by Brent J Carter, SSC Starting Strength
With the popularity of the Starting Strength method increasing, more people are getting under the bar with no prior experience. Starting Strength Gyms offer a unique solution for those seeking professional barbell coaching at a price point that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars a month as it otherwise might when working one-on-one with a Starting Strength Coach.
For those new to barbell training, this article should serve as a primer for how to get the most out of your gym membership, if you happen to live near Starting Strength Dallas or any of our other franchise gym locations. This advice applies even to experienced trainees who want to maximize their training and time spent in the gym.
Show up early (but not too early)
The structure provided by a set training time, three days per week, with a guaranteed coaching in the gym will help increase accountability for those that might otherwise put training off. The trade-off is that you need to be ready to lift whether you feel like it or not; this is one of the main differences between exercise and training – we train when we’re supposed to, not when we feel like it. Do yourself a favor and give yourself a few extra minutes (especially if you are training in the morning) to get your lifting shoes on, get some caffeine (highly recommended), get your knee sleeves on (if applicable), etc. Anywhere from 10-15 minutes should be plenty. Any earlier than this and you will find yourself waiting around for your training session to start, or worse, distracting our staff from their own training and development. Ever had someone show up half an hour early for a dinner party while you are scrambling around the kitchen trying to get things ready? Don’t be that guy.
Hustle through your warm-up sets
Our training sessions are up to 90 minutes in length. For the vast majority of folks this is more than enough time to train productively. We have had completely full sessions (12 lifters/ 2 per platform) that both start and end on the dot. If you find yourself taking longer than 90 minutes I would first look at your warm-up strategy. You really don’t need to rest between warm-up sets (they are submaximal, after all). I would also suggest that you make sure you have a good understanding of plate math: if you have to go back to your digital log book or pull up a plate loading chart for each warm-up set, this will slow you down. After a few sessions you should be able to do most of the plate math and warm-up calculations in your head. By all means take a minute or two between your last warm-up single and your work set, but hustle through your warm-up sets. You want to leave a cushion so that you can rest adequately between your work sets, or have a little extra time at the end in the event that you and your coach need to workshop something.
Listen to your coach
We have been doing this for a while. For most of us, this is all we do. Our gym alone has over two decades of combined experience. Trust us, because we have your best interest in mind. We are in this business because we get satisfaction out of watching people progress and get stronger. When I tell you that doing a whole bunch of bicep curls will hinder your progress, it’s not because I have some hidden agenda for keeping your arms weak and noodle-thin. It’s because I have tried that approach and it doesn’t work as well as getting your press and your bench up. If we tell you that a rep was not below parallel just go ahead and take our word for it. We will be happy to record the set for you, but our feedback is what you’re paying us for. I promise I won’t tell you a rep is high just to mess with you.
Work hard and don’t give up
We are very talented at reading effort and bar speed. Based on our understanding of bioenergetics and force production, if you give up early and bail out on a rep, we can tell. At first, gains will come easily – you really won’t have to grind at all. But at some point in your training you are going to actually have to work for a rep. For some, this level of exertion and physical effort will be a new experience. This might be a rep that you are not sure you can get.
This is all part of productive training. If you are setting up for your final deadlift attempt and you only give it a tug for a second or two, it very well may stay stuck on the ground. You have to give your final reps an all-out push for maybe 5 seconds to lock it out. If at the end of a 5-second pull you still don’t get it to lockout, that’s fine. You can walk away knowing you probably gave it all you could; time then to consult with your coach on the next steps. We program based on the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle. If you don’t complete the reps, you’re not applying the stress necessary to generate the adaptation you need to carry into your next workouts. This would be like training an endurance program and not completing the prescribed mileage. It won’t work. “Productive training tests the limits and teaches us about how to deal with them.” – Rip
Take good notes
Our best trainees take good notes and write down the cues that really stick and have an impact. They look at their log book and review these important cues from previous training sessions. They update their logbook with missed reps and keep good notes. This makes it easier for your coach to audit your log book and make the necessary programming changes to keep you getting stronger session after session, month after month. It is also important that after your final set, you ask your coach for feedback on what kind of increase to make next workout and write it down.
While there will be some extenuating circumstances that prevent you from knowing exactly what you are going to be doing next training session (maybe you are learning a new lift, or coming back from a layoff where we don’t know exactly what the weight on the bar will be), whenever possible have your next workout planned in advance, ideally before you leave the gym. Feedback recorded immediately after your current workout will always be more accurate than trying to recall details several days removed. Remember we are training, not just exercising. Training requires a plan.
Do your homework
For most folks, homework consists of eating and sleeping. Eating enough to facilitate your training is critical. There are plenty of articles out there in the Starting Strength domain about why this is important and what to do (hint: you are likely not eating enough protein). Sleep is the next component that will facilitate progress. Get at least 7 hours, ideally 8. If that’s not feasible, do your best to try and find time for a nap. Remember you don’t get stronger from lifting heavier weights, you get stronger from recovering from lifting heavier weights.
In some rare cases where the lifter does not have sufficient range of motion to perform the lifts correctly, some light stretching homework may be necessary. This is not the norm, but if necessary it produces results quickly if it is done several times daily. This is only necessary for a week or two until the lifter is able to get into the correct position with the bar. After that, the range of motion of the training the lifter is doing 3x/week is sufficient to maintain proper flexibility.
Strength training is a serious investment into your longevity, health, performance, and well-being as a human. Nobody is truly happy being weak – if you disagree with this statement and have never been strong, I encourage you to experience getting stronger before making a final judgment. We take your investment seriously, and we’re grateful that you would choose us to help you. You’ll get the very most out of your training by following the advice laid out here.