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The Starting Strength Workout Regime: An In-Depth Look

Since its introduction to the strength training scene, Starting Strength has become one of the most popular strength training programs for novice weightlifters.

But what is the Starting Strength program? How do you follow the Starting Strength weightlifting program? Is the Starting Strength strength training program difficult?

In this article, we will discuss what the Starting Strength routine involves, the pros and cons of the Starting Strength weightlifting program, and how to follow it.

We will cover the following: 

  • What Is Starting Strength?
  • Main Principles of the Starting Strength Workout Program
  • Pros and Cons of the Starting Strength Program
  • How to Follow the Starting Strength Program

Let’s dive in! 

People doing deadlifts in a gym.

What Is Starting Strength?

Starting Strength is a beginner strength training program developed in 2005 by Strength Coach and former powerlifter Mark Rippetoe. 

The Starting Strength program focuses on the big basic lifts and foundational compound exercises to build general strength and learn the foundations of strength training.

Main Principles of the Starting Strength Workout Program

The Starting Strength training program centers around six compound exercises: squats, bench presses, deadlifts, power clean, overhead presses, and chin-ups.

With this program, you will do three full-body workouts per week.

There are two Starting Strength workouts (Workout A and Workout B), so because you are training three days per week, you will do Workout A on Monday the first week, Workout  B on Wednesday the first week, and then Workout A again on Friday or Saturday of that training week.

People doing deadlifts in a gym, one of the exercises of the Starting Strength program.

The following training week would begin with Workout B on Monday, then back to Workout A on Wednesday, and then your third workout of the week would be Workout B.

Each Starting Strength workout focuses on three compound exercises, and you perform three sets of five reps of most exercises per workout. The exception is with deadlifts and power cleans, which involve just one set of five reps.

The Starting Strength training program has three phases, and you progress by increasing the weight/load a little bit every workout. This is a gradual, linear progression model, but over time, gains will accumulate and you will be lifting much heavier weights.

The overall goal of the Starting Strength program is to develop general strength and mastery of the five big compound weightlifting exercises.

Pros and Cons of the Starting Strength Program

There are several benefits of the Starting Strength weightlifting program as well as some potential drawbacks.

When trying to decide if doing the Starting Strength program is right for you, consider the pros and cons relative to your own training goals, fitness level, and preferences.

A person doing a back squat.

Here are the main benefits of the Starting Strength routine:

  • Starting strength requires training only three days per week, so it is a great option for people who don’t want to spend every day in the gym lifting weights.
  • The Starting Strength workouts generally take 45 minutes or less, so it’s time efficient for busy recreational weightlifters.
  • Starting Strength is easy to follow and understand, and it sets an excellent strength foundation with key movement patterns for the big compound lifts, making it a great strength training program for beginners.
  • Because progression is linear and workouts repeat, it’s easy to see gains in strength, which can be super motivating.
  • Because Starting Strength workouts are full body workouts, all of the major muscle groups will get trained several times per week, maximizing your strength and mass gains.
A person doing a back squat.

Here are some of the downsides of the Starting Strength workout program:

  • The workout program is best suited for beginners and novices and may not be aggressive enough with training volume or varied enough for intermediate and advanced weightlifters. 
  • Workouts can get repetitive because there are only two different Starting Strength workouts that you cycle between.
  • Starting strength workouts have twice the training volume for lower body exercises than for upper body training, which can lead to lagging strength in the upper body.
  • There are no clear guidelines regarding when to transition to the next phase of the program.

How to Follow the Starting Strength Program

One of the key characteristics of the Starting Strength program is that there are three distinct phases. There is not a specific length of time for each phase; rather, you are supposed to stay on a given phase as long as you are still progressing and recovering well. 

A power clean.

It is actually best if you can stay at each phase for as long as possible and still continue to progress from workout to workout because this will maximize your total gains over the course of the program and lead to bigger improvements.

If you plateau, then you should move on to the next phase.

Another indication that it is time to move on to phase 2 from phase 1 is if your deadlift weight has far exceeded your squat weight.

Most people stick with phase 1 for about 3 to 4 weeks, but it is really dependent on your own background in weightlifting, how comfortable you are with the compound exercises, your starting loads, and the rate of your progression.

Phase 2 generally lasts anywhere from just 3 to 4 weeks to 3 to 4 months; again, this will be dependent on the factors listed above.

Phase 3 of Starting Strength usually lasts for several months.

You should continue with the Starting Strength program until you have clearly reached a strength plateau. Be mindful not to conflate a bad workout with a true plateau. 

A power clean.

If you have a couple of tough days in the gym where you don’t seem to be making progress, give your body a few days of lighter weights and then try to ramp up past your ending weight to see if you just need more recovery or if you have truly reached a plateau.

You will start each new phase with the same weight that you ended the previous phase on.

For example, if you end phase 1 with a 165-pound (75 kg) squat, begin phase 2 of Starting Strength with a 165-pound squat and then increase the weight for the next workout.

In terms of the starting weight that you should use, novice and beginner weight lifters usually just start with the bar, but if you have decent strength already, you can add weight until you start to feel fatigued after five total reps. 

Ultimately, you will be working up to a weight that is equivalent to your 5RM (which will continue to increase as you get stronger with each week of the program). 

However, just taking the first week or two with the unloaded barbell or with light weights on the bar is a good idea to help ensure that you are mastering the techniques for each of the big lifts before worrying too much about the loads.

A bench press.

You should be incrementally increasing your weight or load for every workout. 

During the first couple of workouts, particularly if you start with the bar only, you might be able to make a 5 to 10-pound increase. Once you have crested through the “novice gains,“ the implements will be smaller, more along the lines of 1/2 to 2 pounds.

Note that if you are unable to do all five reps with the weight for all three sets of a given exercise, use the same weight load for the next workout until you can do every rep as written in the workout.

Once you get going with the Starting Strength program, before doing your main sets for each workout, do a couple of warm-up sets to build up to your top weight. Start with about 50-60% of the weight that you will use for the workout.

For all of the Starting Strength workouts, rest for about 3 to 5 minutes between sets. This should feel like complete rest.

Phase 1 of Starting Strength is designed for novice weightlifters. You will work with just four exercises. Each phase will introduce one additional exercise with some modifications to the workouts themselves as well.

A bench press.

Here is the entire detailed breakdown of the Starting Strength phases and workouts within each phase:

Phase 1 

Workout A:

  1. Squat: 3 sets of 5 reps
  2. Overhead Press: 3 sets of 5 reps
  3. Deadlift: 1 set of 5 reps

Workout B:

  1. Squat: 3 sets of 5 reps
  2. Bench Press: 3 sets of 5 reps
  3. Deadlift: 1 set of 5 reps 

Phase 2

This phase introduces the power clean exercise. 

To establish the weight for the power clean exercise, it’s a good idea to start with a relatively light weight, so you can get through five reps with good form for the first workout and then try to dial in to get closer to your 5RM load for each set in subsequent phase 2 workouts. 

Workout A:

  1. Squat: 3 sets of 5 reps
  2. Overhead Press: 3 sets of 5 reps
  3. Deadlift: 1 set of 5 reps

Workout B:

  1. Squat: 3 sets of 5 reps
  2. Bench Press: 3 sets of 5 reps
  3. Power Clean: 1 set of 5 reps
An overhead press.

Phase 3

The final phase of the Starting Strength program introduces the chin-up. Begin with bodyweight chin-ups. 

Once you can do ten reps in a row, add weight to the chin-up exercise with a weighted vest, chains, plates attached to your body, etc.

Add enough weight so that you can only manage about 5 to 7 reps before failure.

Note that for all of the other compound lifts in phase 3, you will probably start to have to use microplates to continue to incrementally add load each workout as gains will begin to get smaller.

Workout A:

  1. Squat: 3 sets of 5 reps
  2. Bench Press: 3 sets of 5 reps
  3. Deadlift: 1 set of  5 reps

Workout B:

  1. Squat: 3 sets of 5 reps
  2. Bench Press: 3 sets of 5 reps
  3. Power Clean: 1 set of 5 reps
  4. Chin-Up: 3 sets of 5-10 reps

Make sure to keep track of the weights that you use for each workout so that you can ensure that you are progressing.

If you are looking to add a bit more variety to your strength training workouts, check out our extensive list of compound exercises here.

A person grabbing a barbell.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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