One of my favorite questions to ask strength coaches and personal trainers during interviews is, "What are five industry-related books that you consider a must-read for anyone starting out in the gym?"
Regardless if the coach is a grizzled veteran or a fresh-faced kid who writes programs on an iPad, their answer usually includes "Starting Strength" by Mark Rippetoe.
Rip-a-who? Oh yeah, he's the guy who rips on the NSCA (National Strength Coaches Association). Even so, when you hear the same name enough times, you start to wonder what else there is to the man.
Mark Rippetoe is the owner and general manager of Wichita Falls Athletic Club in Wichita Falls, Texas, and is the author of four strength training books including the classic, "Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training."
Asked about his professional qualifications, Rippetoe, or Rip, cites his 30-plus years coaching lifters first, followed closely by his years of experience as a competitive powerlifter.
His Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) designation, which he'd held since the NSCA first offered the certification back in 1985 – which he recently relinquished mid-session – is a distant third, along with his various weightlifting accreditations.
Rip's tendency to speak his mind – bluntly – has drawn fire from many of his colleagues, particularly the ones who hold conventions like professional accreditations and peer-reviewed studies in high esteem. Rip doesn't care. "I always stress common sense over conventional wisdom," he says, "Especially when that conventional wisdom is patent bullshit."
Strong words, but Rip has friends in high places, like old time coaching legend Bill Starr, who started Rip on his coaching path many years ago, to modern day iron warriors like Jim Wendler. "Rip's a straight shooter and he knows his shit," says Wendler. "Only a complete freaking idiot wouldn't listen to him."
The Starting Strength program is designed to take advantage of the body's immense growth capability during the first few months of training, when Rip says a lifter can gain faster naturally than many seasoned veterans can on steroids.
"These are the prime growth years. You'll never have another anabolic window like that ever again," says Rip. "And if you waste it, you can never go back."
What kind of growth are we talking about?
"An 18-year-old kid showing up at my gym for the first time; if he's 5'10'' and 140 pounds on day one, I've seen kids that size put on 60 pounds of mass in six to eight months more times than I count," says Rip. "In fact, if he doesn't get results like that, I know he's not eating enough."
How can a program achieve gains of that magnitude? According to Rip, the answer is also what makes periodization such a poor choice for novices – progressive loading.
"The way we can add 60 pounds to a kid's frame in a year is the same way we can take his squat from 95 pounds to 365 pounds – systematic, consistent loading, as fast as their recovery will allow. Say on day one I teach a kid to squat. We'll likely get to 95 pounds for three sets of five. Then I send him home. Two days later he comes back in and does three sets of five with 105. Two days after that, we get to 115, and so on, and so on. We continue this progression until it slows down to maybe five pounds per workout, then as he gets even stronger, maybe five pounds per week.
"At a certain point, enough adaptation has occurred that even five pounds per week is impossible, so then complex systems like periodization may be required. But by that point, if he's been eating accordingly, that 140-pound kid with the 95-pound squat now weighs close to 200 and squats 365. Where do you think that kid would be if we started him out on some complicated Russian periodization program?"
Many of Rip's colleagues consider him "anti-periodization," a designation he flatly denies.
"I'm not against periodization," says Rip. "I'm against applying periodization to the wrong population. Periodization is a complete waste of time for beginners. My rule is simple: The less adapted you are, the more straight forward the programming."
Using the earlier example of a140-pound newbie, Rip argues that the periodization model is flawed from the start.
"The first thing a strength and conditioning coach using the periodization model would do is find this kid's one-rep squat max, which he'd then use to generate a bunch of percentage-based workouts. The problem is, the first time you perform an exercise, how accurate is your one-rep max – especially considering you'd be able to get stronger every workout? Yet you're building an entire training block around this initial data that is essentially invalid. What is going to build more strength – loading a trainee as fast as adaptation will allow, or jerking around with dozens of sub-maximal workouts based on meaningless data?"
Rip says the reason something as flat-out wrong as "periodization for beginners" became accepted in college athletic programs is that it created a job for strength and conditioning coaches.
"It allowed strength training to become so complicated that it was too much for the head coach to handle on his own," he says. "So he'd have to employ a strength and conditioning coach, who'd show up to the weight room with plenty of graphs and charts filled with completely useless data."
Not surprisingly, Rip's suggestion of corruption in the strength and conditioning field has raised the ire of certifying bodies like the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Rip saves his sharpest criticism for them.
Rippetoe was in the first group that wrote the National Strength and Conditioning Association's CSCS exam in 1985, and in 2008 became the first member to relinquish his designation mid-session.
"I wasn't the first CSCS to let their accreditation expire, but I was the first to actively renounce it. I did it to make a statement – to show my growing disgust with some of the people and the nonsense they're publishing. I could no longer be associated with their bullshit."
Rip says you need to look no further than the strength and conditioning journal the NSCA publishes each month to see why he felt the way he did.
"They actually published a study that concluded a one-rep max bench press performed on a standard flat bench was the same as one performed on a Swiss ball. What kind of populations are we dealing with here? Do these people have any gym experience whatsoever? Another study concluded that there was no hip extension in the squat – and it had eight or nine citations! How could this possibly even pass peer review?"
It seems fitting that Rip's breaking point was an article published in the journal pertaining to periodization: how to periodize abdominal training.
"That was the last straw. I was already embarrassed of the shit I was being associated with, this needless complexity for complexities' sake."
Rip says the desire for many of those in the upper echelons of the strength and conditioning community to be seen as clinicians contributed to the certifying bodies losing their way.
"By disregarding any evidence that isn't peer reviewed, they lost sight of the big picture. Let me ask you this: Is there anyone who would suggest that the only evidence of value is peer reviewed, that the anecdotal has no value? Just because you can't find peer reviewed science to support something doesn't make it untrue."
Rip offers a dark-side example that many lifters will appreciate:
"We all know that 40 milligrams of Dianabol a day is a pretty effective dose for a weightlifter. How many peer-reviewed studies support this? Zero. How many anecdotal reports? About a hundred thousand. You're an idiot if you avoid anecdotal data, pure and simple. And I will not be associated with idiots," says Rip. Besides, when was the last time anyone in the NSCA or ASCM made anyone an 800-pound squatter?"
The original Starting Strength program is simple – deceptively so – but Rip says that's what makes it effective.
"Novices don't need complicated periodization or 15 exercises for biceps," he says. "They need a few basic exercises that work a lot of muscles, exercises that allow for consistent, progressive loading."
The classic Starting Strength workout is as follows:
- A. Squat: 3 x 5
- B. Bench Press: 3 x 5
- C. Deadlift: 1 x 5
- A. Squat: 3 x 5
- B. Press (Overhead press): 3 x 5
- C. Power Clean *: 5 x 3
* Raw rookies and general gym-goers may substitute back extensions and chin-ups for power cleans.
Workouts 1 and 2 are alternated, and performed on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
- A. Monday: Workout 1
- B. Wednesday: Workout 2
- C. Friday: Workout 1
- A. Monday: Workout 2
- B. Wednesday: Workout 1
- C. Friday: Workout 2
Week 3: Cycle Repeats
Why three sets of five? "Cuz' four sets of five is too much and two sets of five isn't enough," says Rip. "Seriously, I've been doing this a long time, and this is what seems to work the best.
"To mitigate burnout, we go with only one (work-set) of five for deadlifts. In my experience, any more is too much."
Some additional assistance work is included of course, including direct arm work.
"They're going to do curls anyway," says Rip, "so you might as well just pick one good exercise (barbell curls) and get strong."
Sixty-pound gains in a year don't happen out of thin air, of course. Rip says gains of that magnitude require calories, and lots of them.
"4000 calories a day is a minimum. 6000 works better. Lots of protein, vegetables, fruits, and clean carbs. No effort should be made to lower dietary fat whatsoever, but watch the crappy carbs and sugar. I've seen guys gain ten pounds a week when they first get with the program," says Rip, "provided they aren't one of these snot-nosed little bastards that thinks visible abs is the be-all and end-all of athleticism and getting laid."
A trend that most seasoned lifters find irksome is the obsession many young male lifters have with maintaining single-digit bodyfat year round. Psychologists call it body dysmorphia or "manorexia," Rip simply calls it the Soccer Player Phenomenon. He also calls it a big mistake.
"Many successful weight-gaining programs have been sabotaged by this bizarre desire to have a six-pack year round. What the hell is the point of having a six-pack if you don't have an ice chest to put it in?"
Rip reasons that any nutrition program designed to pack on muscle will also put on some fat, with a 60-40 ratio of muscle to fat being about average. But with bodyfat being relatively easy to strip off – especially for an active, muscular male – it's an easy trade off.
"Let's say you put on 40 or 50 pounds in six months. That's going to have a huge impact on how you look and how strong you are. But let's say you do the 'gotta keep my razor sharp abs' horseshit. You'll be lucky if you gain eight or nine pounds. What do you think is going to have more effect on how you look? 50 pounds, 30 of it muscle, or 8 pounds? No one gives a shit about your bullshit abs if you're 5'11 and 170 pounds," says Rip. "Well, maybe some other guys do, but women sure as hell don't. Problem is, you gotta get to be my age to realize that."
Readers might find themselves wishing they'd come across Mark Rippetoe years ago, when they first found the high school or college weight room. After all, 50 or 60 pounds in a year? Oh, to be 18 again.
Put your hankies down. You may still be in luck.
According to Rip, just because you've been training for a long time doesn't necessarily mean you've progressed or adapted past the initial "beginner" stage, where rapid increases in loading and bodyweight are possible. If that initial adaptation still hasn't occurred, Rip says there's no reason why it can't now.
"You can take the average guy who for 10 years has fucked around in front of the dumbbell rack and walked on the treadmill watching TV. You can take that guy and get him to adapt and grow," says Rip. "First thing you do is get him to squat. And two days later, you can get him squatting again, but five or ten pounds heavier. Whether he's 25 or 35 or 55, if that adaptation hasn't occurred, it still can occur," says Rip. Most people out there, despite what they think, are still beginners."
Gain 30 plus pounds in a year? Even if high school and college are a distant memory? No problem, says Rippetoe.
"We do it all the time. We don't have peer review but we do it anyway."