By Jordan Feigenbaum MS, Starting Strength Staff, CSCS, HFS, USAW Club Coach
1) Not reading the book
Seriously, most people who are doing “Starting Strength Novice Progression” have never even read the book. They got the “routine”, replete with rows in place of power cleans, of the Internet and are 100% unprepared for what this program requires. Further, because they have not read the book and thus, are lacking in understanding the rationale- the WHY- behind the program, they do a bunch of inappropriate things as seen in the other 9 items below. Bompa, Issurin, and Zatsiorisky all agree that explaining to an athlete the “why” behind the “what” is important for compliance. If you want to do Starting Strength Novice Progression, you need to read the book. Period.
2) Starting too heavy.
This is usually a result of a failure to read the book, however there are still some people that will start too heavy because the heavier you start the faster you’ll get strong, right? Wrong. What we’re aiming to do is use the smallest effective dose to stimulate the maximum potential response. In lifting terms, we want you starting with a weight that begins to challenge your ability. This can be gauged, roughly, by when the speed of the bar slows down or the technique suffers slightly. If the former happens, then you’ve just done a set of 5 reps that is heavy enough to drive the adaptations we want, i.e. strength, neuromuscular coordination, hypertrophy, etc. If the latter happens, however, we need to back the weight down just a tad in order to preserve proper form (see below).
3) Having poor technique.
This mostly stems from people not doing Step 1, i.e. reading the book, OR not watching all the videos, reading all the articles, etc. on the site, YouTube channel, or various other mediums. Bottom line is, if you’re technique is not good you’re going to see less than optimal results through any training program, period. When compounded by the fact that this program aims to get you as strong as possible in the shortest amount of time, things start to escalate quickly. It would behoove any person to see a Starting Strength Coach within their first week of training just to hammer this all out. If that’s not possible, post a form check on the Q/A the coaches so graciously run.
4) Eating like a bird.
I was thinking about putting this as number one, but alas, I thought the other things were actually more important and, specifically, doing number 1 would take care of this number. Look, if you’re a 16-23 year old male and <165 lbs, you need to gain a significant amount of body weight, like yesterday, in order to be facilitate the fastest rate of strength and muscle size acquisition. This is done through food, like LOTS of it. I’ve already written extensively about this topic in this article, so I suggest checking that out. Look, here’s the simple fact:
You have one chance in your life to put on muscle at an almost unnatural rate. This moment in time also coincides with the ability to gain a tremendous amount of strength, if you’ll only eat to facilitate this process. For 3 months forget about your abs so you can build the ice chest to put the 6-pack in.
The older, heavier, or more female you get away from this “ideal Starting Strength candidate” the less extra food you need to drive these processes. Again, see the article linked above “To Be a Beast” for more discussion on this topic.
5) Not resting long enough between sets.
After 3 minutes, approximately 80% of your muscle’s ATP has been replenished, at 5 minutes, approximately 95% is back in the game, and at 8 minutes ~ 100% is there. Don’t try to hit PR’s, which happen everyday on this program, with 80% of your muscles’ energy available.
6) Adding in too much bullshit.
Remember that we’re using the minimum effective dose to get the maximum response here. Adding in a bunch of extra stuff dilutes the “effective dose” AND spreads the body’s available resources for adaptation to the “dose” too thin for optimal results for a novice trainee. Of course, as you become more “trained” and thus, can tolerate more volume, frequency, and intensity, you’ll be able to add more exercises, sets, reps, etc.
If, on the other hand, you add too much tomfoolery TOO SOON in your training career, you run a very serious risk of attenuating (diminishing) your adaptive responses to training, thus blunting your progress.
The take home, keep it simple Santa (K.I.S.S.- I don’t like calling people stupid, normally). The big five, squat, bench press, press, deadlift, powerclean plus chins, curls, and back extensions will work beautifully for your dedicated novice progression. Read the book to see implementation, or this excellent article on Fitocracy by Michael Wolf.
7) Resetting a million times.
Sometimes you just have to call a spade a spade and realize it’s time to move on. Whether it’s due to not enough food, not enough recovery, or poor technique, etc. you just need to either get some help or move on. If you’re not progressing every training session, you’re no longer on the Novice Progression anyway, so don’t be married to it if it’s not working for you (and you’re doing all the necessary things to make it work).
That being said, having a training program that revolves around the big 5 and some HIIT (if necessary) is the best base template you could hope for, with rep ranges, total volume, and frequency all reflecting an individual’s needs and goals. Put simply, you could do a lot worse than to keep resetting over and over again, but do you really want to stay weak? Figure out the limiting reagent and nip it in the bud. Grow. Progress. Profit.
8) Missing workouts (and not adjusting accordingly).
Simple enough, right? If you miss a workout on this program you are, by default, failing to provide a stimulus for your body to adapt to. This adaptation response is what is used to drive the next training day’s progress. Thus, if you miss a day you shouldn’t be expecting to “go up” in weight the next training day, although in the beginning this is more feasible. Moreover, novices tend to de-train more quickly than advanced trainees, as they’ve had less cumulative exposure to the lifts, progression, etc. and thus, it’s not unusual to see some of these detraining or deconditioning effects if a person misses a workout.
So, what do you do if you miss a workout? Simply repeat the last workout you did and start from there. If you miss a series of workouts and are a true novice, you’ll just start all over again. I really shouldn’t have to say this, but how about just not missing workouts?
9) Reading too much bullshit.
Bro 1: “Hey man, did you see that new exercise on MonsterMuscleGainer.com today?”
Bro 2: “Nah, bro. What was it?”
Bro 1: “It’s like this weird lunge thing with kettlebells. All the Russians used to use it and that’s why their legs are so jacked. I heard Klokov invented it!”
Bro 2: “Dude, this is awesome. We don’t have to do squats today then. Let’s do like 40 minutes of mobility, to make sure we activate all our muscles during training, then do Klokov lunges with kettlebells.”
Bro 1: “Yea, squats are so old-school. MonsterMuscleGainer.com said these were better for hypertrophy anyway. I don’t care about being strong, I just want to LOOK strong.”
Sadly, this sort of crap happens everyday in gyms (CrossFit and black-iron gyms are not exempt from this either) across the country. People mistake “new” or “proprietary” with “better” and try to reinvent the wheel. Look boys and girls, barbells are the most efficient way to load the human musculoskeletal system and stress the body. Because it’s the most efficient* way to stress the body, it’s the most efficient at causing the body to adapt and these adaptations are more robust than any other silly shit your “guru” is pushing.
*ef·fi·cien·cy: noun, plural ef·fi·cien·cies.
10) Being a p*ssy.
Any program that’s designed to add weight to the bar 3x a week is going to be hard, make no bones about it. If you want it to be easy or, more commonly, easier week to week you need an attitude check.
“It never get’s easier, you just go faster”- Greg LeMond