Book Review: Starting Strength

The following review is for the 2nd edition of this book. An updated, 3rd edition was published in 2017.

Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, by Mark Rippetoe & Lon Kilgore, is a fitness book advocating safe and effective strength training. It was referred to in the book I reviewed last week: The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After 40. Both are published by the Aasgaard Company which also provides training seminars and educational symposia for athletes and strength and conditioning professionals.

Around two thirds of the text is taken up with explaining the correct technique for performing five core exercises: squat, bench press, deadlift, press, and power clean. These form the basis for workouts that should be performed by athletes two or three times every week.

Positioning, grip and movement are covered in detail alongside useful diagrams and illustrations. Of key importance is avoiding injury while making the body work as hard as it is able. These exercises are not intended to build particular muscles but rather to engage all muscles for improving strength.

To give an idea of the writing style, this is from the section on the squat.

“The bounce at the bottom of the squat is merely the correct use of the stretch reflex – a muscle contraction enhanced by the proprioceptive detection of muscle elongation immediately prior to the contraction – inherent in any dynamic muscle contraction, added to the rebound provided by the viscoelastic energy stored in the stretched muscles and tendons. Essentially you are bouncing off your hamstrings, not your knees.”

Technical descriptions of the effect of each exercise on the body are balanced by more down to earth explanations. There is also added humour, dropped in as nuggets for those paying attention.

After the extensive sections on each of the five core exercises, details are provided of useful assistance exercises. These work by: strengthening a part of a movement used in the core exercises; offering variations on the core exercises; or providing ancillary exercises which strengthen a portion of muscle mass in a way the core exercises do not. By varying the exercise program in this way the athlete allows their body to recover while still working.

Examples of assistance exercises include:

  • halting deadlifts
  • barbell shrugs
  • partial squats (not for novice trainers as potential for injury high)
  • variations on bench press
  • front squat
  • incline bench press
  • Romanian deadlift
  • chin / pullups
  • dips
  • barbell rows
  • glute / ham raise
  • lying tricep extension
  • curls

Of the last of these the author writes

“Since you’re going to do them anyway, we might as well discuss the right way to do curls.”

The popularity of muscle building machines in gyms, those that claim to work particular muscles, is acknowledged although the use of them is regarded as ineffective.

“Exercise machines have made people a lot of money, and while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, they have been a very large diversion from more productive forms of training.”

This training requires individually tailored programming and a section is devoted to suggestions for developing efficient and effective workouts. The author explains that the body adapts to what is asked of it.

“To get stronger, you must do something that requires that you be stronger to do it, and this must be built into the training program.”

The suggestion is that an athlete starts simple and does not tax their body beyond what it can quickly recover from, that they do not overtrain. Individuals should work to a plan, warming up properly and completing sets, allowing adequate time for rest in between. Expect progress to be quick initially, although always the program should be sensible and safe. Developing muscle memory of the correct technique is more important than pandering to ego and pushing for excessive weight. Regular workouts should only be missed in extremis.

The importance of nutrition is given a brief mention along with changes in body weight and shape. This is not a weight loss plan nor a body building routine. It is strength training for active living.

The final section describes equipment needed for those who may want to build a home workout station. This includes: suitable flooring on which to place a rack, bench, quality barbell and weights. The most important item of clothing is appropriate footwear, although clothes should allow freedom of movement.

I read this book from cover to cover but recognise that its value will be as a reference for those willing to engage in the type of exercise program suggested. It offers a persuasive argument for the advantages of strength training, inspiring me to incorporate this alongside my other, regular exercises (with the assistance of my personal trainer). The core routines are not too time consuming. The improvements promised to the body – inside rather than visual – are well worth pursuing.

My copy of this book was given to me by my son.

One comment on “Book Review: Starting Strength

  1. BookerTalk says:

    I wish some of the people who go to the same gym as I do would read a book like this. I see them all the time straining to lift a heavy weight and doing it incorrectly. Then they go and preen in the mirror.

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