When I started training in February 2010 I was getting most of my information from the bodybuilding.com forums.
The general advice for a beginner was to do the program ”Starting Strength” by Mark Rippetoe.
Therefore, I did a bodybuilding version of Starting Strength called Kethnaab’s Modified Starting Strength Routine.
Kethnaab’s variation replaces power cleans with barbell rows because the technique of power cleans can be difficult to get right without a coach.
Below, I will show you the full routine and share my body-composition progress after adding +500 pounds to my compound lifts.
I will also compare Starting Strength to my results on my basic bodyweight training program.
Kethnaab’s Modified Starting Strength Routine
- Squat 3 x 5
- Bench Press 3 x 5
- Deadlift 1 x 5
- Squat 3 x 5
- Military Press 3 x 5
- Barbell Row 3 x 5 (the original Starting Strength program would replace barbell row with power clean 5 x 3)
One would alternate between Workout A and Workout B on 3 non-consecutive days of the week (e.g. Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday).
The benefit of starting strength lies in its simplicity; you only do 5 basic exercises during this program (Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, Military Press and Barbell Rows) and focus on progression on those.
This laser-like focus on a few exercises has several benefits:
- You gain A LOT of strength on the few exercises you do.
- You master the technique on some of the most important compound exercises and this technique translates into most other exercises you will do throughout your training career.
Also, I want to point out that Mark Rippetoe’s book Starting Strength is very good at explaining the technique of each exercise. If you have difficulty with any of those exercises, I recommend you get the newest edition of Starting Strength.
Adding 245 Lbs to My Deadlift in 1 Year
By reading the title, you know that I didn’t get good results with this routine, but before I get to that, let me tell you about the positives.
In just 1 year I made the following gains:
However, this doesn’t show the whole picture. I added a lot of strength, but at the expense of what?
But, Starting Strength Made Me Fat
I was very happy to add a lot of strength on this program, but I paid a big price: adding about 35 lbs of mostly fat (and you have to keep in mind that I started skinny-fat).
In other words, I went from skinny-fat to fat.
After following the program for a year, I recall that I travelled to Miami with my high school class, and when we went to the beach, a guy would call me “Snorlax” (the fat pokemon).
At that point, I didn’t even realize that I had gotten fat.
I thought that I was getting muscular because my lifts went up, but that wasn’t the case.
When I got home from my trip I looked at my progress pictures, and I was in for a disappointment.
- Picture 1: 7 Months into Starting Strength
- Picture 2: 12 months into Starting Strength
When I saw my progress pictures, I realized that I had become very fat for the first time in my life.
I initially started training to get a good body, but this training program didn’t help me achieve my goal.
In my experience, getting fat is just not worth it, regardless of how much strength you gain on a program.
I train to look lean and healthy, not to wake up every day and see a double chin, manboobs and child-bearing hips in the mirror.
Why Skinny-Fat Guys Get Fat on Starting Strength
Now, you may want to know why I got fat. The reason for this is simple: training hard and heavy requires your diet to match.
On this program, you are squatting at near maximum weights 3 times a week for 3 sets each time. In addition to that you do other compound lifts. And, you have to add weight to the bar every time you train.
If you follow that type of training, you need to eat, eat and EAT.
And that’s fine if you’re a naturally skinny guy who needs to gain weight or a mesomorph who gains muscle just by looking at weights.
But, as a skinny-fat guy, eating a lot means that you will go from skinny-fat to fat just like I did.
The reason for this is that a skinny-fat guy typically has feminine fat distribution (hips, love handles, lower chest and thighs) while having extremely low strength.
Feminine fat distribution combined with low strength basically means that your hormones are messed up and that your nutrient partitioning is crap. (I.e. your body is bad at utilising food for muscle gains).
When you start eating a lot to keep up with this routine, pretty much all of your gains will be fat rather than muscle.
I wasted nearly two years so far with Starting Strength/Stronglifts type routines, and all I got was fat with very little to show for it.I went from about 140lbs to 198 (at 5’8) on that routine. I looked better BEFORE I started it. I also made very little strengths gains to go along with it, which makes it even work. At least you made some strength gains. I kept convincing myself that if I just eat a little more, I will make progress.
I would get fat and cut then start it all over again. I am only a week in to another one of these viscous cycles. I had myself convinced that I just need to eat more than I ever did before, then it will finally happen.
Only a week and half in, and my lifts are stalling again, I gained 5 pounds (probably fat), and I already injured my knee from squats. I’ve had enough!I am going to use all the info from your site.Thanks again for sharing your experiences.
Here’s what Skinny-Fat Transformation readers wrote on the BodyBuilding.com Forums:
I was busting my butt in the gym eating in a small surplus and while I did get strong I accumulated more fat then muscle. It sucks. There is probably some hormonal imbalance going on and the only way to fix is to get leaner, or join the dark side.
You can blame the “eat big to get big” people who assume novices need to bulk when they need to get noob gains out of the way first, and the whole wanna-be alpha male mentality that you need to weigh a lot more to be more masculine even if it means fat gain. Pair that with enhanced lifters giving natural lifters advice that wont work and you have a recipe for disaster.
Read my fat loss guide here, and use those tips to get to about 10-12% bodyfat (visible 4 pack in good lighting when you flex). In the meanwhile, do some basic bodyweight training and get to 10 chin ups and 20 diamond push ups with good form.
Bodyweight training is great because you can’t be fat and do 20 chin ups, but there are plenty of fat people doing 450 lbs deadlifts.
If you don’t believe me, just go to my “success stories” page and scroll through the testimonials I have gotten so far.
My Response to Starting Strength Critics
After writing this article, I got a lot of angry comments from people that believe I must have done things wrong, since my physique didn’t change for the better. I’ve heard everything from:
- Your protein intake was too low
- You used bad form on the lifts
- You trained like a pussy
- You should just have eaten maintenance
- You didn’t eat enough
- You ate way too much
- You replaced power cleans with barbell rows
- Fat people can gain strength in a deficit
I have already responded to all of those statements on the Starting Strength forums, but I’ll give a brief response in this article, so people stop asking me the same questions over and over again.
You don’t need to eat 1 g of protein/lb of bodyweight to gain muscle. I eat around 100 g of protein per day at 190 lbs bodyweight, and I get bigger and more defined every year. This way, I enjoy my food more, save money and feel better on a daily basis. With that said, I ate around 1 g of protein/lb of bodyweight during Starting Strength, so I can’t see how that could have negatively impacted my performance.
Bad form on lifts:
I read Starting Strength 2nd edition and watched numerous videos online before I even touched a barbell. Once I started training, I started light, and had people correct my form on a regular basis. My form wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely not bad enough to mess up my progress.
Trained like a pussy:
Do you think that I went from picture 1 to 4 and added 245 lbs to my deadlift by training like a pussy?
You should have eaten differently:
I tried eating a caloric deficit, maintenance, slight surplus and big surplus (all while keeping protein at 1 g/lb of bodyweight) and none of those worked out for me:
- A deficit made me lose fat, but I stalled on my lifts.
- Maintenance made me stall on my lifts.
- A slight surplus enabled me to progress for a few weeks, then I would stall.
- Finally, a big surplus would enable me to progress consistently, but then I would get fat in no time.
Replaced power cleans with rows:
Do you really believe that replacing power cleans was the reason to why I didn’t get the results I wanted?
“Fat People Can Gain Strength on a Good Diet”
I’ve been told that eating a caloric deficit, while lifting heavy would have enabled me to gain strength while getting leaner, since I’m a beginner. As mentioned above, that didn’t happen for me.
And this is because not all fat people are created equally.
There’s a HUGE difference between the guy with a thick bone structure who used to lift heavy in high school, then got fat in college and the skinny-fat guy who has a thin bone structure who never had a muscular physique.
The first guy has an easier time gaining strength because of his bone structure. Furthermore, if you have been fit once in a life, it is easy to get back to it because of muscle memory.
Your body remembers that you have been strong and muscular, so it will be able to gain strength and lose fat despite being in a deficit.
In contrast, the skinny-fat guy is starting from scratch, with no muscle memory and no natural abilities to carry muscle mass.
Those are two extreme examples, but I’m just trying to make a point; just because you saw a fat guy add 300 lbs to his squat in 8 months while losing fat, it doesn’t mean that you can do the same.
There’s often more to the story than just numbers, pictures and a routine.
I Gained Much More Muscle with Bodyweight Training
Let’s just assume that all of those statements above are correct.
But if that is so, how can you explain that I made MUCH better progress after I stopped lifting heavy 3 times a week, and started doing basic bodyweight training?
That picture is me today, at a very lean 190 lbs. (Spring 2014). I have rarely lifted heavy for close to 2 years, and I keep gaining muscle while staying lean. 90% of my training consists of:
- Basic bodyweight exercises: Chin Ups, Diamond Push Ups, Muscle Ups, Leg Raises, Dips, Close Grip Chin Ups, Pull Ups
- Machine and isolation exercises done for high reps at light-moderate weights (Serge Nubret Style)
And what about my compound lifts? They haven’t changed much, but I who cares if I lift 400 or 455 lbs on the deadlift besides other men at the gym? I definitely don’t.
Heavy Lifting and the Risk of Injury
I want to stay injury free and exercise for the rest of my life. If I lift heavy for decades, chasing personal records on the compound lifts on a regular basis, chances are that I won’t be able to do that.
Just take a look at any forum that advocates heavy lifting, and look at the amount of injuries. Then compare that to a forum that advocates using just your bodyweight.
I will do a quick comparison for you, just to show my point.
- Madbarz: 93 topics are about injuries and there are 9,044 users (1.03% of users have made an injury related topic)
- Starting Strength: 1,358 topics are about injuries and there are 17,125 users (12.61% of users have made an injury related topic)
If we assume that each user has made no more than one topic related to injuries, and we take a sample of 1000 people, the starting strength forum will have 126 injured people, while the Madbarz forum has just 10.
Now, you can say that looking at just two forums is not enough, and that starting strength users are generally more active on their forum, compared to Madbarz users, but none of that would ever account for the huge difference in injuries from heavy lifting compared to bodyweight training.
J.R. : “I had a 6.7 X Bodyweight Total After Years of Training and SS Just Got Me Fat and Injured”
Now, some people may not believe what I personally say, so I will summarize a comment by J.R. who had a terrible experience following Mark Rippetoe’s Texas Method, which is an extension of Starting Strength for intermediate lifters.
Summary of J.R.’s comment:
- J.R. felt great and looked great prior to Starting Strength with a 1273 lbs. total at 190 lbs. bodyweight.
- He wanted more from his training, so he read Starting Strength and Practical Programming to fix his form on the 3 big lifts.
- After reading the books, he started Rippetoe’s Texas Method but 3 months into the training he started getting horrible leg and lower back cramps and excruciating tendonitis in my right elbow.
- An SS coach advised him to “eat more food” and “stop being a pussy” to increase his lifts for his upcoming powerlifting competition.
- His lifts were slightly higher at the powerlifting competition, but after the competition his lifts plateauted for 2 months, and he therefore did a deload (a strategy used to overcome plateaus), and he found during the deload that he used to be able to handle these lighter weights with more ease before he started doing the Texas Method.
Overall result after following Rippetoe’s Texas Method for 5 months and getting guidance from an SS Coach:
- Decreased his total from 1273 lbs. to 1222 lbs.
- Gained 45 pounds of mostly fat and got out of shape.
- Got injured all over his body: horrible leg and lower back cramps and excruciating tendonitis in the right elbow.
Read The Full Comment by J.R.:
Thanks for this article. I began Starting Strength after 4+ years of weight training and competing in powerlifting. After 2 years I started to get fat so I began doing more bodybuilding/hypertrophy movements and bodyweight exercises with great results. I was able to lose about 35lbs in 8 months while increasing my max squat, bench, and deadlift (425 squat, 285 bench, 520 dead at 190lbs). I felt and looked great, and for some reason decided to re-shift my focus to just lifting as heavy as I possibly could, mostly because I was impatient with my bench press. A good friend and trainer then recommended Starting Strength to me, which was the beginning of my demise. I read SS and Practical Programming, “fixed” my squat/bench/deadlift form, and starting doing Rippetoe’s 4 day Texas Method split for intermediates. At first I smoked every lift. In fact, the workouts were incredibly easy (compared to the 5 day workouts I had been doing) and I starting making PRs every week. After about 3 months, though I started having problems with horrible leg and lower back cramps and with excruciating tendonitis in my right elbow (a common problem with the low bar squat, which can be fixed; however, I found it very bizarre that squatting could injure my elbow, a stupid problem I never had when I did high bar squats for years). The advice I received from a SS coach regarding the cramps was to “stop being a pussy” and “eat more.” The result was that I gained 40-45 lbs in 5 months. My totals still went up a little though, so I thought I was generally on the right track. However, after a powerlifting competition around the 5 month mark, my gains plateaued for the next 2 months. I dropped the weight down on my workouts and found that the same weight 4-5 months ago was much, much easier to move. Then it dawned on me: SS actually got me out of the great shape I had been in. I did the math and found that, whereas my max totals had been 6.7x my bodyweight at 190lbs, they were now only 5.2 times my bodyweight at 235lbs. I just figured all this out a week ago, and needless to say, I’m pissed. I’m mad at myself for pissing away all the hard work I had achieved and mad that I put up with constant leg and back pain for 5-6 months just so I wouldn’t be “a pussy” in the eyes of my fat powerlifter friends. After reading your article, I have been doing a strict bodyweight routine out of Josh Bryant’s Jailhouse Strong, the same routine I did a few years ago when I didn’t have access to a gym for a few months (which was much easier to do back then, even though my powerlifting total was about 250-300lbs less back then). I already feel great and think I can get back in shape in 4-5 months since I do have a solid strength foundation. Thanks again for your article. It confirmed my suspicions about SS. I know I am just one guy, but it seems like SS may be good for neither beginners nor intermediate lifters. It seems like there’s a lot of good science backing SS, but if you feel and look like crap when you do it, what the heck is the point?
Summing up, I’d never recommend starting strength to a skinny-fat beginner because:
- It forces you to add weight to the bar every workout: Your body is not a machine, so don’t treat it like one.
- The program forces you to eat a huge amount of food which will make you fat: If you train to look good, get rid of the fat first and build from there.
- Bodyweight training is a safer alternative that ensures you stay lean and prepare your body for gym training.
Does that mean I’m completely against heavy lifting?
Not at all.
I can see the benefit of heavy barbell lifting, and encourage some of my clients to do it to build a solid foundation of strength just like I did before moving onto hypertrophy work.
It just needs to be done at the right time and include higher rep work for hypertrophy and more variation to prevent injuries.
If you have any questions or feedback, feel free to leave a comment below.
Be proud but stay hungry,