Starting Strength: The Venus Flytrap of Weightlifting Programs

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

A guy decides he wants to put on some muscle. Gain a little strength, gain a little size, hopefully impress a few people and collect a few admiring glances along the way. He gets on the internet and starts doing research and happens upon a program that tons of online denizens swear by: Starting Strength.

The program seems simple enough. Two alternating workouts. Compound exercises. Three sets, five reps. Add five or ten pounds to the bar each workout. Eat a lot. Get strong, get big. Become a man.

So, the guy starts the program. The feeling of some real weight on his shoulders is intoxicating. Dropping down and blasting back up during a squat. Hauling heavy weight off the ground during the deadlift. The strain of pressing iron for reps while doing bench press. It’s a good feeling. Even better, the program seems to be working as advertised. Each day he comes back into the gym and adds weight to the bar. In the evening, he looks in the mirror. “These muscles look bigger,” he thinks.

Things continue this way, for a while. At some point, though, there’s a sudden change in plans. Maybe it’s after a few weeks, maybe it’s after a few months. A stall. The guy read about this, so he knows what to do. He drops the weight and works his way back up and… hmm. Stalls again. That wasn’t supposed to happen. So, the guy goes on the internet to begin looking for some advice.

Now, some cynical readers might immediately want to stop me here. There’s his mistake. Going online looking for answers. Asking a bunch of anonymous website dwellers for advice. But remember, this is an article about Starting Strength and the types of people who end up on Starting Strength. You don’t hear about Starting Strength unless you’re the type who likes to do his or her fitness research online in the comfort of their own home.

After all, when have you ever heard anyone talk about Starting Strength in real life? Unless you’re a hardcore lifter who knows every program in existence, or hang out specifically with other lifting friends who all share knowledge and tips with each other, who would you feel confident mentioning Starting Strength to with the expectation that they’d understand what the hell you’re talking about? No one.

So, this guy – our guy – ventures back into the online world to get some help. But he’s not the same guy he was a few months ago. Now he’s a lifter. And he’s a Unique Lifter. Unique Lifters need tailored help. The kind of tailored help that some blog written six years ago can’t provide. So, he heads to the forums.

Provided this guy isn’t stalling at a 350 lb. squat – but instead is at something like 225 lbs. or less – he’s about to walk into an ambush he never saw coming, where responses like these await:

“LOL! A healthy man should be able to squat 225 lbs. without any training! You’re still weak!”

“You have another 100 lbs. of linear gains easy. Keep going.”

“How much are you eating? Eat more.”

“How much are you sleeping? Sleep more.”

Humbled yet inspired, he returns to real life prepared to Keep Doing The Program. And he gets nowhere. He stalls some more, maybe does a reset or two, works his way back up, bangs his head against the same wall he stalled on last time, and eventually keeps crashing into that hard plateau until his enthusiasm and energy levels seem to be taking a serious hit. Is it all in his head? One day he drops the weight for another reset and struggles to even make it through the full three sets of five reps at the lighter weight. As far as he’s concerned, he’s hit rock bottom.

He returns to the forums one more time for advice. The same comments as last time greet him. He pleads with these internet commenters to understand. They have no sympathy. They are prepared to cast him aside. Their program does not fail its followers, so it’s the lifter who has failed. Somehow.

Farewell, new lifter.

The Problem with Starting Strength: The Program

Look around the internet and there are plenty of criticisms of Starting Strength to be found, including, for example, the low volume and the way it handles stalls, or its resemblance to Bill Starr’s 5×5 program, which was intended for a specific type of lifter. However, there is a more interesting and insidious accusation that could be leveled at Starting Strength. An accusation that, at least until now, Starting Strength has deftly avoided.

That accusation is this: Starting Strength is a thief. Specifically, it’s a credit thief. The program takes advantage of a couple of critical things that the lifter brings to the table, but Starting Strength convinces the lifter that these things are actually gifts bestowed on the lifter by the program.

The first thing is the muscle the lifter already has. Starting Strength is a basic linear progression program that aims to make people stronger. However, a person with no muscle would be unable to lift anything, and everybody can lift something, so we can assume everyone has some muscle. Barely-used, Like-New muscle is not prepared to perform to its maximum potential on the very first day. Lift something one day and you’ll be able to lift something a little heavier the next. Starting Strength rightly adapts to this phenomenon by encouraging its lifters to keep adding weight to the bar, and thus a beautiful harmony begins: the lifter becomes more capable, and Starting Strength steps up to challenge the lifter further.

What goes unsaid is that any program (or non-program) will do this in the beginning stages. For a new lifter, simply lifting something reasonably heavy will elicit a response. Starting Strength, however, not-so-subtly implies that it is this program specifically that is making you stronger, faster. Relative to what, nobody knows. Be assured, however, it is Starting Strength that you should believe is molding you into an iron warrior.

So, the first thing Starting Strength steals credit for is the muscle the lifter already has. The second thing Starting Strength steals credit for is the muscle the lifter will have in the future.

Part of the program is to eat a ton. Exactly how much is anyone’s guess. Is GOMAD (the Gallon of Milk a Day protocol) a joke? Some kind of meme? Or is it serious? Well, it’s a meme when a qualified lifter or nutritionist calls out the ridiculousness of drinking a gallon of milk and consuming 5,000 calories a day, but it’s not quite a meme when a lowly new lifter stumbles into a forum and there is Beyond a Reasonable Doubt that the lifter may not be eating enough.

The reason for this ambiguity is that eating a ton of food is generally unnecessary from a health perspective but is almost never a negative for a program like Starting Strength. The more they (the authors of the program, the followers of the program) can get someone to eat, the better, because the more the person eats, the more lean mass will be gained (leaving aside the fat gained as well). The more lean mass a lifter has, the more runway Starting Strength has to work with to help that lifter lift greater weights.

To be clear, Starting Strength is doing something. Specifically, it is peaking the performance (for three sets of five) of whatever muscle the lifter has. But by taking credit for the lifter’s existing muscle and the lifter’s future muscle, the program implies that it is doing something uniquely special to help the lifter gain and maximize muscle potential.

The reality, however, is that if a new lifter begins Starting Strength at a reasonably light weight and then “improves” their squat 50 lbs., they could probably achieve this increase without adding any muscle at all. So, Starting Strength’s early effects are partly because the lifter is starting at an unnaturally low weight, partly because the lifter is simply getting more comfortable lifting weight, and maybe because the lifter is starting to add a little muscle. From the lifter’s perspective, Starting Strength seems to be working. But really, Starting Strength has barely done anything at this point.

As the lifter continues along their Starting Strength journey, the program once again needs the lifter to help it out – a lot. It needs the lifter to eat a ton and create more lean mass for Starting Strength to leverage and make the lifter appear stronger.

The critical reader may be thinking: “Hey, this just sounds like what any program does. Of course you have to eat to gain muscle. How is this a knock against Starting Strength?”

Good question, and the answer is this: long-term success with regard to lifting increasingly heavier weights requires more muscle mass. It’s that simple. So the question becomes: is Starting Strength really pulling its own weight in terms of helping the lifter increase muscle mass while the lifter is running the program? Or is it simply performing a kind of magic trick, starting lifters on artificially low weights and then relying on the lifter to stuff their face to add mass and outpace the mindless advance of Starting Strength’s linear progression scheme?

The problem becomes obvious when a lifter starts smashing into plateaus repeatedly. The reality of the situation is the lifter is not going to break this plateau until they gain more muscle mass to apply to the weight. This also needs to be done in a way that doesn’t wear the lifter out. And if Starting Strength isn’t doing anything special to add mass or regulate the lifter’s effort over time, the lifter’s only hope to continue the program is to eat tremendous amounts of food and hope they can sleep enough to recover from the last workout. They need to force themselves to get bigger by any means possible, and at this point, there’s a good chance the results won’t be pretty.

Now, think about what the lifter is learning during this experience. They’re learning that all main exercises should be performed for three sets of five reps. As the weight gets heavier, they learn that every set needs to be an absolute struggle to get each and every last rep. They learn to wait a little longer between each set to maximize the chances of success and avoid failing and, eventually, resetting. And… that’s about it.

It is very difficult to think outside of a box you’ve never left, and Starting Strength is a very small box. A new lifter’s concept of what is required to succeed at lifting will be incredibly narrow while on Starting Strength. And while the program claims you can move on at some point, it’s hard to leave the only thing you know.

It’s even harder because of the next factor.

The Other Problem with Starting Strength: Humans

Starting Strength is a program that seems ubiquitous to those who know of it, but upon closer inspection appears only to exist on the internet. And the internet is not a place you want to be spending a lot of time if your goal is results in the real world.

One truth that everyone needs to recognize is that very few people are altruistic, especially to strangers. Even less so on the internet where people interact with strangers whom they almost certainly will never meet or show their face to. If someone is giving their time to listen to questions and provide advice, they probably stand to gain something from it. And on internet forums where nobody is making any money (probably), the most likely benefit is psychological.

If you are on a forum dedicated to something – anything – then you can be sure that most of those who frequent that forum are psychologically invested in whatever that thing is in some way. More dangerously, they may be psychologically invested in the community itself. And If there ever comes a time where a newcomer is wondering aloud whether they have correctly identified a fault in whatever the central theme of the community is, they can rest assured that the fault is actually with them. 100% of the time. Groupthink will ensure that this unassailable “fact” is reinforced by any means necessary and that the faintest trace of any doubt that was raised is erased. The natural tendency is for the truth to be defined as whatever statement is most beneficial to the community.

For hapless new followers of Starting Strength, this phenomenon is especially hazardous because it serves as a breeding ground for “feedback” that is disingenuous, fallacious, misleading and at times nonsensical, not to mention often mean-spirited.

For example, if a fledgling Starting Strength lifter questions their current or potential muscle development on the program and asks whether Starting Strength can make them “big,” a common response might be something along the lines of: “Get yourself to a 400 lb. squat and try not to become big in the process.” Killer reply. The problem is there is an unstated assumption that Starting Strength can actually lead to the type of muscle growth and development that gives someone a 400 lb. squat. The more likely scenario is the lifter plateaus well before that, and for as long as they stay on Starting Strength, they will remain smallish and weakish.

The reply about the 400 lb. squat was technically still right, however. And that’s all that matters.

Another common justification for running Starting Strength rather than something more hypertrophy-oriented is that Starting Strength will get a lifter’s lifts up quickly allowing them to use higher weights later. After all, what good is hypertrophy work at laughably light weights?

Two problems here:

The first is that this justification relies on an unspoken but strongly implied scenario consisting of a new lifter who does a hypertrophy program and never increases the weights they work with. A more accurate comparison would recognize that a new lifter could do squats for 3×5 at 150 lbs. and increase to 160 lbs. after a week, or they could do squats for 4×8 at, say, 120 lbs. and be up to 125 lbs. or so by the end of the week. For longer term success, the only thing that matters is which of these options is more optimal for hypertrophy and perfecting form. There is a strong argument for the lighter option due to the higher volume, and if the lighter option adds more muscle over time, then that muscle can be leveraged to maximize strength later. If the additional muscle isn’t there in the first place, all that awaits is a plateau.

The second problem with the reasoning of using Starting Strength as a gateway to future programs is that advocates struggle mightily to let the program actually function as a gateway. Instead, they slam the exit door shut whenever possible. Refer back to the opening scenario at the beginning of this post. New lifters will oftentimes fail to meet the arbitrary weight targets for the key lifts that will grant them “permission” to move on to an intermediate program. The result is they are setup to stay on Starting Strength for an interminable amount of time until they become brave enough to leave the community behind or give up lifting entirely.

This brings us to the final section.

Starting Strength: The Death of the Individual

The essential problem with Starting Strength is that its ultimate purpose on the internet is to destroy the individual in service of the program and the greater community. The most damaging effects of Starting Strength are a direct result of the problems with the program and the people mentioned earlier: the program is a credit thief, and the followers are psychologically invested in the community and the perceived strengths of the program.

To the extent that Starting Strength can be thought of as an intentional entity, its purpose is not to make you or any other individual strong. Its purpose is to convince as many people as possible it can make them strong. Whether a lifter becomes undisciplined on the program and fails or instead follows everything to the letter and fails (by completely arbitrary standards, mind you), Starting Strength has no sympathy for either. Arguably, and paradoxically, the latter of the two may draw greater ire from the Starting Strength community and suffer greater consequences. After all, a person who doesn’t follow the program and fails to see results hasn’t proved anything about Starting Strength’s efficacy, and they can choose to practice more discipline and potentially achieve a better outcome. However, someone who adheres to Starting Strength’s programming and principles yet still fails poses an optical threat to the program, and the most convenient response by outsiders is disbelief and gaslighting.

The truth is, everyone is different. Everybody’s body is a different shape, their bones are different sizes, their propensity to gain muscle is different, their ability to activate their muscles to move weights is different, and their personal circumstances affecting rest and recovery are different. However, Starting Strength does not acknowledge this. Instead, it takes credit for everything, especially when the results are favorable.

If one lifter naturally carries significant amounts of muscle, and further adds muscle in good proportions as food intake increases, and sleeps and eats well and progresses rapidly on Starting Strength to upper echelon weights, then Starting Strength will step in to take credit as the sole factor that allowed these results to be achieved. And then the community does its part to proclaim that if the program did it for that one lifter, it can do it for every other lifter – assuming, of course, they Do The Program. Around this time we see the arrival of the No True Scotsman fallacy, which ensures that in instances where results are sub-optimal, the responsibility for the failure always resides with the lifter, and the program’s integrity is preserved.

Stepping away from Starting Strength for a moment, ask any expert lifter how they got to where they were, and almost all of them will say they eventually learned what works for their body. And it’s also true that the new lifter has no idea what works and what doesn’t. The problem, however, is that on Starting Strength, they’re not learning much of anything. They’ll be able to lift more, but they could have done that with almost any rep scheme. They’ll gain weight, but that’s because they ate more. They might gain some muscle, but that’s a low bar to clear for a new lifter.

And when inevitably the program stops working and the new lifter believes they’ve discovered some truth about what works and what doesn’t work for them, the program and the community will assure the lifter he’s mistaken. Take a reset, eat more, sleep more, and Do The Program.

For eternity.

Welcome, new lifter.

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