Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

When To Do the Lifts “Wrong”

by Mark Rippetoe | September 22, 2020

high bar squat

Starting Strength is famous for it's dogmatic insistence that 1.) All squats must be done our way, 2.) everybody, without exception, must drink a gallon of milk a day, and 3.) it's okay if Rip is fat. This is all true, to a certain extent. But today, let's confine ourselves to the discussion of the form used in the barbell exercises.

We like the low-bar version of the squat, described in detail ad nauseum ad infinitum in the Blue Book and on this website in videos and essays. It works better for strength training than any other method of squatting because it allows you to handle heavier weights over a longer range of motion while using more muscle mass, thus making you stronger as per the definition of strength. It's very easy to teach, rather difficult to coach, but returns more on the time invested than any other version of the lift.

It's really important to understand that the squat itself – the act of lowering your hips down below the level of your knees and standing back up with a gradually increasing load – is the primary objective. The details are important, but you really need to squat. So, what do we do with you if bony arthritis in your shoulders prevents you from putting the bar in the low-bar position that produces the most effective and efficient squat?

In a perfect world, we'd put you to sleep, like a beloved pet. But this world is far from perfect, so we do the next best thing: we have you squat in the high-bar position. Because the squat is what's important, not the details. If you can get the bar on top of your traps, you can squat, so that's what you do. If you're so banged up that you can only get the bar onto your frontal delts, you front squat. If you can't do front squats, you belt squat. Each is a step downward on the effectiveness ladder. But step down you must, because if you can, at all, you really need to squat.

Now, this will be interpreted rather broadly by some of you. If the low-bar position is uncomfortable for you or your client, you will take this as permission to perform the less-than-optimal version of the movement, even while obtaining less-than-optimal results, which you will have to settle for. If you'd rather cut your depth off by saying that your own personal ROM just doesn't permit a decent below-parallel squat, you'll take this as permission to squat the easy way – high. Fine with me, as long as you're okay with me being fat. But the vast majority of the time for trainees under the age of 60 or so, the low-bar position to depth is obtainable one way or another with the proper motivation and coaching. You can obtain the coaching, but you'll need to provide your own motivation.

The fact is that low-bar works better, but if you cannot (which is different than rather not) do it, you do the next best thing.

Same goes for the dynamic version of the press we teach. If you can't get the hip timing down correctly – some people are just physically stupid, we used to call you a “spazz” years ago, nothing personal, you already know you're a spazz – then the strict press is what you do. Because if you can do the movement at all, you need to press. Sometimes we use the rack pull, a partial deadlift from a position higher off the floor, to teach the lumbar position for the full pull from the floor. Used this way, it is a teaching tool used a couple of times, not a basic lift. The rack pull becomes a useful assistance exercise once your deadlift is up over 500, but until then you need to do the full pull from the floor – if you can. If an injury prevents your use of the full position, you rack pull.

Understand what we're doing here: we are accommodating a genuine disability in order to preserve as much of the benefit of these exercises as possible. We are not justifying incorrect coaching or a half-ass attitude. Understand the basics of the method, the reasons for them, and use the method optimally. This may well look different in application if you're 75 instead of 25.

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