I'm in a gym without barbells.

How can I get as close as possible to the benefits of Starting Strength without the barbell.

I'm thinking this...

  • Leg presses: 3x5 up to 3x8, and then increase the weight and drop back to 3x5
  • Alternate dumbbell bench press and dumbbell overhead press: same progression as leg presses
  • Back extensions: 3 sets done to failure, and I'll add weight when I can do more than 15
  • Pull-ups: same progression as back extension

I thought the 3x5->3x8 progression would be useful because the increments on the machines and dumbbells are too large for me to increase weight every time, but I want to increase something.

  • 3
    You don't say how strong you are already. I would grab a big dumbbell and do goblet squats before resorting to the leg press machine, unless you're already so strong 10 reps with the biggest dumbbell the gym has is too easy. You lose all that hip and core stability training on the machine.
    – Affe
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 22:47
  • 3
    You might also consider ditching the SS model altogether in search of a dumbbell- or kettlebell-oriented program. What are your goals? Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 22:49
  • You think I should go up to 10 reps? Doing 5 reps is easy with the largest dumbbell (it's not huge... this is a pretty limited gym), except for the goblet squat grip, which is actually quite difficult at that weight.
    – user4644
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 22:49
  • 1
    @DaveLiepmann I just want to get strong... to run faster and to jump higher. I'll be switching to a gym with a barbell in January, so I thought I'd like to do a program that will be close to SS to make the transition easy.
    – user4644
    Commented Nov 14, 2012 at 22:52

3 Answers 3


Dumbbell work instead

Without access to a barbell, I'd dramatically change the programming from what Starting Strength offers, using dumbbells as heavy as possible for as few reps as possible. I'd have to give up on the heavy squats and deadlifts that really make novice linear progressions work, but that's OK. I'd focus on general athleticism, meaning that some of the strength work that we could get with barbells but can't with lighter weights will be substituted with conditioning and speed work. Once you transition to barbells you'll be able to focus on pure strength, and will hopefully be well prepared by the dumbbell work.

Exercise selection

There are a wide variety of dumbbell exercises I would choose from, but I expect that I'd want to focus on the ones with which I could still challenge maximal strength: short farmer's walks, overhead presses, bench presses. I'd also make sure to get in some cleans, swings, and snatches. With all of these, I'd shoot for sets of three to five, but if the weight is sub-maximal I'd settle for more.

Targeting the lower body with less weight

One concern is that the lower body, being much stronger than the upper, will naturally be harder to challenge with maximal loads. One way to work around this is to use single-leg exercises like lunges, pistol squats, loaded step-ups, and single-leg deadlifts.


Based on the comment you added to your question: that you will be switching gyms in Jan (one month away) - I would recommend that you do preparation work prior to Starting Strength - in other words, start it right at the new gym and use this time to prepare your form. Grab a broom handle or pvc pipe, review the SS book and videos and start practicing your squats, deadlifts, presses, etc.

Here's one video to start with: http://youtu.be/PCWLs1jTOVE

I'm not sure what you do have available at your current gym, but focus on core and interval training (HITT/Tabata) so you're endurance is in condition.

  • Oh, i wasn't clear. I've already been doing a bit of SS, but lost access to barbells for a short while.
    – user4644
    Commented Nov 19, 2012 at 4:48

Mobility / Flexibility work

Starting Strength includes "low bar back squats" which take a decent amount of flexibility to pull off correctly - its a different position than the more common "high bar back squat". I started doing low bar squats about 6 months ago, and personally had trouble with the thorasic (upper spine) and shoulder flexibility to keep my hands close in behind me when I'm resting the bar on the lower part of my shoulder blades. Also, some people might have really tight hamstrings and have trouble getting good squat depth.

In addition to the advice from others, you might want to double check that you have the range of motion to do a good low-bar back squat, and maybe use the month until you change gyms to do some flexibility work. (or you may not need to).

  • This is good advice. I forgot to mention that I'd already started starting strength before ending up at this bad gym, so I'm kind of just in withdrawal for a month or so. But for other people this is a good answer.
    – user4644
    Commented Nov 20, 2012 at 23:56

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