In this article I am going to tell you everything you need to do to get more results from training in less time. The way I’m going to do that is to give you the highlights of some of the training principles from one of the greatest strength and conditioning coaches of all time.
Bill Starr is a legendary strength coach and athlete who’s accomplishments include: one of the handful of coaches that created the Strength and Conditioning industry, Head strength Coach at SMU, Hawaii, John Hopkins and for the Baltimore Colts. As well as former olympian and Olympic team coach.
Starr, or William A. Starr’s training philosophy reflects a combination of many of the best ideas of his time. One of his original books was the Strongest Shall Survive, a book that went on to influence the strength training programs of amny high school and college athletes. It’s affects can still be felt today in the widespread use of abbreviated programs based on Bill Starr’s “big 3”.
If you are interested in learning about the nuts and bolts of program design, it makes sense to read over some of Bill’s thoughts on training as well as some of his actual programs. While deceptively simple, if you start reading through some of his writing, you will see a ton of advanced concepts being used.
Apparently Bill wasn’t the type of coach that was concerned with being regarded as one of the smartest trainers in the world. Regardless, he was, and he offers a ton of useful insight for anyone that takes the time to explore his work.
In this article, I am going to offer some of the more useful, immediately applicable insights. I will also offer some links toward the end of his article so that you can further explore some of his published work on the web.
Priceless Insights From a Legendary Coach
How To Fit All The Exercises You Want To Do In A Training Program
Bill attacked this problem in an interesting way. He basically gives two options. The first option is to perform the exercises that you want for around 6 weeks and then switch to different exercises, nothing new there. His second suggestion is to set up two programs that you will alternate from week to week.
He says you can set up an A program and a B program. Both programs hit roughly the same muscle groups at around the same times through out the week. you simply alternate so that you can fit all the exercises you want. For example if you wanted to do back squats and front squats in your program, you would replace one with the other as you alternated from the A program to the B program from week to week.
Say you placed back squats as the first exercise on Monday of your first routine, program A. You then put front squats in place of back squats on the same day, Monday, as the first exercise in your second routine, program B. You can then alternate similar exercises like this from week to week.
This program works especially well when an athlete wants to include a variety of exercises that have a large amount of overlap. An example is an athlete that wants to include the following exercises in a program: front squats & back squats, incline bench press & dips, standing press & push press, barbell curl & incline dumbell curl, good mornings & straight leg deadlifts etc…
Starr also mentions that alternating routines in this manner allows that athlete to look forward to the lifts. He says that athletes almost forget how difficult an exercise is by the time they get back around to it about 2 weeks later. Finally he acknowledges that alternating programs in this manner more effectively balances out the musculature of the body.
Train Really Heavy on Dips, Presses, Push Presses and Jerks
Bill Starr was a pretty big proponent of dips, presses, push presses, jerks and incline presses. He repeatedly talks about balancing out the strength around the shoulders joint as one of his main concerns for all his athletes.
One of the things Bill pointed out about the flat bench press is that it can cause an overgrowth of the pecs in relation to the shoulder as well as tightness in the shoulder that could inhibit overhead lifting. Another concern Bill had with the over-reliance on the bench press was that the strength gained on the bench did not convert well to other presses.
“I knew of many Olympic lifters who were pressing 300 or more who could lay down on a bench and use 400 without any prior practice on that exercise. Conversely, I have never seen a 400-pound bencher be able to overhead press 300. Most are barely able to handle in the 225 to 250 range.” – Bill Starr
Starr is no less enthusiastic about the push press and jerk. He mentions programming both exercises into his athletes training varying the rep ranges and sets from workout to workout. An example of one of the routines he recommends for beginners is to warm up with 3 sets of 5 and then do three sets of triples after the warm up.
Once you are used to doing 3×5 for a warm up and 3×3 for your work sets you can add in a set of triples each week until you reach eight total sets of triples for your work sets or 3×5 warm up and 8×3 for your work sets.
Starr was possibly more enthusiastic about getting trainees to do dips then he was about presses, push presses and jerks. In discussing the dip, he mentions that dips and presses are the perfect supplement for one and other. He even goes as far as to say that:
“Dips and overhead presses went hand in hand because they complement one another. When the numbers on the dips went up, so did the numbers on the overhead press, and vice versa.” -Bill Starr
In all of his writing on dips he mentions the 1950s physique star Marvin Edgar who was possibly the strongest dipper to ever walk the face of the earth. By mentioning Marvin, Starr is giving a concrete example of just how heavy you can train dips if you take them seriously and progressively add weight.
Starr mentions that Edgar had a record in the dips of 7 reps with 400 lbs. at a body weight of 198 lbs. At the same body weight, he did a single with 434 lbs. of weight attached to his waist. Starr mentions that no one at the time, or since then, has even been close.
In some of his writing he gives a more relatable example of one of the weightlifters he trained at the university of Hawaii. He mentions that this lifter competed in the 181 lb. weight class. This tells us that he most likely trained at a slightly higher body weight, most likely 190-195. Starr mentioned he was able to do 5 reps with 200 lbs. and a single with 250 lbs.
Regardless of the man’s training weight, these are super inspiring numbers. He was doing reps with more then his body weight in additional loading attached. His ability to dip really heavy was one of the main feats of strength Starr credits with giving him the ability to jerk over 350 lbs. overhead or almost twice his body weight.
In regard to training, he advises beiners to use a wide variety of reps when just sarting out. At first he says a beginner should include 4 sets, simply focusing on building up reps and localized work capacity. Once you can do 4 sets of 20 he advises switching to weighted dips.
His first weighted routine for beginners is a warm up set done with bodyweight followed by 5 sets of 5 increaseing the weight on each set. The next week is 5 sets of 8 reps after a warm up increasing the weight until you find a weight that is challenging but not impossible for each set of 8. Week 3 is a warm up with just bodyweight followed by 2 sets of 5 and then 3 sets of 3 repetitions.
Once you get more advanced, Bill recommends pushing up the weight and attempting a maximum single about once a month. He also says that you can use back of sets with 50 lbs. less then your maximum weight for any workouts that end with heavy singles, doubles or triples. So if you attempt a heavy single and nail 150 lbs. x 1, you would then do a maximum repition back off set with 100 lbs.
Include Some Type Of Heavy Dynamic Pulling
In a number of his training articles Bill recommends that athletes include some type of dynamic pulling exercise into their routines. Bill even goes as far as to say that power cleans should be the primary back exercise for the majority of athletes.
Bill gives a number of reasons for this point of view, but points to the unique manner in which dynamic pulling works the nervous system, muscles and attachments. Bill says that none of the static pulling exercises such as chins or rows allow the athlete to activate as large a muscle mass or generate the same levels of peak tension as the dynamic pulls.
Bill recommends athletes start with the power clean and power snatch and then move to the clean and snatch grip high pulls. he recommends working up to a point where your clean grip high pulls are up to 100 lbs. over your best power clean. For snatch grip high pulls he recommends working up to the point where they are up to 75 lbs. above your best power snatch.
If your just interested in building muscle, Starr recommends snatch grip high pulls in particular as the number one exercise to build up the lats. He recommends doing 3 sets of 5 reps as you warm up, increasing weight at each set. Once you get to work sets use triples for your next 3 to 5 sets continuing to ramp up the weight.
Finally, Bill was a proponent of using heavy pulls to build up the biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis. Bill mentions how power snatches and cleans as well as the snatch and clean grip versions of high pulls and shrugs allow lifters to work the main movers in the upper arm.
After utilizing curls extensively in his early programs, Bill dropped them for pulls and chins. After coaching himself and hundreds of athletes, Bill realized that pulls and chins could build the upper arms better then any type of curl. While curls could certainly be used to enhance the results gained from pulls and chins, they in no way replaced the size that could be gained from them.
Building a Strong Back Requires Work For The Erectors and Traps
Bill Starr was religious about back training. He included a number of pulls, direct work for the erectors and plenty of overweight shrugs and power shrugs for the majority of athletes programs.
In fact, Starr mentions that he would take his athletes through a progession of exercises designed to wor their upper back starting with the power clean and power snatch. he would then teach the athletes snatch and clean grip high pulls. Finally, when athletes mastered all four of those lifts, he would have them do clean and snatch grip shrugs.
Starr mentions that these are the heaviest exercises most athletes will ever do. While training athletes at John Hopkins he even had 585 lbs. or 6 plates per side as the standard he wanted all his athletes to reach for the clean grip shrug. On the importance of upper back training Starr says the following:
“Strong traps have a direct bearing on nearly every exercise in strength training. Obviously, they help all pulling movements, but they play a major role in squatting as well. Without a strong upper body, the athlete is not able to hold the proper position during a heavy squat. And while few think in terms of upper back strength in connection with pressing movements, a strong upper back benefits flat benches, inclines, and particularly overhead presses. The top pressers in the country always made sure they involved their traps in the lift.” – Bill Starr
For most types of shrugs, Starr recommends the lower end of the repetition range, usually 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps. Starr recommends upping the weight used in the clean high pulls another 75-150 lbs. at least. This means that if your best power clean is 250 and your best clean grip high pull is 325, your clean grip shrugs would be in the 400-475 range. Starr also recommends utilizing a slight bend in the elbows at the top of the pull to duplicate the top of the clean grip high pull.
In terms of lower back training, Starr is no less enthusiastic. He recommended that all his lifters do direct work for the erectors. He recommended hyper extensions or reverse hyper extensions as well as good mornings. For hyper extensions starr recommended doing just body weight and increasing the reps until you are able to get sets with 50 reps in good form.
For the good mornings, Starr did a version that specifically targeted the erectors instead of the hips. For his version, the athlete stands with their feet just inside shoulder width and the toes pointed just slightly inward. The athlete then bends forward leaving the hips in the same position until they are at least parallel with the floor.
If possible Starr recommends bending down until the chest is almost touching the thighs. This means you need to have the bar held tightly against the back to ensure it does not move. For this exercise he recommended athletes work up to 5 repetitions with 50% of their 1 rep max on the back squat. In regards to lower back strength Starr says:
“Whenever I conduct seminars or clinics, I’m frequently asked what part of the body I consider the most important in strength training. My answer: the lumbars – the muscles of the lower back. The lumbars are the keystones of strength. I also refer to them as the universal joints of the power plant. If your lumbars aren’t strong enough, the power generated by your hips and legs cannot be transferred upward into your back and shoulders.” –Bill Starr
Starr gives the recommendation of performing stiff legged deadlifts as an alternative to good mornings to rotate in and out of a program. For stiff leg deadlifts he recommends doing them off the floor and using 25 lb. plates to increase the range of motion. He advises all lifters to start with just 95 lbs. and nail the technique.
The technique he teaches is to raise the bar from the floor touching the shins the whole way up. Once you pass the kness track the bar up the thighs until you reach mid thigh level before reversing the direction of the movement. Going above mid thigh level is counter productive as stress is taken off the lumbars.
Starr recommends shooting for 8 reps with 75% of your 1 rep max back squat. In terms of programming he usually put stiff legged deadlifts into his program after squats.
Gain Strength By Increasing Work Capacity Over Time
Bill Starr was religious about increasing the overall workload of an athlete in order to allow them to make strength gains over time. Starr looked at building up work capacity in the same way that endurance athletes view base building.
Starr advises trainees to start conservatively and increase their overall workload by no more then 10% per week. This means that if your weekly workload is 50,000 lbs per week you would only increase by 5,000 lbs. per week.
In measuring workload Starr would normally divide the body into hips & legs, back and shoulder girdle. Exercises like incline bench press or push presses would be counted toward the total for the shoulder girdle. Exercises like squats or lunges would be counted toward the total for the hips and legs. Finally exercises like, pulls and rows would be counted for the back.
One important distinction is that Bill Starr would track accessory exercises like calf raises, lateral raises, hyper extensions, bicep curls etc… in a separate category. He would make sure to annotate these exercises in brackets or with some other type of indicator in his training log. He would also seperate body weight exercises like chins and dips in parenthesis or some other type of annotation. This allowed him to see his total weekly workload, total workload for each of the three areas of the body and see how much of those totals were coming from main movements vs. accessory or free hand exercises.
Starr believed that you could push up your totals in just about any lift by slowly increasing the amount of work you were doing for a movement. Starr believed that consistent, plan progress of no more then a 10% increase in weekly workload was the key to gaining massive amounts of strength.
he was so adamant about this rule that he says he would not even focus on intensity or weight on the bar. Starr believed that if an athlete tracked workload precisely, “intensity would take care of itself”. Starr believed that maximal strength was like the tip of a pyramid that was built on a wide base of foundational strength work. This foundation of work capacity was built using a variety of rep ranges but by focusing on sets of 3-5 reps.
Starr was against the “Quick and easy” mentality he saw developing in the U.S. during the decades he spent in the weight room. In a number of his articles he rails against the mainstream fitness culture and it’s emphasis on abbreviated routines, easier machine versions of exercises and drugs.
While Starr was a fan of hard work, he did not attribute strength gains to magical thinking or otherworldly effort in the gym. he recognized the importance of consistency above all else.
Bill Starr had it right about nearly everything training related. I really wish I could ask him what if anything about his training and diet advice he would change for people who are trying to look and perform better who don’t have weightlifting specific performance goals.
Anyway, I am sure this advice included something new. Bill was an amazing coach and teacher and I’m thankful that there are still a ton of amazing sites keeping his writing available for the public.