Article last updated: May 2019 by Oskar Faarkrog, ISSA Certified Trainer
When I was 17 years old I started training.
My number 1 goal was to achieve a lean and muscular body (so I can improve my confidence, social life and get a girlfriend).
The first training program I came across was Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe.
Starting Strength is a simple routine based around 5 barbell compound exercises:
- Bench Press
- Shoulder Press
- Barbell Row or Power Clean
Together these exercises hit all the major muscle groups in your body.
The idea of the training program is that you go into the gym 3 times per week on non-consecutive days and increase your load on each exercise.
By increasing the load on each exercise, your body get’s stronger and more muscular all over.
For example, if you start with a squat of 100 pounds for 5 reps, you increase the load with 5 pounds each workout.
In a time-span of 4 weeks (12 workouts) you should be able to squat 160 pounds for 5 reps.
After reading extensively about training for beginners, I concluded that starting strength is the right program for me.
Here is the exact variation of Starting Strength that I used:
- Squat 3×5
- Bench press 3×5
- Deadlift 1×5
- Squat 3×5
- Military press 3×5
- Barbell row 3×5.
Alternate training A and training B on 3 non-consecutive days each week.
My Progress on Starting Strength: I added a total of 782 pounds (355 KG) to my 4 main compound movements
Here are my starting strength numbers (February 2012):
- Bench press: 75 pounds (34 kg) 1 rep max. (58% of the average person my size).
- Shoulder press: 33 pounds (15kg) 1 rep max. (42% of the average person my size).
- Squat: 75 pounds (34kg) 1 rep max. (62% of the average person my size).
- Deadlift: 117 pounds (53 kg) 1 rep max. (78% of the average person my size).
As you can see from my starting lifts, I had very low starting strength levels compared to the average guy who is 6’2″ (188 CM) tall and weighs around 200 pounds (90 KG).
In fact, my starting strength levels were similar to the average untrained girl my age therefore it’s fair to say that I was on the low end of the genetic spectrum.
You can see the various strength standards in my article Advanced Barbell Strength Training Standards For The Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift: Can You Reach Them?
I also found it very difficult to recover from the heavy barbell training.
Despite that, I managed to gain a good amount of strength.
After 1 year of doing Starting Strength (and the continuation program MadCow 5×5) I added a total of 782 pounds (355 KG) to my 4 main compound movements which were the deadlift, squat, bench press and shoulder press.
Here are my final numbers after 1 year of training:
- Bench press: 220 pounds (100 kg) 1 rep max (76% of advanced lifter).
- Shoulder press: 154 pounds (70 kg) 1 rep max (88% of advanced lifter).
- Squat: 308 pounds (140 kg) 1 rep max (79% of advanced lifter).
- Deadlift: 400 pounds (180 kg)1 rep max (87 % of advanced lifter).
After just 1 year of strength training I reached an intermediate level on most exercises.
When looking at the numbers, you will find that I made some good gains in strength.
However, the problem is that these gains did not lead to any positive changes in my body-composition.
I gained around 35 pounds (16 KG) in bodyweight in that 1 year of hard barbell training, but it was pretty much all body-fat.
Below I will show you how I looked after around 7 months of starting strength.
I used to have photos of how I looked before starting the program, however I lost them when my computer died.
With that said, that doesn’t matter because I didn’t see any visible changes in the first 7 months of doing starting strength.
Here are the photos:
During those 7 months I gained minimal amounts of strength because I ate at a Caloric maintenance and found it hard to recover from the rigorous training.
I could never add weight to my lifts at the prescribed rate and I constantly found myself getting minor injuries.
My bodyweight barely changed.
Then during the next 5 months I tried eating more Calories and more protein to support my training recovery and while that helped, I found myself getting very fat by doing so.
I gained a total of 35 pounds (16 KG) during those 5 months and went from skinny-fat to fat:
As you can see in the photos, gaining a lot of strength on the exercises in the Starting Strength program didn’t help me build a better body.
In the beginning I thought that I was an outlier case, however after looking up Starting Strength progress stories online I learned that most people do not respond well to heavy barbell training and a Caloric surplus.
There are a few guys who have an excellent response to training who get great results on Starting Strength and other heavy barbell training programs, however these guys would get results on any training program.
Most of the guys who get results on Starting Strength are either:
- Skinny ectomorphs who have never had an ounce of fat on their body. These guys can get away with eating lots of food to fuel their training and gains without putting on any fat.
- Fat guys with very thick bone-structures who find it easy to put on mass (both fat and muscle). Total bone-mass is one of the best indicators of a person’s starting strength levels and response to training. This is why you will notice that most strength athletes and club bouncers have thick wrists and necks.
- The naturally athletic guys with a fast metabolism and lots of muscle mass.
However, these guys do not represent a big part of the population who are skinny-fat.
A big part of guys who get into lifting weights are a combination of the fat and skinny guy, but in a bad way.
Most guys who get into lifting weights have a thin bone-structure and some body-fat around the stomach and chest.
This means that we can’t just eat a huge Caloric surplus like the skinny guy and not gain lots of body-fat around the stomach.
In contrast, we don’t have the thick bone-structure of the fat guy therefore we can’t easily put on strength and muscle mass.
The best way to see if a training program truly works is to see how skinny-fat guys with below average genetics respond to it.
Because if you can find a way to put on muscle on a guy with a low response to training, you can apply the same type of training program to a genetically blessed guy and get even better gains.
And in the many years it’s been around, Starting Strength has never produced a single skinny-fat to fit success story.
You can google around all day long and you won’t find it.
You can even go to the Starting Strength forums where hundreds of Starting Strength fanatics criticized this article, and they won’t be able to show you one skinny-fat success story on the program.
It’s only guys with good genetics who succeed on Starting Strength, therefore my conclusion is that Starting Strength is not a good program for skinny-fat guys who are looking for physique development.
Now I’ll break down why Starting Strength doesn’t work for us skinny-fat guys.
The 3 main problems with starting strength are:
- Low reps and a very heavy load.
- Poor exercise selection.
- Not enough exercise variation.
(1) Low reps and a very heavy load
When you constantly train with low reps it puts a lot of stress on your joints, ligaments and tendons.
Over time, your risk of injury increases greatly – especially when you’re a skinny-fat guy with a thinner bone-structure.
This is why most guys who do heavy barbell training for a long time get serious injuries that limit their training for life.
Knee, shoulder, hip, lower back and wrist and elbow injuries are all extremely common on heavy weight training programs.
An extreme example of this is 8 times Mr Olympia Ronnie Coleman who ended up in a wheel chair after his bodybuilding career:
The reason? Heavy weight training for many years.
You can contrast this to Serge Nubret who trained all his life with high volume and lighter weights and stayed injury free:
Overall, heavy weight training is much more dangerous than high volume training, however it doesn’t lead to better physique development therefore you’re taking on a lot of added risk without any return-on-investment.
According to a recent study, training with high loads and low loads result in similar levels of hypertrophy.
As long as you train with a load that’s 30% of your max or higher and go to muscular failure, you will achieve optimal muscle gains.
Now the thing that makes this study legit is that they’re using subjects who are already well-trained, a balanced training program, large sample size and DEXA scans to evaluate muscle gains.
Overall, this is the best designed study I’ve seen on training with high reps vs. low reps and it shows exactly what I’ve been saying for years: It’s not about load but about intensity.
I gained the vast majority of my muscle mass by using loads that are around 30-50% of my max:
I’ve been training for over 9 years now and I keep getting bigger each year while using moderate weights.
I’m also 100% injury free by training this way. How many heavy barbell training enthusiasts can say the same?
In my last body-composition test, I was 225 pounds (100 KG) at around 17% body-fat which gives me a fat free mass index of around 24.
I started at around 200 pounds (90 KG) at 30% body-fat or more (lean mass 140 pounds).
Today I have roughly 186 pounds of lean mass at a lower body-fat percentage, therefore I’ve gained around 46 pounds (20 KG) of muscle mass since I started training.
This is what can be expected of someone who is close to their genetic limit in terms of muscularity.
I applied the same training philosophy to my clients and they’re also getting bigger each month while staying injury free.
Since lower weights put much less wear on your joints, you should base most of your training around lower loads and higher reps. (Why High Volume Training Is The Best Training System For Skinny-Fat Guys).
Before you make the switch into training with lighter weights, I’d like to emphasize again:
It’s not the weight on the bar that matters. It’s the intensity.
You still have to train at a high intensity to gain muscle mass.
This can mean doing higher reps, resting less between sets, using drop-sets or rest-pause sets, isolating muscles through better techniques or slowing down rep tempo.
There are plenty of safe ways to increase intensity that don’t require you to add weight to the bar.
By using these techniques you can go past your genetic strength limit and keep building muscle mass for years to come.
My max strength has barely changed the last 8 years but I carry 46 pounds of extra muscle mass.
(2) Poor exercise selection
The other problem with Starting Strength is poor exercise selection.
The squat, bench press, deadlift and row are great strength exercises but they lead to a low level of muscle gains and muscle gains in the wrong places.
In 1 year of heavy barbell training I gained at most 10 pounds of muscle mass and the small amount of muscle mass I gained was all in the thighs, glutes, traps, lower back, abs and lower chest.
This essentially lead to me just becoming a bigger version of my current self.
I didn’t gain any visible muscle mass on the shoulders, arms, upper chest and lats.
These are the most important muscle groups you want to develop for better proportions:
- Lats and shoulders: The lats are the biggest muscle group in the upper body and they are responsible for your shoulder width. Together with the shoulders they create that wide V-tapered swimmer’s look.
- Upper chest: This is the hardest part of the chest to develop but it makes your chest looks masculine and squared.
- Biceps and Triceps: Big biceps and triceps complete the upper body.
Now let’s break down how the exercises in Starting Strength don’t target these areas:
- Bench press: The bench press trains the lower chest which is the part of the chest that develops the easiest. By developing mostly the lower chest your chest get’s a triangled and feminine look from the side rather than a squared, masculine look. To build a squared looking chest, you need to emphasize the upper chest which is much harder to develop. The upper chest is better targeted with shoulder presses, incline presses, low cable flyes and incline dumbbell pullovers.
- Rows and deadlifts: The row and deadlift train mostly lower and upper back thickness rather than the width of your lats. The lats are best trained with chin ups, weighted chin ups, dumbbell pullovers and lat pulldowns.
- Shoulder press: This is the only good exercise in starting strength because it trains part of the shoulder, triceps and upper chest.
- Squat: The squat is good for shorter guys who want to develop their thighs and glutes, however tall lank guys with long legs in relation to the torso usually don’t do well with squats because it forces us to bend our torso too much forwards.
In other words by doing Starting Strength you’re spending most of your energy doing 4/5 exercises that don’t target any of the muscle groups that most of us want to develop for aesthetics.
You have a limited amount of energy to train and recover, therefore you want to spend that energy on exercises that contribute to building the muscles you want to build.
(3) Not enough exercise variation
In addition to performing the wrong exercises, starting strength doesn’t have enough exercise variation for maximal muscle development.
For example, if you want to achieve maximum development on your chest you want to stimulate the muscle fibers in all areas of the chest.
This means you want to perform exercises that stimulate the upper, medial, lower, outer and inner part of the chest.
By doing just one exercise for the chest such as the bench press, you’re targeting at most 1 or 2 of these areas.
This leads to disproportionate looking muscles and lackluster development.
This is why all bodybuilders train with a variety of exercises for each muscle group.
Each exercise stimulates different muscle fibers and thereby leads to more development.
So why do some guys achieve developed physiques on minimalistic programs like Starting Strength?
This comes mostly down to genetics.
If you take a guy with above average response to training then he will become muscular on any program.
For example, he can do 1 or 2 pushing exercises each workout and that will be enough for him to develop his shoulders, chest and triceps.
However, if you take a guy with average or below average genetics, then he will need a bigger exercise selection to develop his muscles fully.
If you’re training for muscle mass and you have access to a fully equipped gym, it makes no sense to limit yourself to 4-5 exercises.
Conclusion: Starting Strength Is A Strength Program. Not A Physique Development Program.
Starting Strength is not a bad program if you’re training to get stronger and you don’t mind putting on an additional 20-30 pounds of body-fat in the process.
In addition, the book is one of the best resources for learning how to perform the main exercises with perfect form.
However, if you’re a skinny guy and your goal is to build a muscular physique, you’re better off following a high volume bodybuilding program.
A good place to start is to read my article Serge Nubret Pump Training: You Don’t Need to Lift Heavy to Gain Muscle Mass
I personally used the methods in that article to gain far more muscle mass than I ever did with heavy barbell training and my lifts barely increased.
In contrast, if you’re a skinny-fat guy with lots of fat to lose and you’re weak on bodyweight exercises, I recommend you start with working on the basic bodyweight exercises.
I’ve used basic bodyweight exercises and a fat loss diet to lose over 60 pounds of body-fat.
Take a look at my article Bodyweight Training for the Skinny-Fat Guy.
Be proud but stay hungry!
Oskar Faarkrog, ISSA Certified Trainer