In 2005, Mark Rippetoe published Starting Strength, a now-classic, beginner-friendly training guide that has sold more than 500,000 copies in the decade-plus since and is considered a must-read for anyone who hopes to master the fundamentals of barbell lifts.
While his place among the pantheon of strength coaching legends may be secure, however, Rippetoe, 65, says he has no plans to take it easy. What makes this proclamation all the more impressive is that Rippetoe is currently rehabbing a quadriceps tendon rupture, the latest in a long line of injuries that have occurred outside the gym.
“You don’t let injuries heal, you heal them through rehab,” the gravelly-voiced teacher of countless seminars tells me. “You have to keep trying to get stronger, because as you age, there are forces at work making you weaker and you need to arrest that process.”
Rippetoe’s seminars and Starting Strength-branded gyms now deliver strength training to trainees of varying experience levels. There, Rippetoe places considerable emphasis on meeting the needs of novice and intermediate-level lifters seeking a pathway to progressively increasing strength rather than elite athletes looking to fine-tune their performances.
With that in mind, I asked Rippetoe to share some insights that might benefit trainees of all ages who wish to improve their quality of life by picking up or getting under a barbell.
What do you wish you’d known when you were a novice, long before you’d embarked on a decade-long run as a competitive powerlifter?
I wish I’d known the logic of the stress—recovery—adaptation cycle. That’s actual applied physiology. I had no idea. I was a dumbass when I was powerlifting because I hadn’t been coached by anyone except my coach, Bill Starr. Bill was very strong but had no idea about programming of the sort that I lay out in my book Practical Programming. Check out Bill’s [1976 book] The Strongest Shall Survive: It’s 5 sets of 5 repetitions of the power clean, bench press, and back squat…essentially a weekly progression program for intermediate-level lifters.
What was wrong with a 5×5 program like Starr’s?
Bill Starr was typical of top coaches at the time, such as the people who learned and trained at York Barbell when that place was the center of the weightlifting universe. They worked with elite athletes and they were usually elite athletes themselves. The worst strength and conditioning coaches are found in front of the best athletes in the world. How much coaching does a great athlete like [Olympic weightlifter and pro wrestler] Ken Patera need?
At our Starting Strength gyms, we don’t necessarily care about high-level pro football players. We care about their elderly mothers. We want to get everybody stronger. We want you to get stronger doing basic human movements. Barbells achieve this goal. Properly performed, full-range-of-motion barbell exercises are essentially the functional expression of human skeletal and muscular anatomy under a load.
So if we’re just starting out in strength training, which authors and coaches should we read or follow?
Well, I could tell you to go look at someone else’s books or videos, but that wouldn’t make much sense. I’ve written the main books on this subject. Starting Strength lays out my basic program to develop novice trainees into intermediate trainees by having them perform the back squat, deadlift, power clean, overhead press, bench press, and chin-ups to get there.
Practical Programming addresses program modifications for trainees at all skill levels. Before I put these books together, the available books on the subject were very confusing. [Bodybuilding champion] Bill Pearl had a book with hundreds of exercises in it. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding encyclopedia—how many people ever read that and got stronger from the exercises in there?
What should I eat to build strength?
That depends on whether you’re a 5’11”, 165-pound trainee or a 365-pound trainee. The 165-pounder needs to put on weight—anyone around that size is probably underweight—so I’d recommend they put on some weight, and one of the most efficient ways to do that is drinking a gallon of whole milk a day.
The 365-pounder has had no problem putting on weight, but now he needs to put on strength. He needs to eat a much cleaner diet. Age also factors into this. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but common sense tells you there are best practices to follow depending on your starting condition.
How much sleep do I need to stay strong?
Sleep is the most anabolic substance in the world. We all ought to be sleeping eight to nine hours a night, but that’s not always possible with kids, additional part-time jobs, and other responsibilities. If you’re 35 or 40 years old and forced to choose between going through your programmed workout on six hours of sleep or skipping it, do the workout and catch up on your sleep over the weekend. If you’re in your sixties, when recovery gets much more difficult, skip the workout and get your sleep.
What equipment should I buy? A belt? Weightlifting shoes?
If you train at one of my gyms, you wouldn’t need a belt, because there are 30 or so sturdy belts, thick all the way around, hanging on the walls. And I probably wouldn’t put a novice trainee in a belt until much later in their training. The only non-negotiable item you’d need would be a pair of flat-soled, non-compressible shoes.
You can’t lift in tennis shoes with compressible soles. That’s a terrible idea. The heel squishes under the load and no rep looks like the previous one. And you shouldn’t lift barefoot, even though that’s a fad right now. You want your toes inside a rigid shoe that distributes the weight of the barbell across a larger surface area. Bare feet distribute that weight over a much smaller area. Rogue’s Do-Win lifting shoes are a good buy.
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What are your feelings on supplements?
They’re mostly just marketing. There are a few useful things to take, such as creatine monohydrate, Vitamin C, a multivitamin, and minerals such as calcium and magnesium if you’re in a hot climate. Fish oil helps with inflammation. The cheapest and best pre-workout supplement is something like Vivarin, a caffeine pill. Or you could just drink coffee.
Most flavored whey supplements taste disgusting and you’ll likely tire of the weird taste before you exhaust the contents of the container. Use an unflavored whey protein instead. In my opinion, the more money you spend on supplements, the less time you’re likely thinking about your workouts or actually working out.
If I wanted to build a great home gym, what would I need?
You’d need sufficient space for a lifting platform, power rack, barbell, and barbell plates. Our Starting Strength gyms have nine platforms and nine racks. That’s all you’d need to follow the program I outline in Starting Strength, along with a bar mounted to the wall or across the doorway for dead-hang, full range-of-motion chin-ups. You don’t want to buy a cheap bar. Expect to spend at least $300 because you need a barbell made with good-quality steel. Rogue has some decent options, but I recommend the Starting Strength bar designed by Texas Power Bars for our Starting Strength Gyms.
Any tips about joining a gym?
You just need to find a gym, any gym, where you will be left alone to do the Starting Strength program. If you go to a weightlifting gym, they may have you do their specialized program, which might not offer the most benefit to a novice. Often the biggest impediment to the use of a commercial gym is the staff. They’ll likely tell you to “look up” when you squat and do many other unhelpful, incorrect things.
What is the most common mistake you see made in gyms?
The most common mistake that everyone makes is squatting with a vertical back angle. The reason we have you look down when you squat is so your back isn’t too vertical. You want the hips engaged and you want the back engaged, because you move more weight this way. [Powerlifting legend] Ed Coan doesn’t squat with a vertical back angle. Nobody does if they’re squatting to proper depth. Mind you, I do not train people for competitive powerlifting.
“How many champs in powerlifting has Rippetoe trained?” is a question I hear asked sometimes. I don’t train people to become powerlifting champions because I care about servicing a much broader market than the 100 or so athletes capable of lifting at that level. You might as well ask me how many shuffleboard players I train. No, I care about getting people who squat 135 pounds right now up to 365.
What specific advice do you have for older trainees, people 40 years old and up, who want to start strength training?
We have to train for strength as we age, because the most important thing that happens as we age is the loss of strength and power. It’s more important for older people than younger people to engage in strength training. Sure, it’s fun to train a 17-year-old bursting with testosterone and help him win a college scholarship. But the difference between your grandparents being out of the nursing home instead of in it is strength, not cardiovascular function.
At a certain point, to be independent, you have to be able to get off the toilet. If you cannot, and if you continue to allow yourself to weaken, you will lose your independence. Bear in mind that as you get older, you cannot recover from as much exercise volume as you could when you were younger. You’ll have a limited capacity for recovery. If I’m training a 70-year-old, I might only train them twice a week. I’d still have them lift the heaviest weights they could lift with good technique. However, they can’t recover from lots of sets or reps, they’ll quit because they’re sore and not recovering, and they’d be right to quit working with whatever idiot made them do all that unneeded exercise.
How do you discover your starting weights for use in a Starting Strength training program?
You’ll start with the empty barbell and then you increase the weights from that original 45 pounds. This won’t apply to your grandmother, who will start with a 15-pound bar. I’ll put a bar on your back, squat you down to position, drive w/ your hips. Then I’m going to keep adding weight until my eyes tell me 125 pounds for three sets of five is where to stop for today. I don’t want to find your limit. I want you moving 135 pounds next week, then 145, 155, and so on. After we get to a reasonable weight, we’ll make 5 pound jumps.
What matters isn’t where you start. What matters is going up 5 pounds a workout until that gets too difficult. The load is the variable, not the exercise selection. Exercises where you can’t vary the load, such as with kettlebells and dumbbells that will always weigh a set amount, aren’t good ways to increase strength via progressive loading. The barbell is the best way to do this.
What assistance exercises do you recommend besides the back squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, power clean, and chin-ups in the Starting Strength program?
Don’t do assistance exercises, at least at first. It’s not necessary to do a triceps assistance exercise—it’s only necessary for you to go to a higher weight on the bench press. We have people put two inches on their arms within the first six months with no arm training. You have exercises that are ancillary, like the barbell curl, whereas the rack pull is an assistance exercise, in that it simulates part of the deadlift movement.
Novices don’t need to do either ancillary or assistance exercises. The main workouts are loaded in a progressive pattern. For example, if you can’t do dead hang bodyweight chin-ups, you need to train until you get to a point to where you can perform ten. If your bodyweight goes up and you’re still doing ten reps, you’ve gotten stronger. The longer I’ve been in this business, the more I think too much time is being wasted on assistance exercises.
What are the least effective exercises you see trainees perform?
Anything on a machine or anything with a partial range of motion. Machine exercises because the machine controls the movement pattern, not you. We want you to control the movement pattern. Partial range-of-motion exercises enable you to do the easy part of the movement pattern, while missing the hard part. There’s a balance component to performing the squat that develops along with the squat movement pattern. If you try to do this same movement on the Smith machine, which stabilizes the bar for you, half the beneficial effect of squatting down with the load is gone.
Which fitness methodologies or training routines should you avoid?
Muscle confusion is just a marketing thing that programs like CrossFit use to sell product; it’s not training. Training is the process by which you come into the gym, add weight to the bar, and get stronger. Exercising is just fucking around in front of the dumbbell. CrossFit is exercising. It may be hard and make you sore, but it’s just exercising. It doesn’t have the capacity to program a strength increase. Programs like CrossFit are popular because most people like variety and think complexity is cool. Complexity appeals to stupid people—it makes them feel superior intellectually, even if they’re making no real progress. CrossFit works initially because anything works for six weeks. Leg extensions work for six weeks.
The term “novice effect,” which describes this phenomenon, originated with me. I didn’t coin and explain the term because I’m smart, but rather because a whole bunch of people are real stupid. The reason Starting Strength uses those five exercises plus chin-ups is because those are the only exercises that can be trained for a long period of time. You can’t progressively load the leg extension for ten years. You can’t train with kettlebells or dumbbells that way. Same with air squats and the “Filthy Fifty.” Whereas, as you know, you can build up your deadlift over 10 years.
There are very few exercises that lend themselves to training improvements over such a long duration, but the exercises we teach novices to perform do. We want you to get to pressing 315 pounds on the bench, and that means going up 5 pounds a workout or week on the bench press to get there.
Why should we all want to get stronger?
The greatest and most understated benefit of strength training beyond just lifting heavy weights is that you’ve completed a task you couldn’t do previously. Let’s say I’m working with some 50-year-old trainee who has to squat 275 for two sets of five reps. He’s got a task to complete. Based on the outcomes of prior training sessions, he doesn’t know whether he can do that last rep of that second set of 275. This trainee has a choice. He does the first set, completes all five reps, racks it, and sits down. He then realizes he has to do it again. Now he’s on that fourth rep of the second set and it’s hard—he may get stuck at the bottom of this, he may get hurt. Does he continue for a fifth rep or rack it? His spotter is right there.
The decision he makes teaches him something about himself. This decision transforms people. There are few instances in the modern world when we get to make such a decision. I’ve had people who have been training for years tell me that they’ve noticed people treating them differently. Something has changed in them. What was it? Well, now they know that they can complete tasks with uncertain outcomes that depended entirely on their efforts. This is terribly important for people of all ages, something that you owe it to yourself to experience.
Do you have the guts to try the last rep? If you can make yourself do it, you have proven that you have that courage. This is one of the few ways you can still learn that kind of lesson. Learn it under the bar, then watch it carry over into everything you do for the rest of your life. How can this be any harder than that fifth rep of that second set with 275 pounds? Now you welcome the challenges of the world. You don’t cower.
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