The more frivolous the subject, the more fervently people will argue about it. This is especially true about fitness. People get so bogged down in the details that they miss the important overarching concepts – the forest for the trees…The foundation of training must be correct before digging deeper into the details.
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I actually find it strange that more hasn’t been written about cluster training recently. There was a period of time there when it was quite popular, but now it seems that it’s fallen back into obscurity, and I have no idea why.
Cluster training is an effective tool to shock your body into new gains, as well as break up the monotony of taking a straight sets approach to your lifting. Beyond that, it’s cool, it’s different, and it’s something that will have the other members of your gym asking you, “What are you doing?”
What Is Cluster Training?
Cluster training involves using short, inter-set rest periods (usually ranging anywhere from 10–30 seconds), which act to allow us to do more reps with a heavier weight.
Note: To help paint a clearer picture of how cluster training works, throughout the article I’m going to use the running example of doing a back squat with your 5RM to explain how it works.
Now, the difference between cluster training and traditional lifting is that in traditional lifting, using our example from above, you’d do your sets of squats for 5 reps, rest for 2-3 minutes between sets, and then move on to the second set.
In cluster training what we do is break that set of 5 reps down into 4 mini-sets of 2 reps, with a 10-15 second break in between each mini-set. This effectively allows us to do 8 reps of squats with our 5RM.
I know that being able to do 3 extra reps doesn’t seem like much at first, but when you realize it equates to a 60% increase in output, you start to notice how effective cluster training can be. By employing clusters into our training in this fashion we can effectively “cheat” a set and perform more reps than we would normally be able to.
What Are the Benefits of Doing Cluster Training?
All of the benefits of cluster training arise from the ability to do more reps with a heavier weight. Whenever you’re able to keep intensity high whilst doing more reps, you’re always going to see an immediate carryover to improvements in strength and muscle gains.
The beauty of cluster training is that you can easily manipulate the sets/reps/rest scheme to make it more biased to inducing strength or hypertrophy gains, depending on what your goal is.
For example, if strength is your main goal, you should aim to keep the load of the movement high (at or above 90% of your 1RM), and the reps low (mini-sets of 1-2 reps), with shorter rests (10-15s).
In the case of hypertrophy, clusters allow you to take a weight that you’d normally use for building strength (i.e. a 5RM), and push the number of reps you can do with it out into the more hypertrophy-friendly reps ranges of 8-12 reps – thereby increasing the total time under tension, and placing a greater degree of mechanical stress placed upon the muscle.
Another benefit of cluster training is its ability to break through strength plateaus. Seeing as most people haven’t been exposed to cluster training methods before, it stands to reason that they will see their biggest benefit from it the first time they do it.
How to Cluster Rest Intervals
There are a number of ways you can set up cluster training (and, as stated earlier, it can be altered to suit your goals), but the crux of the method lies in the short rest intervals between reps, or multiples of reps. Make sure you re-rack the bar when you rest, and utilize the entirety of the rest period – both during and after your set.
Below there are a few sets/reps schemes to get you started. Before we move onto that, it’s important to note that you can utilize cluster training on most exercises, but seeing as we’re looking for mostly strength and muscular gains, it makes sense that the best exercises to use are the bigger, compound barbell exercises.
Okay, let’s look at some ways to set up your cluster training. The first thing you’ll notice is that the set/reps for clusters are written in a weird way. Don’t freak out, they’re quite easy to understand, and I’ve given a detailed explanation on the first example so that you know exactly what you’re doing.
Strength Cluster #1
5(4×2)-10s w/ a 5RM
In this set up you’ll do 5 total clusters (the first number), and each cluster is going to consist of 4 mini-sets of two reps (the bracketed numbers). You’re going to rest 10-seconds in between each mini-set, and you’re going to use around your 5RM in load.
Using our squat example, this is what it’d look like:
- 2 reps @ 5RM, rest for 10-seconds (remember to rack the bar)
- 2 reps, rest 10s
- 2 reps, rest 10 seconds
- 2 reps, rest 2-3 minutes
- Move onto cluster #2
- Repeat as above for clusters 2-5
Strength Cluster #2
5(6×1)-15s w/ a 3-5RM
This follows the same process like the above example, except that you only do a single rep in each mini-set. The slight adjustment in reps allows you to use a heavier load, and make it a little more strength-oriented.
Muscle Gain Cluster #1
5(3×3)-15s w/ a 6RM
Again, this follows in the process as the two examples above, except that in this set up you’re going to do 3 mini-sets each consisting of 3 reps, with a 6RM. This will allow you to do 9 total reps with a 6RM, and skew the training effect more towards gaining muscle.
Muscle Gain Cluster #2
3-4 sets of AMRAP until you hit 15 total reps – 30s w/ 85% of 1RM
In this example, you’re going to find a weight that’s around 85% of your 1RM, and you’re going to do as many reps as you can (without going to complete failure) before racking the bar and resting for 30-seconds. After the short rest, you’re going to again try and get as many reps as you can, before re-racking the bar and resting for another 30-seconds. Continue in this fashion until you hit a total of 15 reps.
Repeat for 3-4 total clusters. Typically you’d hit anywhere from 5-8 reps in your first mini-set, and then have the reps slowly decrease for each subsequent mini-set from there.
I like using clusters because they’re a change of pace from the regular training methods, they’re hard as hell, and they work. Bring them into your next training cycle, and I know that you’ll end up loving them as well.
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Mark Rippetoe answers questions about all the different ways people mess up The Program, deal with injuries, and generally work around life stuff.
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John and Elise Glaze describe their experience training at WFAC, how getting stronger has improved their quality of life, and how they intend to live a long and active life.
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Executive Protection with John Musser; Are You a Spotter or a Panic-Stricken Rep Stealer?; Starting Strength in College Athletics; Simple. Hard. Obviously.; Intro to Pain Science; 10 Essential Quotes for the Strength Trainee; Your Gut, Your Health, and Situps; Trap Bar; Is Practical Programming all you need for life?
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From the Archives: 10 Essential Quotes for the Strength Trainee
by Nick Delgadillo, SSC | November 30, 2019
“You embrace the fear. You love it when it feels heavy. You hate variety. You think people who make up bullshit excuses to justify their desire to do something easier are just scared, and you are not one of them. You are a lifter, and you lift heavy things…”
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Mark Rippetoe and Starting Strength Coach John Musser discuss John's work in the field of executive protection.
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Rip has been notoriously critical of Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches. Probably, to some extent, for good reason. We can be our own worst enemy. Just pull up some of the outrageous YouTube videos of the circus acts performed in the weight room or the clown shows prior to football games. However, there are also a lot of good, hard working, knowledgeable people in the profession, working their asses off, staying behind the scenes, putting their athletes first, doing some great work. It is my aim to promote some of these people. A few of these people even implement the Starting Strength methodologies into their programs.
To my knowledge, there are not many collegiate strength coaches doing so. Tom DiStasio SSC, was my former assistant for over 7 years, and is currently the Head Strength Coach at Morgan State. He uses the methodology, and is one of the best strength coaches I have ever encountered. He will be the subject of a future interview. Josh Jirgal is my former assistant, and currently Head Strength Coach at UT Permian Basin, and is starting to implement the program. Jennifer Pfohl also uses the methods as my assistant at Sacramento State.
There are others that I have not worked with directly or recently, but are using the methodology and implementing it in the collegiate setting. I wanted to learn more about how they are using the program and their experiences with it, and I figured you might also. The strength coaches I spoke to are Nate Moe, Amanda Sheppard, and John Norcott.
Nate Moe is currently the Assistant Athletic Director for Strength and Conditioning at South Dakota State. He has served as the Head Strength Coach there since 2005, with previous stops at Eastern Illinois, Rice University, and the University of Texas. He holds the MSCC credential and is a board member for the CSCCa organization. I first met Coach Moe in 2008 while I was working at Southern Illinois University, and we played them in football – I think we beat them that first year, and then they proceeded to kick our butts the next 2 years. You knew you were going to have to buckle your chinstrap and bring your lunch pail when you played his teams. I have the utmost respect for Coach Moe and his program. His teams are big, strong, and physical, and you can tell they value the weight room.
Amanda Sheppard is the Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at Northern Illinois University, where previously she served as a Graduate Assistant and competed in Softball. Amanda also worked for me as an Assistant at Sacramento State for 2 years. She holds the SCCC and CSCS certifications. By the time of this publication, she will have moved on from the University setting to pursue a career with the Starting Strength Franchise Gyms. Amanda was one of the finest coaches I have had the pleasure of working with in my 20 years – no nonsense, a very good technical eye, excellent floor presence, extremely sharp, and a huge proponent of the Starting Strength methodology. I am very much looking forward to working with her again at Starting Strength Denver.
John Norcott is currently the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Southwestern University. He has served as the Head Strength Coach there since 2018, with previous stops at Wayne State University, Wofford College, the Buffalo Bills, Eastern Michigan, and Harvard. He is SCCC and CSCS certified. John is also an elite powerlifter with five National Championships in the USAPL. He holds multiple Massachusetts State and New England Regional records. The Starting Strength movements have been a staple for him during his training the past 4 years. He has significantly adjusted his approach to powerlifting and his training due to the SS methods. I first met John 2.5 years ago when I interviewed him for an assistant position here at Sacramento State. Typical university politics factored into the process and we did not end up hiring John, which was a huge mistake, but I came away very impressed with him and have kept in contact since. I am very happy to see that he is having success and running his own program.
The following is our roundtable discussion.
Jared: Thank you all for joining us. First off, I am curious how and when each of you came across Starting Strength?
Nate Moe: I remember buying and reading the first edition of Practical Programming for Strength Training shortly after it was published. I cannot say I had a great understanding of the program at that time. I am not sure exactly how or when I became aware of Starting Strength but I do remember knowing about the program and website as early as 2010. We began using some basic concepts of a linear progression with our freshman redshirt football players shortly after that but I could not/would not call it “The Starting Strength method.”
Amanda Sheppard: I first came across Starting Strength, in particular, after my interview with Sacramento State back in the summer of 2015. After my interview, the coaching staff stressed their use of the methodology with the athletes and insisted on the importance of me diving into the books as soon as possible. Prior to that, I had read Practical Programming for Strength Training 2nd Edition during my graduate assistant position at NIU.
John Norcott: I was about 3 years into the profession of strength and conditioning when I got a chance to hang out with my former strength coach at his house. We were talking shop and I was asking him questions when he threw the book, “Strong Enough?” at me. Told me to read it and then read Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. This was back in 2015. It has been a total game changer in my approach ever since.
Jared: What was your initial reaction when you first started diving into the Starting Strength methodology? Were you sold on it immediately? Did you pass it off and pick it up later? Did you try it on yourself first, etc.?
NM: I remember agreeing with much of what I read and I was already sold on basic barbell training. I loved the simplicity of it all, but also the depth and complexity of reasons behind the method. Early on, I thought I understood it but I truly did not. I am sure I still have a lot to learn. Of course, I felt I was “trained” so I jumped right into a Texas method with myself and I was already in my mid 30’s. That was a rough start and I have since done an LP and modified Texas method with myself with much greater success in my mid 40’s. It did shift my thinking with our redshirt football players, in that we would use it for their initial program and progression.
We followed a basic linear progression of increasing the weight each week, but early on we still used a high-bar and front squat. In addition, we used a lot more variety in our exercises in those early days.
With our volleyball team, I utilize the LP with our freshman when they arrive, whether that is in the summer where we follow a 3x/week A/B linear progression for about 8 weeks, or in fall camp where we utilize a 2x/week A/B program. During their in-season, I only have them twice per week and the second workout is one day before they compete. This has meant that we have to make some modifications, but we still have had significant success in improving strength in-season with our freshman volleyball players.
AS: After reading the books post-interview, I immediately attempted to start training with the methodology and began a NLP over the summer to prepare myself for coaching after being offered and accepting the position at Sac State. This progressed over a choppy 4 weeks with different events, and the stress of moving across the country. Also, this attempt was all on my own. After arriving on campus I received some initial coaching from Jared and Tom DiStasio, two SSCs, in order to better understand and implement the method with myself. I was able to train for about another 4 weeks before my athletes were on campus. At that point, I was thrown into the fire of coaching it with my athletes, as well as assisting with the football team. It consisted of constantly watching the videos for teaching progressions and hearing the lifts taught every chance I got. I was definitely sold, not only with my athletes but also personally, with how I knew it worked myself.
JN: My first initial thought was, “Why is no one doing this?” I could not believe it. I was never taught how to squat, press, or pull in any of the ways that the book says. Therefore, two things clicked for me. The first was, even though this seems like the best way, there are definitely other ways to do it. The second was, I already did it all the other ways, so I’ll try this way. I was not sold right away until I tried it all for myself. Once I tried it on myself and over time saw dramatic changes in my technique as well as overall health, I knew this is what I needed in my life for longevity.
Jared: How did each of you start to implement it? At Sacramento State, we use all of the technical models for Squat, Deadlift, Clean, Bench, and Press. We also use an LP when we can, obviously adjusted for our specific situation. We have used modified versions of the Texas Method with good success also. We went all in, taught everything, all at once. We quit high-bar and front squatting initially, so as not to interfere with learning the low-bar squat.
NM: Our use of the Starting Strength techniques has been a progression over several years. In 2015, our redshirt scheduled lifts were on Monday night, and Tuesday and Thursday mornings. Because of that schedule, we performed a predominantly lower body lift on Monday night, a predominantly upper body lift on Tuesday and then a total body lift on Thursday. At that time we squatted 2 days per week, one was a front squat and one was a low-bar squat. We did use a 3×5 linear progression watching the last set and increasing 5 lb for the next workout. At that time, we were not using the technical model to teach the lifts.
Early on in my career, I did not use the Deadlift with my athletes. My thought was that the back squat was our lower body strength exercise and that our time would be better used focusing on Olympic lift variations instead of the deadlift. In my exposure to Starting Strength, I began using the deadlift in my own training. I noticed that not only was my back stronger but I had much less or no back pain.
Also in 2015, one of my graduate assistants began using the SS LP and then Texas Method with one of our male cheerleaders. His success and improvement inspired me and the rest of the staff to look into it even closer. Then in 2016, I had a student athlete who was off-campus for an entire semester and would not be participating in spring football practice. This allowed me to train him using a LP and then a Texas method for the entire semester. He had significant improvement over that time even though he was training on his own.
In 2016, one of my assistants (Adam Parsons, now at Colorado State) convinced me to low-bar squat the football redshirts 2x/week instead of using the front squat. We still had the same 3-day lifting schedule of Monday, Tuesday & Thursday. Additionally, 2016 is when we started deadlifting our redshirts.
In 2017, I convinced our head FB coach to allow our redshirts to train on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, which allowed us to use a 3-day total-body program and follow the Starting Strength model more closely. I remember telling my assistants that since we would have them low-bar squatting 3x/week, they might stall out sooner so we would need to be ready to make the modifications earlier. I could not have been more wrong. Hitting this 48-hour stress, recovery, adaptation cycle allowed them to continue to progress and get stronger for a much longer time. Low-bar squatting 3x/week and having them lifting on a Monday, Wednesday, and Friday schedule worked so well, our redshirts kept progressing throughout our entire fall in-season period, which included a deep FCS playoff run to the Semifinals.
Including our fall camp training period, it was a 21-week linear progression. We saw our redshirts get stronger than any previous class of freshman. On average, we saw a 6 lb increase in lean body mass as measured using the Sloan formula and skin caliper measurement. We also saw an average increase of 2.5 inch vertical jump improvement. We did no plyometrics. The only explosive training we did were variations of the Olympic lifts.
We had a 6’8” offensive lineman that asked me, “Doesn’t the low-bar back squat hurt your back?” when we were teaching them the lifts. I informed him that though the low-bar requires a more horizontal back angle, it will not hurt your back. If you use the back musculature to stabilize the spine in a neutral position and use the Valsalva maneuver to assist that stabilization and progress through a steady slow linear progression, it will strengthen the musculature of the back as well as the legs.
This 6’8” offensive lineman told me his best set of five in high school was 315 and his best 1RM was 375 lb. During fall camp they only lifted 2x/week, and since he had not been here in the summer we used that time to teach him the lifts. In September, we began the 3x/week Monday/Wednesday/Friday lifting schedule. In week seven of his LP he did 3×5 at 145 kg (319 lb). I remember watching him complete a workout shortly after that where it was really tough and I thought we would have to add a light day soon. Then with adjusting his nutrition, sleep, and rest time between sets, he just took off and was able to keep progressing 3x/week.
He progressed another 5 weeks on 3×5, and finished his 3×5 with 182.5 kg (402 lb), 25 lb above his previous all-time 1RM. At the end of our playoff run, he hit 3 singles at 207.5 kg (457 lb) over 80 lb above his previous 1RM from high school. Later in off-season training his freshman year he squatted 500 lb. Again, he is a 300 lb offensive linemen, but he is also 6’8”.
We now use the SS technical model to teach the lifts as well as follow a LP slightly modified. We have used a 4-day split Texas method in our off-season training with football. In the summer training phase, we utilized an Intensity Cycle Texas Method on a four-day split. We used this off-season format for several years now with our football team.
AS: I attempt to use each aspect of the methodology with my athletes, sometimes needing to modify it based on their frequency in the weight room and the inclusion of what sport coaches deemed “sport specific” movements into the program. At Sacramento State, as well as Northern Illinois University, I started each of my teams on a NLP with the four main barbell lifts – Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, Press – with later inclusion of the Power Clean, Power Jerk, and Power Snatch. Each team I worked with learned the low-bar squat and “high hips” variation of the pull from the ground for the deadlift and power clean. Depending on the team, I decided whether to teach the hip bounce in the press or keep a more strict variation. All freshmen each successive year start with a workout A/B format for as long as possible, with the inclusion of a row variation and a chin-grip lat pulldown. I worked mainly with female teams and found that I could continue for a decent period of time – maybe another 4-6 weeks – with a 3×5 work set scheme before changing to 3×3 work sets. With returning athletes that had been training with me for at least a year, I utilize a modified version of Texas Method (Intensity Day and Volume Day) with their off-season training. While some aspects were modified, I generally used every aspect of the SS Model I could with my teams. However, inconvenient breaks in the academic schedule or changes in a team’s training schedule (added voluntary or mandatory hours) always required strategic modification to address the Stress/Recovery/Adaptation cycle, the underpinnings of the SS method.
JN: For me, as a one-man wrecking crew with 515 student athletes in a 2,000 square foot facility and no help whatsoever, I rely on pure strength-based movements as discussed in Starting Strength. Once I develop a good base of motor pattern development as well as strength, then I incorporate the clean and other variations of triple extension for training power. I love the utilization progression for squatting with the tennis ball under the chin as well as the squat stretch. I also am a big proponent of the rule of 5s.
Jared: I guess we should let each of you clarify what “Starting Strength” means. What aspects of the methodology are each of you using in your program?
NM: To me, Starting Strength is an exquisitely simple progression but a complex and detailed teaching method to improve strength. We now use the technical model to teach the Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, and Press. We have taught the freshman using the SS technical model for the Squat, Deadlift, Press, and Bench Press for 3 years. We utilize the Press 1.0 and Press 1.5 but I have not taught the Press 2.0. We use a slightly modified LP. We use an 3x/week A/B schedule. We squat and deadlift every workout initially and alternate the press and bench press. After about 3-4 weeks, we introduce the power clean and alternate it with the deadlift. We will utilize a rowing exercise on the bench press day and a chin-up on the press day. We will also use an RDL or Glute/Ham Raise on the power clean day.
AS: As I said before, I was introduced to SS at Sacramento State with two Starting Strength coaches on staff. We implemented all of the models for the main barbell exercises as well as Power Clean, Power Snatch, and Power Jerk being team-dependent. After my transition to Northern Illinois University, I implemented the Starting Strength model with each of my teams (softball and women’s basketball) from scratch as soon as I got on campus, and eventually picked up volleyball and went through the same process with them as well. Each team was a little different, because softball (3x/week) was starting in the off-season, as was volleyball (4x/week). However, women’s basketball was in their “pre-season” stretch so I was limited in the amount of time I was going to be able to spend with them in an LP. I was able to get in about 6 weeks of decent training, but was able to start the full program in the spring post-season with them.
After my time at Sac State, I had completely adopted the Starting Strength methodology and principles as my philosophy of training. The reason I try to utilize every aspect of Starting Strength is because I think the overall concept is an approach to barbell strength that addresses exactly that – strength. It is a general approach to strengthening the athlete as a whole, and if applied correctly it will progressively make the athlete strong, and when strength is increased it increases all other physical qualities that go with it (i.e. Power, Speed, and Endurance). To me, it’s crazy that this is not a more widely accepted model in strength training.
JN: I slowly started the implementation. I will say that I do not teach the SS Method to a T, but the BIG components of how to perform each exercise is what I focus on. However, with the level of athletic ability my athletes have, as well as the number of athletes I coach at once, I mix in things from previous years of experience to help along the process. All my strength-based teams low-bar squat. No team does front squats or high-bar. The only time I have my athletes front squat is after they catch the clean and that is purely to help them developing the feel of catching the barbell low and having the strength to stand up. Some weaker individuals start with simple push-ups or dumbbells if they are unable to bench press or military press the barbell. Once I feel the athletes are capable of squatting consistently, hinging properly, and developing some strength, then I will progress them to the clean.
Jared: Have you noticed any changes in training results or performance (objectively or subjectively) since implementing the SS philosophy?
NM: This current year with our freshman football players, we had 21 athletes show up in June. We tested their body composition and then tested again the last week of October. Many of the guys have progressed to needing a light day on squat, and several are on sets of 3. On average, those 21 guys have added 8.4 lb of lean body mass and lost 4.76 lb of body fat. The linear progression is the fastest way to get strong, but “slow cooking” the progress allows that progression to continue. Our freshmen are getting a lot stronger than previous classes by the slow steady progression of 3x/week.
AS: I think the main results I have noticed, objectively, are 1.) the effectiveness of the teaching progressions for the main lifts throughout all the sports I have worked with. Very rarely do I have an athlete that does not understand the movement progression systematically in order to perform it correctly. 2.) The fact that the movements are just about as all-inclusive as you can get, and are applicable to everybody. You will notice if you learn and follow the model of the lift, almost every athlete of any anthropometry can effectively perform the movements. And there is always room for modifications in special circumstances. 3) By meeting the three criteria (most muscle mass, most effective ROM, to move most weight) each of the athletes I have worked with has progressed for a significant period of time, even the ones who “didn’t want to lift heavy.”
In my career, I have followed the Starting Strength Method since becoming a full-time strength coach, so my comparison with other systems for changes in training results or performance would be difficult to specify. My time spent as a graduate assistant was very much about finding what worked for my athletes, keeping them safe throughout their time in the weight room, and also keeping the coaches happy so as to not ruffle any feathers while just beginning my career. However, prior to my adoption of the SS Method I personally trained with a high-bar squat variation, lower hip pull (deadlift, clean), and rarely barbell pressed. After my time as an athlete, athletic trainers told me that I would never (or should never) squat again because I have practically no menisci in my knees. I continued to do so because of the career I had chosen, but I will say that I have never felt as strong as I do now since beginning SS in 2015.
I would say the biggest change has been overall back strength. On top of that, my knees have held up well. The occasional ache here and there, but I would say the overall strength in the musculature surrounding my knees has helped tremendously. I owe a lot to Jared Nessland and Tom DiStasio for showing me the light.
JN: I have definitely noticed a change in training results and performance. The kids are healthier, so they are able to perform more consistently. Whether they win or lose is not something I can control, but the best athletes on our teams are able to be on the field of play longer, to give them a better chance of winning. Claims and surgeries have decreased across the board by 85% within one year. Read that again, as it’s very important. Also, the athletes are easier to coach and improve because they understand the simple coaching cues in the big movements. Therefore, relationship-wise, it has allowed my athletes to trust me and me to trust them. Not to mention that every athlete has gotten stronger across the board. In big or small amounts, all the athletes I train have gotten stronger. There are many factors that play into that, but the SS model has definitely helped me coach a large number of athletes using a simple approach to increase their strength and conditioning.
Jared: What was been the reaction from the coaches and athletes? I know here, we do not really say “Starting Strength” and have quit saying the words “low-bar.” Instead just saying back squat. It’s just not worth the trouble trying to justify something they do not understand and will not try to. We just have to battle the occasional coach watching a workout and telling the athlete to look up during squats! The athletes just know we back squat differently than they were taught in high school.
NM: I have not really explained a lot of it to our coaches, but I do explain it to our student athletes. I tell them that we will teach you a little different way to do the barbell exercises than you have probably learned before. The linear progression is a very simple and effective tool to improve strength, but it also becomes a test of mental fortitude to push through and complete the 3 sets of 5. I preach that the athletes need to take responsibility for their effort. I will help motivate them as needed, but I will not yell and scream and act like a clown to try to get them “hyped up.” They need to put in the effort even when they feel tired. In today’s culture, I think the linear progression has helped improve our effort, focus, and fortitude.
I have had some skill-position players who think this should just be a program for linemen but not for them, because they do not enjoy the heavy lifting. I explain to them that strength will help every position and make them more resistant to injury. I know the redshirt LP has become a rite of passage and guys will look back a year later and watch the new class of freshmen do it and talk about how hard it was. Anecdotally, I have seen that freshmen who do not redshirt and thus are not able to complete the full LP are never as strong, and I have seen many of these guys end up being hurt 2 years into their career.
AS: After initially addressing the differences in the movements, I have not really addressed it again with my coaches. They understand my appreciation for the barbell lifts and understand that I am a barbell-oriented coach. I think across the board it is always “mixed reviews” depending on the time of year. They like it in the off-season when they see athletes are getting strong and moving some weight well, but they feel as though the barbell lifts are not as “necessary” at certain times throughout the season.
As for the athletes, I like to believe, for the most part, that the reaction is always positive. After the initial introduction to the movements which always includes a learning curve and unlearning any bad habits/technical errors they learned in high school or with a previous coach, they typically feel as though they are getting stronger and “using more muscles” or “using muscles they never have before.” That being said, I think there is always a spectrum in collegiate athletics: some athletes love the grind and love to train, and others only enjoy the sports-practice aspect of their collegiate experience.
JN: I say “low-bar squats” all the time. I call it how I see it. I even say we low-bar squat because we squat low…with a bar! There has been great buy-in from the athletes. Everyone understands the difference and they can certainly feel it as well. No coaches give me any issues with my exercises or progressions. Many athletes who have had knee problems no longer have knee problems. Kids with lower back problems no longer have issues because now their backs are actually strong. My baseball and softball players’ shoulder health has been amazing. I managed to decrease the amount of money in claims for injuries and surgeries across the board by 85% in one year, though I still have yet to see a penny of the money saved in claims in my paycheck!
Jared: Why do you think Starting Strength has not caught on and become more popular in collegiate strength and conditioning?
NM: There are many reasons why it has not caught on. Some of them are related to the reasons Rip criticizes the collegiate S&C profession. I mentioned above that some skill players think this program should be for linemen but not for them. There has always been the idea in athletics that if you are asking an athlete to lift heavy weights with barbells then you are “trying to make them into a powerlifter.” Additionally, S&C coaches need to keep the sport coach happy, and that can result in less-than-optimal training. In an attempt to keep the coach or athlete happy, enter”train”ment can happen. But I think the biggest reason is that it seems too simple. Everyone wants to seem smart and no one wants to miss out on some new form of training. Coaches see others using big words and complex exercises and periodization schemes. They look around at fancy exercises, and believe they need to use them as well or they will fall behind, or be perceived as “just doing what they did in the “80s.”
AS: I think one main reason is that you have to be all-in with your teaching progressions and programming. To me, if you adopt the model and teach it all right off the bat, it becomes more efficient to teach with each incoming class, because the expectations have already been set. In addition, you are dealing with an array of different stresses in collegiate athletics – whether we care to admit it or not, we are not the only stress on the athlete’s body. They endure upwards of 3-4 hour practices that consist of sport skills and more often than not conditioning or workouts of some sort implemented by the sport coaches.
This has a major effect on their recovery and ultimately their progression through the program; however, there are ways to implement this with athletes appropriately. It just takes some manipulation and a solid coaching eye to do so. I think some strength coaches try to find an appropriate way to marry all of these stresses, so they end up sacrificing things that would help strengthen their athletes and prevent injury. I also believe that sometimes we are afraid for our athletes to push through or grind through a set fearing injury, or athletes saying you “made them sore.” I think that dampens the collegiate strength coach’s ability to apply a new strength stress to the athlete, so they err on the side of variation or complexity. I think given the time to understand the Starting Strength model they would see the basic and general theme of the method: making athletes stronger and more resilient.
JN: With decades of research and application from various strength professionals there are many things young collegiate strength coaches read about and want to implement. I am a big believer in not coaching an exercise you are unable to perform correctly yourself. Many young coaches will try multiple variations of training as they read about each one – HIIT, Starting Strength, Velocity Based, etc. But ultimately it is the person who is going to be coaching the movement that should feel comfortable teaching it. Getting younger coaches to read and learn about Starting Strength would certainly help this profession. A lot of young strength coaches just fall into the system in which they developed.
For a young strength coach who grew up playing football, did a bodybuilding split in high school, got to college and had a strength coach who was more HIIT-based, graduates, goes on to do an internship with the same strength coach, and then finally moves on to be an assistant or head strength coach at a different school, chances are they are going to coach athletes using the same model of bodybuilding mixed with some HIIT. Young coaches tend to mimic what they already know until they either get fired or check their ego to learn more forms and styles of training athletes. I certainly think we should get the Starting Strength book into young coaches hands, the earlier the better. That’s what I do with my interns at Southwestern.
Jared: What obstacles have you encountered implementing the program, either with the types of athletes you get or in a big group setting?
NM: It can be hard to implement the LP with a large group if you do not have enough coaches to get around and see everyone’s last set. We are able to use it with our FB freshman because we will have 4-5 coaches on the floor. That may not be possible with a large swim team because there may be only 1 or 2 coaches on the floor. Other obstacles can be like I mentioned previously there is a perception that you are trying to make the student-athlete into a powerlifter. This can come from the athletes themselves or the coaches. Additionally, there can be a motivation obstacle: often the athlete loves playing the sport but does not enjoy training for the sport. In today’s social media quick fix, short attention span culture the monotony of squatting three times per week and always doing the same thing can lead to a motivation challenge.
AS: I think the most difficult obstacle I’ve encountered are the breaks in the academic schedule or voluntary periods of training where you are not able to continue the progression with the athletes. You will always have a group of athletes that come in voluntarily or stick around during breaks; those are usually a rarity in college. But they will be a big help in determining the best course of action for the majority when they return to campus.
As far as implementing the program with different types of athletes, I work primarily with female sports and you will sometimes get the age-old objection that “I don’t want to lift too much because I don’t want to get bulky.” It will always be an uphill battle, convincing some female athletes that the structure of the program is strength and they are not performing the volume or doing the “outside activities” necessary to put on a great deal of muscle mass.
As far as a group setting, I like to perform “watch” sets on their last work set of the movement in order to progress them appropriately during the phase they are in. This requires a great amount of coaching during their work sets before in order to ensure that the sets prior to their last, when my eyes are on them, all look the same. This, more often than not, requires a superset/triple in order to help the athletes finish the whole workout while they rest for their watch set. Not an ideal situation, but necessary for the environment I work in.
JN: As I have mentioned before, I am a one-man wrecking crew in charge of 515 student athletes within 2,000 square feet of space. The biggest group I train at a time is about 50 athletes and the smallest is about 12 athletes. There are many challenges I face when dealing with that many athletes in a small space – I average anywhere from 25-35 athletes at a time in the weight room. I have found it necessary to use other avenues, like the bodyweight squat stretch with a tennis ball under the chin, more than some other coaches who have a better situation than I do. The amount of equipment, the layout of the room, and time I have with each team does not always allow me to progress as fast as I would like. Some athletes pick up the coaching quicker, but others are not able to.
I also don’t like to move on from one teaching progression to another unless everyone is on the same page. This is due to the lack of supervising eyes I have in the weight room besides myself, which is none. The types of athletes I have are just slightly more advanced than a good high school football program produces. A lot of the athletes have zero training experience when they come in as freshmen. Some athletes from sports like football, basketball, softball, baseball, or maybe lacrosse have some idea about weight training. Most of the ones that do only like bench pressing and curls. I’d say maybe a handful of kids had an actual strength coach in their high school, who sometimes did more harm than good. I walk around a lot and coach the athletes quickly, using one or two coaching points each week. I hammer on the bigger issues, then work towards the smaller ones as they develop the pattern.
Is it ideal? Absolutely not. Has it worked for me? Absolutely. One last note, the athletes do not stick around in the summer. Including breaks during the academic year and summertime, the athletes have a total of about 5 months of unsupervised work, where I rely on them to continue their training with the program I give them. So, long-term consistent training is a problem. Imagine if every other month every company in the world just stopped working. Nothing would ever progress much, and that’s what I have to work with.
Jared: Thanks everyone for taking time out of your busy schedules and giving us a look into a collegiate strength program. Good luck this year!
Discuss in Forums
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Starting Strength Coach and Doctor of Physical Therapy Will Morris introduces pain science during a lecture at the Nutrition and Rehab Camp held at WFAC in October 2019.
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November 25, 2019
- The NEW Starting Strength Poster is out! Drawn by SS:BBT3 illustrator Jason Kelly, it’s a new and updated explanation of the importance of Strength as the primary contributor to Performance and Life: See in store
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From the Coaches
In the Trenches
Lala Duncan takes Angel Blount through the squat teaching method during the Squat Coach Development Camp held at Fivex3 Training in Baltimore. [photo courtesy of Nick Delgadillo]
Michael Boyle coaches Eric Strong at the same event. [photo courtesy of Nick Delgadillo]
Best of the Week
I was just reading over a quote of yours on why 5s are so useful, where you give the extremes of 1s and 20s as an example on both sides of the spectrum.
You end by saying: “Sets of five reps are a very effective compromise for the novice, and even for the advanced lifter more interested in strength than in muscular endurance. They allow enough weight to be used that force production must increase, but they are not so heavy that the cardiovascular component is completely absent from the exercise. Sets of five may be the most useful rep range you will use over your entire training career, and as long as you lift weights, sets of five will be important.”
I was just wondering if this means sets of 1 (more realistically sets of 1-3 only) could be used exclusively for the trainee only concerned with strength when it comes to lifting. Could a combination of only training singles, doubles, and sometimes triples, (and never 4s and 5s) produce better and quicker pure strength gains than 5s?
Also, I’d like to know how useful the “muscular endurance” you mentioned is to a lifter who just wants to be strong? What is muscular endurance really, and what is practical real-world use and translation of it? If someone could get very strong never going above 3s, what would they lack by not having the muscular endurance higher reps train?
I’m wondering if a good combination for someone who just wants to be strong and somewhat cardio-conditioned could be training exclusively with singles, doubles, and occasional triples and then running some sprints or pushing the prowler once a week or so. The shorter lifting sets would lack the cardio component I feel on sets of 5, but I feel the sprints produce a similar cardio feeling and could train that aspect. The only gap I see and am unsure about is that I see how the sprints are not really training “muscular endurance” and only cardiovascular endurance. Does this mean this type of setup/combination would leave some detrimental gap in training?
Or maybe there is something I am missing entirely in regard to volume and muscle-building that helps with strength gains that 5s are more helpful for?
Maybe. Try it and see. Most people train for the overall effects of the program. You may be different. Try it and see.
Seems to me that since 5s provide all the cardiovascular work you need for just walking-around health, you’d just do the 5s. But if you want to reinvent the wheel, try it and see.
Maybe you’re missing the part about the millions of people over the past 100 years who have tried every permutation of training and have concluded that 5s are the best rep-range for strength and conditioning.
Mark E. Hurling
I am currently using an old school Hepburn routine with sets of singles increasing from 6 to 10 with deload/dynamic effort/speed sets interspersed every 3 weeks. It hasn’t hurt my VO2 max any, I test in the 38-42 range which is way up in the excellent end of the scale for the 65+ geezers. My heart rate hovers in the 70-80% range during these lifting sessions. I do back it up with several other days per week of straight conditioning work as well, so it may not be an apples to apples comparison for what you are looking at. I have no idea if my age (69) is a factor in this.
Maybe getting or borrowing a heart rate monitor for some lifting sessions might give you some data to look at for yourself.
Cool, glad to hear I’m not way off with this line of thinking. Gonna try it out and see. Truth be told, I just really enjoy lifting in the 1-3 rep range allot more then 5s and when I read your quote about lower reps being best for straight up force production (or strength) that’s what got me thinking about this. I go for a walk everyday anyway and don’t mind throwing in some sprints here and there to keep cardio up. So this way of training just sounds great to me. Excited to apply it and try it out.
It seems you know more about how to set up low-rep set type training then me; I have to look into this more (or experiment) and figure out how much volume I need to make progress. I’ll look into Hepburn routine. Thanks!
I was just talking about this the other day. The only problem when you do reps of 1-2-3 is it is hard to add weight because it is so close to your 1RM. If I’m doing a work out of 5×5 at 70% ish it is easy to add 5ish pounds almost every week for a long period. If I’m doing a work out at lets say five heavy singles or 3×5 at 95% or 85% of my 1RM it is going to be almost impossible to add any weight for more than a few weeks.
You do need a combination of both. Several weeks of 5s followed by a few weeks of 3s followed by a peaking phase. It is covered pretty well in Practical Programming.
Yes, if you’re an advanced lifter.
This is what I don’t really understand – why are you not able to keep adding weight? I read practical programming, but I don’t think I fully grasp the concepts of volume and intensity and why they are both needed. Also, balancing workload with recovery.
I think about Rip’s famous suntan analogy – you need more stress each time for more results – and then about his quote on 1-20 reps and low reps being best for straight up force production. So if I come in and do 315×2 then my body needs to recover from that stress and make it stronger for next session where I should be able to do 317.15 or 320×2. Why do we eventually hit a wall where this cannot go on any further?. I really don’t know. Obviously you’re not gonna come in just do 1 set of 2 reps and get up to a 700 pound squat…but I really don’t know why. I think it’s because you need more volume to create more stress, but not so much that you can’t recover from it. But, I don’t really know why we need the volume and why intensity is not enough.
So my plan for now is that Im gonna just do 1 double and see if I can add weight the next session. If I can’t, I will do 2 doubles, the 3 for more volume. I want to experiment with this and do the minimum amount of sets to keep making strength gains. I’m going to train exclusively in the 1-3 rep range because I prefer it and it seems it is best for pure strength gains which is all I care about when lifting weights. I can get my conditioning pushing the prowler or sprinting once a week.
I get the feeling that I’m missing something with this line of thinking, but Im gonna test it out and see how it works.
If someone could explain why we need volume (or point me in that direction) that would be really cool. Thank you.
Maybe you’re missing the part about the millions of people over the past 100 years who have tried every permutation of training and have concluded that 5s are the best rep-range for strength and conditioning.
I hear you Rip; sets of 5 are the best rep range for strength AND Conditioning – it’s like an extremely efficient jack of all trades rep range, nothing else needed to get both strong and conditioned for most. I see you’re not a fan of trying to separate these components, whereas I am – just a personal preference. I was thinking I could make the strength training component even more focused on pure strength gains and just do the conditioning work on another day – this only came to mind after reading your quote that lower reps are best for pure strength (but sacrifice the conditioning component – I hear you loud and clear on this). But like I said, since I personally wouldn’t mind separating them (and would even enjoy it) it is something I would be willing to experiment with. I’m gonna go with your first comment to try it out and see how it works out. Thanks again.
Best of the Forum
Training after a bend
I picked up a vestibular bend last weekend on a dive. It was on a conservative dive profile, so I am very likely to have a PFO. I had a week in the pot; and now I have recovered. I fancy getting back under a barbell later today. It feels wise to reset and take it easy for a week or two. Other than this, is anyone aware of any restrictions this could place on my lifting, either over the shorter or longer term?
You’ll have to explain to us rubes how you know that a patent foramen ovale is the cause of your decompression problems.
The diving docs think a PFO is very likely. I saw a few; they were unanimous.
My bend was in the inner ear. (I believe the area affected is actually the cerebellum rather than the ear fluids.) The most likely explanation for my bend is that nitrogen rich blood shunted through the PFO to the arterial blood. It’s not 100% that this was the cause; however this bend type, if there was a conservative dive profile, is highly correlated with PFOs.
I will get a test at some point.
I’d like to hear about why you think that nitrogen saturation has a gradient within the circulatory system. Is it being sequestered by some mechanism I don’t know about?
I am not an expert on decompression theory. With that caveat, my understanding is:
My dive was to 31m. I was breathing air. At this depth, the pressure is roughly 4 atmospheres. Air is roughly 79% nitrogen, so I was breathing in nitrogen at around 3.2 time atmospheric pressure. The tissues would still contain nitrogen at roughly .79 atmospheres’ pressure.
So at this point of the dive, I was on- gassing. My tissues were absorbing pressurised nitrogen. Different tissues absorb and release nitrogen at different rates. (My dive computer uses a common algorithm which assumes 16 tissue compartments, all with different half lives for absorption.)
Later, I slowly ascended. Then my tissues started to off-gas. So the tissues absorb oxygen from the blood, and off-gas the pressurised nitrogen they absorbed earlier. So the venal blood contains micro-bubbles of nitrogen from the off-gas get process.
My bend happened 40 minutes after the dive. Arterial blood at this point should come straight from the lungs, so be oxygen rich and have few (if any) nitrogen bubbles. However, my slower tissue compartments were still off-gassing, and so the venal blood was nitrogen rich.
Following the shunt, the arterial blood gas nitrogen by bubbles, all hell breaks loose and the bubbles become big.
It’s an interesting question. Without the PFO, bubbles formed on the venous side would get filtered by the lungs. With the PFO, they can enter cerebral circulation. Bubbles formed on the arterial side will likely stick where they form (joints, tissues) and not come back to wind up in the brain.
At least, I think so. Tough research to do and a lot of it is modelling. Sample sizes of actual subjects are usually small. Like this tiny series: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27334999
But I am interested in the question of lifting weights after decompression illness. I haven’t thought about that, opinions there would be welcome.
Got it. The pressure causes the gradient due to abnormal absorption in the tissues. Sounds to me like your PFO was benign when you were training before, and it will be benign when you train now. The bubbles are gone, right? Just don’t train at 4 atmospheres.
Sounds reasonable. I will lift later today.
It’s always the sports and activities in the z-axis that get you.
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