Starting Strength was created by the former powerlifter Mark Rippetoe as a beginner program for gaining general strength. It has its roots in powerlifting culture, but it’s not a powerlifting program. It’s designed to be good for gaining general strength, but what does that mean? And it’s occasionally marketed as being a good program for gaining muscle size. Is it?
What we want to do in this article is to review it from the perspective of a skinny person who’s new to lifting weights and trying to gain muscle mass, become stronger, and improve their appearance. Is Starting Strength ideal for those very specific goals?
- The Starting Strength Workouts
- Is Starting Strength Good for Building Muscle?
- The “Starting Size” Workouts
- Frequently Asked Questions
Starting Strength is a beginner strength program that’s deeply rooted in powerlifting. Mark Rippetoe, its creator, was a competitive powerlifter for eleven years, and a fairly impressive one, too. At a bodyweight of 220 pounds, he squatted 622 pounds, bench pressed 396, and deadlifted 633 for a total of 1651.
That’s not to say that Starting Strength is a powerlifting program, though. It’s not. In fact, Rippetoe has a number of criticisms of powerlifting. He dislikes how it encourages people to lift with a small range of motion, and he eschews the supportive gear that equipped powerlifters wear—the knee wraps, bench shirts, and squat suits. So Starting Strength isn’t supposed to be used as a beginner powerlifting program, it’s supposed to be an improvement to powerlifting. It’s supposed to be used as an introduction to general strength training.
Starting Strength’s goal is not to train world-class powerlifters. It is, rather, to make normal, average people stronger.Mark Rippetoe & Matt Reynolds, Starting Strength
One of the things that Rippetoe does throughout the Starting Strength book is to teach us how to get more muscle growth out of the main powerlifting lifts. He recommends low-bar squatting with a narrower stance to a deeper depth, benching with a narrower grip to increase the range of motion, and deadlifting with a conventional stance to increase our back involvement. These changes won’t help people improve their powerlifting total, no, but they certainly make the powerlifting lifts better for stimulating muscle growth. He also favours sets of 5 repetitions instead of using even lower rep ranges, which, again, is quite a bit better for stimulating muscle growth. And he includes the overhead press and power clean alongside the low-bar squat, bench press, and deadlift.
So is Starting Strength better than a powerlifting program for building muscle? Yes, no doubt. Mind you, most powerlifters alternate between hypertrophy phases, strength phases, and peaking phases. The hypertrophy phases are designed to stimulate muscle growth (size gains), the strength phases are designed to make those bigger muscles stronger (neural gains), and the peaking phases are designed to prepare those big and strong muscles for a powerlifting competition (restful practice).
Strength training isn’t designed to make our muscles bigger. It’s designed to make our big muscles stronger. That means that someone who aspires to become a good powerlifter will typically be advised to start with hypertrophy training to gain muscle size and then switch to strength training as they get closer to their genetic muscular potential. That’s especially true for skinnier people who are starting off with less muscle mass.
Starting Strength most closely resembles the strength training phase of powerlifting training. It’s not designed to stimulate muscle growth. So here’s where things get interesting: what if we compare Starting Strength against a hypertrophy training or bodybuilding program for building muscle? How does it compare then?
The Starting Strength Workouts
Starting Strength has us training three times per week, alternating between two different full-body workouts. This is called a “full-body split” routine because we train every muscle each workout, but we’re alternating between two distinct workouts.
- Low-bar back squat: 3 sets of 5 repetitions (3×5)
- Barbell bench press: 3 sets of 5 repetitions (3×5)
- Conventional deadlift: 1 set of 5 repetitions (1×5)
- Low-bar back squat: 3 sets of 5 repetitions (3×5)
- Barbell overhead Press: 3 sets of 5 repetitions (3×5)
- Power Clean: 5 sets of 3 repetitions (5×3)
So the main set and rep scheme is doing 3 sets of 5 repetitions. But because deadlifts are disproportionately fatiguing, we do just a single set. And because power training is done in lower rep ranges, the power cleans are done for just 3 reps per set.
Whenever we can complete all three sets with a given weight, we increase the load, adding 5 pounds on the squat, 10 pounds on the deadlift, or 2.5lbs on the upper-body lifts. This is called linear progression, and it works quite well with beginners.
These workouts are simple, elegant, and there’s a strong logic to them. It’s a good minimalist approach to strength training that Mark Rippetoe has refined over many years to make it ideal for the beginners that he’s coached. It’s a really interesting system and there’s a lot to learn from it.
But is it good for gaining muscle size? Let’s see.
Is Starting Strength Good for Building Muscle?
Exercise Selection for Hypertrophy
Mark Rippetoe recommends the following lifts in Starting Strength:
- The Low-Bar Squat (Main Lift)
- The Bench Press
- The Overhead Press
- The Power Clean
- The Conventional Deadlift
He believes these lifts are the best because they use the most muscle mass, use the greatest effective range of motion, and use the most weight possible (with proper form). And these are great lifts, both for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. On the obvious side, exactly as Rippetoe states, these are compound lifts that engage a tremendous amount of overall muscle mass through a fairly large range of motion, making them great for stimulating a ton of muscle growth. That’s why this program can be so simple—because these lifts are such an efficient way to build muscle.
On the not-so-obvious side, these lifts also allow us to challenge our muscles in a deep stretch. Muscle growth is stimulated via mechanical tension, and we can put mechanical tension on our muscles by actively contracting them and by stretching them. When we combine a strong contraction with a deep stretch, the active and passive mechanical tension are added together, stimulating far more muscle growth (study). As a result, the lifts that are hardest while our muscles are stretched tend to be best for building muscle (study).
If we consider the bench press, for example, then we get a deep stretch on our chests at the bottom of the lift (when it touches our chests), which is near where the lift is the most challenging (a couple of inches above our chests). As a result, the bottom part of the bench press is amazing for stimulating muscle growth. No real surprise that it’s so popular.
This same benefit applies to the squat, which challenges our quads in a stretched position, and the deadlift, which challenges our hips and hamstrings in stretched positions. Again, this does a good job of explaining their popularity among bodybuilders, powerlifters, and athletes.
The overhead press doesn’t have this benefit, but it’s a great lift for a number of other reasons: it allows us to train our upper chests and shoulders without our shoulder blades being retracted, and it’s great for our traps. It’s a worthy complement to the bench press, and people often find that their shoulders feel sturdier and stronger when they train both lifts with similar veracity. It’s a worthy addition.
So there’s no doubt that these are some of the very best lifts for building muscle. But even though these lifts are awesome, that doesn’t mean that they’re ideal for beginners or for gaining muscle size. Here’s why:
- There’s no lift for the upper back or biceps. From a powerlifting perspective, that’s not a problem. Powerlifters need backs that are strong enough to deadlift, but not much else. But for gaining overall muscle size, general strength, and aesthetics, it’s important to train our upper backs and biceps with the same vigour as we train our lower bodies. This program is missing the chin-up.
- The power clean is good for turning strength into explosiveness, but it isn’t very good for developing size or strength in the first place. Even for athletes, it usually makes more sense to focus on gaining muscle size first and then down the road, as a more seasoned lifter, to sprinkle in some power training if to improve explosive power. To build more muscle more easily, we can replace the power clean with a lift that’s better for stimulating muscle growth, such as the chin-up.
- There are better squat variations than the low-bar squat for gaining muscle size, general strength, and improving our appearance. The low-bar squat is used in Starting Strength because it better engages the hip and groin muscles and allows for more weight to be lifted. We do this by “sitting back” into the squat and bending at the hips. To squat the weight back up, we flex our hip muscles. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but we already have the deadlift and power clean for our hips, so why not use a quad-and-back dominant squat variation? The front squat allows us to lift through an even greater range of motion, especially in the knee joint, while doing an even better job of bulking up our upper backs. It’s also safer, easier on the joints, and easier to recover from. And for beginners, as we’ll cover in a moment, the goblet squat is a very easy squat progression to learn, while still having all of the same benefits as the front squat.
- These lifts aren’t very good for beginners. Unless they’re naturally athletic and/or being coached in person, most skinny beginners will struggle to learn the Big Three powerlifting lifts. They’ll struggle to get to depth while low-bar squatting without crashing into their hips, struggle to bring the barbell down to their chests when benching without their shoulders falling out of position, struggle to do the conventional deadlift without rounding their lower backs, and struggle to press a bar overhead without arching their lower backs. Most egregious of all is the power clean, which is a fairly complex lift to learn, especially for a beginner who doesn’t have an in-person strength coach. That isn’t to say that beginners shouldn’t do these lifts, but it does make it harder to build muscle. The more time we need to spend improving our coordination and technique, the less time we spend stimulating muscle growth. This can slow down our muscle growth for several weeks or months as we struggle to fully engage our muscles with these advanced lifts. For skinny beginners who are eager to start building muscle, that can be frustrating.
- There are no isolation lifts. We’ll give this an entire section. There’s a reason why bodybuilders always include isolation lifts in their routines. And for beginners, there may be an even stronger case for using isolation lifts.
Although the Starting Strength lifts are better versions of the powerlifting lifts for building muscle, they still aren’t ideal or complete. We need a pulling movement for our back and biceps, we don’t need power training, there are better squat variations, and there are better lifts for beginners who want to start building muscle right out of the gate.
No Isolation Movements
Starting Strength has no single-joint “isolation” exercises. That’s a problem because some muscles only grow properly with single-joint movements. For instance, the long head of the triceps extends our elbows and extends our shoulders. The bench press extends our elbows and flexes our shoulders. If we fully engaged the long head of the triceps fully when benching, we’d be pulling the barbell back to our chests. To solve that problem, we push with the shorter triceps heads instead. That’s why when we measure muscle growth from the bench press, we see that the triceps lag behind (study).
It’s not that our trices are lagging behind overall, though, it’s that the long head, in particular, is failing to grow. That’s too bad because it’s a big, strong head that contributes quite a lot to our general strength and arm size. To develop it properly, then, we need something like a skullcrusher or overhead extension. When we add those in, we see balanced triceps and chest growth:
Does that make our workouts a bit longer? Yes. It might add an extra five minutes after we finish our bench pressing. And will it make our workouts more complicated? Absolutely. Our workouts wouldn’t have that same minimalist elegance that Starting Strength has. And will bulking up the long heads of our triceps improve our powerlifting performance? No. But adding in triceps extensions will allow us to gain more muscle size and strength. And it will make our arms grow quite a bit faster.
This is just one example. There are a number of muscles that aren’t trained properly by compound movements. Our shoulders benefit from lateral raises in addition to overhead presses. Our biceps benefit from biceps curls in addition to chin-ups (and Starting Strength doesn’t even have chin-ups, meaning that our biceps aren’t really being worked at all). It would be nice if compound lifts gave us everything we needed, but they don’t.
Now, the next argument is that this program is for beginners. Aren’t the big compound lifts enough for beginners? Can’t we add in all of those isolation lifts later on? We could, yes, but isolation lifts are incredibly valuable to beginners, too. Here’s why:
- Isolation lifts tend to be easier to learn. Simpler lifts are easier to learn, making it easier to forcefully contract our muscles, making it easier to stimulate muscle growth. This allows us to stimulate a robust amount of muscle growth right from our very first workouts.
- Isolation lifts can be performed to failure without much risk of injury, allowing beginners to push themselves to their limits. Beginners often have poorer muscle activation than more seasoned lifters, and so pushing closer to failure tends to yield extra muscle growth (study, study, study, study).
- Isolation lifts aren’t very fatiguing, allowing us to train in higher rep ranges, to use shorter rest times, to push closer to failure, and to accumulate extra training volume, all of which allow us to stimulate extra muscle growth quite easily.
All of this makes isolation lifts an incredibly powerful way for beginners to build muscle faster. By avoiding them early on, we’re just reducing the amount of muscle we build during our first few months of training.
A good bulking routine should be built around the big compound lifts, but isolation lifts should be added for the muscles that aren’t stimulated properly by those bigger lifts. Those isolation lifts are also simpler and safer, making it easier for beginners to stimulate muscle growth right from their very first workout.
Heavy Emphasis on the Squat
The low-bar squat is given a massive emphasis in Starting Strength. Every single workout starts with three sets of squats, giving it twice the training volume of any other lift. Plus, since every workout starts with squats, that’s where our best energy is being invested. By the time we get to our upper-body lifts, we’re already a bit fatigued.
Now, to be fair, there’s some wisdom in emphasizing the squat when we’re trying to gain as much muscle mass as possible. Our quads and glutes are by far the biggest muscles in our bodies, and they have incredible potential for growth. The squat is thus the single best lift for adding pounds of muscle to our frames. But even so, most people trying to gain 20 pounds of muscle aren’t hoping to gain 15 of those pounds in their butt and thighs.
Even my wife, who loves the idea of building a stronger lower body, doesn’t want that much emphasis on the hips and thighs. She wants to become stronger overall, and so she’s just as likely to start her workouts with chin-ups, push-ups, or deadlifts.
For men who are eager to bulk up their upper bodies, the mismatch of goals grows even starker. It can be frustrating to see our squat strength skyrocket while our bench press lags behind, and while our upper back and biceps are barely being worked at all. We can move up several pants sizes while still looking fairly similar in our t-shirts. It’s not that it’s bad to emphasize our lower body so heavily, it’s just that most people want more balanced upper-to-lower-body muscle development and more versatile strength gains. It’s just a mismatch of goals.
It’s not wrong to focus primarily on the squat, but most people aren’t eager to gain most of their muscle size in their hips and thighs, and so a common complaint is that Starting Strength makes people more pear-shaped. That’s not bad, per se, but most people—especially men—want to develop more muscle mass in their upper bodies.
Beginner Variations of the Lifts
Starting Strength is a program that works quite well when people are taught how to do barbell training by an in-person coach. The big barbell lifts aren’t very complicated or dangerous, and so with a bit of coaching, most people can learn how to do them reasonably well during their first few workouts.
The problem is, a lot of skinny guys who are eager to bulk up won’t be training with a personal trainer, they’ll be learning from their friends or following online tutorial videos. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s how I learned to lift. And again, the barbell lifts aren’t that complicated or dangerous, and there are a lot of great resources online. But when we’re learning the lifts without in-person professional guidance, it can be a huge, massive, enormous help to start with easier progressions.
To make things harder still, skinny beginners tend to have less muscle mass on their frames, longer spines, and lankier limbs. That doesn’t mean that learning the barbell lifts is dangerous, but it can certainly create a frustrating learning curve. In fact, it can take quite a bit of practice before we can do the lifts well enough and heavy enough to stimulate a robust amount of muscle growth in the muscles we’re trying to work. Oftentimes we wind up failing because of our lower back or grip strength, or because our shoulders fall out of position at the bottom of the bench press. A simple solution to this problem is to start with easier progressions.
Now, a lot of people worry that by starting with easier variations of the big lifts, yes, they might be safer, easier to learn, and foster better long-term lifting techniques and habits… but it might mean missing out on short-term muscle growth. And for a skinny guy who’s desperate to build muscle, that can be disheartening. I remember being skinny. I remember wanting to build muscle as fast as possible. I wasn’t all that eager to spend months doing preparatory progressions. I wanted to start lifting, to start growing.
What’s cool about starting with easier progressions is that they allow us to stimulate more muscle growth when we first start training. If we choose simple brute-strength lifts, then instead of spending weeks improving our coordination on the big compound lifts, we can open the floodgates of muscle growth right from our very first workout.
For example, instead of spending weeks trying to learn how to do a low-bar back squat to full depth without rounding or arching our lower backs, we can do a goblet squat.
The setup is much easier: all we need to do is grab a dumbbell or weight plate. And holding that weight in front of us keeps our torsos more upright, making it easy to squat to full depth without jamming up at the hips. It also makes it easier to keep our hips in a neutral position while squatting, which sets us up for better squat technique in the future. Because of how much easier it is to learn, most people are able to do a goblet squat with solid technique during their very first workout. Not perfect technique, no, but good enough. Best of all, because the goblet squat is a brute strength lift, it’s easy to push ourselves hard to stimulate muscle growth.
The same is true with the other big lifts. There’s no need to start with a barbell bench press when a dumbbell bench press or push-up is easier to learn and arguably better for stimulating muscle growth (at least for a beginner). And there’s no need to start with conventional deadlifts from the floor when Romanian deadlifts tend to be much easier on our lower backs while still being just as good for improving our grip strength and bulking up our hips and hamstrings. Then with the overhead press, the fronts of our shoulders are already being worked beautifully by the bench press (or push-up) and our traps are already being worked by the deadlift, so all we need to do is make sure that we’re stimulating the sides of our shoulders. That’s where lateral raises can come in handy.
By swapping out some of the more advanced lifts for simpler brute strength lifts, we can shrink the learning curve, speed up muscle growth, reduce the risk of injury, and develop better longterm lifting form. On the other hand, athletic lifters or people training with an in-person coach might not have any problems starting with some of the more advanced lifts. It depends.
Training Frequency for Hypertrophy
Starting Strength is a full-body split that’s done three times per week. Each workout uses slightly different exercises, but we’re training every muscle every workout, and so we’re training our muscles three times per week. That’s perfect for gaining strength and for stimulating muscle growth, especially for beginner and early-intermediate lifters.
A workout stimulates 24–72 hours of muscle growth, meaning that if we want our muscles to be growing steadily all week long, we need to be training them every 2–3 days. That’s why bodybuilder training splits that only train each muscle once per week tend to stimulate less muscle growth than full-body workouts done three times per week.
Now, it’s certainly possible to design a body-part split that has us training 5–6 days per week while training each muscle group 2–3 times per week. But that’s a fairly convoluted way to train, and for beginners, there doesn’t seem to be any real advantage to it. It’s much more efficient to do full-body workouts three times per week. Plus, our hands, our lower backs, and our traps are worked with almost every exercise. And so for beginners who are still sensitive to muscle damage, it can really help to have dedicated recovery days between our workouts.
Finally, Starting Strength also has the advantage of alternating the exercise selection from workout to workout. One workout we do the bench press, the next workout we do the overhead press. One workout we do the deadlift, the next workout we do the power clean. This gives our muscles, joints, and connective tissues a bit of variety. It tends to reduce overall wear and tear, and it also yields more balanced muscle growth.
Starting Strength uses three full-body workouts per week to train every muscle three times per week. That’s a great training frequency for helping a beginner build muscle quickly, efficiently, and safely.
Sets Per Muscle for Hypertrophy
Beginners often don’t need all that many sets per muscle group to stimulate a robust amount of muscle growth. In fact, people who are new to lifting weights tend to be quite sensitive to weight training, and so starting with too many sets can cause excessive muscle damage and soreness, increasing our recovery needs, and impairing our ability to build muscle.
Starting Strength doesn’t have that problem. This is a true beginner program. There are just 3 sets per exercise and just 3 exercises per workout. In fact, because the deadlift can be disproportionately fatiguing, the training volume is dropped even lower. There’s just a single set. All of this makes total sense, and I think it’s one of the main reasons that Starting Strength is such a successful beginner strength training program.
However, there’s a difference between training for muscle strength versus training for muscle size. When we’re training for strength, we’re trying to improve our ability to recruit motor units and lift forcefully. That requires being fairly fresh. And so using lower training volumes is often ideal. Starting Strength is great for this. We do enough work to stimulate those neurological adaptations, but not so much that we cause too much muscle damage or fatigue.
But when we’re training for muscle growth, a little bit of fatigue is okay, and we don’t always want to take a minimalist approach to our workouts. Yes, it makes sense to start with lower training volumes, but there’s also a benefit to raising that volume from workout to workout. Perhaps the first week starts with just two sets per exercise, then three sets in the second week, and then four sets in the third week. Is that necessary? No. If you’re making progress from week to week, then you’re doing enough. But can gradually increasing our training volume speed up muscle growth? Yes.
When we’re trying to stimulate muscle growth, we usually want to work up to doing 4–8 sets per muscle per workout, and then training our muscles 2–3 times per week. Starting Strength is just 3 sets per muscle, 3 times per week. We’re training our muscles often enough, but there isn’t quite enough work being done every workout to stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth.
Now, does that mean that we should add extra sets to Starting Strength to stimulate more muscle growth? Probably not. Most beginners doing Starting Strength are already working some muscle groups, such as their lower backs and grips, pretty hard. Plus, low-rep sets tend to be pretty hard on our joints. If we just bumped the training volume higher, we might start to run into recovery issues. That’s one of the reasons why StrongLifts 5×5 is often criticized. Driving the volume higher simply by increasing the number of sets isn’t the proper solution.
So having just 3 sets of 3 exercises per workout isn’t a mistake in the programming. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just that this program is designed to cause strength adaptations more so than hypertrophy adaptations. It’s a beginner strength program, not a beginner size program.
Starting Strength is cleverly programmed to be ideal for a beginner who’s trying to gain 1-rep max strength while gaining a little bit of muscle size. For that goal, it makes sense to do just a few heavy sets each workout. But we’d be able to build muscle faster if we drove that training volume higher.
The Hypertrophy Rep Range
Starting Strength recommends doing 5 repetitions per set on every lift except for the power clean. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, especially when someone is trying to focus on improving their 1-rep max strength. In that case, doing 5 reps per set instead of 3–4 reps per set is a nice way to get a bit of extra muscle growth while gaining strength.
But if we’re trying to build muscle, doing just 5 repetitions per set isn’t a very efficient way of doing that. To understand why that is, we need to consider that we stimulate muscle growth by putting mechanical tension on our muscles. The heavier the weight is, the more tension we put on our muscles with every rep, which is good. The problem is, the heavier the weight is, the fewer reps we can do with it, and so we put less tension on our muscles per set. For example, let’s imagine someone with a 1-rep max of 225 pounds. Here’s a loose estimation of how much we’d expect them to lift in different rep ranges:
- 225 pounds for 1 rep. 225 pounds lifted.
- 200 pounds for 5 reps. 1000 pounds lifted.
- 180 pounds for 8 reps. 1440 pounds lifted.
- 160 pounds for 12 reps. 1920 pounds lifted.
It’s easy to see that lifting in lower rep ranges doesn’t allow us to lift nearly as much weight per set. To make up for that, we’d need to do more overall sets. That’s why you’ll often see programs using 5 sets of 5 repetitions, 4 sets of 8 repetitions, or 3 sets of 12 repetitions. The lower the rep range, the more sets we need to do, at least to a point.
There’s quite a bit of research showing that once we get into a moderate rep ranges, the amount of muscle growth we stimulate per set tends to even out. When comparing low-rep sets (3–5 reps) against moderate-rep sets (8–20 reps), we see that the moderate-rep sets stimulate more muscle growth per set. But when we compare, say, 8-rep sets against 12-rep sets, we don’t see any difference (systematic review). At that point, every set seems to stimulate a similar amount of muscle growth. And that’s why the 8–15 or 6–20 rep range is often called the “hypertrophy rep range.”
Now, some experts blow the hypertrophy rep range a bit wider than that. Mike Israetel, PhD, argues that the hypertrophy rep range is 5–30 reps per set. Greg Nuckols, MA, believes that the hypertrophy rep range is 4–40 reps per set. But even then, both of them recommend that if we’re trying to build muscle, we should do most of our work in the middle of those rep ranges, not at the lower or higher extremes. For example, Mike Israetel recommends spending 25% of our time lifting in the 5–9 rep range, 50% of our time lifting in the 10–20 rep range, and 25% of our time lifting in the 21–30 rep range.
We also have evidence showing that we can stimulate as much muscle growth with just 3 sets of 12 repetitions as we can with 7 sets of 4 repetitions (study). We don’t know how effective doing 3 sets of 4 repetitions would have been, but we do know that lifting in moderate rep ranges is a reliable way to efficiently stimulate muscle growth, especially when we aren’t doing that many sets per muscle per workout. In Starting Strength, we’re only doing 3 sets per lift, and so we have a better shot at stimulating maximal muscle growth by doing sets of 8+ reps.
The other thing to consider is that lifting heavier weights in lower rep ranges tends to be harder on our joints and connective tissues. That’s another reason why strength training programs tend to use lower volumes than hypertrophy training programs. We need to be more mindful of recovery so that we don’t beat up our joints too much. So again, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with Starting Strength, it’s just that it’s optimized for a different goal.
Starting Strength is a strength training program, and so it uses fairly low-rep sets. Most research shows that we can stimulate more muscle growth per set when lifting in moderate rep ranges. Starting Strength only has 3 sets per lift, combining lower rep ranges with fewer sets. That’s a good approach for gaining 1-rep max strength, but it’s not ideal for gaining muscle size.
Progression & Progressive Overload
Starting Strength is a beginner strength training program that uses linear progression. When we can complete our sets with a given weight, we add more weight to the bar. This is the classic type of progressive overload that’s demonstrated in the parable of Milo of Croton. Milo starts by carrying a small calf, but every day that calf grows heavier, and so his muscles gradually adapt to become stronger over time.
That’s a perfectly valid way of programming progressive overload, especially for beginners, and especially when the main goal is improving maximal strength. And since Starting Strength is a strength training program for beginners, that’s absolutely perfect. It’s a simple system that works very well.
However, when we’re lifting weights to gain muscle size, there are a number of different ways that we can program progressive overload. We can add weight, we can add reps, and we can add sets. In fact, adding sets is one of the most reliable ways to progressively overload our muscles. Consider this: when we’re adding weight to the bar, we’re limited by how much stronger we’ve become. If we can only lift 2.5 extra pounds to our 185-pound bench press, that’s 2.5 more pounds for five reps for three sets. That’s 37.5 more pounds lifted. But if we’re also adding an extra set, that’s an extra 187.5 pounds for 5 more repetitions. That’s another 937.5 pounds lifted, in addition to that extra 37.5 pounds.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we always need to be adding extra sets. Oftentimes, linear progression is enough, especially if we’re already doing a hearty amount of sets per muscle. After all, at a certain point, adding more sets can start making our workouts too long, too tiring, or too difficult to recover from. But that isn’t the case with Starting Strength. There aren’t many sets being done here.
The linear progression in Starting Strength is an elegant way to gain strength, and it can work quite well for gaining muscle size, too. But we’re often able to stimulate even more muscle growth when we’re open to adding reps and sets as well.
The “Starting Size” Workouts
Starting Strength was designed to improve upon powerlifting training to make it better for gaining general strength. It’s a good program, and it’s elegant in its minimalism, it’s just that it’s strongly rooted in powerlifting and not designed for building muscle. So, what if we modify Starting Strength to be better for helping a beginner gain muscle size?
The foundation of Starting Strength is solid. It’s built on big compound lifts, the volume is a reasonable starting point, and alternating between two full-body workouts is an efficient way to stimulate muscle growth. We only need to make a few changes:
- Choose better beginner variations of the big compound lifts, such as swapping low-bar back squats for goblet squats.
- Add in lifts for the muscles that aren’t being stimulated properly, such as a compound pulling movement (such as a chin-up variation) and isolation lifts for our arms (such as biceps curls, triceps extensions, and lateral raises).
- Raise the rep range from 3–5 up to 8–15.
That gives us a workout routine that looks more like this:
- Goblet squat: 3 sets of 9 repetitions (3×9)
- Push-up/dumbbell bench press: 3×9
- Row: 3×9
- Biceps curl: 2×11
- Triceps extension: 2×11
- Lateral raise: 2×11
- Chin-up*: 3×max reps
- Push-up/dumbbell bench press: 3×9
- Goblet squat: 3×9
- Romanian deadlift: 3×9
- Plank**: 2 sets
- Side plank**: 2 sets
*Not everyone can do chin-ups right from their very first workout. One solution is to set up a stool under the chin-up bar, start from the top position, hold it for a couple of seconds, and then lower yourself slowly down until you’re at a dead hang. Start with 3–4 lowered reps and gradually add reps over time. The rows and biceps curls will help you develop the strength you need, too. Eventually, you’ll grow strong enough to pull yourself up. Alternatively, you can do lat pulldowns (or at-home lat pulldown alternatives) for 3 sets of 9 repetitions until you’re strong enough to do 3+ chin-ups.
**Planks are great for teaching beginners how to keep a neutral spine while lifting, and they’re a good way to build bigger abs and obliques. But you can swap them out with any isolation lift. For example, if you want to build a thicker neck, you could do neck curls and extensions.
These workouts have twice as many lifts, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re much harder or longer. The lifts are a bit easier to set up, the rep ranges are a bit higher, and the isolation lifts are quick and easy.
If you want to blast through the workouts in less time, though, you can superset the exercises together, doing a set of squats, resting 60 seconds, doing a set of push-ups, resting another 60 seconds, doing your second set of squats, and so on. That way you’re giving your individual muscles time to regain their strength while doing another lift in the meantime.
The final sets of each exercise can be taken to muscular failure when you feel confident in your technique, especially on isolation lifts. Avoid bringing your lower back to failure, but that shouldn’t be an issue with these lifts. Swap out any lifts that hurt your joints for reasonable alternatives. And add weight whenever you’re able to complete all of your reps in the final set.
Is this a perfectly ideal beginner bulking workout? Not quite. I’d prefer if it were periodized, and I might add a third workout to add a bit more variety to the full-body split. But it’s pretty close, and its minimalist structure makes it easy to include in a short article.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does Starting Strength Increase Size?
Yes, Starting Strength will help people increase their muscle size. However, since the program heavily prioritizes the low-bar back squat, most of those size gains will be in the hips and thighs. That’s why guys will often complaint hat they aren’t building muscle with Starting Strength. It’s not that they aren’t gaining size, it’s just that they aren’t gaining much of that size in their upper bodies.
Is it Better to Build Muscle or Gain Strength?
The best way to increase muscle strength is to increase muscle size, especially if your muscles are currently rather small. So even if your main goal is to get stronger, it often makes more sense to train for muscle size than for muscle strength.
The exception is for powerlifters who are specifically trying to increase their 1-rep max strength on the squat, bench press, and deadlift. In that case, it makes sense to train those specific lifts in the 3–5 rep range to develop maximal strength. But even then, including assistance lifts in moderate rep ranges to build muscle will help increase strength even faster, and with less likelihood of running into a strength plateau.
Does Gaining Strength Increase Muscle Size?
Yes and no. There’s a reason why strength training and hypertrophy training have different names. They aren’t the same thing. Strength training is designed to make our muscles stronger for their size, whereas hypertrophy training is designed to make our muscles bigger and stronger. With that said, most strength training routines will indeed stimulate some muscle growth, just not as efficiently as a hypertrophy training routine would.
How do the two styles of training compare? If we look at a systematic review of all the research, it seems that hypertrophy training stimulates about twice as much muscle growth as strength training per set, and with less fatigue, and with a lower risk of injury.
If you’re training to become bigger and stronger, then, it’s usually better to do hypertrophy training instead of strength training. Or, at the very least, to include a mix of both styles of training. After all, nothing is forcing us to train for only size or strength. Many of the best workout routines combine both styles of training. Starting Strength, though, is a pure strength training program. There are no moderate-rep sets and no isolation lifts.
What’s the Difference Between StrongLifts and Starting Strength?
The main difference is that Starting Strength has 3 sets of 5 repetitions (3×5) and uses power cleans, whereas StrongLifts has 5 sets of 5 repetitions (5×5) and uses barbell rows. We have a full article on the differences between the two programs here.
Is 5×5 Better than 3×5?
As a general rule of thumb, doing more sets will stimulate more muscle growth, at least up to a point. That’s why 5×5 routines are often considered “better” than 3×5 routines. But for beginners, the opposite can be true. Sometimes it’s better to ease back on the training volume to allow for better recovery between workouts, allowing us to stimulate our muscles more often. That’s why Starting Strength uses fewer sets, and that’s perfectly fine.
A better way for a beginner to build more muscle is to increase the number of reps per set, not the number of sets. Instead of doing 3×5 or 5×5, a beginner can get plenty of good volume by doing, for example, 3 sets of 8 reps (3×8).
Starting Strength is quite good at what it does. It’s a minimalist program that teaches the big powerlifting lifts in a way that’s worse for powerlifting but better for gaining general strength. The book itself is quite good, too, and if you plan on growing old with a barbell, it’s a great read. We don’t agree with everything in it, as we’ve detailed above, but we do recommend it.
Starting Strength isn’t terrible for gaining muscle size, but most of that muscle mass will be around the hips: in the glutes, hamstrings, adductors, quads, and lower back. That’s great for powerlifting, but it doesn’t line up with most people’s goals, even if their goal is simply to develop well-rounded strength. Plus, we could build muscle even faster (and in a wider variety of muscles) by increasing the rep range, progressing the volume, swapping the power clean for a vertical pulling movement (such as chin-ups), and adding in isolation lifts.
Another problem with Starting Strength is that it starts off with fairly advanced variations of the big barbell lifts. That can work well for athletic lifters who are being coached in person, but for skinny beginners trying to do the program on their own, it creates a big learning curve that needs to be overcome before much muscle growth can be stimulated. It can also ingrain some poor lifting habits which can be a pain to fix down the road. And it may lead to some aches, pains, pulled muscles, or lower-back fatigue. That’s not the end of the world—lifting is quite safe—but it’s not our preferred way of doing it, either.