Sunday, April 14, 2019

Getting Started on a Strength Program - Bill Starr

Taken from This Issue (September 1996) 

Note: This is the second installment of Bill Starr's Only the Strong Shall Survive series he wrote for IronMan magazine. The first installment is here

The very first step in getting started on a strength program is to have a well-organized plan. Sit down and take some time to lay out your routine so that you know exactly what you're going to do for the next few weeks. You don't have to plot out the exact weights you'll use, for it may take a few workouts before you know your upper limits, but you should write down the lifts you want to do, along with the sets and reps for each.

Most people like to sets aside a few months during the winter or summer for pure strength work, leaving the spring and fall for more specialized training. By cycling their training in this way, they stay motivated and can move up their top-end weights more effectively. Others, however, enjoy strength training and do it for longer periods, often switching to a different routine for only a few months each year.

In any event, a strength cycle should last at least six weeks. Longer is even better, but any less than six weeks won't be nearly as productive.

Start With The Basics

A strength program should be geared to increasing your strength and also your size. You accomplish this by focusing on the larger muscle groups - the shoulder girdle, back and legs. The smaller muscles, such as the biceps, triceps and calves, will take a backseat to their larger brothers for a time. They'll get some attention but not nearly on the same scale as what the larger groups get. Force the big bodyparts to grow and the smaller ones will follow.

For anyone who's starting out on a strength cycle for the first time - or who's just getting back after an extended layoff - I recommend a three-days-per-week routine. I fully understand that the split routine is very much in vogue, but it's not the best system for building a solid strength base. You can switch over to a split routine after each strength cycle. For now you work all the major muscle groups at each session. Then you can spend some time exercising the smaller muscle groups or some area that needs special attention.

Three days a week works nicely for a great many people simply because it's easier to get to a gym three times a week than it is to make four trips. It also gives you adequate rest between workouts, which is critical to making progress.

Strength training is concentrated training. You attack the larger groups, add some auxiliary work for the smaller muscles, then leave the gym. In too many programs the trainee lingers in the facility doing set after set of a specific exercise - usually one that's rather fun to do like curls or pushdowns. As a result, gains come more slowly because the extra work taps into the energy supply. More is not always better when it comes to strength work, especially in the earlier stages.

For the first couple of weeks the three-days-per-week routine might be rather demanding, since you're working all the major groups each time. The body will adapt quickly, however, and then begin to thrive on the big muscle movements.

Select Exercises That Are Productive

Note that I didn't say select exercises that are fun. That's because there are some exercises you must include in a strength program that really aren't fun at all. In fact, they're downright ugly at times. Squats, deadlifts and good mornings aren't usually placed in the fun category, especially when they involve serious weights. I happen to believe that if you enjoy every exercise there's something missing in your routine. I realize that this is completely against the philosophy of most experts, but hitting a weak spot with a difficult movement isn't going to be enjoyable, at least not at first. If an exercise is productive, though, it suddenly becomes much more palatable.

The emphasis on getting stronger is aimed at making progress, not just having a great time in the gym. The enjoyment factor comes directly from the gains you make, and believe me, that's sufficient. I understand that it would be terrific to be able to build a program around flat-bench presses, inclines, curls and maybe a few token sets of squats and pulls and accomplish significant gains in size and strength, but, unfortunately, it just doesn't work that way

The main reason that so many trainees in those high-priced, machine-loaded la-di-da gyms across the country remain so embarrassingly weak is that they just don't want to do the hard work or the difficult exercises. The problem is, merely showing up in the right outfit and going through a routine a cheerleader could do without breaking a sweat isn't going to bring you the desired results. In order to get stronger, you have to exert yourself and do some exercises that make your eyes cross. 

One of the main criteria in the selection of your exercises should be your weak point - or in the case of most trainees your weak points. That's not always an easy thing to do, since no one really likes to do exercises in which he or she is particularly weak. That's especially true when people train with friends. It's a great deal more satisfying to work on those lifts in which you're at least semi-strong. In order to achieve a higher level of strength, you have to suck up your ego and lean on the weaker movements.

The exercises selected must be serious ones, not token movements performed on machines. If, for example, you have trouble picking up a full bag of groceries, you need to start doing deadlifts and good mornings and not be content with merely doing lat pulls by the hour.

If this is your first pure strength cycle or you're about to start back after a layoff, your program should revolve around free weights, not machines. The reasoning is basic. Free weights involve your tendons and ligaments much more than machines. The attachments are the sources of pure strength. You'll use machines in the overall program but strictly for the auxiliary work.

Emphasize the Three Major Muscle Groups

In order to become stronger, you have to do a primary, core exercise for each of the three major muscle groups: the shoulder girdle (or upper body), back, and legs. In the beginning the more basic the core exercise, the better. Full-range movements are also better than partial movements.

As you grow stronger and discover some specific weaker areas in those major groups, you can turn your attention to bringing them up to standard. For example, after doing squats for three weeks and steadily moving up the top-end weight, you notice for the first time that your knees have a tendency to turn inward when you use heavy weights. This is an indication that your adductors are lagging in strength, so you must spend time building up that group. Working on the adductor machine or doing wide-stance squats will remedy the problem. Recognizing and remedying your weaknesses will speed the rate at which you are able to gain strength, as well as saving you from some major injury-based setbacks later on.

There are quite a few productive exercises to choose from, which provides greater variety in any program. Some people even prefer to plan two separate programs, doing one during one week and the other the following week. This is particularly useful after you establish a solid base.

For the shoulder girdle the best core exercises are bench presses, incline presses, dips and overhead presses. Because they require different ranges of motion, you must include them all in your strength program. Of all the areas of the body the shoulders are actually the most vulnerable to injury. Why? Because the joints are relatively smaller than those of the hips and legs and cannot tolerate the amount of work those potentially stronger joints can.

There are many productive strength exercises for the back, including deadlifts, bent-over rows, stiff legged deadlifts, good mornings, clean high pulls and shrugs. The back is the most neglected bodypart for most trainees. This occurs partially because back exercises are really demanding, but it’s also due to the fact that the back is seldom seen. Out of sight, out of mind, out of strength. 

Yet the back is typically the fastest of all bodyparts to respond to strength training. That’s because it’s so potentially powerful that once those large, overlapping muscle groups are sufficiently stimulated, they grow rapidly. In many cases the back muscle have never really been challenged, so they lie dormant, waiting for the right stimulus.

When organizing your program, keep in mind that the back is fashioned in three separate parts: upper, middle and lower. There are, of course, several groups that overlap, such as the traps and lats, but for the sake developing your program, the concept of three separate training areas works nicely. Shrugs and high pulls hit the upper back, pulls hit the upper back, bent-over rows and deadlifts hit the middle, and good mornings and stiff-legged deadlifts hit the lower back.

You only need one core exercise for legs - full squats. I know there are other leg exercises, but none can really match the productivity of full squats. Later on, if you want to add some variety to your leg routine, you can include lunges or even leg presses, but initially you want to stay with full squats - not partial squats. The full movement activates so many more muscle groups - especially in the hips, glutes and legs - that you should do only the full movement from the very beginning.

Auxiliary Exercises

After you complete the three core exercises in a workout, you can spend additional time working the small groups. Again, you should give attention to the weakest groups, not just those that are showiest.

The auxiliary exercises will take a backseat to the primary movements until you establish a solid strength foundation. Then you can include more auxiliary work in the program. It's a mistake, however, to do too much auxiliary work in the early stages. The few extra sets may seem harmless, but they are in fact detrimental to your progress. You should use higher reps and adhere to the 40-rep rule. This translates to two sets of 20, three sets of 15 and so on. Don't do any auxiliary movements for fewer than 12 reps in the beginning. Later on this is permissible.

Sets and Reps for the Core Exercises

The sets and reps formula for increasing strength was established many years ago, and it's still quite valid. Four to six sets of six reps gets the job done nicely. I use the mean and stay with five sets of five. That makes the math so much easier. For a few of the primary exercises, however, especially those targeting the lower back, I find that slightly higher reps are better. Good mornings and stiff-legged deadlifts are more productive when you do them for eight to 10 reps. This gives you a higher workload but without undue stress. The same idea holds true for any exercise in which you're particularly weak.

Form is the cornerstone of any strength program. You should never let yourself get sloppy in any exercise just to elevate more weight. Resorting to rebounding the bar off your chest or excessive bridging while bench-pressing or letting your back round too much in the deadlift will eventually deter progress. The exercises are only effective when done correctly. There are, of course, variations in individual technique, and it's acceptable to alter the form to some degree, but you must take care to learn proper technique from the beginning.

I have listed two basic programs to get you started. You may decide to stay with one of them for a month or so, then switch over to the other, or you might decide to do both, alternating them every other week. It's most important to be consistent and not miss a session, as consistency is really the key to making gains. If you're forced to miss a workout, make it up the next day.

In any event, warm up before training and stretch thoroughly after each session. Do an abdominal exercise like situps or crunches before lifting and end the workout wit another one, like leg raises.

Next time I'll discuss how to develop the program further and explain more strength training principles.

Sample Beginning Routine A

Monday (heavy day):

Squats (to limit) - 5 x 5 
Deadlifts (to limit) - 5 x 5
Bench Presses (to limit) -5 x 5
Incline dumbbell presses - 2 x 20
Calf raises - 3 x 30

Wednesday (light day):

Squats (50 pounds less than Monday) - 5 x 5
Good Mornings - 4 x 8
Incline Presses - 5 x 5
Straight arm pullovers - 2 x 20
Curls - 2 x 20 

Friday (medium day):
Bench presses - 4 x 8, 2 x 2
Squats (20 pounds less than Monday) - 5 x 5
Shrugs - 5 x 5
Overhead presses - 5 x 5
Chins - 4 x failure

Sample Beginning Routine B

Monday (heavy day):

Squats (to limit) - 5 x 5
Bent-over rows (to limit) - 5 x 5
Bench presses (to limit) - 5 x 5
Incline dumbbell presses - 2 x 20
Calf raises - 3 x 30

Wednesday (light day):

Squats (50 pounds less than Monday) - 5 x 5
Stiff-legged deadlifts - 4 x 8
Overhead presses - 3 x 5, 2 x 3
Dips - 4 x failure
When you can do 20 reps, start adding weight and
drop the reps back to eight.
Curls - 2 x 15

Friday (medium day):

Squats - 3 x 5, 2 x 3 (10 pounds more than Monday on last set)
Clean-grip high pulls - 5 x 5
Incline presses - 5 x 5, backoff set - 1 x 8
Close-grip bench presses - 3 x 12
Chins - 4 x failure

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