Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Warrior Spirit: A Busy Military Commander Gets Strong in a Net Calorie Deficit

by Geoff Bischoff | May 11, 2021

geoff and seth

In one sense, military service is the ultimate sport. On game day, the stakes are high: Your life; the lives of your teammates; in extreme cases, the life of your entire nation. In place of a championship ring or a lovely sterling chalice, the prize for winning is another night at home with your family.

In another sense, military service is pure Sisyphean tedium. Sometimes that means hours at a desk coordinating supplies for upcoming operations and training, tracking personnel, and giving and receiving various briefings at diverse echelons of command. Other times, it’s endless dry runs of future operations, using maps and then scaled terrain models and then boots on ground, empty weapons and then blank-fire or simulated munitions, and finally live-fire exercises.

The hackneyed expression that encapsulates both the high-stakes descent into the maw of hell and the mind-numbing administrative and logistical morass is “Hurry Up And Wait.” And within this cliche is an implied task, an unspoken assumption under the surface of it all: During the “Wait,” you must build and maintain readiness for the “Hurry Up.”

Mission readiness is multifaceted: Emotional, mental, spiritual (often my chief focus as a U.S. Army Chaplain), physical. These facets of readiness are mutually interlocking to some degree, but of them all, the one readiness factor that is simultaneously the most quantifiable and the most transferable to the others is physical readiness. Improving physical readiness leads almost universally to improved emotional, mental, and spiritual readiness, whereas the transference in the other direction is far less reliable.

Strength is the indispensable foundation of physical readiness. Strength is the ability to produce force against an external object. This ability to produce force is a necessary precondition of every physical discipline, without exception. I use strength to evacuate a casualty, don a rucksack, march in boots; I use strength to rise from bed and toilet, and to press the keys on the keyboard to form the words that comprise this sentence. Though some nuanced situations exist, it remains axiomatic that for every endeavor in life, stronger is better.

Disciplines to increase mental, emotional, and spiritual readiness are often fuzzy and difficult to quantify. That is not the case with strength. Quantifiable programs exist. The best of them for the novice lifter is the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression (SSNLP).

On Strength Novices

In this context, “novice” doesn’t necessarily mean inexperience. I spent 10 years lifting in gyms before I tried the SSNLP and learned that I was in fact still a novice after a decade of lifting. Rather, “novice” refers to someone who remains physiologically capable of adding weight to the barbell every session, approximately 48 hours apart.

Let me stress: Nearly everyone you know is a novice in this respect. You are probably a strength novice. The lumpy-muscled bodybuilder in your gym that makes all the grunting noises moving the dumbbells around between mirror poses is probably a strength novice. The military lifter I will specifically discuss later in this article – even though earlier in life he had squatted/benched/deadlifted 315/275/405 for singles – was a strength novice when we began training (this was no longer true by the end of our training block). The world is full of novices, and because the Army recruits from the general population, the Army is full of strength novices.

Using the SSNLP as written, a lifter will focus on 4 main lifts: the Squat, Bench Press, Press, and Deadlift. The program is simple: squat 3 times per week, for 3 sets of 5 across (the same weight), adding weight to the bar each workout. The same day you squat, alternate the press and bench press, using the same protocol, resulting in 3 sessions of each pressing movement per 2 weeks. And deadlift one set of 5 every session, adding weight each workout. When purely linear load-progression falters, 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 program works best as written, but sometimes, life circumstances dictate modifications. Lifters find themselves facing a choice: 1) Get stronger optimally, using the program as written, and let other items slide, or 2) get stronger sub-optimally, while maintaining other life factors in balance, or 3) stay weak.

For military members, Option Three is a no-go; I hope you are reading this because you also consider Option Three a no-go. Below is an examination of one U.S. Soldier’s choice to get strong while still managing family and career.

Seth Wants to Train

As I write this, Seth is on the tail end of his assignment as Commander, Company C, 31st Engineer Battalion. I am the assigned Battalion Chaplain for the 31st. At a battalion-level meeting shortly after my arrival, the Battalion Commander, introducing me to the officers and senior noncoms of the 31st, quipped something similar to, “Hey, the Chappy deadlifts almost 500 pounds, so y’all better raise the bar.” After that meeting, Seth approached me and said, “We should train together. I want to get strong.”

To be candid, I figured this was the usual polite introductory noise that military professionals and business people and church parishioners have volleyed at each other through the centuries. I would soon learn that Seth is a man who means what he says.

My reply was along the lines of “You bet.” Then I took a long, creepy look at him, examining his segments and general build, asked him some quick questions about past injuries and experiences, and said, “I’ll be shocked if you’re not in the 1,200 pound club by the time you PCS.”

I told Seth I intended to use the Starting Strength method, and that I was not a certified SSC, just a dude who went to an SS Seminar in 2018 and had a lot of reps under the bar. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a text from Seth a few days later: “How’s Monday to start?”

Seth’s Assets and Challenges

Seth is 5'11” tall, 28 years old, 245 pounds at the start of training, with a background that includes high school football and wrestling, and collegiate boxing. He has 2 past shoulder surgeries, long healed, which present minor asymmetry and range of motion issues in the upper body lifts and the squat grip.

He is married with children and has a demanding job. Seth commands a company whose permanent party consists primarily of Drill Sergeants, and at any given time, anywhere between 100 and 240 trainee Privates learning to be Combat Engineers or Engineer Bridge Crew members. The logistical coordination for a training company is cyclical and somewhat predictable, but very time-intensive. The amount of disciplinary issues in a training company is significantly higher than baseline, and Seth has a hand in every one of them that rise above the level of a quick set of push-ups. There are a lot of late nights and early mornings. Seth values physical presence as a leadership tool and does many of the physical events alongside the trainees, including morning PT and the rucksack-loaded foot marches of 4- to 12-mile distance that pepper the training schedule. Reports and briefings flow up to him from his platoons, and up from him to Battalion and Brigade leadership, adding countless meetings and inspections and spot-checks to his schedule.

My first task with Seth was to informally interview him a bit about his job to have an idea of what I was up against with respect to schedule and recovery. This was an invaluable time of expectation-setting as I have no experiential knowledge of direct military leadership above the squad level (approximately a billion years ago, I was an enlisted squad leader). Seth and I are of equal rank, but as a chaplain, I am “Special Staff” so I never have to command anything, ever, for which I thank the Almighty approximately every week. From our discussion, I knew right off that I’d be modifying the standard version of the SSNLP.

Intentional Modifications

1) Four-Day Upper/Lower Split. The most significant change was from 3 days to 4, allowing for shorter, more plug-and-play sessions consisting of only 2 lifts instead of the standard 3. Some weeks, I’d have to meet Seth at the gym at 0500 so he could finish in time for a 0700 meeting, other times we’d squeeze in a quick session at lunch between tasks, and occasionally we had to bleed into Saturday to get Friday’s lifts in. Generally, Monday and Thursday were Press/Bench, Tuesday and Friday were Squat/Deadlift.

2) Decreased Squat Volume. This is not really an additional modification but an artifact of number 1 above: Those familiar with the SSNLP will see that this split would have Seth squatting only 2/week instead of 3/week. Fewer squat sessions mean fewer chances to add 5 pounds, and therefore, a lower final squat value.

3) Additional Press/Bench Volume. Again, not an additional modification but an artifact of number 1 above. In the standard SSNLP, a trainee will undergo 45 working reps of press and bench across 2 full weeks of training, alternating the pressing movement each session. With Seth, I began with 3x5 on both pressing motions in each upper body session, for a total of 60 working reps across the 2 movements, knowing that in short order we would organically arrive at the place where Seth would need to do one session a week of heavy bench/light press, followed by light bench/heavy press.

4) Occasional Top Singles. Seth is the second U.S. Army commissioned officer I have coached. Soldiers generally have at least some lifting experience in their background, and usually their experience is fairly recent, reliably reported, and not of the “I Benched Four Plates in High School” variety. I wanted to quickly validate the SSNLP in Seth’s eyes by showing him that his top-end maximums were indeed going up. So because Week 4 ran right up to the Christmas break and an enforced layoff, I had Seth take some top singles that week: in his fourth week of training, Seth surpassed his lifetime best Squat, Bench, Press, and Deadlift. This ended up being a major win: Not only did Seth’s trust of the program skyrocket, but three young Lieutenants (they’re all young to Old Chappy) have approached me since that time requesting coaching, and I am currently coaching 2 of them.

Going forward, I will likely keep the Occasional Top Single modification for military trainees. These are usually driven lifters who want to know very quickly if I am wasting their time or not, and when I display to them just how quickly the SSNLP brings them to surpass their old personal bests, it serves as an exceptional validation tool. With the 2 new Lieutenants I am now coaching, I used this protocol in week 3-5; both of them have surpassed their lifetime best squat and deadlift performances and are in striking distance of doing the same with press and bench within the next 3 weeks.

Unintentional Modifications: Army Life

1) Calorie Deficit. At 5'11” and 245, Seth had some room to spare. His bodyfat percentage was well under the allowed maximum prescribed by AR 600-9 for Army service, but his follow-on assignment is at the USMA at West Point where the culture is still heavily running-focused, the order of the day is svelte and skinny, and the Gospel of Iron is not widely preached. Seth did not “go on a cut” during training, but he did perform at a net calorie deficit; his bodyweight went from 245 at the start to 237 by the end.

2) Running and Rucking. After abstaining for approximately the first 6 weeks of SSNLP, Seth began working in runs and ruck marches. To fit in with West Point culture, he needs to stay in striking distance of a 14-minute 2-mile run, such that with a short burst of conditioning work he can quickly regain that speed. Seth also participated in at least 2 12-mile ruck marches with his troops, who are required to complete the march with 35 pounds in their rucks. As the CO, Seth exceeds the standard by marching with not less than 70 pounds in his ruck.

3) General Recovery Woes. Seth often showed up poorly rested from late nights dealing with the type of nonsense that Private Joe Snuffy can devise to torture the Drill Sergeants of the world. Other times, cyclical inventory requirements and change of command inventories and orientations and endless other duties either caused missed sessions or impacted his ability to produce force against the barbell by the time he finally got in to join me.

Results: Seth Got Strong

Despite challenges and modifications, Seth got stronger than he has ever been in his life. During 20 weeks of training, he completed the SSNLP and moved organically, one lift at a time, into intermediate programming that mostly resembled the Texas Method.


  • Start 245 lbs
  • End 237 lbs
  • Net Change: -8

Notes: A common question I see in the forums is “Can I get stronger while losing weight?” The answer, in the general sense, is “It depends.” In this one empirical case, the answer is affirmative: Seth lost weight while getting stronger. His weight loss amounted to only 8 pounds. His strength gain amounted to much higher than 8 pounds, as you will see below.


  • Start 225x5x3
  • End 395x5, 405x3, 445x1
  • Net Gain: +220

Notes: Seth added 100 kilograms to his squat. Interestingly to me, Seth’s past shoulder injuries were most notable in the squat: He never achieved the thumbs-over grip, and his grip width, which started at the collars of the barbell, only migrated inward about 2 handbreadths over the course of training. Nevertheless, his tightness and positioning improved, and his strength went up.


  • Start 205x5x3
  • End 275x5, 300x3, 320x1
  • Net Gain: +115

Notes: Sets across on bench got as high as 265 before I started cycling volume and intensity. Seth was happy to exceed 3 plates on bench with a dinged-up shoulder. He was also happy through the course of training to turn his previous lifetime best single of 275 into a routine set of 5.


  • Start 95x5x3
  • End 175x5, 185x3, 200x1
  • Net Gain: +105

Notes: Seth had never really trained the press before. His natural robustness allowed him to come out of the gate already pushing 95 pounds. Sets across went to 165 before volume and intensity cycling. Seth gunned hard for the 200-pound press and got it right near the end of our time together.


  • Start 275x5
  • End 410x5, 425x3, 500x1
  • Net Gain: +225

Notes: On our last day of training together before Seth’s Change of Command, we were short on time after Light Squats, and I quipped as a joke, “Hey, for your heavy pull, wanna make a run at 500?” Seth took a long pause, then replied, “Hell yeah, why not, Chappy.” Prior to this he had only run singles as high as 465 and had never held 500 in his hands. I didn’t know what to expect, but I knew Seth had plenty of heart and zero quit. He pulled and locked 500 with a 6-second effort from the floor.

Despite program modifications both intentional and unintentional, Seth got stronger. Not a little stronger – stronger than he ever expected he could be. Across all 4 lifts, he added 665 pounds to the bar during our time together. His lifetime best performances on the Big Three (Squat/Bench/Deadlift) went up 270 pounds. Moreover, on his strength training quest, Seth found the Holy Grail of lifting: He lost weight and gained strength. The weight loss was only 8 pounds over 20 weeks, so it’s a miniature, souvenir-sized Grail, but he found it nonetheless. He’ll transition to some conditioning work to knock that last minute off his run time and lose a bit more weight in the process, but once he’s settled in at USMA and back to lifting heavy, though he’ll find some of his strength has depleted, I am confident he will begin his next strength block much higher, and end much higher, than he did on this one.

Seth did all of this while caring for a lovely wife and taking time to play with his small children, take family vacations when appropriate, and (about halfway through) add a new puppy to the family. And he did it while doing one of the most time-demanding jobs in any profession: Company command in the U.S. Army. He lifted tired, he lifted hungry, he lifted late and early and often. It took sacrifice and dedication, but he committed and rose to the challenge.

If you commit, your results will not be Seth’s results: They’ll be yours. You might surpass him, you might not. But you will surpass yourself.

The barbells are waiting.

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