Starting strength is one of, if not THE, most popular strength program in the world, but is it any good? And what are the major pros and cons? In this starting strength review we’re going to cover:
- Starting Strength Program Purpose
- The Starting Strength Program / Routine
- Starting Strength Pros
- Starting Strength Cons
- Verdict: Is starting strength a good program
- Starting Strength Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
Let’s jump straight in.
Starting Strength Program Purpose
The starting strength program is, exactly as its name would suggest, a program for people interested in getting started with strength training, and trying to increase the amount of weight that they can lift.
“Starting Strength’s goal is not to train world-class powerlifters. It is, rather, to make normal, average people stronger. ”
– Mark Rippetoe & Matt Reynolds, Starting Strength
Who is Mark Rippetoe? (Starting Strength Creator)
Mark Rippetoe has been around the fitness industry for a LONG time. Since 1978 to be exact. He started the Wichita Falls Athletic Club in 1984, became an NSCA certified coach in 1985, and put up some decent numbers as a competitive powerlifter for over 10 years. Over the years he has become one of the most influential figures within the world of strength training (a factor that has arguably both helped and hindered his development as a coach – more on that later)
*Side note: Who the heck am I to be critiquing him? Very fair question. I’m a professional strength & conditioning coach with 7+ years spent supporting universities and national talent pathways. I’m also a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting, and an assistant lecturer / PhD researcher at the University of Hull. So I’m not just some armchair critic.
The Starting Strength Program / Routine
The starting strength training program is actually 3 slightly different starting strength routines that are separated into phases. Here’s a quick visual guide that I’ll go through in a bit more detail below…
Phase 1: This is the introductory period that typically lasts 2-4 weeks. You’ll squat, bench or press and then deadlift every session 3 times per week.
Phase 2: This phase is basically the same, except that you will now alternate the deadlift and power clean. The logic is that your deadlift is now heavy enough that you shouldn’t train it every single session. This phase tends to last about 1-3 months for most people.
Phase 3: This phase is similar to phase 2, but adds in chin-ups every other workout as a lighter movement in place of power cleans or deadlifts. What this means is that 5 workouts would look like…
- Workout 1: Squat, Press, Deadlift (Most tiring)
- Workout 2: Squat, Bench, Chin-Ups (Least tiring)
- Workout 3: Squat, Press, Power Clean (Moderately tiring)
- Workout 4: Squat, Bench, Chin-Ups (Least tiring)
- Workout 5: Squat, Press, Deadlift (Most tiring)
So it allows for a bit more recovery in between hard deadlift sessions. You might get anything from 2-8 months of training out of this phase.
Starting Strength Advanced Novice Routine
The ‘advanced novice’ routine can be thought of as a lesser-known phase 4. In this phase, Wednesday’s squats are always lighter, typically around 80% of Monday’s or Friday’s. This allows for better recovery, and a smoother transition into the texas method, a true intermediate programme.
How often do you increase weight on Starting Strength?
Linear progression is used during starting strength, so your goal is to increase the weight every single workout. Typically this will be something in the region of 1.25-2.5kg (2.5-5lb) for men, and 0.75 to 1.5kg (1.5-3lb) for women.
*These are roughly rounded estimates, and the exact increases will vary person to person as well as phase to phase.
How long should I be on Starting Strength?
This varies a lot person to person. At the low end, some people might move through all 3 phases plus the ‘advanced novice’ phase in about 4 months. At the high end, I’ve known people to take around a year to move through all 3 phases.
Practically the longer you can stay in each phase and keep making progress the better, but how long this is for YOU will vary considerably based on your genetics, as well as factors such as sleep and nutrition.
Starting Strength Pros
Alright, so now that we’ve covered what the program looks like and how it works, what do I like about starting strength?
- Very tried and tested way of building strength
Tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people have used the starting strength programme, so it’s been extensively field-tested. We can say with certainty that it will reliably get most people stronger. Realistically all you need to do is head to google search and pop in something like…
– “starting strength before and after”
– “starting strength results”
– “starting strength success stories”
And you’ll get thousands of results. That’s a strong indicator that it works.
- Active Forums and Groups
Since starting strength is so popular, it also has plenty of official and unofficial forums where almost every possible question has already been asked and answered. That means that any problems you encounter will have easy solutions. Plus the feeling of community support can be pretty motivating. Here are some links you might find useful:
- Focus on a small number of compound lifts allows for technical development
Frequent practice is an essential component of skill learning, so starting strength does a great job with this by having lifters focus on only 6 movements: the squat, bench press, overhead press, deadlift, power clean and chin-up.
I also like that starting strength as a company has detailed exercise technique guides. I’ve used and recommended the starting strength deadlift for many years. I’m less fond of the starting strength how to squat video guide, but it can still be a useful starting point for many lifters.
- 3 Phase structure is ideal for balancing progress with fatigue
Effective strength training progress is all about balancing progressive overload with the fatigue that it generates. Starting strength does a great job with this by encouraging rest days between sessions, and by using a 3-phase structure that changes as lifters are able to lift heavier weights.
Starting Strength Cons
Alright, so now that you know what I like about the programme, here are some of my starting strength criticisms:
- Workouts become LONG
A few months into the programme and it’s not unusual for workouts to take 90 minutes. 10 minutes to reach a working weight, 1 minute to lift, then 5-10 minutes rest between sets. This isn’t necessarily the end of the world, but many of us only have 45-60 minute timeframes to fit in our training.
Plus, there’s a real argument to be made that 90+ minutes to perform 7-9 sets is just silly. In fact, I would bet good money that reductions in load plus more sets with shorter 2-3 minute rests would equal better results over the long term for many people.
- Workouts get repetitive, repetitive, repetitive
Look, for some people, doing the same workout or very close variations of the same workout for an entire year is no problem at all. Personally, I would lose my mind with boredom, and I’m willing to bet that a lot of people are the same. Plus, over years of coaching professional athletes, I’ve tended to find that the best athletes thrive on variety.
There’s also the scientific training principle of variation which suggests that strategic variations in exercises, sets or reps can create greater training results by overcoming adaptive resistance.
- Dogmatic guidelines on technique
Whilst having clear technical models is usually a good thing, starting strength as a whole fails to realise that their models are one way and not the only way. Lifters have different anthropometries (limb lengths etc) as well as different strengths and weaknesses, and this will be reflected in movement variations. Trying to force everyone into the same box isn’t ideal.
- Starting strength has become a cult (or very cult-like)
To keep things simple, I’m not here to talk about Mark Rippetoe’s politics. Instead, the point that needs to be raised is that somewhat of a cult of personality has been built around him, and over the last decade or so he has surrounded himself almost completely with people who agree with him.
The major problem with this is that it has made him very close-minded to ideas other than his own, even when those ideas are backed up by decades of research. His programme hasn’t really evolved for the past two decades, and his claims about Olympic weightlifting are simply outdated and incorrect to the point of being laughable to anyone in the sport.
Strength and conditioning is a science, and dogmatic echo chambers run counter to this. Put simply, how can you improve if you’re determined that you’re always right?
- Not ideal for hypertrophy (Muscle Gain)
Whilst beginners might gain a bit of size following starting strength, it’s a very suboptimal programme for muscle growth. The reps are too low and there are not enough sets, so there’s not anything close to enough training volume for maximal growth.
This isn’t an immediate problem, but over the long term could seriously hamper your strength progress. Research (Ferrarri et al. 2022) consistently shows that bigger muscles lead to stronger lifts. Plus just using common sense you can see that the strongest powerlifters, weightlifters and strongmen are also the biggest. That’s not a coincidence.
Verdict: Is starting strength a good program
On balance, I would say that yes, starting strength is a perfectly fine cookie-cutter programme designed to get beginners stronger.
If you’re fairly new to strength training, the starting strength program will give you a structured routine to follow that has been tried and tested over many years. Moreover, because of the forums and support alongside the program, I would even rate it as one of the best possible choices for beginners looking to increase their strength.
However, that’s not to say that starting strength is perfect. The program can be repetitive, the workouts can get long, and after a few months there’s a strong argument to be made that changes in exercise, sets, reps and/or loading may lead to better results, including way more hypertrophy (muscle size)
My Recommendation as a coach?
“Follow the 3 phases of the starting strength program, and allow yourself a couple of deloads along the way. But introduce strategic variation sooner rather than later.
And by this I mean, if you get to the point that your workouts are taking ages, your progress is much much slower, and you’re considering having to reset or ‘deload’ your lifts for the third time, it’s time to move on.
Don’t be that person who sticks with starting strength for way too long and grinds themselves into dust performing multiple max effort, RPE 11/10 lifts over and over again.
Training hard is good, but training hard AND smart is better.
Starting Strength Frequently Asked Questions
starting strength vs stronglifts?
The most practical difference is that starting strength uses 3×5 whereas stronglifts uses 5×5. This 2 set difference might not seem like much, but it’s a total training volume difference of 60+%, which makes the stronglifts program far more fatiguing. You can read an in-depth review of stronglifts here.
Is starting strength for women?
The starting strength program works perfectly fine for beginner women looking to increase their strength levels. The only thing I would mention is that I’ve found many women can tolerate (and respond better to) higher training volumes, meaning more total sets. So if you’re plateauing with starting strength, this may be the reason.
Is Starting Strength Good for Beginners?
The starting strength program is perfect for beginners, after all, that’s who it was designed for. The focus on 4-6 exercises allows for good technique focus, and the 3 days per week training frequency allows for safe and effective development of strength.
What Weight Should I Start With When Following Starting Strength?
Start conservatively. A good recommendation for your first session is to build up in sets of 5 until you reach a weight at which the bar noticeably slows down on rep 5. You can then use this as your next session’s 3×5 working weight. If in doubt, ere on the lighter side, as you’ll be aggressively increasing the weight each session from now onwards.
Can you do starting strength everyday?
No. Starting strength is designed to work with 3 non-consecutive sessions of training per week. If you try to do the starting strength routine every single day all you’ll end up doing is struggling to recover, not getting stronger, and most likely getting injured.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time to put theory into action…
1) If starting strength sounds like the right programme for you, then get in the gym and start working through it. If not, find another programme.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.