"Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general."  Mark Rippetoe, <em>Strong Enough?</em>, p. 157

Strong people are harder to kill than weak people, and more useful in general. - Mark Rippetoe, Strong Enough?, p. 157

Well, I say book “review”, it’s probably going to be more of a book gush, because the second edition of Rippetoe and Kilgore’s Starting Strength is the best fitness book I have ever read.

A lot of people discover Starting Strength either through forums like Strength Mill, or through Crossfit, but my route was a little different. I’ve spent seven of the last eight (northern hemisphere) summers in Australia, usually at the University of Melbourne, and while there I’ve been able to use the gym at Melbourne University Sports. It’s the best equipped gym, with the best trained staff, that I’ve found anywhere. It was there that I first got a good answer to the question “so what’s up with this stuff creatine?” (I stopped taking it), where I first heard the word “plyometrics”, and where I once saw the single most impressive exercise I have ever seen performed in a gym. (There aren’t any videos of body builders doing it on Youtube, but I did find a video of a child gymnast doing them here. The guy doing them in Melbourne them was 6ft+ and built more like a rock-climber than a rugby player. He did single reps with perfect control and when the trainer who was with him said: “how does it feel?” the guy responded in a thick Australian accent “still feels like my head is gonna explode.”)

Anyway, this year, when I walked into my programming session, the trainer asked me what my goals were, and I told him I wanted to put on as much muscle as possible. I wanted to be able to lift more, move faster, strike harder, and to injury proof my knees and my shoulders. I told him that I was already doing a lot of squats and lunges, and if he could teach me anything new and fun, that would be cool. I told him that I was 32, and concerned that gaining muscle was only going to get harder as time went on.

So he taught me to deadlift. The deadlift starts with a barbell on the ground, and you reach down and pull the bar off the floor, stand up straight (so that the barbell is against your thighs) and then you put it back down. It’s a simple movement that uses lots of big muscles and many people can eventually build up to deadlifting more (sometimes significantly more) than their own weight. But you only have to glance at the movement to see that this is not the place to get careless with your form. So I spent a fair few evenings surfing the web trying to find out as much as I could about correct form for my cool new exercise, and in doing so I quickly came across this video, in which Mark Rippetoe coaches the deadlift:

Olympic lifts! Athletes! (rather than those shiny guys with the big chests and teeny legs) Women! Reasons-for-doing-things-the-way-he-says! All pretty cool, thought I. Anyway, I studied the video

carefully and thrived on my new program and when I got back from Australia, I ordered Rippetoe and Kilgore’s Starting Strength, in part because I wanted a book that told me a bit more about deadlifting, and in part because I wanted to know more about appropriate squat depth; I’d heard that squatting below parallel was dangerous for the meniscus of the knee. Rippetoe was quoted as saying the following all over the web:

“Anyone who says that full squats are ‘bad for the knees’ has, with that statement, demonstrated conclusively that they are not entitled to an opinion about the matter.

People who know nothing about a topic, especially a very technical one that requires specific training, knowledge, and experience, are not due an opinion about that topic and are better served by being quiet when it is asked about or discussed. For example, when brain surgery, or string theory, or the NFL draft, or women’s dress sizes, or white wine is being discussed, I remain quiet… But seldom is this the case when orthopedic surgeons, athletic trainers, physical therapists, or nurses are asked about full squats. Most such people have absolutely no idea what a full squat even is, and they certainly have no concept of how it affects the knees, unless they have had additional training beyond their specialties, which for the professions mentioned does not include full squats. Because if these people knew anything about squatting and the difference between a full squat and any other kind of squat and what they do to the knees, they would know that ‘full squats are bad for the knees’ is wrong and thus would not be making such a ridiculous statement.”

Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength, “Going Deep”. Crossfit Journal September 2006: 6.

From this passage, you might get the impression that Rippetoe’s writing style is (ahem) a little acerbic. Actually, if you read the Strength Mill forums (and you can see through the anabolic fug) you’ll probably think it deserves stronger language than that, but for the style of SS “acerbic” is enough. And acerbic is good. And the content is gold.

The core of the book consists of five chapters devoted to five core barbell exercises: the squat, the press, the deadlift, the bench press, and the power clean. There is also an introduction, a chapter on assistance exercises and a chapter on programming. You might have thought that would make for a fairly sparse book on strength training (where are all the wrist curls, calf raises, pec-flies etc?) but if you thought that you’d be completely wrong.

The chapter on the squat is 55 pages. Among other things it covers why one should squat, teaches you how to do it from scratch, and diagnoses the most common form problems. As an example of the teaching methodology, Rippetoe explains the importance of holding the spine in lumbar and thoracic extension during the squat, and then teaches you how to do this. He points out that some people seem to have little proprioceptive awareness when it comes to knowing exactly where their lower back is in the bottom of the squat. This shouldn’t surprise karate teachers, most of whom have had the experience of teaching a stance to a beginner who seems to have absolutely no awareness that their body is not doing what they’ve been told to do. But Rippetoe reports in a matter of fact way that the problem is common, and then tells you how to fix it. First, you lie on the ground on your stomach. Then you lift both your upper and lower body off the floor, so that only your belly is on the ground. To do this, your lower back has to be extended. In this position, you focus on the sensation in your lower back, and try to remember how it feels. You relax and do it a few times. Then you stand up, and try to get your back to do it while standing, bending your knees, leaning forward, squatting without a weight etc. If you can’t, you go back to the floor until you learn to put your back in extension whatever your position. Similarly, a useful cue for thoracic extension is “chest up.” From a standing position, you can get students to put their upper back in extension by placing a hand, or a couple of fingers above their upper chest and telling them to raise their chest up to meet your hand. (And on page 118 there are photos of Rippetoe doing this with a female trainee in an entirely appropriate manner. If there’s one thing Rippetoe seems to have plenty of it’s common sense.) And there’s a whole box insert on the use of ‘cues’ in sports pedagogy and developing phrases like ‘chest up’ or ‘tight abs’ when coaching form.

The charm of the book is illustrated by the above I think. There’s a great combination of useful advice and scientific insight, along with hundreds of photos and diagrams explaining everything from the stretch-shortening cycle to differences in the way a body responds to long, slow distance training compared to short, intense bursts of exercise (such as 20 second sprints or 1 rep maximum squats.)

The programming chapter, which explains how to combine the exercises into a workout, emphasises simplicity. You do three main exercises per workout and alternate between two workouts. Workout 1: warm-up, squat, bench press, deadlift. Workout 2: warm-up, squat, press, power clean. You train three times a week, with at least 1 day rest between workouts, and you try to add small amounts of weight to your lifts every workout. If you want to add some of the assistance exercises in at the end, you can, but they aren’t central—the goal is to get better at the 5 core lifts.

Starting Strength is quite simply completely fascinating. It’s a great read. Get a copy for you Dad for Christmas, give your Grandma a copy if she doesn’t have one already. Even if you’re not interested in barbell lifting when you open the cover, the chances are you will be by the time you’ve read a few pages of this book.

I bought the book because I wanted a resource explaining deadlift form, and I really wasn’t planning to start an SS workout. But it just has a way of getting under your skin. So before long I was thinking, well, I’m in the gym to squat and deadlift anyway, and I’m standing right next to the rack, and Rippetoe says that the press is a great balanced lift for overall upper body strength and I’ve just read an entire chapter on how to do it right…and before I knew it I was in the weights room 3 times a week doing the squat-press-deadlift thing, and then, inevitably, I was fighting off the boys for the bench press stations, and finding a quiet day on which to get the spacer plates out to teach myself to power clean.

And, oddly enough, I’m actually having fun in the gym again—and I’m definitely much more engaged with my gym workout mentally. When you first start learning karate one of the things that is engaging about it—normally more engaging than just being in the gym—is that you feel like you’re learning new physical skills. But if you’ve been going to the gym for a while you can get pretty bored with … well, the lat pulldowns and the horizontal row-thingumy and … yawn…

But right now, everything is new and fresh again, and I’m getting results. I’ve upped my caloric intake a little because I’m determined not to get stuck on the press too early, and Rippetoe emphases the importance of eating enough if you want to keep improving, so I weigh a few pounds more than I did when I started. (Actually Rippetoe says you should drink a gallon of milk a day, but in Strong Enough he points out that older lifters won’t put on muscle as fast as teenagers and shouldn’t eat as if they will. Since I’m 32 and female, I figure I just can’t gain muscle like a teenage boy, and probably don’t need a whole gallon of milk! 1 gallon fat-free milk is about 1300 calories!) But those gorgeous new wool trousers that I bought on e-bay and which turned out to be too tight—well, they aren’t too tight anymore and I’ve been wearing them to work. My leg muscles look much more balanced (I had the old karate thing of huge of lateral quads and no vastus medialis to speak of. But I could break an egg on my vastus medialis these days and my hamstrings, abs and arms are much more defined. And I think I could hold the world up with my lower back (really, deadlifting is the bomb.) So I’m going to keep eating more as long as I keep seeing improvement.

In discussing the merits of the press vs the bench press, Rippetoe says that you can lift more with the bench press, which makes it good for developing brute strength, but that it isn’t as useful as it might be for athletic development, because there aren’t many athletic activities in which you put your back against something and push. The exceptions are, of course, karate and judo, where we do that all the time: any activity that has you lying on the ground with your opponent’s weight on your chest and head and you trying to get away, anything that has you punching from the ground, etc. So we have even more reason to bench than most.

In fact, if any of my new students were to ask me right now what they could do outside of their karate training to improve their karate, I’d say that the single best thing they could do would be to get hold of a copy of SS and start on the program ( I’ve already taken a couple of them down the gym and shown them how to squat, press and deadlift. They’re now going three times a week together and it’s going to be interesting to see how they get on…) I think that for most trainees it will be more important than developing flexibility, and more important than getting a lot of aerobic training in. Actually, in terms of how it improves their ability to fight, I think it’s more important than kata. Strength training will make their movements faster and more explosive (especially if their program includes “quick lifts” like the power clean) it will protect them from injury and it will make movements feasible (like, say, using their legs to duck quickly) that aren’t feasible for someone who doesn’t have the same leg strength. It will make their strikes stronger, and their balance better (you won’t get that from the leg extension machine.) It will make falls more comfortable, since their skeleton is better armoured with muscle and they are able to use their own body strength to hold everything together (e.g. keep their head tucked, and prevent their limbs just flying everywhere) as they hit the ground.

But it’s not just karateka and people who want to be stronger who I’d recommend the 2nd edition of Starting Strength too. Really, I’d recommend it to anyone, even if they didn’t do karate and hated gyms, in the same way I’d recommend George Orwell’s Collected Essays and Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels—put it on the shelf with Guns, Germs and Steel and 120 Days of Sodom—it’ll contribute to your education.