Building Up Your Foundation
Don’t worry; this is not me trying to reinvent the wheel. I am simply trying to make a good system even better. Honestly, starting strength is a nice system for every beginner (novice) weightlifter to use. It’s simple in structure and it allows you to make some pretty kick ass initial newbie gains. Especially over the initial 6-12 months of your weightlifting career. It’s no secret. This training system works, has always worked and will continue to work. Everytime a novice follows this program, they will make size and strength gains.
You are probably asking yourself then: how could there possibly be anything more optimal for novices? It’s a logical question to ask. After all, I am saying that starting strength works, so why would it need changing. Well, what I am saying is, it works if you’re a novice, but does it prepare you for success as you enter the intermediate stages of weightlifting? My answer is: not as well as it could. Yes, starting strength in its current form gives you a size and strength foundation. But in my opinion, this developed foundation is still insufficient to allow you to experience optimal size and strength success in the later stages of weightlifting.
A Typical Starting Strength Template
Most people are crazy about starting strength. In 99% of cases, whenever a new guy comes along and says: right, I am just starting out, what do I do? Most people will not hesitate to say: starting strength! Which is fine. After all, you want to recommend to someone a system that is guaranteed to work very well. Well, I would do the same. I would recommend that someone new gets themselves onto a starting strength program. No hesitation! They need that size and strength foundation if they want to go anywhere in weightlifting, and starting strength is usually the best for that. But, would I recommend starting strength in its current state? Absolutely not! Here is why.
Below is a typical template of a starting strength routine with the aim to increase the amount of weight each session for average 6-12 months (until you have hit the intermediate stage). NOTE: this is a typical scheme, variations might occur. Generally, you will vary each week between either two workout A’s and one workout B’s and vice versa the following week.
When you look at this typical starting strength scheme, you might think: it looks pretty good to me. You have all your compounds, volume is not too low or too high and, you’re working on increasing your weight each session on the major compounds (bench, squat, overhead press and deadlift). Plus, there is sufficient recovery between each session. What is not to like? Honestly, I have no problems with the general structure of the program itself. But when you look at it closely, there are two major glaring problems: lack of isolation work AND lack of exercise variation. I know, most weightlifters will be fuming at me right now telling me: you don’t need isolation work or have to make your routine all adventurous through unnecessary high exercise variety if you are a novice lifter. Stick to the basics. Stick to the main lifts and rest assured that it’s enough for any novice lifter.
If I had no plans to further my weightlifting career beyond the novice stage, then I would agree, increased isolation work and exercise variation is not needed. But let’s be honest: how many of you want to continue your weightlifting career past the novice stage? I am betting most of you, right? If that’s the case then let me tell you: lack of isolation work AND exercise variation will actually put you on a sub-optimal path for success in the intermediate stages of your weightlifting career. For this very reason, this is why I don’t think starting strength in its current form is optimal. Yes, it works. But is it optimal for your long-term success? Nope, it really isn’t. In fact in my experience, many weightlifters have encountered many performance issues once they reach the intermediate stages of lifting purely because of the drawbacks in the current design of starting strength itself. Can it be fixed? Hell yes it can!
Emphasize More Isolation Work
So what is the problem? Firstly, there is a lack of isolation work. Ok, you don’t have to go bonkers and start adding many different isolation exercises. I don’t want you to become a typical gym bro blasting out thousands of different energy and time wasting isolation exercises. But, incorporating some isolation work will help with preventing possible performance issues over the long-term. Yes, even though the main compound exercises you will do, will also help to build up your smaller muscle groups (biceps, triceps and ALSO core), you can’t just rely on these to do most of the work. When it comes to isolation exercises, some of the exercises to think about will be weighted pull-ups, weighted planks, closed-grip bench, overhead dumbbell/barbell tricep extensions, barbell/preacher curls and, weighted planks. The benefit is, these exercises will ensure that your smaller muscle groups don’t fall too far behind your larger muscle groups in this novice stage. This will ensure that by time you reach the intermediate stage, you won’t be struck with performance issues because of underdeveloped smaller muscle groups.
Replace Back Squats For Box Squats, Front Squats and Sumo/Romanian Deadlifts
The back squat is a pretty damn big component of the starting strength program. Everyone likes to say that the back squat is the best all round builder for quads, glutes and hamstrings. Therefore, why wouldn’t back squats make up one of the main compounds in the starting strength program? Well I will be honest; the true benefits of a back squat are never really fully realized by most novice lifters. Why? Most can’t squat below parallel. In the back squat, most of your hamstring and glute activity will come from below parallel work. Anything to and above parallel will mostly involve predominantly quad activity (and of course your back and core for stability). It’s not a surprise then that most novices just end focusing (mostly not intentionally!) on building their quads during the 6-12 months starting strength period. Not a problem, but if you enter the intermediate stages of weightlifting with only developed quads and no glute and hamstring development, how can you expect to optimally progress further? You can’t! It’s going to be a pretty tough ride! If you ask me, I would always suggest replacing the back squat. If you are not planning on competing in a powerlifting competition, then I can think of much better ways to ensure a better balance between quad, glute and hamstring development than the back squat alone.
“I will be honest; the true benefits of a back squat are never really fully realized by most novice lifters”.
During your 6-12 month novice period, you still want to keep developing your quad size and strength. If not back squats, what replacement am I thinking of? Well for one, front squats. Front squats have been proven to work your quads a heck of lot harder than conventional back squats. Not only this, you generally have to engage your upper back and core to a greater extent to ensure that the weight doesn’t pull you too far forward. In terms of glute and hamstring development, I have always found the sumo and Romanian deadlift variations some of the best compound exercises you can use. If you are looking for pure hip, glute and hamstring activation, you can’t go wrong with sumo and Romanian deadlifts. Finally, I would also consider adding in box squats. Box squats not only teach you proper squat technique, but the fact that you have to sit back further (rather than just dropping directly to the ground) means that your glute and hamstring activity tends to be a lot higher than that of a typical back squat.
Some of you might be thinking: well, if I avoid the back squat for 6-12 months, or I never do the back squat in the novice stage, how can I ever get good at it? Well, this will happen through a combination of the front squat, box squats and sumo and Romanian deadlifts. The box squat will teach you how to squat properly. This technique will carry over to the back squat itself. Moreover, the fact that you are working on the development of your quads (front squat) and hamstrings and glutes (sumo and Romanian deadlifts), means that this performance gain will transfer nicely to your back squat performance.
“The box squat will teach you how to squat properly. This technique will carry over to the back squat itself.”. As the movement patterns and muscle groups worked are very similar, any performance gains realized will be easily transferred and even amplified to your back squat. But, is this really good or actually needed for a novice? Can’t they really just stick with a back squat? Yes, they can. But not if you want to be able to build the most optimal size and strength base that’s going to allow you to perform optimally during the later stages of your weight training. If you were to just focus on the back squat for 6-12 months, the chances are you would end up with muscle imbalance issues (more quad, less glute and hamstring activity) that would ultimately affect your weightlifting performance in the intermediate stages of your journey. If you look at what I am proposing: a combination of box squats, with sumo or Romanian deadlifts, means balanced development of your quads, hamstrings and glutes and proper learning of the squat technique through the box squats themselves. If you ask me, this just seems like a more optimal route for a novice than simply 6-12 months of back squats alone.
Replace Standing Overhead Military Press With Z-Press
The standing military barbell press is pretty common in the starting strength program. Honestly, I would much rather replace this with the sitting down Z-press. It’s exactly the same exercise except rather than standing up, you are now sitting down on the floor (not the seat!). It has to be the floor. That is the whole beauty behind the Z-press. Why do I favor the Z-press? Simple because it does everything the normal standing overhead press does, but better. It’s also harder, way harder! This means that your performance on the Z-press will result in much better gains in performance on the normal overhead press itself.
“Why do I favor the Z-press? Simple because it does everything the normal standing overhead press does, but better.” Look at this way; if you are strong on the Z-press then I can guarantee that you will be much stronger on the standing overhead press. When it comes to the Z-press, not only do you get a great shoulder workout, but you also are constantly forced to engage your core and back to a greater extent. Trust me, when you do it you will know exactly what I mean! My core and back always get wiped out after doing the Z-press. It’s just that good! With the Z-press, you no longer have your feet as a base of support. This means that you are forced to consciously engage your core and back harder in order to prevent yourself from toppling backwards. Not a pretty site! In the normal standing overhead press, this feeling of toppling backwards is smaller because you have your feet for support.
Some of you might be thinking: why the heck would you get a novice to perform a much more advanced version of the standing overhead press? Well, it’s simple. Most people struggle with the standing overhead press not just because of their shoulders, but also because they can’t engage their core or back good enough. A weak back and core will automatically pull your performance right down on any overhead press. With a standing overhead press, because your feet provide the base of support, people are less likely to consciously engage their back and core during the movement. In fact, I see this quite often. People are wiggling all over the place, hyperextending their lower backs and going side to side with their hips.
“A weak back and core will automatically pull your performance right down on any overhead press.” Why? Simply because they lack core and back strength! Trust me, ever since doing the Z-press and learning how to engage my back and core more in an overhead press movement, everything has gone up. Yes, the Z-press is more difficult. But, if a novice can master the Z-press from the get go, then not only will their pressing strength go up in all pressing movements, but they will be able to better engage their core and back. This stronger back and core will only enhance their performance further once they reach the intermediate stages of their weightlifting.
If I consider these reasons, then I think every novice lifter should consider swapping out the standing overhead press for the Z-press. Not only will this have better performance transfer to other pressing movements, it will also teach them to utilize their core and back to a larger extent to carry out ALL pressing movements as efficiently as possible. This will only deliver up positive results when they hit the intermediate stage.
Replace Flat Bench With Floor Press
The flat benchpress is in every starting strength program. But really, it shouldn’t be. Wait, what! No benchpress? Well, hold on a second. Yes, I want you to keep some form of chest press in your routine, but if it’s up to me, I am definitely going to recommend the floor press over the traditional benchpress. Again, unless you want to do a powerlifting competition, there are better methods to your disposal than the flat benchpress. The floor press is one of them. The floor press is pretty much the same movement as the benchpress and emphasizes the main groups (chest, triceps and shoulders).
“Your chest, triceps and shoulders will be hit to a much harder extent during the floor press”. However, there are two main differences: no leg drive and no trying to shorten the ROM by hyperextending your back. The advantage here is that without these two ‘cheating aids’; your chest, triceps and shoulders will be hit to a much harder extent during the floor press. You can expect then that your floor press performance will be amplified during your normal flat benchpress. Not to mention without any leg drive, you have to utilize your upper body in a much more efficient manner to move the weight in the first place. This can result in improved lockout performance (particularly mid range of the movement) and increased upper body power. Both of which will result in a massive carry over to your normal flat benchpress. If you leave it up to me, I would much rather a novice perform the floor press rather than spend 6-12 months doing the normal flat benchpress. Some of you might be wondering: what about incline work for upper chest? As a novice, you don’t need it. The Z-press will take care of that.
Conventional Deadlift/Stiff-Legged Deadlift
Assuming that you now are using a combination of box squats, front squats as well as sumo and/or Romanian deadlifts, the choice of either conventional or stiff-legged deadlifts in your novice program will be up to you. The main consideration here will be emphasis on building up your back strength (especially your spinal erectors). The front squats will take care of your quads while the sumo and Romanian deadlifts and box squats; will develop your glutes and hamstrings. Now, you need to make sure that you are also building up your spinal erectors. Why? Trust me, no back strength will make it impossible to progress on anything in the intermediate stages (especially lockout power). For me, I like to perform stiff-legged deadlifts over conventional. It just feels more natural. For you, it might be conventional. Some people say conventional is harder on the back than the stiff-legged version. But really, I think depends to a large degree on your leverages (limb lengths). I have always found that stiff-legged deadlifts build my spinal erectors really well.
The point is, when choosing between stiff-legged or conventional, the choice should be: which one will give me better growth in my spinal erectors. Only you will be able to make that choice. What about trap-bar deadlifts? In some cases you might replace front squats with these, particularly because trap-bar deadlifts are pretty heavy on the quads (and the back). However, if you already have front squats and you are happy with your progression on these, then stick with them. But, if you find front squats and box squats too much together in your routine, then trap-bar deadlifts can fill the gap for quad development.
Re-Thinking Starting Strength In Its Current Form
Don’t get me wrong; starting strength is a good system for a novice looking to build up a size and strength foundation. However, in its current state I think it’s sub-optimal if you are looking to fully prepare a novice for the intermediate stages of weightlifting. As a result, I think we need to start re-thinking starting strength in its current form. Yes, the overall structure of the program is good but the lack of exercise variation and isolation movement emphasis in the program can really bring potential problems for novices as they enter these later stages of their training. By introducing more exercise variation and slightly more isolation emphasis, I believe novices can benefit from a more balanced foundation in size and strength and less potential weak links (e.g. small muscle groups) that might serve to pull their performance down as they enter the intermediate phases of their weightlifting.
- This represents my modified starting strength scheme. Here, I have replaced back squats out with front squats/box squats (and trap-bar deadlifts if you want to front squats). I have also replaced the flat benchpress with floor press, swapped the overhead standing press for the Z-press, expanded the choice of deadlifts (especially those that emphasize more posterior chain development) and, added in more isolation work to ensure that tricep/bicep development doesn’t lag to far behind the larger muscle groups.
- The reps/sets you can adjust to your liking, but typically I would stick to around 3 sets and keep between 4-6 reps for the main compound movements (to keep volume in check). With the isolation movements, higher rep ranges can be used (but keep sets to around 3, no need for excessive volume!).
- Again, 3 workouts per week and every week alternating between two workout A’s and one workout B and vice versa. Progression is measured by increasing the weight every training session.
If you have any questions about the article or would like to discuss further some of the topics mentioned, then please feel free to leave comments down below. Whats your opinion on the current version of starting strength? What do you think about a change in thinking over starting strength? Let me know!