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Starting Strength 101: The Full Routine & Guide (For Beginners)

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starting strength routine

Starting Strength can be one of the best workout routines for beginners, so if that’s what you want, then look no further.

I know how frustrating it can be, searching around, trying to figure out where to start. There’s literally a million different “gurus” saying that you should do this, or that you should do that. It’s incredibly confusing.

I was in the same boat about a decade ago, and I wasted years following stupid workout routines that don’t work.

Most people will tell you to do a split, but in my experience most people also don’t know what they’re talking about.

In my nearly 10 years of fitness experience, the best workout routine for beginners is Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength, due to its sheer simplicity, effectiveness, and time-efficiency.

 

The Mistake That 95% of Newbies Make

mark rippetoe starting strength ad

Most so called gurus out there, say that the best workout routine for beginners is some sort of a split, like PHAT or PHUL.

So, not knowing any better, most beginners do a “split,” and work out 4-5 days a week focusing in on specific body parts for a high amount of repetitions.

Well, when you’re first starting out, doing a split is actually the WORST thing that you could possibly do, because you don’t have a solid foundation of strength yet.

Splits are only good if you’ve been working out for several years and already have a solid base of strength that you’re trying to build upon.

If you’re a newbie, this obviously isn’t the case. When you’re just starting out, you lack the foundation of muscle necessary to make a split effective.

When you’re just starting off, the best thing to do is to lift heavy for low reps. This will give you a solid foundation of strength.

The best workout routine for beginners is one that consists entirely of compound lifts, for multiple reasons:

  1. You’ll build massive amounts of strength very quickly (I’m talking a 200% increase in just a month)
  2. You’ll only spend a few days a week in the gym, so it’ll be easy to make the new habit stick.
  3. You’ll establish a strong foundation of muscle fibers that you can later grow with a split.

Even if you want to get six pack abs, and a nice Adonis belt, it’s best if you start off by building strength first. It will literally 10x your progress in the gym.

 

The Starting Strength Routine

starting strength

The Starting Strength routine was developed by a man named Mark Rippetoe, who holds several powerlifting records.

…and as I’ve said before, it’s the best workout for beginners because it’s based around some very simple concepts.

Lift heavy weight, do compound lifts, maximize your time in the gym, and don’t waste your energy on stupid splits that won’t get you anywhere as a beginner.

Here’s a few notes on the workout:

  • You work out 3 days a week
  • There are two different routines: A and B
  • You alternate the two, with a rest day in between
  • Low repetitions are the best to build brute strength

With this in mind, let’s look at the two different days that you’ll alternate.

There’s Starting Strength routine A:

  • Squat: 3×5
  • Overhead Press: 3×5
  • Deadlift: 1×5

…and then there’s Starting Strength routine B:

  • Squat: 3×5
  • Bench press: 3×5
  • Power Cleans 5×3

So your first two weeks on Starting Strength would look like this:

  • Week 1 Monday: Day A
  • Week 1 Wednesday: Day B
  • Week 1 Friday: Day A
  • Week 2 Monday: Day B
  • Week 2 Wednesday: Day A
  • Week 2 Friday: Day B

Do you see the concept? You workout three days a week, with a rest day in between each one, and you alternate between Routine A and Routine B.

 

Starting Strength Exercises

starting strength workout
“It’s been 6 months, is it working yet?”

As I said before, the best workout for beginners is one that consists of compound lifts, but what if you don’t know what compound lifts are?

Well, compound lifts are barbell-based exercises that work multiple muscle groups at the same time—think squat, bench press, deadlift, and so on.

Compound exercises will not only put more stress on your entire body (which will lead to greater muscular development), but it will also maximize your time in the gym.

By doing a few compound lifts per workout, you can work nearly every single muscle in your body, in just 45-60 minutes.

This is very important when you’re a newbie, because it allows you to build up a strong base of muscle before you fine tune it later with a split.

In other words, as a rookie gym-goer, your focus should be on developing a strong base of strength. THEN, later on, you can focus on fine-tuning your physique with a split.

Here’s a brief explanation of the various compound lifts in Starting Strength. For a more in depth explanation, I highly recommend you purchase the book.

 

The Squat

The squat is the king of all compound lifts. It works pretty much every muscle in your body, with a huge emphasis on your legs—just doing squats alone will get you some jacked legs, but the benefits go far beyond this.

Squats also work your core, which has to support the barbell. This means that you’ll be able to get six pack abs faster, since the squat works your core so much.

starting strength workout routine

The squat also works your shoulders/arms, which have to hold up the barbell and prevent it from slipping, and your back which has to maintain a strong posture to support the barbell.

In short, squatting works every muscle in your body—this is why it’s in every single workout for the Starting Strength routine.

If someone is telling you that they have the best workout for beginners, but it doesn’t contain the squat, literally tell them to shut the fuck up and then ignore everything else that they say, because they have NO IDEA what they’re talking about.

When you’re a beginner and you’re trying to get into lifting, you MUST squat. Squatting is hands down the most important exercise for beginners, because it builds an incredibly amount of muscle in a very short period of time.

It’s also been shown to boost testosterone and growth hormone levels, which equates to more muscle and vitality…not to mention higher sex drive.

 

The Deadlift

The deadlift is another full body exercise—some would say it’s even more taxing than squats. Deadlifts work every part of your body, but they have a heavy emphasis on your lower back, hamstrings, and traps.

They also work your arms, from holding onto the bar, your hamstrings/calves to pull it up, your back, and your core.

rippetoe workout deadlift

If you’re struggling to build muscle, you don’t need to look into all sorts of crazy workout supplements (like SARMs) at first.

…because even though they work, the bulk of your muscle-building will come from doing solid exercises, like the deadlift.

Again, if someone says that they have the best workout for beginners, but don’t include a deadlift in it, literally ignore them.

No, deadlifts are not “bad for your back,” if you learn to do them with right form. Deadlifts actually strengthen your back and make you less susceptible to injury. They are an integral part of any workout for beginners.

 

The Bench Press

Ah, the bench press—the quintessential “man’s lift.” Guys in the locker room always arguing about how much they can bench and using it as a metric to determine who reigns supreme.

The bench press is an upper body exercise—in fact, it may be the one of the best chest exercises there is.

ss workout bench press

It torches your arms, shoulders, and pecs all at once. This way, you can get twice the results as a split, in literally a quarter of the time.

The bench press can be somewhat difficult to get down, because the form is a bit tricky, so I recommend you consult Rippetoe’s masterpiece on form and learn to execute the motion properly.

 

The Overhead Press

Sometimes referred to as the military press, this exercise is by far the best for building a strong, wide back and shoulders.

If you’re trying to build that oh-so-sought-after V-taper, don’t waste your time with lateral raises or pull-ups (at first).

mark rippetoe workout overhead press

Instead, just do the overhead press. It’ll work your abs, for having to support the weight above your head.

It’ll work your back, for having to maintain stability and prevent you from toppling over. And, most importantly, it’ll wreck your shoulders (in a good way), giving you that nice, wide superman look.

In short, the king of building broad shoulders is the overhead press. It will give you that nice, powerful V-Taper you’ve always wanted.

Do not ignore this exercise—any beginner’s workout routine that doesn’t have this is garbage. Seriously. It’s the best shoulder exercise, hands down.

 

The Power Clean

The power clean is one of the best exercises for building explosive upper body strength and power. This is why you often see athletes using it on a regular basis—it’s basically the opposite of the deadlift.

Where the deadlift builds dense, strong as fuck muscle, the power clean builds explosive, powerful muscle fibers. The combination of these two exercises will give you a lean, mean, fighting machine.

starting strength before and after power clean

The power clean, despite its difficulty to master, works your entire body, with an emphasis on the shoulders, back, and core.

The legs are worked from generating enough power to pull the barbell up to your chest. The shoulders, traps, and arms are worked by pulling it up far enough for you to get your elbows underneath it.

The back and core are also worked by you having to support yourself, so that you don’t topple over from the barbell’s momentum.

 

Mark Rippetoe & Starting Strength

mark rippetoe deadlifting

Starting Strength incorporates every single one of these compound lifts into a single routine. It’s got the squat, the deadlift, the bench, the overhead press, and the power clean—all in one package.

This is why Starting Strength is, by far, the best workout routine for beginners. It’s short, fast, and most importantly, super effective.

When I first did Starting Strength, I was astounded with the progress. I had just gotten over major surgery, so I’d lost pretty much all of my muscle gains. I decided to try out Starting Strength and see where it took me.

In just 6 months my lifts went from pathetic to beastly:

  • Squat: 45 to 285
  • Bench: 45 to 195
  • Deadlift: 95 to 350
  • Overhead press: 45 to 155
  • Power Clean: 45 to 225

Starting strength works. Do it, and you won’t be disappointed. I recommend that you actually buy the book, however, to get a solid background on form and technique.

Don’t be one of those guys who reads a single article on the internet and then tries to squat, but ends up breaking his back. Seriously, don’t be a dumbass.

 

Starting Strength Summary

starting strength best workout routine

As I’ve said, I would highly recommend checking out Mark Rippetoe’s book—he explains everything in depth. I actually bought it even after I’d been lifting for years, and I do not regret it. Mark’s insight into squatting technique and strength building is absolutely insane.

For years I thought that I’d been doing all these exercises right…I was wrong. I would’ve killed to have had this book when I first started working out. It would’ve saved me literally HOURS of time in the gym, and helped me build twice the strength in half the time.

In fact, this book was so good that I put it on my list of the top books every man should read. If you’re not interested in buying the book, then at least look around for his videos on YouTube and learn about form before you do anything stupid.

If you guys have any questions, comments, or concerns, be sure to leave me a message down below. And, as always, I’ll see you next time.

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mmafan3 .
4 years ago

This is even a great workout for those who have been at it for a while. I alternate between splits and full body routines, a combo of body weight and weights. I’m not trying to get huge anymore, but just want to be strong and relatively sculpted. I also do boxing 3x a week, sans the sparring. Also the picture you have up above is Roger Estep and not Ripptoe pulling the deadlift. Roger is a deceased powerlifter tuned bodybuilder. He transitioned from powerlifting to bodybuilding in the early 80s and he was a beast. Sadly, there isn’t much about him on the internet or youtube, save for a video here and there.

MMinLamesa
5 years ago

I took a job in Ft Worth for 3 months-very physical, outside. I lost almost 30 lbs and I wasn’t overweight. Didn’t get to the gym once while I was there and I’m a life long gym rat. My friends back here in w Texas are like, dude, what happened?

So this week I’m back at it and just doing compound exercises, but really scattered. I’m going to lock & load your advice. Thanks man. I’ll p/u Ripptoe’s book too.

Alex
5 years ago

Hey Jon, great weblog. Can these workouts (except for bench press) be done with a 4′ EZ bar instead of a 7′ barbell? I have weights at home but don’t have much space. (I actually have a 7′ barbell but it’s in the cage and not so easy to maneuver.) Also should I get Ripptoe’s book or wait for yours?!

On a different note, I’d be interested in you writing about “frame”.

Boothe
5 years ago

Jon, I’ve been reading your work both here and on Return of Kings for a while now and I’m favorably impressed. I’m in my late fifties and have been lifting for many years. I wish I had known what you impart here back when I was in my twenties. We were following the advice of Ah-nold and the Weider magazines back in the day.

I was over training. I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why I couldn’t gain any size. Oh I got strong up to a point, but never grew and figured I was just a hard gainer. Following old school wisdom doing too many reps and too many sets to failure was flat out wrong. Hitting the weights like that every other day ended up injuring me more than once.

After doing a modified version of Stronglifts 5×5 and building on it with Starting Strength, I’ve gained more mass in my 50’s than I did in my 30’s and 40’s! The only thing I’d add to your recommendations for newbies would be either pull ups or bent rows (or both, just don’t overdo it) for your back. Those will make your lats shine and help achieve that coveted vee.

Alex Snow
5 years ago

Great article, I’ve being doing Stronglifts 5×5 since April and had good progress in the first 2 months but in the past 2-3 months my lifts have stayed the same or decreased. This is mostly my fault for skipping gym sessions, not eating enough, and leaving the gym early before my workout is complete through dissatisfaction with my gains.

I was wanting to move onto a split upon arriving at University but with my lifts being low and not progressing I would much rather gain more strength. Although there aren’t any problems with my routine, I am having trouble with the 5 sets part of it which leads to me feeling immensely tired. I think it will be easier with 3 sets, also it would hurt my ego too much to drop the weight even further, I’m certain these past 3 months have being a waste as all I achieved was +5kg on my deadlift max with the rest not changing.

For reference my numbers are:
Squat: 50kg 3×5
Benchpress: 45kg 3×5
Deadlift: 75kg 1×5

I have conflicting thoughts though, on one hand I want to move to a split in order to look better to help me when beginning to game at University, but this is a short term solution which seems futile in the long term with my strength-base. The other thought is to switch to starting strength where there are 3 sets and implement the powerclean although, this won’t lead to much aesthetic changes which will put me at a disadvantage when gaming.

What are your thoughts on this? I’m sure sticking with strength and working harder will be the better option but I want to look better when approaching which I could get with a split.

Alex Snow
5 years ago
Reply to  Jon Anthony

Thanks a lot for the advice

Jean
6 years ago

Tried Stronglifts, “It didn’t work for me.”
I didn’t follow it 100%, but found that, starting at the weights I was using, my muscles got incredibly tight. Just getting beaten up too much for my age, I guess (now 40.)

Strangest part was, when I decided to skip “5X5”, I could do “5X10” without the problems of hard, tight muscles. YMMV. The program looks good, but probably better to start from bar and go from there, rather than starting at “current weights” and trying to add. First of all, rate is changed, so you can’t progress at that rate (5 # / workout), but so are the whole mechanics – you have no means to judge rest periods, except timing itself.
T-nation might be another good source, too. Liking the Zombie Apocalypse workout, but I’m guessing it’s beyond a lot of guys starting out.

Randall
6 years ago

Stronglifts 5×5 is another good beginner routine.
http://stronglifts.com/

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