8-Week ‘Starting Strength’ Program Review

One of the recurring themes here at By Spear And Axe has always been the subject of strength. Yes, I’m kind of obsessed with the idea of it. Part of the reason for that is that for so much of my life, I didn’t have any. I was the proverbial 98-pound weakling growing up (though I weighed less than 98 lbs for much of that time).

As a result, I dealt with some variations of what I can only describe as hell because of it. I lacked the strength to do anything about it and, frankly, my requests for help in learning how to fight were rebuffed by my parents. I was kind of hosed.

However, as soon as I could get into a weight room, I did. The allure of iron was strong, and I spent a lot of time in the gym.

I didn’t have a damn clue what I was doing, but I spent a lot of time in the gym. I only wish someone back then had given me a copy of Mark Rippetoe’s book, “Starting Strength.”

The book is, in my opinion, the ultimate beginner’s guide to lifting. It will get you strong as hell. I say that based on my own response to the program after just 8 weeks.

To be clear, I’m not close to finished with the program, but I’ve seen enough to know to recommend the book to anyone.

As I mentioned yesterday, I spent a fair bit of time injuring myself. So much so that I wasn’t really lifting. As a result, I was complete detrained and starting from scratch.

Much of that was due to the pain in the ass it was to change weights on my dumbbells, so I simply didn’t and my warm-ups lacked. Kettlebells, which I tend to love, were just the same old same old for me and so I tried to do weird things and, again, injured myself.

I needed something I could do and not have to worry about weight swaps.

More specifically, where they’d be easy enough I wouldn’t sweat doing them. That meant the barbell.

So, I rejoined the local gym and got to work.

Since I restarted lifting on April 18th, I’ve added 140 lbs on my squat (the central exercise to Starting Strength), about 50 lbs on my bench, 120 lbs on my deadlift, and 40 lbs on my overhead press.

And I probably held myself back at a lot of points.

In other words, the program works and is pretty simple. There’s two workouts. The first is Squat, Bench, and Deadlift for three sets of five reps. The next is Squat, overhead press, and deadlift. Again, it’s for three sets of five.

As you go on, things change just a bit.

For people over the age of 40, though, there is the book “The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After 40” for us. This is what I’ve been working out of myself, but the program is essentially the same as “Starting Strength.” Believe me. I’ve read them both.

There’s no doubt in my mind that you’ll get stronger. However, there are things about it I don’t like.

For one, there are body parts that are completely ignored in the training. Since it’s not a bodybuilding program, that’s probably OK. After all, it doesn’t break the workouts up according to body parts, but mostly by lifts.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that there are muscles that are typically ignored in the novice program outlined in both “Starting Strength” and “The Barbell Prescription.”

Most noteable are the biceps and calves.

While bicep curls are outlined in the book, they’re not part of the core program and how and when to work these into the program is left murky. In fact, they seem to be discouraged within the Starting Strength program, only included because Rippetoe figured people were going to do them anyway.

The problem is, some of us actually do programs as written if at all possible, and that left a big hole in my training.

The novice program is divided up into three different phases, more or less, and in the second phase, lifters get to alternate deadlifts with power cleans, and thus enters the second issue I have with the program.

Power cleans are a pretty technical exercise. You kind of need to know what you’re doing in order to do them right.

In “The Barbell Prescription,” lifters are granted the option of skipping power cleans, which I took advantage of. While I lack any chronic injuries that would preclude me from doing the left, what I lack is the proper coaching to make sure I can do the lift right.

Believe me, I’ve tried them and they did not come out right.

The thing is, a lot of lifters aren’t going to have adequate coaching on an Olympic-style lift like the power clean, which can make it difficult for people to get them right. Yes, they can video themselves and put them up on the internet for critique, but that takes time and entire days of training can be wasted.

Further, some gyms don’t want you recording jack in the gym. What options do lifters stuck at these gyms have?

From my understanding of the text, Rippetoe’s answer is to simply find a better gym, but for some people, life ain’t that simple. They’re stuck where they’re stuck.

In other words, the power clean is out for a lot of folks.

Even “The Barbell Prescription” has some issues, following this. While power cleans are considered optional–the option of chin ups or supine grip lat pulldowns are provided, which finally gives the biceps some training–but it doesn’t tell you what to do when you enter the advanced novice phase and are then supposed to do chins on one day and alternate the power clean and deadlift on another.

I just shrugged and added Romanian deadlifts myself, but we’ll see how that shakes out in the long run.

Now, it might sound like I have all kinds of problems with the Starting Strength program, but I don’t. Not at all.

I’ve put on a solid amount of strength in a short period of time. I suspect I’ve got roughly another month or so left, and I expect to put on even more weight on my lifts during that time. While there are some lifts I’m less pleased with than others, they’ve all increased by a significant portion.

In other words, the program works, damn it. It works exactly as advertised.

If you’re looking to lose weight, don’t hold your breath on it happening on this program. Some people have had luck. Others, not so much. However, it’s also not the purpose of the program.

What it will do is give you the greatest strength in the shortest period of time of any program I know of. While you may not finish it up winning powerlifting meets, you’ll probably be stronger than most of the people you’ll run into on a daily basis.

No, that’s not enough in the grand scheme of things, but it’s a hell of a start.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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