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Starting Strength is a excellent resource for overall strength training and invaluable for powerlifters. However, I feel for the majority of people who are new to fitness, Starting Strength is an unrealistic guide. While greater than bodyweight bench presses and double-bodyweight deadlifts are admirable achievements, the effort required for them is more than most people will put in.

Also, despite the detailed descriptions in the book on how to correctly and safely, perform the three main movements are not without their risks (especially when they are performed without supervision or a spotter):

  • Barbell bench press can lead to shoulder impingement and poor shoulder girdle development if the bar is brought too close to the chin.
  • Deadlifts require excellent form until failure, otherwise there is a serious risk of disc herniation. This is very hard to self-diagnose as a lifter is encouraged to look forward, which limits the ability to see form during a motion.
  • Back squats again require excellent form, and have no easy failure technique without equipment. Again, due to the motion the lift is hard to see in motion and if a lifter is stuck in the low position, without safety rails recovery can be difficult or dangerous.

This can be verified by the number of videos (including those by Mark Ripptoe) that reinforce how to lift with good form. This fact, and the fact that many people require form checks on these movements, shows they are skilled-tasks that beginners have problems getting right from just written instruction.

Lastly, apart from strength for the sake of strength (which is an admirable personal goal in itself), Starting Strength offers quickly diminishing returns. While strength is important in day to day life, someone who can deadlift their own weight (which is considered novice or lower in many online communities), is strong comparative to their peers and more than likely strong enough for day-to-day activities.

Given there are some downsides for unsupervised fitness novices, why is Starting Strength considered by the online fitness community as the most important fitness regime?

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A lot of programs work. And it only works for strength, yet is recommended for everything. Your comment highlights what I'm trying to examine. –  Lego Stormtroopr Jul 31 '13 at 4:36
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I do not think SS is or should be recommended for everything, it is for strength gains. Also your criticisms of the lifts are incorrect, you are greatly overstating the danger of these lifts and back squats do have safe failure without equipment if you are using correct form –  aaronman Jul 31 '13 at 4:40
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So you're asking "why use a barbell if you're going to use it incorrectly?" –  Kate Jul 31 '13 at 5:00
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To switch it up a bit: what program would you recommend in lieu of Starting Strength? –  VPeric Jul 31 '13 at 17:27
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For the general question you are asking, I like Dave Liepman's answer. However for a more basic question like "How much strength is enough" it really depends on the target audience. Dan Green has an answer for most traditional athletes that is pretty reasonable. Average folks who have no athletic aspirations just need enough strength to go about their daily lives. I doubt anyone other than an SS acolyte would claim it is the only way to get strong or even the absolute best for beginners. It's just the one that came with the best instructions. –  Berin Loritsch Jul 31 '13 at 19:26
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I want to mention that I am in no way opposed to Starting Strength. As Dave mentioned, it has a lot of useful tips for beginners. In that it stresses form and core movements it should be commended.

However it is highly regarded because there is a press and advertising behind it. They are smart even down to the name... Starting Strength. Meaning no experience required. It takes the results from these starters, who work out hard, gain tons of weight, and follow a strict regimen and acts like these are mind blowing things.

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In fact all of these "power lifting/strength" programs basically work off of the same premise which has always been known to those in the industry.

  1. Only the core movements matter at first- squat, deadlift, bench, pull-up/chin-up, power clean. When I work a weight room for a team you aren't allowed to do anything else until you do two of those.
  2. To re-emphasize if you want to get bigger your body will adjust to the largest muscle group which is in the ass and legs. If they get bigger so will your arms. Your body likes harmony.
  3. Intensity is a big big big part of the strength building equation.

So all of these programs including Starting Strength focus on shorter, "easier" workouts. Because they are playing on the fact that a person will more likely work on intensity if they aren't overwhelmed by reps/sets/time commitment.

In reality most/all of the programs will give the beginner a good base given that they are only doing powerlifting at first. I have trained countless young men and I have seen similar gains (going from 100 pound to 300 pound deadlift in 4-5 months). A lot of the gains are simply getting used to the technique and the lift itself. A lot have to do with gaining weight/muscle at a rate only a beginner could.

These workouts do work because they focus on the lifts that work the best and intensity. My big problem with the routines is that a lot people think they are for everyone. I have a hard time suggesting these routines for someone that is already active or is not a beginner.

And again the beginner market is probably 98% of the general population.

As far as your concerns...

That the lifts given are dangerous. I agree to a large extent. The average person will have bad form after reading the book. I have to do a lot of training to younger kids to get them squatting right. But the fact is they want hype. They want to be able to show big gains and these movements are crucial to that. If you don't do the core movements your gains will take forever in comparison.

That the lifts are not for everyday life. True again. And mentioned before this is my big concern. If you continued down this path forever you would be a big, slow-twitch, hulk. If you want functional strength I could see doing this routine for 2-3 months tops to get someone started. You will need to incorporate more fast-twitch movement, endurance weight training, simulation movements, plyometrics...

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I also agree that 80-90% of the personal trainers that a novice may go to will be of no hope in helping with good form on these lifts. The trainers in the US generally are poorly poorly trained and the certification is simply passing a test you could study for in 2 days. And the certifications that I know of have little to nothing on power lifting. The novice is relying on having a good community at the gym they go to - this is hit and miss. –  DMoore Jul 31 '13 at 5:28
    
Excellent answer, in addition though I (obviously) have some comments. First, I can't completely agree that the average person will have bad form after reading the book. It goes into a lot of detail on why people make common mistakes (be it intentionally to lift more, or just physiological), and how they can be corrected if possible. There's also a DVD which really should come with the book imo, it's just that good. We also have to remember that the book was written for coaches as well as novices, so it teaches from a different perspective that some novices may not get, hence bad form. –  BigHomie Aug 20 '13 at 15:48
    
As far as everyday life, it depends on your what you do in your everyday life. If you have to haul yard waste everyday from A to B, then this is definitely for you. If you're a basketball player, then yeah you're going to want to do those sports specific workouts. However, I have to agree with the book that people like to lift stuff over their heads in everyday life, or put something heavy on their back to carry it, or drag it on the ground if it's that heavy (alluding to deadlift in that last one). It's great to have that general functional strength that can be applied across the board. –  BigHomie Aug 20 '13 at 15:55
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@MDMoore313 - I don't disagree with any of the points you make. Much more suitable for coaches than novices. I was just trying to convey that the weightlifting newbie or novice is literally almost the entire population. If you know what you are doing in the weight room and can decipher a bad squat from good you are in the 1%. I know have fellow coaches that have spent years in the weight room that I wouldn't trust teaching my kids. –  DMoore Aug 25 '13 at 17:04
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Also I was very very lucky as a teenager. I had a world class football/weightlifting coach. Reason why our school won state weightlifting tourney 20 years and counting. EVERYTHING in SS he was doing in the early 90s. We would do nothing but deadlift, squat, bench, pull-ups... every day... we hated him. But god we got big quick. SS is common sense for those who have experienced a good program. However I feel it kind of leaves most of the population hanging. What do I do once my deadlift hits 700 pounds? Is that even good for me? You know what I'm saying? –  DMoore Aug 25 '13 at 17:08
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Starting Strength

Because it's the best introduction to the most productive yet neglected aspect of fitness: strength.

Bring up weights to most people, and they think of machines and curls and bodybuilding. Starting Strength lays out a cogent alternative, closer to many people's goals.

Many people still think of "fitness" as synonymous with "cardio" or running. Starting Strength reminds us that strength is much more important for everyday tasks like picking things up and standing up.

Critiques of the program

All exercises have downsides, but those you criticize are, bar none, the fastest way to a strong chest, back, and body. The fact that they need to be done properly is not a downside: it is why the book is so highly recommended. Many people know that Starting Strength (the book) is the best way to communicate to an eager fitness-novice friend how to lift properly.

The idea that many people will not achieve a double bodyweight deadlift is immaterial. So what? If a person does want to be big or strong, as people often do, then Starting Strength is perhaps the most appropriate recommendation. If that person doesn't want that double bodyweight deadlift, they won't get it...but the book (and program) is still enormously useful as a clear introduction to strength training and the fundamental movements of squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and cleaning. These techniques, or ones quite similar, are fundamental to being a healthy human.

I disagree with the book's recommendations in a number of ways, but it remains the best way to communicate "how to lift and why". That's why it's so commonly recommended.

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I was about to answer in the same manner. I think this is much more succinct than I could have done. The last couple sentences are the key to the whole thing. –  Berin Loritsch Jul 31 '13 at 19:17
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It seems like you're asking two questions. Why strength? And why these exercises? These are both answered in "Strength & Barbells: The Foundations of Fitness" (http://startingstrength.com/articles/strength_fitness_wolf.pdf)

Why strength?

Since 1.) strength significantly improves nine of the ten aspects of fitness, and 2.) the tenth can be improved rather quickly, and 3.) whereas strength increases require architectural changes that happen slowly, therefore strength should be the primary aspect trained for, with any other necessary aspects (such as cardiovascular/respiratory endurance) focused on temporarily when necessary.

Why barbells?

  1. Infinitely scalable loads
  2. Allows the maximum weight to be lifted
  3. Training using a small number of movements
  4. Movements that have clearly defined and reproducible ranges of motion

Why starting strength?

Now, this is where my answer starts to become personal opinion.

  • It takes advantage of the novice effect and linear progression.
  • It's a minimal, time-effective program, with a simple full body A/B split.
  • All the lifts are very accurately and clearly explained in the book.
  • There's a large community to support you for form checks, training advice, and Mark Rippetoe himself is very responsive to questions on the official forum.

None of these are absolute reasons to choose Starting Strength over another similar barbell program like Stronglifts, or 5/3/1, but they are reasons that I think lead people to choose Starting Strength over the alternative barbell programs.

Your specific concerns

While greater than bodyweight bench presses and double-bodyweight deadlifts are admirable achievements, the effort required for them is more than most people will put in.

  • Starting Strength doesn't require that you aim for the benchmarks you mention. It only requires that you lift more than last time.

Also, despite the detailed descriptions in the book on how to correctly and safely, perform the three main movements are not without their risks

  • Rippetoe acknowledges the risks inherent in the lifts. Instructions are only as good as they are followed.

Barbell bench press can lead to shoulder impingement and poor shoulder girdle development if the bar is brought too close to the chin.

  • It's very clear that the bar is supposed to start at the middle of your chest at the bottom of the range of motion, and end in a position directly above your shoulders at the top of the range of motion

Deadlifts require excellent form until failure, otherwise there is a serious risk of disc herniation. This is very hard to self-diagnose as a lifter is encouraged to look forward, which limits the ability to see form during a motion.

  • Rippetoe designates an entire section of his forum to form checks.

Back squats again require excellent form, and have no easy failure technique without equipment. Again, due to the motion the lift is hard to see in motion and if a lifter is stuck in the low position, without safety rails recovery can be difficult or dangerous.

  • Starting Strength does not advocate squatting without safety rails while alone.

Starting Strength offers quickly diminishing returns.

  • Yes. Starting Strength is a novice program. Beginners doing the program are usually on it for only a several months (the most dedicated and gifted trainees) to a year (people who are less dedicated, or older, or just less genetically gifted).

While strength is important in day to day life, someone who can deadlift their own weight (which is considered novice or lower in many online communities), is strong comparative to their peers and more than likely strong enough for day-to-day activities.

  • True. If somebody doesn't want to get stronger, they shouldn't be doing strength training.
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Not quite, yes "Why barbells" and "Why strength" are two parts of the question. I'm also asking why Starting Strength over other programs, when beginner gains will happen on almost any program. –  Lego Stormtroopr Jul 31 '13 at 5:09
    
Also, if you say you can use washers to load a barbell, then you can infinitely scale dumbbells using wrist weights. –  Lego Stormtroopr Jul 31 '13 at 5:11
    
@LegoStormtroopr I think it's the 4 reasons in combination that is the main thing. –  Kate Jul 31 '13 at 5:13
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Well,

I'll answer from my perspective of noob/novice to serious gym training.

The reason I love the book is that explains everything you need to know about the most serious exercises a poor unconditioned bastard like me has to do it, and HOW to do it.

The challenge I encounter is finding a spotter who understands the "middle of the foot" concept and the other spotting criteria that Rip defines. The hope I have is to start teaching this concepts to a partner so we can train and spot with the same "quality".

I cannot critique the program to full extent because I don't do it completely. I have other activities between the training (TKD) so I play very safe on the lifts themselves, always checking the form by myself (to much embarrassment taking videos alone). I'm mastering one by one on the books instructions and it has worked. I have a very good squat form (the first I've learned) at 118% BW, my bench,press,deadlift are improving as I read and apply session by session what's in the book. I've discarded power cleans because i have to master DL first, and since I don't trust that much in gym instructors to teach me it's better to leave at that.

I guess the success is having a nice language, the way the book "talks" keeping it simple and focus on learning deeply the lifts involved.

I do not regret doing it rips way simply because now I can punch,jump and kick stronger than ever.

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This is really an anecdote and doesn't address what I'm trying to find out. Also, you've said that you don't do the whole program. –  Lego Stormtroopr Aug 14 '13 at 23:57
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