So you want to be strong like Dr Feigenbaum here?
Congratulations gentle reader. You have just taken the most important step of your life. You’ve admitted that you’re a pathetic weakling and want to get stronger. Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.
But now you have another problem. You’re overwhelmed with information, most of it contradictory. What should you do? Who should you trust? How do you even learn to speak the language?
What’s your goal?
Ultimately, the kind of training you do should be somewhat determined by your goal. And yet, strength is a generalized adaptation, so on the other hand, when you’re first starting out your strength program is going to be fairly general. Wrap your head around that for a moment.
That didn’t make any sense. Can you try again?
Okay. building a general base of strength will help in just about any endeavor that you do, whether it’s looking better, competing in strength sports, staying out of a nursing home (muscle loss is the number one cause of disability among the elderly), or performing better at a sport.
Use Compound Movements
Generally speaking, strength is going to be built best with compound movements. These are movements that involve more than one joint. Working multiple joints at the same time provides a number of benefits.
- It takes less time. Now there are some people who simply love the gym and want to spend all day there. I’m going to assume that you actually have other things to do in your life and would like to minimize your time in the gym. Compound movements help you do this. because one movement will cover several different muscles and joints.
- It works the body as a system by allowing muscles to function as they naturally want to.
- It allows more muscle to be worked
Keep it simple stupid
As a novice you need a novice program. I mean, you can use an intermediate or advanced program, but you’re not going to get as much out of it. If you’ve ever driven a stick shift, you can start in 3rd gear, but it’s a lot easier and faster to start in 1st gear. So what makes a novice program?
- Full body.
- Increase the weight each workout
- 3-4 workouts per week. No more.
As a novice, you can recover from stress of lifting weights within about 2 days, so you want work out about that often, but not more. You don’t get strong by lifting heavy weights. You get strong by recovering from lifting heavy weights.
As a novice, you can increase the weight on the bar every workout, so a novice program should take advantage of this by designing it in. It’s not complicated. Choose a weight. Lift it for the prescribed number of sets and reps. Next time, add 5 pounds and repeat. When you can’t go up 5 pounds, go up by 2.5 pounds.
It’s simple to be a novice. A novice program should be simple. Don’t complicate it.
So where should I start? How about Starting Strength?
I like the Starting Strength model and recommend it. But you need to understand it. It’s a novice program, and will only last you 3-6 months. It’s not meant to be done forever. It’s designed to be simple and provide a foundation of strength.
At its most basic, it starts out with four lifts on a two day split routine that looks like this:
Week: Monday Wednesday Friday
1: 1 2 1
2: 2 1 2
Phase 1: 2-4 weeks
- Squat 3x5
- Overhead Press 3x5
- Deadlift 1x5
- Squat 3x5
- Bench Press 3x5
- Deadlift 1x5
- You can add in chinups at the end of workout 2 if you like.
- You can also add some barbell or dumbbell curls if you really want to.
So what weight should I start at?
- Start with a lightweight. Probably just the bar. Do a set of five.
- If it’s easy, add 10 pounds, and do another set of five.
- Repeat step 2 until a set feels mildly challenging. (This might be step 1 for some people.)
- The weight that felt challenging will be your starting weight. Do two more sets with that same weight.
- Log the weight in a notebook. Next workout, you’ll add 5-10 pounds.
Phase 2: Once you’re comfortable with Deadlifts
Now, you add in power cleans in place of deadlifts on Workout 1.
- Squat 3x5
- Overhead Press 3x5
- Power Clean 5x3
- Squat 3x5
- Bench Press 3x5
- Deadlift 1x5
Phase 3: When it gets hard to recover from deadlifts
It’ll take you several months to get to this point, so I’m not going to describe it. By this time, hopefully you’ve bought the Starting Strength book, maybe joined their forum, and read enough on their website to know what to do.
How do I do these exercises?
I’m going to provide several videos for each lift below. You don’t have to watch them all. Generally speaking, watch the first one. Try it yourself. Take a video of yourself and compare your form to it. If you want or need more detail, then watch the others.
These are the foundation of the program, and the most functional of all the movements. More than any other lift, this one will keep you out of a nursing home.
Starting Strength recommends and prefers what are commonly referred to as “low bar” squats. The videos below teach their method. You don’t have to use low bar if you don’t want to. High bar squats will work just fine.
For years Alan Thrall preached “whatever works for you squats,” but when he plateaued and started using the Starting Strength style squats, he started progressing again. Here he teaches what he learned.
Here, Alan Thrall’s Coach describes three common mistakes.
Here we have Starting Strength Founder, Mark Rippetoe teaching his squat method. This is a playlist.
Overhead Press, AKA The Press
Playlist of Mark Rippetoe teaching the Overhead Press
Alan Thrall explaining how to set up for the Press
Alan Thrall teaching the 5 steps to a good deadlift. Similar to his squat, Alan had stopped progressing until he changed his technique.
Common Deadlift Errors:
And Mark Rippetoe teaching the Deadlift.
We’re half way THERE!!!
Okay, at this point you should be done with your first workout. If you wait three minutes between sets and take one minute for each set, it should have taken you about half an hour. So now enjoy a little Bon Jovi before you learn the next lift for Workout 2.
The power clean is the most technical of the lifts that you’ll do in the Starting Strength program. You shouldn’t try to learn this lift until you have a a fairly clean deadlift. So somewhere between Week 2 and 4.
That’s a lot of videos! Anything else I should know?
How about diet?
Good question. Generally speaking you should be eating a fairly high protein diet. A good rule of thumb is 0.8-1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. If you’re very obese, you could go a bit lower. If you’re very thin, you might want to go a little higher.
You’re going to get the most out of Starting Strength if you’re in a caloric surplus. Building muscle is an anabolic process. Losing fat is a catabolic process. Your body doesn’t like to do both at the same time. (You can for a limited time if you’re starting out obese.)
When talking to skinny young men, the founder Mark Rippetoe’s advice is to eat 4500-5000 calories a day for the first month or two and don’t worry about getting fat. Once you’re strong, it will be easy to lose the extra weight. If I were younger, I’d follow this advice myself. But since I’m an old man, I make do with a small caloric surplus of about 300-500 calories per day. (You can estimate your maintenance as 15 x your bodweight in pounds. If you’re inactive, then use 14 x bodyweight.)
If you’re obese, then you’ll want to eat in a mild deficit at first, so maybe 12 x your bodyweight. If you’re very obese you could be more aggressive and eat 10 x bodyweight.
No matter which strategy you choose, understand that adequate nutrition plays a huge part in getting stronger, and reducing calories is going to reduce your strength. While you’re in the novice phase, don’t be too strict. Once you’ve gotten strong, then you can can reduce calories and get lean.
What about fat and carbs. You can go however you like here, however, higher in carbs, and moderate in fat tends to do better for most non-obese people.
What should I eat? The vast majority of your food should come from “whole” sources. If you don’t know what that means, then try Dr Jordan Feigenbaum’s advice and only eat foods that have one ingredient. I have a number of recipes on my website of foods that have helped me on my own fitness journey.
You should have some desserts or other treats that you enjoy every day. If you don’t, then you’re more likely to binge and go off diet altogether. My three secrets to not going overboard with treats are:
- Log it before you eat it.
- Weigh out your serving
- Put the container away.
- Leave the kitchen before you eat it.
This will make you less likely to have “just a little more” or go back for seconds and thirds, and fourths.
For further reading, here’s a nice long article on nutrition by Dr. Jordan Feigenbaum.
Is this going to make me big? I don’t want to be big.
Only if you eat in a large surplus. Now, the plan is to gain both muscle and fat during the initial novice phase, and then to lose the fat afterward. You’ll look a bit fluffy during this process, but it’s temporary.
If you’re worried about looking like this, that takes drugs.
Now, if you’re a woman, there are some extra things to be aware of.
- As part of the adaptation process, your muscles are going to be a bit fuller temporarily. Stick with it, it will go away.
- Your weight will fluctuate over the course of your menstrual cycle. You simply cannot compare your weight or your measurements from week to week. What you need to do is compare them to the same week the cycle before.
This is so exciting. Are there any fitness channels that you like?
This is a tough one. Most of the Youtube fitness channels are junk. Here are are few that I like that won’t lead you too far astray:
- Starting Strength: Heck this whole article is about Starting Strength, so I guess I should recommend the Youtube channel. Mark Rippetoe (“Rip”) is quite the character. The channel has a bit of everything.
- Barbell Medicine. Two Starting Strength who are also doctors run the website BarbellMedicine.com and have a podcast by the same name. Dr Feigenbaum’s youtube channel is their outlet. They are also active on Instagram. I really enjoy their take on things.
- Alan Thrall: You’ve seen some of his videos above. Alan has a gym called Untamed Strength and recently became a Starting Strength coach. He now offers online coaching through Barbell Medicine.
- Omar Isuf is a Canadian who just got into lifting. He’s quite the character, and his channel reflects his growth over the years that he’s been lifting. He likes to have lots of guests from the lifting world.
Should I get a personal trainer?
No. Most of the personal trainers, especially the ones that work at commercial gyms (Planet Fitness, LA Fitness, 24 hour Fitness, etc.) are garbage. You’re lucky if their advice doesn’t actually harm you. It would be a good idea to get a coach, preferably someone who is familiar with the Starting Strength model and performs the basic compound lifts themselves. If you can’t find anyone local, you can get online coaching at both Starting Strength and Barbell Medicine.
And finally, if all else fails, you can post your questions and even videos of your form on the Starting Strength forums and get answers for free.
The lifts are not all that terribly difficult, and you’re going to start with fairly light weights and slowly increase the weight over time, so don’t freak out. You’ve got plenty of time to fix your form and get better at it. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing wrong. Because who’s naturally good at everything the first time?
Get out there and lift some weights.
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