Monday, November 7, 2016


Despite the article title, my intention is not to discuss starting off with high reps and ending with low or anything like that.  Pyramids are marvels of the ancient world, and when we look at them we tend to fixate on the points, but what impresses me is the base.  Think about how strong that base had to be to support the structure underneath it, how wide it had to be to create such a high point, how well built the whole thing was.  It’s the same thing in training; most folks focus too much on the end point when it comes to their training, and don’t spend enough time focusing on the broad and strong base that had to be built to support it.  Too much emphasis on the peak, not enough on the foundation.

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Don't get me wrong; Washington was a great man, but he wasn't a god in human form

We witness beginner trainees racing toward higher 1rms all the time, and every time this occurs, it’s the same result: stagnation, regression, injury and burnout.  They throw more and more weight on the bar and typically do less and less in order to see these numbers rise: reducing volume as they go to compensate for a lacking work capacity, trading volume for intensity and essentially performing a de facto peaking routine, all for what?  A one time high of 1rms that rapidly crashes and declines almost immediately, leaving them practically no better than how they started.  Oh, but they have that “strength foundation” now right?  Now they can REALLY start training?  Well what the hell were they doing before?

These people are trying to build the pyramid upside down! They are starting with the peak and then, once that’s built, THEN they will actually work on the base.  What madness is this?  Clearly it is the work of ego.  These pocket pharaohs are too concerned with everyone seeing the point on their pyramid that they put no consideration into how necessary it is to build a wide and strong enough base to actually elevate it high enough to be noticed.  Right now, they’ve got a dinky triangle chilling out in the sand.  Jesus, I’m not sure how much longer I want to drag out this metaphor, but it’s getting kind of funny.

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You know I'm not one to beat a joke into the ground

Alright, I’ll break from the metaphor and speak clearly here; picking only one aspect of training to focus on as a beginner is a surefire recipe for failure.  Maximal strength is a dandy quality, and if, later, one wishes to specialize in it, that’s awesome, but a beginner, by definition, is lacking in ALL qualities.  A beginner has no work capacity, terrible conditioning, poor mobility/flexibility, zero hypertrophy, poor coordination/athleticism, zero awareness of how to exert themselves, minimal pain threshold, etc etc.  ALL of these qualities need to be improved in order to have a foundation to build upon.  Deciding one is just going to focus on maximal strength and putting more and more weight on the bar while ignoring all of these qualities is no method for success, and deciding you’re just going to address those qualities later puts you WAY behind the curve.

That’s the comedy of all these internet powerlifters that talk about the importance of a beginner needing to “progress as fast as possible”; they actually go the OPPOSITE route by specializing their training WAY too early.  Yes, a beginner CAN rapidly progress compared to other trainees, which is why it’s the best time to have that beginner train EVERY quality they possibly can and make progress on ALL of them rapidly, versus overspecializing in maximal strength and wasting time trying to “milk” the gains for all it’s worth.  In the case of the latter, we witness trainees that do in fact make rapid progress, but tend to stall pretty quickly due to lacking in all of the other qualities necessary for continued success.  And rather than actually engage in some meaningful training, we witness the “strength training” charlatans of the internet advise these trainees to simply peak at this point; reducing volume in order to continue putting more weight on the bar, moving slower and slower as they go.  This is time wasted; time that could be spent actually getting stronger.

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There is a reason these memes exist

Were we to instead take this trainee and have them train in a manner that emphasizes training a variety of qualities all at once, we’d have a trainee that could continue to make progress WELL beyond the first, second and third stalls notorious for new trainees on en vogue “beginner programs”.  Would they be adding weight on the bar for 5rms as often as others?  No, I suppose not.  Would they be progressing just as fast, if not faster?  Absolutely!  They would be progressing on strength in a variety of rep ranges, on their hypertrophy, on their conditioning and work capacity, on their ability to tolerate pain in higher rep ranges, on their athleticism and mobility (because instead of telling them that they need to do absolutely NOTHING in order to facilitate recovery, we’d have them recovery by actually being in shape), etc etc.  These trainees will be able to continue progressing for a LONG time, because they set up a broad and strong foundation to support themselves, and SHOULD they decide to peak like those following the “beginner programs”, they’ll find that they have the potential to peak to MUCH higher levels of maximal strength due to all of this sweat work laid out at the beginning.

Trainees don’t like to do this, because it’s not “fun”.  It’s so much more fun to watch the weight on the bar rise from workout to workout and to be able to brag about how much you lift.  Also, only doing 3-5 sets of 5 is so much easier than going in and doing a full workout with worksets, backoff sets, and assistance work.  Not doing any sort of conditioning is so much more enjoyable than breathing hard, getting sweaty, and feeling like you’re gonna throw up.  Neglecting prehab work is so much more fun than pounding away on band pull aparts wondering if they’re even doing anything.  But if getting bigger and stronger was really fun, there would be more big and strong people around.  Yeah, its super cool to say you squat 315lbs, but when you get winded going up a flight of stairs, look like you’ve never seen a gym in your life, and can’t actually apply that strength towards anything outside of the barbell squat, what the hell was the point?  If you just wanted to brag, why not just save yourself all that effort and take up lying?  

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I mean...what could go wrong?

I have been guilty of this crime myself.  I have videos and articles within this very blog pleading with people to do a “beginner program” and “set up a strength foundation”, but I realize where the disconnect exists.  I followed these programs as a lifelong athlete who has spent time in the weightroom dorking around, throwing iron, and just being a meathead.  As unfocused as all that time may have been, it was STILL building the very foundation I needed in order to get stronger.  From martial arts and wrestling, I had developed a strong degree of mobility, flexibility, conditioning, and some basic strength.  From hanging around the high school and college weightroom and just doing what sounded good, I had built up some hypertrophy and strength in a variety of angles.  Once I engaged in a beginner abbreviated program, my lifts took off, because I was able to take this broad and strong foundation and peak it toward something with focus.  Yeah, I was a beginner lifter, but I wasn’t a beginner athlete.  THAT’S the difference.  If you are a beginner towards working out in general, you need to build up a LOT of qualities before you specialize in lifting for maximal loads.  Even if your goal IS to lift maximal loads, this foundation is still necessary, and those qualities STILL need to get some attention during your offseason.  Overspecialization leads to stagnation, regression and injury, while focusing on keeping your base broad and strong allows for bigger and higher peaks.

Don’t build your pyramid upside down.  Get your base as broad and strong as you possibly can at the start, and once you’ve got that down, you can start to narrow it down, specialize, and peak it high.


  1. I lol'd at "pocket pharaohs." Great article and one I wish I had read as a beginner!


    1. Thanks dude. The majority of my blog is just my present self yelling at my past, haha. All of this is stuff I really needed to know earlier. I managed to accidentally do ok, but once I "learned something", I started making some real dumb decisions. Took a return to basics to finally start moving again.

    2. Same! The last few months of 5/3/1 and discarding my degree in exercise science and CSCS have seen my first PR's basically all year. There's just a huge difference in how athletes need to be programmed versus just regular old lifters. Funny, so many lifters want to be athletes so badly that they train like the athletes they aren't and end up becoming neither.

    3. Oh man, I had no idea you were so accredited, haha. You're spot on though. People try applying specific advice universally and it backfires. Meanwhile, everyone has a hard-on for Klokov and no one stops to think about the lifestyle he had prior to becoming so hardcore and awesome. The idea of playing sports to learn athleticism is just abhorrent to these folks that wanna be athletes.

    4. Erudite mf'er here man. Getting my MA in sport coaching too. And using none of it in my own training.

  2. I'm still amazed how many times a new Starting Strength/Stronglift variant gets posted on Reddit and it's like the wheel has been reinvented. I'm still a beginner, but I'm glad I put my stock early on in Wendler over Rippetoe/Mehdi - much more sustainable and long-term thinking with working on every quality.

    1. Simply mind blowing. 5/3/1, with it's millions of different variations? Not good enough. 3x6? Will wonders ever cease! I get why guys market it; if you wanna make money in fitness, fast results are gonna sell better than a gradual and sustainable program, but geez. Glad you picked someone with a track record vs the next big internet guru, haha.

    2. I love how many times you get in the argument with a beginner about how "5/3/1 doesn't progress quickly enough for a beginner."

    3. I got a buddy of mine that used to just have a word doc of arguments saved up for online debates to save him the trouble of having to retype the same thing over and over again. I'm starting to think I should do the same, because it's always the same argument, haha. It's amazing how these people are so trapped thinking about 5x5 linear progression that the idea of progressing with reps, bar speed, density, etc elude them.

  3. Great post. I'm glad you're hammering on this theme a lot in this blog, because I don't think that the concept building strength vs. realizing strength is covered enough, at least on the Web. Or, at least, this is the first place I've seen it articulated so directly. Everyone on the Web seems to be so preoccupied with "fast" vs. "slow"
    progress, and "slow" progress is probably a bad descriptor for what's really happening with the training philosophies behind 5/3/1, Juggernaut, etc.

    I have a request for a future blog post as well. I've seen you mention "form" vs. "technique" a couple of times. Could you elaborate on this further, or, if you have, direct me to a post where you have?

    1. I appreciate that dude. I sometimes feel like I'm beating a dead horse, but this is a point that seems to be needing to be brought up right now. These things tend to go in cycles, and soon I'm sure I'll be beating my head against the wall as no one wants to lift heavy anymore, but right now it seems everyone just wants to lift too heavy too quickly.

      I've written on the topic a few times. I'll link you to what I have. If you want anything more specific though, feel free to let me know.

      Some of these are a little less direct than others, but they talk to or around the point.

    2. Thank you. This is what I was looking for.

      I've been reading your stuff alongside McCallum's "Complete Keys to Progress." I think they complement each other.

    3. That's such a great read. Really needed that earlier in my life.