SS and SL- can and should beginners do more? Or do it differently?

Discussion in 'Strength & Conditioning Discussion' started by JauntyAngle, Aug 13, 2016.

  1. JauntyAngle

    JauntyAngle International man of mystery

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    This has been in my mind for a while, so thought I would post here. I have some introductory stuff for people who somehow don't know the programmes, then some questions for experienced people

    Stronglifts and Starting Strength are beginners' barbell programmes. They both have you alternating between two workouts, done three times a week. Each workout has you squat, then do one of the main upper body pressing movements (bench or overhead). In Starting Strength, you then either power clean or deadlift, while in Stronglifts you are either do a barbell row or deadlift. In Starting Strength, most of the work is done for three sets of give, in Stronglifts it's 5 sets of 5 (the schemes for power cleans and deadlifts are different- in particular deadlifts are done for one set of 5). They also work on a system of daily progression- you are meant to succesfully complete all your reps each day, and add a little bit of weight the next time. And no assistance or secondary exercises- just the three main exercises.

    Here are links for those who aren't familiar:

    http://startingstrengthmirror.wikia.com/wiki/FAQ:The_Program#Three_Flavors_of_Starting_Strength
    http://stronglifts.com/5x5/

    Now, here are a few things that are notable about the programmes:

    • The volume is low, with the partial exception of squatting. As far as I know, 45 reps done at working weights in a week is okayish, 75 reps of squats is decent although not high. But for the rest it's low- with the alternating upper body presses, in SS you average 22.5 of each press a week, which is very little, and in SL you average 37.5 which is also fairly low. Deadlifts... you average 7.5 reps per week. Wow.
    • The frequency of everything except squatting is a little low. You basically squat three times a week, and do everything else 1.5 times per week. Now, some people do get strong doing a lift only once a week. But many people say that you really need to do a lift at least twice a week to improve significantly. And there are many people doing a lift more than twice a week. So as I say, doing something less than twice a week- that's low.
    • The intensity becomes very high. With the daily progression, the sets of five soon become very close to the maximum of what you can actually do. So it becomes three sets of five or five sets of five close to your "5 Rep Max". These become very very hard, you end up having to rest five minutes or more between sets. More experienced lifters don't do that sort of thing that often because it is so incredibly taxing. Important flip-side of this: after the initial period, there is no work at medium/medium-high intensity- the levels which count as heavy or hard, but not ball-bustingly hard. That's important.

    So in, sum, they're programmes with low volume (or medium-low volume for squats), lowish frequency and very high intensity.

    If you didn't know much about lifting, you'd think this looks weird. (If you know a lot you probably think it looks weird too.) So what's the rationale? The main rationale for these programme is this:

    A lot of people find the selection of exercises imblanced- e.g. the programme is so squat-focused. But I will not focus on that, I just want to look at the basic approach of being high intensity, low volume, low frequency. Here are a few issues I see:

    • First, the SS/SL hypothesis is treated as a near religious-truth by advocates of the programme; but I don't know if it's actually true. I certainly am not aware of any empirical evidence supporting it.
    • Second, while it's a complex issue, it is extremely unlikely that high intensity, low volume, low frequency is optimal for hypertrophy, compared to something with more volume. Lifters and most athletes in the developmental stage will want to develop muscle.
    • Third, a personal concern with very aggressive progressions like SS/SL is that the level of weight handled can increase much faster than the strength of connective tissue. Connective tissue does get much stronger, but you are talking about progression over multiple months, not weeks.
    • Fourth, it's hard to get good technique when every rep is done as part of close to near-maximal sets. If you are a beginner and all your squatting is super-hard, there's a good chance you are cutting the depth short and that your form is breaking down. That's hardly going to give you good squatting habits.

    Now certainly, I think I feel pretty safe in saying that nointermediate or advanced lifters wouldn't train that way. And that's sort of the point- programme advocates say that there is something special about beginners that lets them train that way. So how do more advanced lifters train train? Well, in lots and lots of different ways. But some general themes: more frequency, more volume, more variety in intensity. This last is something that needs emphasizing I think.

    Variety in intensity doesn't just mean they do high reps for the pump. It also means that they tend to do a lot of work in the "heavy but not bull bustingly heavy" levels, which are usually said to be around 70-85% of your maximum. These are, as I understand it, especially important in strength training. The reason is that at this level you are getting a high level of activation of muscles and the nervous system and are therefore triggering the adaptations to train strength. It's also subjectively hard enough that you need to concentrate and try hard- if you don't, technique will break down. But... it's light enough that you are unlikely to fail, you can use good or very good technique with every rep as long as you trying really hard, and you can do a tonne of volume. I've never done the programme myself, but I believe this is part of how Sheiko programmes work- an absolute boatload of volume in this really, really important intensity range. (Example Sheiko programme here).

    Now here's my question... if there's no actual evidence for the SS/SL hypothesis... and the intensity is too high to learn good technique... and the volume is too low to develop muscle optimally... and it creates injury risks... why use high intensity, low volume, low frequency for beginners at all? Why not use the basic approach to lifting that works for more experienced lifters- higher volume, higher frequency, range of intensity including plenty of work in the 70-85% range? (And, even if there **is** some evidence that the SS/SL hypothesis is true- it seems to me very plausible that it's still not necessarily best for your development in the longer term, because of how poor it is for learning technique and developing muscle and connective tissue.)

    So what do you guys think? Do you believe that high intensity/low frequency/low volume really does develop strength most efficiently? If not, what do you recommend for new lifters? I had it in mind to try to design a beginners' programme based on the principles above, but I feel like it should be someone much much more experienced and stronger than me who does that.

    Especially interested in hearing from strong folks and coaches!

    If I said anything wrong, happy to be corrected.
     
    Last edited: Aug 13, 2016
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  2. MandirigmaFit

    MandirigmaFit Blue Belt

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    I don't think a beginner should even know their 1RM and I am talking about novices with zero to minimal lifting experiences.

    I don't think there are any definitive studies on what a beginner should train at, in regards with intensity (%) because all strength training will yield results in the deconditioned.

    When I train my novices/gen pop. they all do 5x5 or 5x3 just shy of the most weight that they can handle without breaking form for that set/rep scheme.

    Most of the adaptations in the first 4-8 weeks are neural (rate coding, motor unit recruitment). Hypertrophy not so much in the beginning.

    Also, IME, most beginners do not have the capacity/discipline to handle high-volume with the necessary intensity(%) enough to maintain movement posture.
     
  3. JauntyAngle

    JauntyAngle International man of mystery

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    Thanks for replying. Some questions/follow-up:

    True... but I think it still makes sense to distinguish between max effort and near it, and "hard but doable". At that level you'd see other things like some tendency for form to break down, some slowing down of the bar, some effort to get through sticking points. That is the sort of thing you'd see at 70-85% for an experienced lifter- even though it's not 70-85% for the beginner (for the reason that percentages don't make complete sense for them).

    Yep, that makes sense to me.[/quote]

    How about frequency and weekly volume?

    And progression? I think if I was coaching a beginner I would want to add weight, but I want them to accumulate reps and time under the bar with a given weight too.

    Okay, maybe in the first 4-8 weeks you do just the 5x3 or 5x5, how about backoff sets after that?

    Maybe a lot of beginners wouldn't have the patience to do 5x10 or something like that, but they should be able to do something. Even if it's a bit light, the sooner they do it, the sooner they get used to it, the sooner they can do it with a bit more weight.
     
  4. MandirigmaFit

    MandirigmaFit Blue Belt

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    In regards to frequency, if I can have them hit the main compound lifts once per week, then I am happy. Usually, LP is what I use for the first few cycles. Novices have less specific training needs and there is a lot of carryover in adaptations.

    Honestly, I am very conservative in my training, so I never have my athletes/clients/patients lift to failure in the beginning, and I progress my clients slowly. As soon as a movement deviation happens, I normally do not let them do another rep. I never go into a session saying that client A will hit these numbers today. I periodize daily, just like nutrition, and that is where coaching experience comes in.

    I hope I am not being too redundant because I have posted this elsewhere before. A general strength training block goes something like this:
    Week 1 5x5
    Week 2 5x3
    Week 3 Work up to a heavy single or double
    Repeat.
    I will deload/do back off sessions when need necessary. Nothing set in stone at this stage.

    When it comes to intermediate athletes, then I have an idea of what I can expect every week.
     
  5. corpse

    corpse Random Belt

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    why don't you consider rep ranges above 5? i don't think 8-12 reps or even up to 20 is a waste of time. not for beginners and not for advanced lifters, also. i would not treat every client with the same 1-5 reps programme, as i have a lot ppl who don't like lifting below 10 reps at all. in my experience, 3 sets of 10 to 20 reps is the best way to ease the total beginners into more heavy workouts when they got used to the fatigue and correct form of the movements.

    most ppl who have no clue about lifting, wouldn't understand low reps anyway. if i would tell them from the beginning to go for only 5 reps, they would think i am strange guy and hire the next curl monkey.
     
  6. MilkManUK

    MilkManUK Brown Belt

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    Good thread @JauntyAngle

    Whilst I don't think either programme is optimal, mainly for the reasons you have already listed, I do think they are just fine for an introduction into strength training for a pure beginner.

    There is so much conflicting, and over complicated information out there, that I think starting someone out on one of these programmes teaches them some important points that help to lay a good foundation for the rest of their lifting life.

    Main points being:
    - Building the habit. You will be lifting three times a week, every week.
    - Stick to the programme - whether this is 3 months, six months or whenever until you are not progressing in the linear fashion anymore, just stick to the bloody programme and get on with it.
    - Keep it simple. Make the big multi joint compound lifts the base of your lifting, and strive to progress on these. Of course there is a time and place for accessory work, hypertrophy stuff etc, but I think at a pure beginner stage, it's good to try and master the big lifts, the ones that chances are they have been avoiding if they have had any previous time in the gym, add weight to them and enjoy some newbie strength gains.
    - Rest and eating. Granted the dietary advice in SS leaves alot to be desired, but again for a pure newb, they may not have any idea how much they should be eating for strength gains, so I guess it comes down to reinforcing the habit again. Also, rest is something overlooked, because let's face it, it's not very exciting and rest articles probably don't sell many magazines, or get many clicks on the internet, but is still an important aspect of a training programme.

    I think many people stay on SS too long (I know a guy who was on it for years, never progressed past a certain level, and ultimately now seems to have given up on strength training altogether) and likewise I think some people don't stay on it long enough and quickly programme hop to something else. There are plenty of other programmes out there that will also be suitable for beginners and perhaps better, but it's sticking to them. I think even a sensibly programmed and balanced "bodybuilder" split would bring decent results for a newb, and perhaps would bring more encouraging hypertrophy results early on, but I think purely concentrating on aesthetic goals is hard to measure or maintain, whereas the number on the bar doesn't lie (providing passable form is maintained when the weight gets heavier) so you can see you are progressing within the set rep range.


    I need to have a cup of coffee now, so I will state that in the grand scheme of things, if you are intending on a long lifting life, a few months / six months of a beginner's programme such as SS or SL will not hurt, will hopefully build good habits, good form on the basic barbell lifts (OK this may be debatable), and eventually will build familiarity with what it feels like to have a relatively heavy load on the bat, and having to complete multiple sets with that weight.
    If I was to go back to the start of my lifting life, I would still run SS, and probably run it for longer than what I did, as I believe I still had more to "milk" from it.
     
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  7. JauntyAngle

    JauntyAngle International man of mystery

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    Actually, I will and do consider rep ranges above 5. I wasn't super clear about it, but that is part of what I meant when I said doing work with more variety in the rep ranges. What I am thinking is something like this:

    * First four weeks, just 5x5 in the main lifts

    * Thereafter, 5 sets of 3 in the main lifts followed by 5 sets of 8-10; starting at 50%, working up to over 60% over a few weeks or months

    I would consider adding extra upper back work done even higher rep, although I think this would partly depend on the athlete.

    That being said, I am thinking about what works, not what people's reactions will be. I am trying to figure out how I would train a beginner who put themselves in my hands and would do what I said.
     
  8. JauntyAngle

    JauntyAngle International man of mystery

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    I get that, but if they really are flawed, shouldn't there be a beginners' programme which is also really easy to follow, ingrains habits etc, which isn't so flawed?
     
  9. Obscure Terror

    Obscure Terror ................................. Platinum Member

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    Another thing to consider is exercise selection. Getting a beginner interested in and bitten by the iron bug is pretty hard, so I'm not necessarily sure that Squat/Bench/Dead is ideal for an absolute beginner anyway - I'm talking someone who has never even done bro stuff before.

    Generally I would pick one of the three to focus on technically and substitute in easier variants on the others. For example squat, incline bench and barbell rows, or leg press, dumbbell bench and deadlift. This is useful for someone who hasn't done anything athletic for a while/at all - they can focus on the technical cues of one, but the other two lifts just kind of "click" with most people. Long term goal clearly expressed to the trainee that we want to get them to squatting, benching and deadlifting.

    The nice thing about this is that it promotes the acquisition of a new skill as the goal, not so much weight increases, it will put some muscle on/cut fat off the trainee and keep them interested in the critical early stages of training - while they build that habit of always going to the gym M/W/F or whatever.
     
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  10. xPINKx

    xPINKx i like turtles

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    I'm not able to quote any studies done on this topic and I guess there aren't many anyways, however I believe there are a few points you failed to include in your train of thought:
    1. Rippetoe preaches the importance of warm-up sets. These sets are usually done in all the different ranges of intensity and will help a lifter work on proper form.
    2. SS and SL are strength programs, which is why hypertrophy isn't their focus at all. For strength development, you want to keep the volume very low and the intensity rather high, that way your regeneration is manageable and you can harvest maximum strength-gains. Strength is probably a good starting point for any trainee, because it can make working on power as well as hypertrophy more efficient.
    3. Progression is the key to any strength program. Beginners can progress their weight from session to session and still keep at it, intermediates need to do this every week or every month. Any variety in a training program is merely included because a simple progression like on SS or SL is not feasible anymore.
    4. Volume kills. If you have a beginner lift near the volume of the Sheiko-cycle you posted, he will be annihilated after the first week. You first need to build up work capacity.
    5. Maybe it is the best way to develop connective tissue. While there are much better ways to train for an increase in muscle mass, I'm not sure what way to condition the connective tissue for lifting would be better. High volume easily leads to overuse injuries, especially in beginner lifters with questionable form, and if you begin lifting with low volume and relatively low weight, which can still be high intensity, you can easily adapt. In SL you start with the bar only and add weight from there, your body will be able to handle the weight, once it gets heavy.
     
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  11. JauntyAngle

    JauntyAngle International man of mystery

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    Thanks for replying. Some good points. However, one thing I done entirely agree with, and one thing definitely wrong.

    The first thing... I was aware that Rippetoe advocates warming up. But personally I think that very light sets have limited use in learned correct technique. They are okay at the start but after a while to improve you need to have a decent amount of weight on the bar. Very few of the warmup reps will be heavy enough to give meaningful practice.

    The thing that is definitely wrong. You suggest that somehow strength programmeso are totally different from hypertrophy programmes, as if strength programmes are purely to increase strength by increase neural efficiency and intra-muscular coordination. That's definitely not the case. Strength is maximal force production. Training strength is training increased force production by any means, whether that is improving the lifters technique, increasing efficiency or increasing muscle mass. That's why some strength programmes include hypertrophy elements.

    Anyway, aside from being incorrect it's not the point. Even if SS is not intended to achieve hypertrophy goals, the question is- should it? Is it okay for a beginners programme not to consider hypertrophy goals?
     
  12. Pitbull

    Pitbull White Belt

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    Warm up sets and 3 x 5 are more than enough to practice the lifts. Light warm up sets re important for working on technique no matter how advanced you are. People don't take warm up sets seriously enough. It goes without saying you need to work with heavier weights as well.

    To suggest a routine that has you warm up and then do 3 sets of 5 isn't enough to ensure you have good form is ridiculous. A lot of people ramp up to a top set. This is what I do, I sometimes add a back off set. With your logic I'm only doing one set for an exercise when I am actually doing up to ten sets. All the sets are important for improving my form.
     
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2016
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  13. pokerandbeer

    pokerandbeer Green Belt

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    Jaunty lets have a look at said program you want to put together and we will have a better idea of what you want.
     
  14. SexyMahnaz

    SexyMahnaz Green Belt

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    I think he's just throwing ideas around and talking theoretically.

    I agree with this & if I could go back in time I'd tell myself that warm up sets aren't just for injury prevention and something I can skip or replace with say stretching, but a key component of training that's actually going to get me stronger faster. I remember reading routines and mentally skipping through the warm up parts to get to the meat & potatoes of the program. That was a mistake.
     
  15. JauntyAngle

    JauntyAngle International man of mystery

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    Yeah, I don't have said programme... I was just wondering if such a thing is possible.
     
  16. JauntyAngle

    JauntyAngle International man of mystery

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    IMO, good form in the lifts is something that is acquired over tens of thousands of repetitions. Not tens of repetitions.

    Light warmup has some value for learning technique, but only limited value. My snatch with the empty bar is pretty good... and I can do it as much as I want, it does zero to help me with my snatch with weight on the bar. By far the best way to learn technique is to lift with heavy but not maximal sets.

    Honestly I am surprised that you describing my view as "ridiculous". I believe it would be shared my many high-level lifters and coaches. And even if I am not correct, there are good reasons to believe it. It's hardly ridiculous.
     
    Last edited: Aug 14, 2016
  17. pokerandbeer

    pokerandbeer Green Belt

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    as Louie SImmons would say..."any idiot can squat, bench and deadlift"

    OLympic lifting is much different
     
  18. JauntyAngle

    JauntyAngle International man of mystery

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    Do you think the powerlifts are that easy? I mean, sure, they are technically less demanding than the oly lifts. But IMO going from "basically okay" to "excellent" is something that takes years, and a *lot* of practice.
     
  19. MilkManUK

    MilkManUK Brown Belt

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    You needn't look much further than your local gym to see that most people who even attempt the big three, have very little clue what they are doing and produce some horrendous form on each lift, so I agree that doing the powerlifts correctly takes alot of practice and tweaking.
     
  20. Seriously-Dead

    Seriously-Dead wubbalubbadubdub

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    I agree with most of your points, and would like to add one more.

    The biggest problem with SS/SL is that the volume for upper body lifts is way too low. Only doing 15-30 reps per session on the upper body is way too low, and people end up stalling on their press way too soon (with the bench and row soon to follow). There's a lot of nuance in developing the upper body, there's a lot of small muscles that require some attention to control properly. The shoulder girdle covers a very wide range of motion in reality, and these programs don't fully address that. Any traditional BB program or gymnastic strength program will blow SS/SL out of the water in terms of well-rounded upper body development, both in strength and size.

    I think most people can get away with lower volume for the lower body lifts, simply because they are used more in daily life (most people walk, run, play sports on their feet, pick shit up, etc.), generally have some sort of base in terms of strength, and because it's comprised of fewer muscles that are much larger and have less complicated joint movements compared to the shoulder girdle.

    Personally I like having beginners use different combinations of volume and intensity, where for the lower body they err on the on higher intensity side, and the upper body they err on the higher volume side. But ultimately this is a very general principle and the actual program is largely dictated by the client's needs, current capacity, and prior injuries.
     
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