by Andrew Lewis Starting Strength
The Starting Strength novice progression works when it’s done perfectly. It even works when it’s done sub-optimally. A trainee squats, presses, and deadlifts their first day for sets of five. Two or three days later, they squat, bench, and deadlift. But this session, the weight is heavier. This cycle repeats with weight being added to the bar every session for each exercise. It works for every novice: man or woman, young or old, athletic or not so athletic.
It works so effectively because it accounts for two simple facts:
- An untrained individual can adapt to a stress event quickly.
- Strength training is a process to achieve a specific goal. Most training variables are held constant and one variable is deliberately changed.
This thinking could be applied to almost any program to produce results. This is not to understate the importance of the remaining variables of the SS novice progression. What makes the program work for four months instead of two weeks are the sets, reps, exercise selection, technique, nutrition, rest time, and a host of other details outlined in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. You should absolutely read the book and do the program as outlined as closely as you can. However, the fundamental power of the program is the recognition that an untrained individual can add weight to the bar every two or three days.
Unfortunately, the trainee will detrain if there is too much time between these workouts. The process can be disheartening for trainees who consistently travel for work. They may think that because their lifting schedule is constantly interrupted, there is no point in training. This all-or-nothing thinking is wrong. The starting point for any sub-optimal training is always “do the Starting Strength novice progression as closely as possible, see what happens, and modify based on programming principles.”
Shane, an airline pilot in his late 40s, started training with me in February of 2019. He came in to get stronger and lose some fat. He had not lifted since the 1990s. His intermittent work schedule created a problem to solve.
In the first month of training, his back didn’t bother him as much from sitting on a plane for five hours. Shane steadily increased the weight on the bar over the next five months. Every time he came off of work, he hungrily attacked the barbell and noted how much better his muscles and joints felt afterward. He also lost 14 pounds and an inch off his waist. We ended the novice progression with intermittent light days and a few fun milestone days.
February to August progress
Squat weight from early February to early August
Bodyweight progress with trendline
How We Did It
Shane started with a single session before flying for eight days. He came back and trained for three sessions, then was gone again for seven days. This pattern continued with some favorable weeks – three days flying followed by five lifting sessions. There were also some unfavorable weeks – eleven days flying or on vacation followed by two lifting sessions followed by eight days flying. The average consecutive time without training was 6.5 days. The longest consecutive time without training was eleven days.
Neither of us knew if this was going to work. We started the novice progression like nothing was atypical, but set up a few rules based on my coaching experience and programming knowledge:
- Situation 1: If there were four or fewer days between training sessions, make no modifications.
- Situation 2: If there were five to seven days between training sessions, do the same weight as the previous workout, but with only two work sets.
- Situation 3: If there were eight or more days, do the weight from the workout before last with only two work sets.
Note: We never had more than eleven consecutive days off.
Although expected, we noted that he was relatively sorer following his first day returning to training. This “two steps forward, one step back” approach worked well but needed to be adapted for the upper body lifts.
When he was gone for longer than four days, I had Shane both press and bench his first day back with one or two fewer work sets. For example, the first day back would include squat 2×5, press 2×5, bench 2×5, deadlift 1×5. If the previous workout was particularly slow for one of the upper body lifts, I might have him just do 1×3 for that exercise and then repeat the weight on the next workout for 2×5. This approach of doing both upper-body days on the day back was born out of necessity. I looked at Shane’s schedule, mapped out the workouts, and realized he was going to add about 5 lb to his upper body lifts a month if I didn’t change something. We tried it out, and it worked.
The theory behind the efficacy of this modified approach comes back to Seyle’s General Adaptation Syndrome. It didn’t matter what we did to Shane in the beginning – he was going to get stronger. However, we had to be more careful as we progressed further. Detraining and loss of neuromuscular efficiency became a problem. The solution was to keep the weight as high as we possibly could on the first day. This meant a step backward in some cases. We also kept the volume relatively low; this allowed him to lift heavy weights without causing debilitating soreness. These general concepts spawned the practical decisions.
A trainee with even fewer lifting sessions per work cycle will have to take an even more conservative approach. Do not forget that training while working becomes increasingly attractive the more the trainee works. We may find this unavoidable as we move Shane into intermediate programming.
Shane made five months of strength progress and reduced his back pain by training in a way most would think ineffectual. Even if the schedule cannot be perfect, you should still start with the Starting Strength novice progression. Progress can be made in sub-optimal circumstances.