Strength Matters: Why Starting Strength Is Not (Just) A Powerlifting Program

I wrote this article for members and coaches at my gym, CrossFit Solace, to help understand why my Solace Strong program that I run there can be beneficial for many different groups.  I realized this was necessary after being referred to as “the powerlifting coach” or something similar, numerous times.

I’ve altered the title for my own webpage from Solace Strong to Starting Strength, because the same misunderstandings often need to be clarified for a broader audience, who see SS as a powerlifting program and either a) don’t see it as a general strength program that is also very useful for many CrossFitters, olympic lifters, and other sport participants  or b) entirely don’t understand the utility of a general strength program for those things.

With that small change, I present the article.  Click here for link to the original on the Solace website.

In the year since we’ve opened at Crossfit Solace, I have been introduced many times to prospective or new members as follows:  “This is Wolf, he runs the powerlifting program.”  In fact, just this evening (8/24/15), a new member approached me.  He saw my class low bar squatting and initiated a conversation by saying, “I used to do powerlifting too! It took me two years to get my high bar squat up to where my low bar used to be.”  And then he showed me a very wide stance, vertical shin, above parallel “powerlifting” style squat.  I wanted to just shake my head and walk away, since that kind of squat doesn’t at all resemble what we do in Solace Strong.  But if I am – if we are – to educate people to better understand the role of strength in both powerlifting and CrossFit, we need to engage and not walk away.   As long as people see a low bar squat and automatically think “powerlifting” – regardless of whether the low bar squat is performed like ours, with a moderate stance, a good amount of knee bend, and definitively below parallel depth; or whether its done with an ultra wide stance, hardly any knee bend, and to questionable depth (or worse) – then we still have work to do.

So, while it’s true that I compete in raw powerlifting and have coached/handled lifters at meets, our Solace Strong program is not really a powerlifting program, per se.  However, it is a very understandable mistake to make.  In this article, I will explain why our program is a strength program and not specifically a powerlifting program, although it can be used for powerlifting, and why this distinction is important for CrossFitters.

To discuss this issue, we need to examine both our Solace Strong cycle and the sport of powerlifting.  A full historical examination of the latter is beyond the scope of this piece, but a brief description and discussion of the sport will lead to a better understanding of what Solace Strong is, and is not.

Solace Strong

First, our program.  Solace Strong is an 8 week dedicated cycle that meets for three weekly 90-minute sessions, during which participants focus on first learning correct technique, then increasing strength in five fundamental barbell lifts: (Low Bar) Squat, Press, Deadlift, Bench Press, and Power Clean.  Chin-ups or pull-ups are included for some participants, depending upon their needs.   Outside of a few rare circumstances, those are the only lifts we perform.  Yet, despite its simplicity, the cycle is brutally effective at getting people stronger.

The programming is simple: Each workout includes a squat, a press, and a pull.  The low bar squat is performed every session.  The press and the bench press are alternated, as are the power clean and deadlift.  Participants who have a lot of trouble with the power clean, as well as slightly more advanced participants, also perform chin-ups or pull-ups.

Both technique and programming are based on the models elucidated in full detail in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training.   Everyone starts with a linear progression, which means that once proper technique is learned, you add weight to the bar every subsequent time a movement is done, until you can’t anymore.  The amount of weight added can, and does, vary.  Participants often add more weight to the squat and deadlift in their first few sessions, 10-20 pounds, simply between one workout and the next.  On the other hand, by the end of the cycle, many participants struggle to add 2.5lbs to their press work sets.   Once linear progression is completed, more slowly-progressing programming strategies are implemented to continue progress, but most participants can complete one entire cycle on some form of linear progression, even if slightly modified over the 8 weeks.  Typically only those who are taking back-to-back strength cycles need more advanced programming than a small tweak of their linear progression.

All that explained, what does Solace Strong really do?  Well, it gets you a lot stronger than you were before, using the basic barbell lifts.  And this is where it’s easy to confuse it with a powerlifting cycle.  So let’s talk about powerlifting for a minute.

Powerlifting

Powerlifting is the sport wherein, under strict weight class limits and with referee evaluation of your lift, you have three attempts to establish a 1-rep max in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.  Your heaviest “good lift” in each of the three lifts are added together to produce your “total,” and the lifter with the highest total in each weight class is the winner.

For simplicity’s sake, we will only briefly mention the trend, dominant in powerlifting until very recently, of using powerlifting “gear” – squat suits, knee wraps, and bench shirts that can combine to help add hundreds of pounds to a lift and total beyond what is possible without the gear.   While most geared lifters are indeed very strong, and while it’s certainly not so simple a matter of putting on the gear and suddenly – poof! – lift more weight, the fact remains that the gear, once properly utilized, can add literally hundreds of pounds each to the squat and bench press.

Raw Powerlifting is the version of the sport in which only belts, knee sleeves, and wrist wraps are allowed as supportive equipment – which should sound familiar, as it is very much the same way CrossFitters and general trainees lift.  The supportive equipment does not add weight to the lift by storing elastic energy across a joint, so the weight lifted accurately represents the lifter’s actual strength in that lift.

What’s the Difference?  A Discussion on Strength

At first, it appears that Solace Strong is indeed a powerlifting program.  After all, we squat, bench press, and deadlift very regularly.  However a deeper examination explains why Solace Strong is not a powerlifting program per se, even though it is an excellent initial program for a Novice aspiring powerlifter and can be used to prepare for a powerlifting meet.

I’ve used the words “strong” and “strength” several times in this article, so let’s talk about what they mean. What is strength, actually?  It’s a bit harder to define than it seems.  Is your 1RM squat, your “strength?”  What about your best clean and jerk?  Your ability to do lots and lots of reps with 135lbs?  All of those are related to the expression of strength, but we must be more precise in our definition.

Strength is the ability to produce force against an external resistance.  Force is, again, hard to define without being self-referential.  For our purposes “that quantity which causes movement,” is a good enough layman’s definition.  And we have to specify external resistance because it is impractical to measure the muscular force being produced within the actual muscle. For example, when you deadlift, we can objectively measure the force by the weight on the bar. It would be much harder to directly measure force within the muscle bellies, i.e., how much force your spinal erectors are producing to keep your back flat (unless, like Solace mascot Nick Pon, you can’t figure out how to get your low back into extension).

Strength’s Carry-Over to CrossFit

Producing force against external resistance is quite literally the way in which we interact with our physical surroundings.  This is important because it follows that strength is the basis for almost all of the necessary athletic attributes in life.  Power, accuracy, balance, muscular endurance, speed, and almost all of the 10 physical attributes in Jim Cawley’s list, whichCrossFit listed on the mainpage way back in 2003, depend on strength.   And, here’s the kicker: being good at CrossFit therefore depends very greatly on…drumroll…strength.   (For those interested, I wrote an article several years ago elaborating on how each of these 10 characteristics depend on, or are improved by, strength.)

Now, only a fool would suggest that developing strength alone makes for a great CrossFitter.  Technique, skill, movement efficiency, metabolic conditioning, and other needs play very important roles in the well-roundedness required to thrive in CrossFit.  However, strength is still the basis.  For someone who is not already strong, getting stronger will have a profoundly positive effect on that person’s ability to succeed at CrossFit.

We now have to ask an important question: How much strength is required, and how much leads to diminishing returns (which means time and recovery capacity might be better spent on other things)? The answers is different for CrossFiters, powerlifters,Olympic lifters, discus throwers, marathoners, and sprinters. A look at where the best male CrossFit Games athletes have developed over the past five years suggests that a squat around 450-500 is sufficient to be great at CrossFit.  A 600 squat might help, but only a little; the marginal difference in carryover between a 500 and 600 pound squat, to the broad range of activities that a CrossFitter must excel at appears to be small.  And therefore, the time and recovery effort it takes to get from a 500 to 600 squat would probably be better spent doing other things.

Now that you know that I know this, I’ll tell you what I’ve observed: many, many regular working people who come to the gym and do CrossFit 3-4 times per week hit a plateau somewhere between 6-15 months that is directly related to a lack of strength.  You can have great mobility and a massive motor, but if your best deadlift has been stalled at 265 for six months, you’re not going to be able to do 21-15-9 with 225.   And scaling to 175, which you can complete, won’t yield enough of a strength adaptation to help you get from 265 to 365…especially if there are an equal number of toes to bar in between.  And if your best deadlift is 265, its very unlikely you’re going to be able to do a WOD with a lot of power cleans at 185, either.

What many people need is a way to get a lot stronger, FAST, so they can then go back and apply this strength to their CrossFit.  Enter: SOLACE STRONG.  There’s nothing specifically magic about an 8 week cycle, but it provides a good balance in that it’s long enough to allow for a significant strength increase (especially in a Novice), but short enough that CrossFit skills and conditioning do not erode too much and the transition back to CrossFit afterwards, utilizing newly acquired strength, doesn’t take too long.

Most of the athletes placing well in Regionals or making it all the way to the Games already have sufficient strength.  Whether due to focusing on it during training or being naturally well adapted, or both,  these athletes are training many hours per day and maximizing their recovery via fine-tuned nutritional, mobility, myofascial, and sleep strategies among others.  They are not the population for whom Solace Strong was designed.

The vast majority of our members are regular, working people who have discovered CrossFit is better at improving their physical fitness than the myriad other things they’ve tried.  Some lucky ones may have been brought in by a friend or family member before they even tried less effective things.  But they’re people with busy work and family lives who don’t have 15-20 hours per week to train.  3-5 hours per week is more realistic.   A short period focusing on strength, for those who find it a limiting factor in their CrossFit, can do pretty amazing things for this population.

Examples from Our Gym

Consider just three examples that we’ve seen in our gym thus far.  First, our fearless leader, Head Coach Dr. Hayden Courtland. Beginning his two cycles at 6’3”, 180, Hayden finished his two cycles at 200, and main lifts in the cycle went as follows:

*Squat: 280 to 325
*Press: 120 to 140
*Deadlift: 340 to 410
*Crossfit Total: 730 to 865
*Power Clean: 170 to 205

Now, we would expect the lifts he actually focused on to get better.  The question is, does my earlier assertion that strength profoundly affects all other physical attributes hold true?  If it does, we would expect to see increases in other lifts and possibly even WOD times (keeping in mind that with no conditioning or met-cons performed for 8 weeks, a brief re-conditioning period would make sense as necessary).

The answer: a resounding YES!  Here are some other lifts and met-con results and their circumstances, done immediately or soon after the strength cycle:

*Front Squat: 235 to 250 (despite not being done at all for 8 weeks – only low bar squats)
*Clean & Jerk: 185 to 195 (also not done once for 8 weeks, and this 195 PR was done not under Olympic WL conditions of rest, but as the C&J at the end of 15.1 – after several rounds of deadlifts and toes to bar!)
*Fran – Before the cycle he could not complete even the round of 15 before the twenty minute cap, but after the cycle he Rx’d it in 7:50.
*Helen: 13:23 to 12:27 Rx.
*Hayden’s newfound strength enabled him to perform ring muscle-ups without the need for a false grip.
*Hayden’s full Snatch and Clean also went up 5 lbs each the first time he did them, despite not being performed or practiced for 8 weeks.

Our second example is Greg Schatz.  Greg is also tall and naturally thin, beginning the first cycle at 6’3” 190, and weighing in at 206 after two cycles and his lifts went as follows (also over two cycles):

*Squat: 195 to 325
*Press: 115 to 160
*Deadlift: 245 to 355
*Power Clean: 185 to 225 (this was not a 1RM power clean, just normal work performed during the cycle)
*Bench Press: 175 to 225 (same as power clean)

Now for the lifts he didn’t train:

*Snatch: 125 to 165.
*Clean & Jerk: 190 to 225
– Again, both lifts completely untrained for about 5 months.

And CrossFit:
*Grace: From could not complete as Rx’d, to 3:46.
*Karen: 11:34 to 9:27 (performed very soon after strength cycle before conditioning had been reestablished).

Our third example is Asta Fivgas.  Asta had been training on and off for several years prior to joining our cycle, so her gains are in some ways more impressive as they are not just newbie/Novice gains but layered on top of strength already somewhat developed.  Asta has taken the strength cycle continuously since its inception, so we don’t have Crossfit benchmarks to compare.  But we do have before/afters for the lifts, as Asta has done some Olympic lifting in the week or two between cycles:

*Squat: 175 (stuck here for years) to 225
*Press: 65 to 85.5
*Deadlift: 195 to 250
*Bench Press: 95 (which resulted in a long term shoulder injury) to 112.5 with no pain.

Now some other lifts, completely untrained during the cycle, just done in one-off workouts between cycles:

*Thruster: 83 to 93
*Jerk: 103 to 113
*Snatch: 68 to 85.5
*Front Squat: 133×1 to 143×3

Asta has also increased her kipping pull-ups from rounds of 4,3,2 to consistent rounds of 6, and has been able to do a downward dog in yoga with her heels on the ground for the first time in her life.

These examples are not aberrations.  They’re relatively typical results of a brief but intense focus on strength, for regular people who were not yet strong.

Putting it All Together: The Role of Solace Strong

And this brings us back to Solace Strong being a strength program, not a powerlifting program.  As mentioned earlier, Solace Strong is designed to make people stronger – to increase their ability to produce force against an external resistance.  Doing so will increase their CrossFit Total, their Powerlifting Total, and as we have seen – for people who are not already strong – their Weightlifting Total as well, in addition to lowering times or increasing rounds on WODs.   The purpose of Solace Strong as a strength program is to increase the general adaptation of strength – production of force against an external resistance, which then carries over positively into any target activity that you will perform.  Obviously the greater the target activity’s dependence on strength, the more useful strength will be.  As discussed earlier, a marathon runner doesn’t need to squat 405.  For a serious CrossFitter, on the other hand, 405 is barely even “table stakes” to get into the game at the Regional level.  We now return again to the idea that for someone who is not already strong, getting stronger will help tremendously with CrossFit.

How Would Solace Strong be Different if it Were a Powerlifting-Specific Program?

While a general strength program may be the basis for a powerlifting program, the two are not the same thing.   What would a powerlifting-specific program include that Solace Strong does not?  Some important examples in a non-exhaustive list:

1.     Sumo deadlifts – some lifters have anthropometry that makes the sumo deadlift a superior choice, within the rules of powerlifting, to lift the most weight from the floor to lockout.   However, it cuts off range of motion and reduces the use of the musculature of the low back and hamstrings in exchange for a small amount of weight on the bar.

Good for increasing a powerlifting total within the context of the rules?  Yes.

Good for increasing general strength with carry over to all other activities? Not as good as the conventional deadlift.

This is not to say that there is never any place in a general strength program for sumo deadlifts.  That is a much longer discussion.  However in an 8 week cycle designed to get the fastest gains in general strength, the conventional deadlift is generally the superior choice.

2.     Squat style – we use a moderate width stance of about shoulder width, and toe turn out of about 30 degrees, and enforce below parallel depth extremely strictly.  Stance width and toe turn-out do vary a bit from person to person, but this general set-up yields a squat that is very different than the type of squat a lot of people think of when they hear “powerlifting” – a super wide stance, vertical shin squat with almost no knee bend and hips shoved way back first, often done to questionable depth.

A compilation of some geared powerlifting squats. This style of squatting, while very common, has limitations and does not match the overall movement patterns used and required by general trainees and CrossFitters.

Our squat is not designed to cut corners on range of motion or to allow significant valgus knees to yield a heavier weight lifted – both things that a competitive powerlifter might do on purpose (if within the rules and judging of a meet) to gain a competitive advantage to win the meet.  Our goal is to get as many muscles as possible involved in the movement, and take it through a full ROM, so our participants can get stronger.

Wolf with an example of the Low-bar Back Squat used in our Solace Strong cycles. Note the differences in stance and greater range of motion as compared the common powerlifting style shown above.

3.     Bench Press – technique and frequency

The most noticeable difference here from traditional powerlifting is that we use a moderate width grip with vertical forearms at the bottom of the lift.  No wide grip benches with the bar sinking into the lifter’s belly.

First, me demonstrating a moderate grip bench press with vertical forearms at the bottom:

For contrast, a video displaying the wider grip geared bench press in a bench shirt common in powerlifting:

 

The press is not contested at all during powerlifting, and as the weight used in the press is significantly lighter than the bench press, there is a limited amount of carry-over from the press to the bench (there IS carry-over, but especially past the Novice stage, it’s limited). A 3 day per week powerlifting program might include 2 days of benching and 1 day of pressing.  Some might even argue for a 3/0 split, or pressing only as assistance work after the bench. Our 1/1 ratio of benching and pressing, and going on to favor pressing slightly for the last 2 weeks of each cycle, is not designed for powerlifting but for general strength purposes.

4.     No knee wraps or gear, at all, ever – if this were a powerlifting cycle, we might have people training for both raw and geared powerlifting events (wraps, multi-ply, single-ply).  And that’s perfectly fine.  But this is a STRENGTH cycle, where the focus is on general strength.  As such, we lift only using equipment that does not store elastic energy across joints or directly contribute to that joint extending to complete the lift.

This is not an exhaustive list, but highlights some of the primary differences between Solace Strong – a strength cycle – and what a powerlifting program might look like.

Conclusions

Since increasing the production of force against an external resistance will increase your powerlifting total, this is a program that can be used for powerlifting preparation – especially for a Novice or early Intermediate lifter – but is not specifically tailored for powerlifting.

It is designed with the general trainee in mind.  Either someone who just loves training and wants to focus on getting stronger, or the CrossFitter who has plateaued due to a lack of strength that isn’t improving on its own by doing 3-4 classes per week.   And for that population, as Greg, Hayden, Asta and dozens of others have experienced, it’s an excellent way to get stronger as well as increase aptitude at CrossFit.

So if you’ve been having any doubts about whether to join us over by the racks for some #GAINZ – now you know. If strength is your limiting factor, come over to the dark side for a couple months and reap the benefits.

 

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