Monday, May 19, 2014

WHY ABBREVIATED TRAINING (STARTING STRENGTH, STRONGLIFTS, 5X5, ETC) FAILS: PART I

I have long been a very vocal advocate of abbreviated training as an effective means for a beginner to develop a strong foundation of strength and size before moving on to more high volume/specialized training.  However, as I survey various forums on the internet and witness beginners constantly fail while employing the methods that I found so much success with, it leads me to question to true usefulness of these methods.  I must look inward and ask myself why is it that I and so many others were able to succeed with this approach while so many numerous others can fail.  In doing so, I have arrived at the following possible culprits, and if nothing else, have identified the differences between my experiences and the experiences of others.

1:  These are beginner LIFTING programs, not beginner EXERCISE programs.

This is fundamentally the biggest issue I witness when I see others failing on these routines, and one of the factors that I never really needed to consider when I followed them myself.  Abbreviated training was a principle that was developed and employed by people that were already active in life and had a firm foundation in basic athletics.  When I first started abbreviated training, I had been doing martial arts for about 10 years (to include Tae Kwon Do, wrestling, Boxing, Muay Thai, grappling, etc), and had also spent my childhood either swimming, playing soccer, playing football, or in general involved in some sort of sport.  I was not good at it, but my parents insisted that I always do something physically active.  Additionally, I had spent some time lifting weights without any real sort of approach for a few years as well, so I had a decent understanding of technique/form, even if I didn’t have much to show for it.

Contrast this with people who go from a completely sedentary liftestyle to wanting to employ abbreviated training, and it’s simply not a recipe for success.  The reality is, these people are going to be lacking in coordination, strength, work capacity, sense of balance, and various other factors necessary for success in any sort of lifting program.


"Ugh, I'm skinnyfat.  Do you guys think I should bulk or cut?"

They simply do not have within them the potential to progress very far from the poundages one can start with in an abbreviated program, because their base and foundation is so poor to start with.  A great analogy I’ve heard in regards to work capacity is that it’s like a bucket, and you can only pour so much training into your bucket before you overflow, at which point, you need to build up a bigger bucket to hold more training.  These people are more dealing with a thimble at this point.

The solution here would be to spend more time getting in shape to be ABLE to use an abbreviated training program, not attempt to use an abbreviated training program in order to get in shape.  These programs work, but only if you are ready for them.  That means spending some time engaging in some general fitness activities first so that your first few months aren’t wasted on figuring out life basics.  Play some sports, train bodyweight movements, do some running, jumping and sled pulling, and figure out your body, so that when you get under the bar, you at least have some semblance of an idea of what to do.  Dave Tate said someone should be able to do 100 push-ups before they ever try to bench, and I honestly think that’s some of the best advice I’ve ever read about training.  Taking the time to set up your foundation here is going to mean having the ability to progress much further when you start actually lifting.


A guy with a 500lb bench press as a teenager might have the right idea

2: Trainees are conditioned to expect failure, not success.

The reason why I started doubting the worth of abbreviated training was due to cruising forums and seeing many other trainees fail.  I had my own success with these programs, yet, in the face of this overwhelming anecdotal evidence, I began to doubt even my own success.  It is at this point I realized that if I, someone who had success with this method, was put in a position to doubt its validity, then surely someone just started out is going to have it even worse.  Hence, we run into a cycle of self perpetuating failure, wherein a trainee embarks on a path anticipating failure, meets it, and then those that observe the trainee’s failure in turn anticipate their own failure when they utilize the same methods.


You might get there really fast, but you're still going in a circle

When I compare this with my own experiences, I can see the stark contrast.  When I first started using abbreviated training, it had not come into fashion yet.  Mark Rippetoe released the first edition of Starting Strength a few months after I had learned about Pavel Tsastouline’s 3-5 approach, Stuart McRobert’s methods, and 20 rep squats/various other IronMind authors and programs, and internet forums had not quite hive mined over to this approach yet.  As such, the limited exposure I had to abbreviated training demonstrated success as the only possible outcome for my training.  I learned about men putting on 30lbs of muscle in 6 weeks on 20 Rep Squats, lifters who were “as strong as they looked” from Pavel, and various success stories about Ironmind’s “Squat Dip Chin” program.  In my mind, this was the most surefire way for me to achieve my goals, as there was an overwhelming amount of success, and zero evidence of failure.  Yes, this was absolutely selection bias, but that is not necessarily a negative thing when it comes to the mental state of a trainee, for having been conditioned to expect only success, I met it whenever I trained.


It's actually pretty shocking how accurate this is


In contrast, today’s trainee can witness an overwhelming amount of failure displayed everyday on various lifting forums, to include multiple sub-reddits, t-nation.com, bodybuilding.com, etc.  We must keep in mind that the failure we are observing is due mainly impart to the first issue I have addressed about abbreviated training, in that trainees are starting these programs before they are ready.  The reason why these trainees embark on such programs is because other trainees, who are also not ready to begin lifting, push these protocols on a new trainee when they ask “what program should I follow”.  The reasoning behind this has been covered in a previous entry of mine on “training secrets”, but to sum it up, this is a mental self defense/preservation technique in order to reassure oneself that they are using the correct method by perpetuating their approach to all others in their own community and striking down and potential opposition, thus maintaining status quo.  As such, those unqualified to give advice give incorrect advice to those unqualified to discern the validity of the advice, leading both parties to eventually fail and reinforce the reality that these approaches do not work.  After seeing these approaches fail so often, a trainee is not going to have faith and confidence in this approach, and will engage in a self fulfilling prophecy.  The mind is a powerful tool, and a trainee that uses a “terrible” program but has full faith and confidence invested in it and attacks it with violence and aggression will always, 100% of the time, have better results than an apprehensive trainee using a “perfect” program.  I say this without hyperbole.

9 comments:

  1. First point I think is dead spot on. There are times when I lament that I wasted my first 2-3 years of training doing things like machine HIT, Crossfit Metcons, and a BB-split before I found powerlifting, but it just hit me that all of that gave me a good base so that movements weren't really all that hard to start with.

    In contrast, I see some trainers who are over eager to sell the PL method and they have chubby women who have obviously never done anything athletic in their lives starting out with box squats, prowlers, and deadlifts, and it's kind of a shit show.

    It reminds me of how Olympic lifters would talk about doing 10,000 broomstick squats before even letting someone squat with an empty bar. Like Tate's thing about the push ups, it's solid advice. Like, how about doing a chin up before you try to teach someone good mornings or the bench press?

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    1. Absolutely correct. I have had the same moments of reflection and reached the same conclusion. It would have been nice to know then what I know now, but that time wasn't wasted, it was still valuable, and also a great opportunity to develop some enthusiasm and love for the iron. I feel like many that start out with the "best" methods never learn to enjoy themselves.

      On the subject of Date Tate, he wrote an article on "Education of a Powerlifter" that talked to an even greater extent on starting from zero. A trainee developed their foundation simply from spotting and loading plates to develop some work capacity, then pulled a sled a whole bunch, then practiced with a broom stick and did some GHRs, and then after about 6 months of training, finally got to handle a weight. I know this would drive the internet nuts, but it seems like a recipe for success.

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  2. Yeah keyboard jockeys would suggest GOMAD and 20 rep squats from day one or some such nonsense. Base building is incredibly underrated though, especially when it comes to stability and tightness, most newbies look like noodles even when trying to lift empty bars or easy weight. The internet would freak out over this too, but I think having absolute beginners spend a few weeks or months on machines is a good way to learn stability and tightness and breathing rather than throwing them under a barbell immediately too, that's where I got my start and it made deadlifting and squatting so much easier because I understood all the cues.

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    1. The internet community would come at you with pitchforks and torches if you ever suggested machines, haha. I still prefer bodyweight movements whenever possible due to the added benefit of learning how to move your body through space and gain coordination/balance, and I've seen people get some weird injuries on machines, but they aren't the worst thing a person could do to develop some basic levels of strength. Truth be told, I made my fair use of them when I started out.

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    2. Yeah I don't disagree, although for me I was so weak and flabby I had to start with machines before I got strong enough to even bust out push ups and chin ups, and those opened the door to dips, OHP, and front squats...which eventually opened the door to the Big Three. I'm not the first to suggest it, but learning front squats before back I think is another underrated way to learn, it's self correcting, seems to cause less injury, and promotes mobility that most people lack in the first place to even back squat to parallel.

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    3. I could see that working. As I've said in other posts, I'd start everyone out with the safety squat bar to learn how to squat, and probably never have them leave it unless they were competing. The barbell squat isn't a bad movement, but too many people think it's the only way.

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    4. Oh yeah, I've said it before, but the safety bar to me, I can't say enough great things about it. For most people it really should replace the straight barbell. I was basically stuck at 300 for forever, starting doing about 90% of my rep work, and boom, 40lbs to my low bar.

      Hell even in terms of meet prep, I'm sticking with what works, repping the safety bar, maxing the low bar.

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  3. Good article. I'm curious what you define as "failure". Poor results? Plateauing too soon? Abandoning strength training? Abandoning fitness altogether?

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    1. Great question, and always good to operationalize terms. In this case, "failure" means not getting bigger and stronger. I watch trainees employ these programs and just stall, stagnate, regress, or make really minimal gains compared to time and energy invested, and these seem to be the reasons that I have identified.

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