Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Yes, Go The Hell In!

by Amanda Sheppard | April 18, 2023

lifter pulling at starting strength beaverton

You might be asking yourself what the question could be that results in the answer, “Yes, go the hell in.” And I can almost guarantee that if you have been lifting for any significant period, adding weight to the bar consistently, and wondering if there was ever going to be an end to the ever-increasing load on the bar, that you’ve asked yourself this question. “(Insert body part) hurts” or “I felt a pain in (insert spot on your body), should I go into the gym today?” The answer, more than likely, is Yes, go the hell in.

Now I am not talking to the people that have a contraindication to training involving neurological symptoms, cardiovascular issues, or broken bones that require diagnosis and treatment. I am talking to the overwhelming majority of people that have a sore or “tweaked” back, an achy joint, or even a mild to moderate muscle belly injury, which some might treat as severe.

Don’t run to your chiropractor, massage therapist, or acupuncturist and expect them to tell you anything other than take two weeks off and to see them repeatedly for "X" number of sessions until they can resolve the issue and you can return to lifting. I’m not hating on these people – well maybe I am, but I also envy them because their argument from authority seems to have a strong hold on a lot of people. Who I won’t hate on is an intelligent physical therapist or one of the above who understands the application of stress/recovery/adaptation and how it applies to physical activity.

I know a good handful of them who work tirelessly to change the traditional thought process, but I still repeatedly run into those in the ever-so-risk-averse healthcare system that would rather keep you “safe” by telling you not to do something so they’re not at risk of a lawsuit. Instead, they should be guiding your care by allowing you to use their passive modalities for acute relief when it’s necessary, and then shipping you back to the gym to progressively overload the tissues – or doing it with you, as you can tolerate, in order to elicit the same or similar adaptations you’d been trying to cause when the episode happened.

So, what gives? Why would you trust some random strength coach and not immediately catastrophize the situation, like your doctor would do? Well, I guess you must answer that for yourself. But there’s a rather simple process that can be used when trying to determine what you can tolerate for the day you decide to go into the gym.

Load Management

If you’re trying to decide if you should go to the gym today, and you have already been training, then there’s a good probability that you have a workout scheduled with loads you were going to hit. Once you arrive at the gym do some bike, treadmill, and bodyweight exercises, just get your blood flowing and get your heart rate up so your body recognizes that you’re going to start some sort of activity.

After you’ve done that for about 5 minutes step over to your bar and take the same process you would if you felt fine. You’re going to be uncomfortable, and I guarantee you’re going to ask yourself repeatedly through the first few sets why you decided to come in. Take the squat for instance: you’re going to put the bar on your back and bent over, it’s probably going to be high, then you’ll get back to the top and decide if you can tolerate another rep. After you do a few sets at the empty bar you are going to be able to decide if you can do a weighted warmup. If you’ve made it this far then you’ve won half the battle already.

I have had clients that have come into the gym and done a bunch of sets at the empty bar, and maybe for that day and the way they were moving that was plenty. So, we decided to go on to the next movement. If you decide to do a weighted warmup it’s okay to start lighter than what you usually do. If 135 lb is usually your first warmup then choose 95, but if 95 is usually first then do 65. Not that complicated. It doesn’t matter where you start, just that you do.

It’s at this point you’ve solidly planted your feet in the load management adjustment of your workout. This is a great spot to be because you have kept your workout as close to the primary exercises as you could. Honestly, this is very promising because your body will be able to determine what you are able to tolerate for that day by still eliciting a pain or discomfort response to guide your decision-making process. If this is the first time this has happened to you then maybe the bar and full range of motion is an extremely daunting task, so there is another option.

Range of Motion

A main criterion of the way we decide what movements are not only effective but efficient is doing each lift over the greatest effective range of motion (ROM). In every movement there is the possibility to do more ROM and a definite the ability to do less ROM. I don’t recommend either of these, for reasons that have been explained ad nauseum in the books and in articles available on this website.

That being covered, if the ROM that is required regularly elicits the not-so-fun pain response, then maybe there is a ROM that you can not only tolerate, but actually load. A couple examples of this would be rather straightforward: high-box squat, rack pull, pin press. Each of those movements limit the ROM that is being performed but could, and will, allow you to continue to stress your body in a way that is necessary in order to deal with the hand you’ve been dealt for that day.

There will be some nuanced movement pattern adjustments that may be necessary when you do partial movements, but that is beyond the scope of this piece. If you have a coach talk with him about this. If you don’t, then find a coach that could help you navigate this further if you need to.

Up to this point you have been able to keep your modifications rather simple, and the hope is that after just a couple of sessions this will allow you to get yourself back in order and back to training the way you should.

The other thing you’ve been able to do is to learn to navigate the waters of an acute injury, and that will indeed happen again in your lifting lifetime. It’s not intentional, it’s not preferred, but it is a normal and common occurrence among individuals that push themselves hard enough to cause a strength adaptation. If you get to this point and neither option has enabled you to continue to train, there is another option.

Exercise Selection

I mentioned that the greatest effective range of motion is a criterion of the exercise selection that is used in the Starting Strength model. The other criterion is that each of the movements allows you to use the greatest amount of muscle mass. These two things together will then enable you to lift the most weight, and it is through this process that you become a stronger and more capable human being. With that being the case, you will want to use the basic lifts for most of your training in order to make your time in the gym more effective and efficient.

However, if it becomes necessary for reasons outside of programming to choose a different exercise in order to train for the day, then you'd better damn well do it. What’s the other choice? Not train? Unfortunately that is a choice too many people make because they rely on motivation and comfort level in order to decide show up.

There are a lot of movements to choose from when satisfying exercise selection. For instance, if I can’t squat with the bar in the low-bar position, can I high-bar, can I front squat, or can I use a safety squat bar? Then you need to make that modification and squat the load you can for your prescribed sets and reps. You know exactly how hard it should be so don’t give yourself the excuse of a new movement to lighten the load arbitrarily if the movement feels fine. Go train! You now have a process and some tools to use in order to make decisions that will allow you to continue to train – because that is what we are doing: training. We are not exercising. We are not going light to work on technique. We are not doing this to just say that we lift. We are training in order to accumulate the adaptation of producing more force. But I know things don’t always go as planned.

What went wrong?

There are a ton of variables involved in how you feel going into a workout. Did you get enough sleep? Did you eat enough? How are the added stress variables of your life going (i.e., work, kids)? Out here in the Pacific Northwest, if the sun isn’t out everyone is depressed. If I waited to get under the bar until everything felt absolutely perfect, then I would never train. It is an absolute fantasy that you will always feel good. Your emotional state and the connection to your pain plays an enormous roll in this as well. Will Morris and Rip talk about this in a recent SS Radio podcast.

Now I didn’t say that being under-recovered or not applying appropriate stress with programming isn’t of utmost importance, but everyone is dealing with something in their lives. Which is why training has to be a priority and not a hobby, such as playing an instrument or knitting. It’s hard, but it’s supposed to be because, as the cliché goes, progress begins at the end of your comfort zone. But don’t ask your body to give you results that you haven’t worked towards. And this requires that the recovery (sleep) and nutritional aspects of the process be covered.

I won’t sit here and tell each of you reading this that I know exactly what went wrong to cause your episode of pain. If you are optimizing every aspect of your approach to training and managing your stress correctly you will be able to decide what should change moving forward. But on the other hand, sometimes shit happens and you can ask yourself a bunch of questions trying to figure out what went wrong. But you can always figure out how to get something done in the gym, no matter what happened. I can almost guarantee you that when you ask yourself if you should go to the gym, the answer will be… Yes, go the hell in!

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