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Rippetoe's Starting Strength recommends that when you fail to get all 3 X 5 reps for 3 workouts in a row on a given exercise, you do a "minor reset" in which you drop the weight of the work set to 90% of the stalled amount and then work back up to the stalled weight.

It's tempting to instead continue doing the stalled weight but make up for any missed reps by doing them at a lower (doable) weight, since dropping 10% feels like a step backward. Obviously I won't do this because I'm sure Rippetoe has a good reason for using the resets, but I'm curious what this reason is.

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    If you give us more information on how long you have been doing the novice program and the progress you have made we can provide a better answer. – pufferfish Nov 3 '14 at 22:47
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    @TimothyPuffer, I'm in the middle of week 8. Based on Rippetoe's Basic Strength Standards, my deadlift is almost at the intermediate level for my sex and weight; my press and power clean are approaching novice. But, my squat and bench (on which I have to reset frequently) are embarrassingly horrible - barely above untrained level. I'm using this chart: crossfit.com/cf-journal/WLSTANDARDS.pdf – half-pass Nov 5 '14 at 2:17
  • In terms of progress, I had no experience with any of the lifts previously and started all except deadlift with less than an empty Olympic bar for everything. – half-pass Nov 5 '14 at 2:20
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The other answers from Dave and Eric cover the various physiological reasons for resets, being overtraining, rest, etc. I won't go into that. Instead, I'll address the often overlooked psychological factor.

Every time you plateau, you fail. You are failing to get to that next weight and bypass the roadblock. Sometimes this is just a speed bump, and next week you get back on track and eek out more progress. But when you have failure, after failure, after failure, after failure, then mentally you start taking as much of a beating as your muscles. After enough failures, you start expecting to fail instead of expecting success. This is called psyching yourself out.

The best way to avoid mentally handicapping your progress is by taking those resets as Rippetoe prescribes. Resets allow you to put some distance between your roadblock, build up momentum by getting some small "wins" under your belt, and the next time you get to that roadblock you will hopefully have enough speed to break on through to the other side.

  • not that I disagree with you really, but I think still think the root is (usually) over training and/or insufficient recovery. At least for me in my life I end up missing training enough to do life that I rarely need to purposefully build in off-days or off-weeks. They happen despite my best intentions. – Eric Nov 4 '14 at 20:18
  • @EricKaufman I certainly agree the root is physiological, as its designed to reduce stressors and recover the body to prepare for next adaptation. But that does not diminish the role that mental fortitude, motivation, and self-esteem play. The point being is that deloading is a scientifically backed, holistic mind and body tool that is critically important in weight lifting. In short, we're both right. – Moses Nov 4 '14 at 22:15
  • Good point. Getting used to failure (or grinding through a challenging weight with worse and worse form) isn't great for long-term progress. – Dave Liepmann Nov 5 '14 at 7:11
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My guess would be that you're bumping into overtraining. The increases prescribed in the program are based on maximizing the stress->recovery->adaptation cycle. If you're not adapting (able to hit your numbers) then you're either over-training or under-training.

On intermediate programs if you don't hit your numbers (and you've been lifting on schedule reliably), the first suspect is insufficient recovery and/or overtraining.

If you reliably are knocking into overtraining on the novice level programs and have been lifting for 6-12 months, you might need to move onto an intermediate program. But definitely hang out in the novice range as long as you can.

  • Makes sense, thanks. Right now I still have one lift that I've never failed (deadlift), so I'm hopeful that I can stay on the novice level for a little longer. – half-pass Nov 2 '14 at 18:21
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Missing a given weight for 3 workouts in a row is a symptom of a significant (though not major) problem. Maybe you're not doing a good enough job at recovery, or maybe you added weight in bigger chunks than was appropriate, or maybe your body simply isn't getting stronger fast enough. Dropping 10% feels like a step backward, but really it gives you some room to continue your linear progression.

Simply put, missing the same weight 3 workouts in a row means you're too weak for that weight right now and you should be working with a lesser weight, in order to confidently finish your 3 sets of 5. Those sets will still be challenging, but you won't be risking injury and overtraining by insisting on working on a weight you've proven you can't do. You'll be blasting through that 10% in no time. (Actually, that's precisely true. Consider an example of someone stalling at 300 pounds, say for their deadlift. Minus 10% = 270. Adding five pounds per workout, they'll be back at 270 in a mere six workouts—a mere two weeks to blast through their previous one-week plateau. That's often better than dawdling at 300, not going up or going down.)

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