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Better Starting Strength

April 24, 2013

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This is my version of a beginners program. It’s really just a spin-off from Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength but I consider it an improvement. Not that Mark’s program isn’t a good one, it is and I’ve recommended it to lots of people, but I simply think that mine is better due to a couple of reasons:

  1. In a 3 day/week program I feel that a 2:1 ratio of squatting to deadlifting is optimal. Boris Sheiko agrees with me on this one and that along with my own personal experience is enough for me.
  2. I don’t care too much for barbell rows as they put a lot of stress on the lower back which is already taken care of by squatting and deadlifting. Also, they’re too easy to do “wrong” i.e. put on too much weight and thus force one self to poor form and/or too much use of momentum. Pullups work the arms and upper back quite well and for beginners (or anybody else for that matter besides maybe pro bodybuilders and maybe not even them) the difference in angles and subsequent muscle activation certainly isn’t a priority.
  3. For this point I’ll simply use a quote by Dan John: “I hate how the barbell curl is maligned. I have always thought that the strict curl is a window into the general strength levels of an athlete. I once saw a guy strict curl…strict, no back bend or elbows sliding behind the lats…with 225 pounds. It remains burnt in to my vision. Funny thing, he also had really, really big arms. Go figure.”
  4. I feel dips are unnecessary if you do bench- and military presses.
  5. Power cleans a cool but not really necessary for developing strength. The amount of skill required will hold the lifter back.
  6. This point isn’t really regarding the program as such but how people interpret it. I’ve found that 3×5 can mean a plethora of things depending on who you ask so my programs comes with a bit of explanation as to how I thinks it’s interpreted best.

You gotta squat

I’ve previously ranted and explained some more in Danish but I feel this program is so good that it shouldn’t be limited to less than 0.1% of the world’s population. Asking people to find the post and translate it is also a bit too much to ask. However, I still suggest that you give it a glance as it contains a bit more explanation and perspective than I’m going to include in this post.

Enough rambling, here’s the program.

Better starting strength

Better starting strength

Timing: Weeks are cycled continuously 1-2-1-2-. Individual days can be planned how ever you want as long as they are not consecutive (leave at least one rest day in between workouts).

Sets/reps: AxB (C) means A amount of sets (including warm-up sets) with B number of reps per set and C denotes the number of work-sets. Thus, 5×5 (3) means a total of 5 sets with 5 reps of which 2 are considered warm-up and 3 are work-sets in which the weight on the bar remains the same. The 2 warm-up sets could be with  about 50% and 75% of the weight used in the work-sets. For deadlifts only one true work-set is used but I suggest a rather heavy warm-up with about 50%, 70%, 80% and 90% of the weight used in the last set. For the pullups 50% means that you do half the number of reps you’re capable of if you did one set for max reps. This is followed up by 3 sets to Failure. If you can do more than 15 reps you should add some weight.

Weights: I suggest starting out rather conservatively and work your way up as slowly as possible. A weekly increase of 2.5kg sums up to 130kgs in a year. I’d kill to increase my squat 5RM by 130kg, literally…. Starting out too high will cause stagnation too fast and starting out too low will cause you to waste your time for the first weeks. Pick a weight thats almost too easy and work your way up from that. Despite not having the best experience in doing so I urge you to use common sense.

Plateaus/stagnation: At some point you won’t be able to increase the weights anymore and when this despite your best efforts to get plenty of sleep, food and general HTFU’ing  has gone on for three consecutive weeks a change in plans is necessary. I suggest you do either of two things:

  1. Drop the weight a bit, maybe 20%, and start over again. The lowered stress will allow you to recover better if you should have accumulated fatigue and you should thus be able to continue making progress when you get back up to where you were.
  2. Change the movements a bit and work yourself up from a conservative starting point to a new strength plateau. The lowered weight will allow for better recovery if you’re fatigued and the slight change in movement should give rise to new stimulus. The bench press could be changed to using a close grip or a slight incline, the press could become a push press or a press from behind the neck, the deadlift can be done from a deficit or with a wide (snatch) grip and squats can changed in to front squats or done with a safety bar or similar if you have the equipment for it. Change it up a little, work yourself up to a new plateau, switch back to the original lifts and repeat.

Klokov likes to press behind the neck

Rest in between sets: Enough. For the lesser independent of you this should be around 3-5 minutes on the work sets and 1-2 while warming up. Too often I’ve seen rookies rushing through the workout and not getting enough rest which means less weight lifted which results in punyness and nobody likes punyness.

Other training: If you want to do some cardio I suggest 1-2 weekly bouts of HIIT. Doing more will have a negative impact on your ability to recover properly and should be avoided. “Murph” or a 5K run is not HIIT but “Fran”, “Grace” etc. are. Get the cardio in after lifting weights or on rest days. If you’re doing sports such as ultimate frisbee , hurling or biathlon you should still keep going to practices and the program will still work, just not as well as if you didn’t.

That’s it, this should take you from skinny-fat novice to jacked in a couple of years or so, remember to have fun and enjoy/embrace the process 🙂


From → Programs

  1. John permalink

    You need horizontal rows as they ensure scapular retraction which, in turn, helps avoid upper cross syndrome which is a fairly big concern for new lifters. I would personally never leave them out. Pullups are great but there is no scapular retraction involved in the pullup, only scapular rotation, which does very little to prevent UCS.

    • First off I totally disagre, done correctly pullups DO involve scapular retraction. It might be possible to avoid this using shitty form but the correct way to do pullups is outside the scope of this article. Second, doing deadlifts properly also involves scapular retraction and although it’s static the involved muscles being worked hard. To put things in perspective there is NEITHER vertical nor horizontal pulling in any of Boris Sheiko’s program and a huge amount of bench pressing. There is, however, a great deal of deadlifting taking place.

    • Are these retracted enough? 😉

  2. ChrisDokl permalink

    Sweet! Thanks – about the weight. As a an old – 37 years and counting – rookie (seriously – you wouldnt believe how crappy my squat is), I have found that choosing the right weight to start from is pretty important: too heavy and I just can’t do the program; too light and I just keep on being skinny and fat (and old)… Can you be more precise in your advice on choosing the right weight for my work-set in the first week? X% of my 1RM, 3RM, 5RM?

    And on a side-note: I don’t want my old CF-friends to laugh at me while doing BB-curls – is there any alternative?

    • Start out with 80% of your 5RM, that should be around 70% of your 1RM and 75% of your 3RM. Regarding the curls just quote Dan John and tell them to stop being so dogmatic. Curls are “functional” and also give you big, strong arms, period.

      • ChrisDokl permalink

        Again thanks – and I’ll memorize his quote…

  3. Great article 🙂

  4. Hvor tit “anbefaler” du at teste ny max med dette program? Man stiger jo hver uge op til et vidst punkt, men test af max kan jo være motiverende for at måle sin fremgang. Tak.

    • Jeg anbefaler, at man slet ikke tester max, da det i sig selv ikke kan bruges til noget ift. træning, men derimod øger risiko for skader og tager tid, der kunne være brugt bedre. Regn evt. et 1RM ud baseret på dine XRM og hav ellers i baghovedet, at øger du din 5RM, så sker det samme for 1RM.

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