How should I prepare to do Starting Strength?
January 4, 2015 8:50 PM   Subscribe

I recently finished reading the weightlifting program Starting Strength and would like to try to follow it this year. However, I'm in pretty bad shape for a 26-year-old man and I have a bunch of bad habits. Given this, how should I prepare to follow Starting Strength? For instance: How should I gain flexibility beforehand, if necessary? How should I look for a good trainer and a good gym? If you've been in my situation, what worked and didn't work for you?

Details on where I'm starting from: I'm overweight, roughly 215 lbs. at 5'11"; sedentary, despite a brief flirtation with regular swimming; and inflexible. I've also never managed to stick to any exercise/diet program in the past. My diet is starchy and, at 26, I don't know how to make healthy meals for myself. Finally, I occasionally get random aches in my knees/lower back just by existing, and I'm not sure how serious any of them are. Just in case it matters, I live and work in the Woburn area of Boston's northern suburbs, and I live with my mother and stepfather.

So given where I'm starting from, how should I prepare to follow this program?
posted by Rustic Etruscan to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
 
I picked up Starting Strength when I was the age you are now and didn't actually do anything serious with it until I was 31, so, I guess my first piece of advice to you would be "don't be me." I held off for so long partly due to life circumstances, partly due to being intimidated by the gym, and partly due to fear of learning complex lifts, because so much is built up around them "being dangerous." What I would recommend to you is that you study the squat chapter intensely, go to a gym with proper equipment, and just attempt the movements you read about with an empty bar, or even just a piece of PVC pipe or something similarly light if they have that there. Do the same with the other lifts, then very carefully add weight and follow the program. The thing about the compound barbell lifts is that, if you're coming to them with no athletic background (like I was), you have to spend some time in the beginning stages cultivating a sort of body awareness that eventually becomes automatic. But you can't really pay attention to everything at once--you have to work on one aspect, let that become second nature, then work on another, etc., until the lift form is good and you can start challenging yourself more directly.

The path I ultimately followed was joining a Crossfit gym (which incorporates most of the lifts covered in SS lifts; it's not super-common for Crossfit gyms to incorporate bench pressing, for instance, since that doesn't scale well in the group-class model that they have, but you'll see coverage of all types of squats, deadlifts, cleans, and the overhead press... the other caveat is that the quality of coaching at Crossfit gyms tends to vary widely, too, so I wouldn't recommend it without doing your homework first), using that as a springboard, and then working more closely with a trainer at a different gym with whom I had developed a good coaching relationship and who writes personalized programs for me now.

But it all depends on the resources you have available to you and how much you're willing to commit (generally either money or time). Rippetoe publishes a DVD of him coaching people that accompanies the SS book. It's kind of repetitive, but I think that's the point; you get to see a wide range of people, with a wide range of body types, doing the lifts at different angles and receiving coaching cues. If you're a visual learner who would be helped by that, I would recommend that you track it down. There are ample instructional YouTube videos as well... there is a lot of conflicting information out there, but if you expose yourself to enough of the information I think you'll be able to figure out what would work for you and what wouldn't.

One other thing that people do sometimes is video themselves and post to a lifting forum for critique/form check. This happens fairly regularly in Reddit's r/fitness and I would guess even moreso in lifting-specific subreddits. If you're not working out with a trainer or partner, I'd definitely suggest that you try to incorporate yourself into some sort of online community dedicated to the sport so that you can receive that kind of feedback and get an idea for other people's experiences. The other advantage to working out with someone (physically or virtually) is that you can have someone keeping an eye on things you can't see. Bad form isn't likely to cause injury or even necessarily be noticeable to you at really light weights (like an empty bar), but it can become a problem once things start to get heavy, and then you end up having to take the weight back down and retrain with correct form (or worse, get sidelined with an injury), which is discouraging.
posted by Kosh at 9:11 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I found that what worked for me was making the gym a social situation. You join a couple of easy classes and just keep showing up for a couple of months. Chat a bit but don't spend a lot of energy at it. Once you're comfortable with the environment you'll have a good idea about what kind of trainer you'll respond to.
For flexibility I do gentle yoga, for endurance zumba works. For general warm up I spend time on the rowing machine. For cool down I do treadmill for 10 or 20 minutes.
Bring music.
Your goals are better formulated after you've incorporated gym time into your regular schedule.
Now you can start working up the strength training because the gym becomes another room in your house.
posted by ptm at 10:06 PM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I was a good high school athlete and continue to run distance races and play soccer at a reasonably high level into my early 30s. Starting Strength has been a big part of my training routine for the last few years-I don't directly do the program any more, but circle around through variations.

I recommend signing up for ten sessions with a personal trainer-tell them exactly what you told us. You want someone who will evaluate your current physical condition, give you a plan to get you into good enough physical condition to successfully execute Starting Strength, and train you to perform the Starting Strength lifts. Be wary of someone who is trying to shoehorn you into their own plan. It will be hard for you to evaluate what makes a good trainer, but, at your level you'll be looking for someone who is honest and likable and professional and listens to your concerns-that shouldn't be too hard to find, this kind of knowledge isn't too specialized for a personal trainer, so it's more about a personality fit and their general professionalism and work ethic and you should be able to evaluate that part of it at least.

For me, even coming from an athletic background, this was invaluable: I have a (known and rehabbed) torn ligament in my left knee that had created a strength imbalance, and I have particularly stiff hips. These issues affected my ability to successfully execute squats and deadlifts, so it was (and is) important to pay special attention to these areas as part of my regular routine. You will have some special circumstances yourself that the trainer will help you to identify. Good luck!
posted by Kwine at 10:47 PM on January 4, 2015


I did the same thing as you (but older). The program will totally help with the back pain as long as you don't create a new injury by doing the lifts wrong with heavy weight.

Random observations:
Some people will say to get coaching first so you learn it the right way from the start, but in my case it helps more (and is more cost effective) to try to learn it on my own at first (low weights). Scrupulously follow every word in the book about form, criticizing yourself as much as possible. When it starts to actually feel heavy, like you might not make it, then get a check-out from a coach. Possibly go back down in weight and adjust.

Doing it correctly is the most important. The book tells you, and it's not a joke, that it is a mistake to get impatient and move up in weight too quickly.

One handy thing I still wish I had is little perfect-height jackstands for loading and unloading deadlifts just above the floor. I do it on the floor and it's a PITA.

I wouldn't worry too much about stretching, but don't skip the warmup sets. Like Rip writes, the best stretching for squats is... squats (at a lower weight)

If you feel too sore from the last time - do it anyway. It actually makes the soreness go away as you do the warmup sets.

This is the only exercise program I've ever done that eventually I started to like and look forward to. A little light soreness from deadlifts and squats actually feels good.

If in doubt, your butt isn't going back far enough on the squats. And your knees aren't vertical.
posted by ctmf at 12:21 AM on January 5, 2015


Boy, this is a broad question. It's hard to know what you'll need. Here's the thing, though: just get started as best you can. When you run into trouble, debug the issue and keep going.

Step one: get a place to work out. Find a few gyms near home or work, drop by, and ask to see their squat rack. As you know from the book, a Smith machine is unacceptable; you need a power rack or squat rack. Make sure the gym allows deadlifts. Ask to do a trial workout, and then during that trial workout your goal is to be the worst version of yourself that you will ever be. For SS, this means, at a minimum: failing a squat and letting it fall a few inches to the safety rails (this should be faked—don't overload the bar in order to fail), deadlifting and dropping the bar a few inches from the ground on its way down, and doing power cleans. These things may make noise; that's the point. If anything you're going to do is going to get you kicked out, you want it to be now.

Step two: start doing the program. Bring your workout notebook, and just do as best you can. If you can, videotape your work sets according to these instructions, so you can review your form. While you're at it, reread the book from cover to cover and reread specific sections when you can't remember exactly what correct form is.

Step three: make sure you're eating plenty of chicken, steak, pork, eggs, yogurt, and milk. Eat those things first then fill in the rest of your appetite with starches. Try to cut down on deep-fried stuff and sweets. If you're truly unable to cook, start with meat slop.

Step four: pay attention to your body. You almost certainly lack lower back control, hamstring flexibility, and mobility in the ankles, hips, and shoulders. Don't freak out about this. Just pay attention, do some research, and look into anything that looks wrong in your form checks. If going to a yoga class (say, twice a week) is easier for you than trying to find and fix these issues yourself, do that.

Feel free to (m)email any specific questions.
posted by daveliepmann at 1:23 AM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I tried it roughly a year ago, and read the book, watched the videos, read all the commentary on the books, and wound up with a torn rotator cuff and chronic tendonitis for my troubles, and courted nerve damage by not using a bar-pad for squats (an arm went numb for an hour). You don't generally hear these kinds of stories on the various fitness forums, as folks typically drop out of the iron-pumping game when they're sidelined for a year or more with a nagging injury.

Barbell training is not for the uncoached and out of shape beginner, as a small mistake in form can cause long-term injury. It is possible to do it on your own, but the consequences of failure are severe (and expensive, I forked over around grand in medical bills for my trouble). I would strongly suggest that you will need a personal trainer to go through the technique with you and perform corrections on the fly, and asses your condition as you progress. Once you make significant progress, then you can go solo, with occasional checkups.

If I were to do it over again, I would begin with bodyweight exercises and resistance bands, then move to dumbells. Some professional athletes (like American Football quarterback Tom Brady) base their entire strength regimen on resistance bands - you don't need to pump iron to get and stay strong. Since I actually am doing it over again, as soon as I get the go-ahead from the ortho, I'll start the Convict Conditioning program, and move from there to a resistance band program.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:59 AM on January 5, 2015


If you're going to start Starting Strength, you're going to be changing a lot of habits. Hitting the weights 3x/week, eating enough to keep your body going, and also changing your muscle:fat ratio is going to require changing your habits. Figure out what better foods you like. Eat more vegetables and whole grains, and healthy sources of a shit-ton of protein. Figure out what nerdy food blog to follow and learn about healthy cooking and eating ad enthusiastically as you dive into SS.

Take a 30-minute walk every day after dinner. It's good recovery (you will be sore and tired from SS), and it's fat-burning.

It's all about building yourself an environment that will help you succeed at this stuff. Diet/exercise programs are difficult for people when they are hoops that they have to jump through. They're a lot easier for people when they're incorporated into their daily routine, when they're things to enjoy and embrace rather than obligations.
posted by entropone at 7:01 AM on January 5, 2015


These are all great suggestions. Also check out /r/fitness and /r/startingstrength on Reddit. They're big advocates of Starting Strength.
posted by the jam at 7:35 AM on January 5, 2015


I *highly* recommend, if you have some $$, to go to a gym where a Starting Strength coach is based and do some sessions. Not-naturally-athletic people ususally have poor propioperception; you can't see and feel what you are doing with new movements, and it is quite difficult, even with videos, to change things well by yourself. My coach did wonders for me; if you're particularly interested in SS, then go to the source.

If you are serious about getting stronger, you will need to change your diet up ; that's another post;some good advice above.

Some links for more of a deep dive- Wiki. Forums.

One thing finally; it is easy to become obsessed with perfect form, perfect efficiency and perfect diet; lots of the literature out there is aimed at proto-athletes or a CEO mindset where every minute is important.

For most mortals, developing good habits and self-discipline over the first few months is MUCH more important than perfect form. In other words, don't try and "hack" this to give a quick short term fix, don't beat yourself up over lack of progress (but do work hard on getting better), try to do the exercises regularly, don't rush things - a great way to get injured, and try as hard as possible to stick to reasonable eating habits.
posted by lalochezia at 9:14 AM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Back when I did SS, the best prep I did was a squat stretch where you squat down quite low, brace your elbows against the insides of your knees, and push your palms together.
The first row of images in a google search all look about right.
My partner and I would do three thirty-second stretches like that before we did our squats for the first couple months.
posted by Kreiger at 9:53 AM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I 100% agree with lalochezia's last paragraph. Slow, steady, and don't get into any feedback loop about exercise-related anxiety.

How should I look for a good trainer and a good gym? If you've been in my situation, what worked and didn't work for you?

I did bodyweight stuff for a while before I ever went to a gym, and I think it was great for building a base of strength. You can do unweighted squats at home, you can replace bench press with pushups or knee-style pushups, and you can deadlift something heavy-ish around the house, like a couple gallon jugs of water or milk. You can do these TODAY! You can do them TONIGHT! You do not need to wait! This is a thing you can accomplish RIGHT AWAY

That being said, a good trainer should be able to help you at whatever level you're at. I would just emphasize to the trainer that you've read SS, that you're interested in building strength with good enough form to prevent injury, and that you're completely new to weightlifting. Really emphasize the completely new aspect; a friend of mine injured his knee with just the weight of the bar, so don't be afraid to keep the weights real real light as long as you're doing it consistently.

ALSO:
I found that what worked for me was making the gym a social situation.

That is totally helpful to some people, but it is 100% unhelpful to me. There are many things about exercise that I have discovered are Bad Demons to me:
- encouraging words from well-meaning people
- paying attention to goals and numbers
- comparing my progress to the progress of others or being in any way competitive

A lot of people come to gym situations with a background in team sports, and find the above things to help motivate them. But they are poison to my soul, and all of the benefits I have received from exercise have been from solitude, quietness, and focusing on each moment rather than an endpoint.

These things may make noise; that's the point. If anything you're going to do is going to get you kicked out, you want it to be now.

Yeah, to piggyback on this, Planet Fitness is notorious for allowing very little noise at their gyms. In NYC, I had good luck with both the Y and with a grimy dark gym that was largely used by dudes who looked like sullen bouncers. You might try the Y in Woburn, and see how their weight room looks!

I also, coincidentally, just went to Danvers's Boston North Fitness Center, and to Choice Fitness in Haverhill ($15 and $10 day passes for each, respectively, while visiting family in northern MA). Both were very nice with plenty of weights and a couple of squat racks and no one yelling at me when my deadlifts did a big CLANK. If you can't find anything closer, it looks like Boston North Fitness Center is only like 25 minutes away from you!
posted by Greg Nog at 10:20 AM on January 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


I have been moderately successful with Starting Strength. Here are my suggestions:

1: Less thinking and more lifting. Action will always trump inaction. This is not license to lift with poor form.
2: Get a training partner to lift with. It helps if you're a roughly the same level of fitness and strength. It gives you accountability, makes changing weights easier, and makes it easier to reserve squat rack if you or your partner are using it. They will help you on #3, too. If you can't get a training partner, do your best on your own.
3: Don't be a dummy. Start small. Real small. Take the time to warm up. You have to use at least the bar at first, and it's hard to deadlift with just a bar (because it's at the wrong height), but don't assume that if you can deadlift 135 that you can deadlift 315. Your body is not adapted to lifting that weight and you might injure yourself. That's the worst thing that can happen. If you're consistent, you'll have 3 plates on each side of the bar soon enough.
4: Cut out the gym altogether. Build a gym in your back yard or garage if you have one with a bar, some weights, a rack and bench. A small investment will get you there, especially as people start selling their new equipment from Christmas on craigslist.

To the extent that any of the above present an obstacle to you in your commitment to get under the bar, ignore them. Try to find reasons to lift, not reason to not lift. The most important thing is that you start. Don't do dumb things and you will find that you are progressing and that's magical.

Before I began lifting, my wrists hurt and my lower back ached all the time. I attribute the disappearance of those niggling pains to deadlifting. Of course, deadlifting introduced a new host of pains, but the new ones are preferable.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 11:55 AM on January 5, 2015


On learning the lifts: Definitely, at the very least, get the Starting Strength DVD, so you can see what Rip's talking about. If you can find a coach or more experienced lifter to teach you how to lift, awesome! Be aware that your body proportions and any mobility limitations will make you squat and deadliest slightly differently from another lifter; that's why you want a coach around at the very beginning so they can help you adjust your form so you don't wind up injured.

On flexibility: You gain flexibility by, well, stretching. Read Kelly Starrett's book, Becoming a Supple Leopard (title's lame, book's awesome), for excellent advice and stretches. Invest in a $2 lacrosse ball and a $30 foam roller and use them daily.

On food: Change your eating by eating as much protein and green leafy vegetables as you can cram down your gullet. Then eat good fats like avocados, coconut oil. Then starches last. Get yourself a copy of The Joy of Cooking, and learn how to cook meat and cook vegetables. Don't worry: if you can read, you can cook. Once you master cooking meat and vegetables, then you can advance to slightly more complicated healthy meals. For that, you'll need a cookbook. Practical Paleo is very good: it has not only recipes, but meal plans for different dietary needs, a website with the nutrition information breakdown, and lots of pictures, as well as an overview about why one would want to eat a paleo diet in the first place.

You can totally do this. Memail me if you have more specific questions.

Oh, and ctmf: "One handy thing I still wish I had is little perfect-height jackstands for loading and unloading deadlifts just above the floor. I do it on the floor and it's a PITA."

Grab some 5s, put them on the lifting platform under the bar, then roll the bar onto them. Make sure your 5s are near the inside of the plates and the bar. That will lift the bar up enough that you can easily slide all the plates off, without having to lift the bar up off the ground every time you change plates.
posted by culfinglin at 1:54 PM on January 5, 2015


Response by poster: Hey everyone. Thanks for the advice. I realized this was a broad question even before I posted it, so I ran it by the mods just to make sure it was OK, and I plan to post some more specific questions related to this theme in the future.

I *highly* recommend, if you have some $$, to go to a gym where a Starting Strength coach is based and do some sessions. Not-naturally-athletic people ususally have poor propioperception; you can't see and feel what you are doing with new movements, and it is quite difficult, even with videos, to change things well by yourself. My coach did wonders for me; if you're particularly interested in SS, then go to the source.

I tried the search bar linked from "Starting Strength coach" and came up with only eight coaches in the whole US, none of them in Massachusetts. If that's right, that will cost some $$ for sure, though probably good $$: I did some bodyweight squats just now, and despite having a picture of the proper foot angle in Starting Strength, I was completely unsure whether my foot angle was correct. So yeah, my propioperception is pretty bad. SS coach specifically or not, I don't plan to do this alone, certainly not when I'm just starting out.

I also, coincidentally, just went to Danvers's Boston North Fitness Center, and to Choice Fitness in Haverhill ($15 and $10 day passes for each, respectively, while visiting family in northern MA). Both were very nice with plenty of weights and a couple of squat racks and no one yelling at me when my deadlifts did a big CLANK. If you can't find anything closer, it looks like Boston North Fitness Center is only like 25 minutes away from you!

Nice! A friend of mine linked me to a weightlifting gym in Cambridge that looked promising, but like these gyms in Danvers and Haverhill, there would definitely be a bummer of a commute to them after work. There are actually a few gyms not far at all from where I work, and I'll look into those first, but if they're bad I'll start broadening my search.

Get yourself a copy of The Joy of Cooking, and learn how to cook meat and cook vegetables.

I've actually had a copy of both that and How to Cook Everything for two years now, if you can believe it. They're both doorstops, so between the two of them, there should definitely be plenty of recipes that will leave lots of food as leftovers. I'll just have to get up, find those recipes, and actually learn how to make them. The meat slop daveliepmann mentioned is as good a place to start as any.

Once again, thanks to everyone for the advice. I will do my best to follow it.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 5:40 PM on January 5, 2015


Typing in "New York"gave me this.

Typing in Boston or Massachussetts gives nuttin'. Crazy.

Here are some links to SS people in MA

http://startingstrength.com/resources/forum/showthread.php?t=52773
http://startingstrength.com/resources/forum/showthread.php?t=37986
http://startingstrength.com/resources/forum/showthread.php?t=48289

Good luck.
posted by lalochezia at 8:16 PM on January 5, 2015


Response by poster: Not to do the back-and-forth thing, but I turned up that eight-in-the-whole-US figure by searching "United States" after coming up with nothing for Boston or Massachusetts as a whole.

Shame I'm not in NYC, I guess. Thanks so much!
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:05 PM on January 5, 2015


One thing I haven't seen here: make sure you get the right footwear. It sounds really dumb, but it actually made a big difference in my being able to squat comfortably and with proper form. Running shoes tend to make you go onto your toes, which is fine for running, but totally counterproductive once you have a bar on your back (the weight gets unbalanced = bad things for your back). You can certainly use Chucks or some other completely-flat-soled shoe, but weightlifting shoes are even better if you can remotely afford them -- I got these on sale for around $50 during a promotion. Apart from the gym membership this is literally the only piece of gym equipment I had to buy in order to do SS.

Also - yeah, you can definitely injure yourself lifting weights, so you should be sure to make sure your form is impeccable; seeing the right, experienced trainer can definitely help there (wish I could recommend one but I'll ask around -- are you in Boston itself?). But for the sake of perspective, I want to be sure to point out that you can get injured doing anything active. I broke a bone fielding a ball in my relatively-chill rec softball league this past year, ffs. People do all kinds of stuff to themselves running and skiing. The worst I ever did to myself weightlifting was get some lower back pain from squatting and deadlifting incorrectly, which went away completely without medical intervention. Not a license to get sloppy, absolutely! -- but there are way more dangerous fitness-related hobbies you could take up.

You have to use at least the bar at first, and it's hard to deadlift with just a bar (because it's at the wrong height)

This is where bumper plates are wonderful, because the 10lb bumper plate is the same size (actually a cm or so larger) than the 45lb normal plate. Bumper plates!
posted by en forme de poire at 7:39 PM on January 8, 2015


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