s goal, but me doing nothing and sitting on my arse is actually less damaging to my strength than scrambling around on some rings and sweating my butt off doing millions of swings and snatches. Again, this may not apply to you, but getting “in shape” isn’t my goal: I want a 600lb squat and deadlift, 400lb bench and 300lb press.

But lockdown hasn’t just messed with my training; it completely shut down all my one-on-one personal training, which was previously 99% of my business. I had to switch gears, and for the past few months have been 100% focused on online coaching for the Starting Strength Boston franchise. This is the first week I have started seeing PT clients again, but I’m still paranoid they’re going to close the gyms again.

To add insult to financial injury, COVID-19, among its many gifts to the world, sent me a postcard from Snap City. Wish you weren't here – Love, Back Pain. Funnily enough, my back pain was not caused by double-layback pressing but the most deadly silent killer of backs in the world: the chair. Yes, believe it or not, my back pain was not due to heavy squats, deadlifts or presses; not even the press I use, which the bottom 5% also likes to call the standing incline, the “RIP SPINE” back-bender, the cheater press and – my favorite – the hitched press (if I missed any names, please drop me a line at The chair is the L4–L5 Grim Reaper, and has statistically been the undisputed champion when it comes to causing higher levels of back pain than any barbell on record.

Being in lockdown has forced me to stay indoors and become more sedentary. I’ve always said that sitting is the new cancer, but I didn’t realise I would get diagnosed at thirty-three. “Boohoo, so what, Carl?” I can hear you say. Man the fuck up, it’s just a little back pain – and you’re right. I don’t feel sorry for myself, but I am very aware that this is a direct product of my environment. What I will say is, if you’ve got a home squat rack, you’re a lucky bastard. Use it and get strong! The only reason this lockdown hasn’t been even worse for my health is that I went into it very strong. Strength causes significant changes in the human body, which means that regaining it is far easier than building it from scratch.

Anyway, complaining over. Gyms have (sort of) reopened now in the UK, so I’ve started training with a barbell once more. Many of you will probably be in a similar situation. You’re coming back after a lengthy layoff. So the all-important question is: how do you train a de-trained lifter? Well, you use a novice program and linear progression. The best one, of course, being Starting Strength: it works every time it’s tried. The jumps between sessions may be bigger for the stronger and more experienced lifter, and a stronger person would stay on the program for potentially only a few weeks or less, but there’s still tremendous value in making this a reset protocol. It’s a great way to see how your body responds to a more simplified program, and you may even break a few PRs, like your best 3x5 squat. Using SSLP to reset is a great litmus test. It will help you see where you are and relight the fire that made you love Starting Strength in the first place. We love it because it works: no favoritism – just effort and reward served up in equal measure.

Starting Strength is the training prescription I use on myself and everyone I coach, whenever training for any reason goes to shit. When in doubt, SSLP will figure it out. I would run an SSLP for all the following reasons: you’ve just come back from your holidays; you got sick; you experienced an injury or setback; you got married; your dog died; you’ve lived through a global pandemic; you’re starting lifting for the first time; or you have lifted before but now want to do it correctly (without millions of sets of 10 on the pec deck). Whatever the reason for your training hiccup, the best way to get back on the horse for a strengthlifter is usually to run a cycle of the SSLP.

Strictly speaking, you can’t do the program again if you are no longer a true novice. It can only be trained effectively once (that’s if you do it correctly, which is a big if). What you can do, however, is use the layout of the movements: squat, press, deadlift, bench and power clean. Use the prescribed reps, sets and frequency. Squat on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, alternate press and bench every session, and alternate deadlifts and power cleans, 3 sets of 5 on the squat, press and bench, 1 set of 5 on the deadlift, and 5 sets of 3 on power cleans. Add weight to the bar every session. It’s also a great opportunity to check your form: make sure you’re using the exact techniques described in “the blue book.”

If you’re coming back after a long layoff, you may need to tweak the volume slightly before you launch into the program proper. A great way to ramp back up to the full SSLP is to slow-drip sets of squats. For example, this might look as follows:

  • Session one: Monday – Squat 1x5 @ 200lbs
  • Session two: Wednesday – Squat 2x5 @ 200lbs (same weight)
  • Session three: Friday – Squat 3x5 @ 200lbs (same weight)

When you find yourself starting to taper off – let’s say you can no longer hit five reps for each set – you can adjust the SSLP template a little further. We could add a light squat on Wednesday and only push for one top set on all heavy lifts, plus back-off sets (for which we take a percentage of the weight off the bar). Which would look like this:

  • Session one: Monday – Squat 1x5; Back-off 2x5 (take 5–15% off)
  • Session two: Wednesday – Squat 2x5 (80% of 3x5)
  • Session three: Friday – Squat 1x5; Back-off 2x5 (take 5–15% off)

After this point, I would move back into a full heavy/light/medium approach or a Texas split.

It’s worth mentioning a few extra nuances that may help you ramp back up – I’m probably going to incorporate some of them into my own approach. I’m planning to use the classic A-B workout, using a hook grip for my deadlift work sets. I’m hoping to use this as an opportunity to improve my hook grip, since it always needs work and I’ll be doing lighter weights than usual anyway (I generally use a mixed grip). I’ll squat every workout, alternate my press and bench and, of course, deadlift every session at first. Then, once the deadlift starts ramping up, I’ll quickly add power cleans and chins. Something like this:

  • Monday (day 1): power clean
  • Wednesday (day 2): chins
  • Friday (day 3): deadlift

Once the 3 sets of 5 starts to grind, I may switch straight into triples on everything (dropping power cleans to five doubles or even five singles). Doing 3x3 will be a nice little de-load in terms of volume, shaving off 6 reps per session. It’s all about knowing the minimum effective dose – for me, this is all I need to ramp back up to a Texas split. After all, there’s no badge of valor for sticking to sets of 5 till the cows come home; certainly not if you’ve already done the full Starting Strength novice linear progression once. When used as a reset, the SSLP protocol acts as a loading phase, kick-starting your muscles back into the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle. Squeezing out a few more sessions of linear progress is no longer the goal: it’s about swiftly and methodically getting your body back online for real training, which for me will mean shifting back into a 4-day Texas split.

When triples run out, I will most likely flip to my 4-day routine, but keep the weights easy for the first week or two as I get adjusted. Beginning in week 3, I’ll start the climb back up to the weights I was hitting before the layoff. At this point, those weights will be the next training goal. To be clear: this absolutely does not mean that by week 3 you should attempt those weights. No! You’ll probably want to be 10–20% below your goal numbers, then slowly push linear progress every week so you can smoothly let your body adapt. It may take you 3 to 6 weeks, but then you’ll be back.

Simple, right? I know, I know: you want to jump straight back up to the weights you were lifting in the final week before lockdown. How can I put this nicely?

Don't do it, you dumb fuck.

That’s how you can seriously hurt yourself. Chances are you won’t be able to walk for two weeks without people thinking you’ve got a lead pipe shoved up your fundament. If you’ve ever truly been sore from DOMS, you know what I’m talking about.

Delayed-onset muscle soreness is no joke. In fact, it sucks. The dudes that wear those elastic bands on their wrists saying LIVESORE, like the LIVESTRONG ones? Lunatics. Living sore is like having a disease. It isn’t a badge of honor, it’s a sign that you're not planning your training well. Your muscles need to rebuild and repair so they don’t get this beat-up again. If you’ve been stabbed, you don’t go around bragging a week later about all the blood still rushing out of your body. “Aw man, look at me, I’ve been stabbed! It’s fucking awesome, dude, I’m still sore!” That’s what it’s like bragging about muscle soreness with a proud grin on your face.

DOMS does not mean that what you’re doing is working – it means that you've done some eccentric work you're not adapted to. The goal – if you’re smart – is to train so that you only get sore after the first session of a new program, or the first week at the most. Then, ideally, it won’t happen again until you incorporate a new lift or accessory movement.

I have coined an intelligent and highly scientific new term for this: “new shit DOMS”. Let’s say you’re adding Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) to your light day as part of a heavy/light/medium program. It may make your hamstrings a little sore. The soreness will be because you’ve never trained it before: you’re detrained in terms of that specific movement. A few weeks later, however, you won’t feel as bad, because your body has adapted to RDLs even if you increase the weight by 50 to 100lbs. Being sore is not the goal; increased force production is the goal. Getting stronger shouldn’t mean you have to bring your own donut pillow everywhere you go.

While it’s true that easy doesn’t work as well as hard, making life harder just for the sake of it – creating an unnecessary layer of voluntary hardship, thinking this makes you a better person – is simply absurd. Usually, all that this self-inflicted tough love achieves is to make you a snobby elitist convinced your existence is more important than anyone else’s. If you’re limping around bragging about how sore you still are from your last squat workout at 4am, you’re an idiot!

Here’s where I close out my latest and hopefully final episode of Make No Gains and Stay the Same in Lockdown. The good news? When it comes to strength training, the saying “use it or lose it” is only partly true. If you don’t use the strength you have gained, you will become detrained and you will lose some gains – but only some, not all. There’s hope for lifters who will be back to the squat rack one day soon. So if you can’t get to a barbell right now, please leave a message after the tone. Leave a reminder to do an SSLP the next time you see your barbell. Thank you.

Discuss in Forums

Starting Strength Weekly Report

Highlights from the StartingStrength Community. Browse archives.

Your subscription could not be saved. Please try again.
Your subscription has been successful.