In this followup to my original article on Bill Starr’s training principles, 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 a second set of highlights from Bill Starr, 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
Strengthen Your Base For New PRs & Increased Health and Longevity
Bill Starr was a fan of exercises to overload the body and strengthen potential week points. One of Bills lesser known practices was using direct calf work and partial squats to overload muscles used in the squat that generally receive less tension.
The squat support and partial or quarter squat variations were used by Bill Starr to help his athletes overload their nervous systems, bones and ligaments. Bill would have athletes warm up by squatting and then set up a partial squat in a power rack so the weight was a few inches below an athletes height when standing erect.
He would have athletes slowly push against the weight, breaking it off the pins, before holding it for 5-6 seconds. Bill would have athletes start at their max squat poundage and work up from there in 100-200 lb. increments. Bill would allow athletes to move up until they were doing holds with up to 2 times their max squat poundage.
Bill is not the only strength athlete that swears by this approach. According to Jamie Lewis, national level powerlifter and owner of the blog Chaos and Pain, “If You Think Partials Will Only Yield Partial Results Your Partially Retarded“.
In addition to overloading the nervous system, partials overload all the muscles and attachments involved in the squat specifically the feet and ankles. If you think about it, this makes a lot of sense as the role of the feet and ankles changes less in the full vs. partial squat then the role the prime movers play in the two versions of the squat.
In addition to using partials to build up the feet and ankles, Bill recommends doing seated and standing calf raises as well as exercises for the tibialis anterior. For seated and standing calf raises Bill recommended 3 sets of 20-30 reps.
In order to exercise the tibialis anterior, or muscle running up the front of the lower leg, Bill recommended using a hamstring curl machine or ankle weights. For the hamstring curl machine, instead of lying down, face down on the machine, you would sit at the end of it with your legs stretched out so the tops of the feet are under the leg curl pad.
You would then flex the tibialis anterior, or muscle running up the front of your leg, so that your foot is pulled toward the midline of the body. You would complete 2-3 sets of 20-30 reps in this manner. Alternatively, Bill recommended using ankle weights strapped around the foot for foot circles.
Basically you would lift one leg off the ground or stand on a bench or platform so that the foot with the weights strapped to it would be elevated off the floor. You would then complete sets of foot circles in both directions until exhaustion. In most of Bills writing he doesn’t explicitly mention adding all these exercises for the lower leg into a program.
Bill made it a point to recommend athletes and coaches keep in mind the importance of lower leg strength. He mentions many alternatives to direct work for the lower leg such as engaging in sports practice, hiking on uneven terrain or doing exercises that challenge ankle stability such as walking lunges or the previously mentioned squat supports.
Programs Should be Individualized While Following The Same Principles
Bill wrote a lot about programming different routines. He recommended a simple three day per week program for anyone starting out in strength training. Bill’s belief was that most people could go their whole training career just programming off of a three day per week template.
Bill is known for his famous 5×5 routine popularized in his strongest shall survive training manual used by thousands of football teams around the U.S. Largely due to the popularity of this program, many people mistakenly assume that Bill Starr’s main routine was the 5×5 routine.
While this was his standard beginner template, Bill wrote extensively about personalizing training to the needs of the athlete and the sport. Bill writes about plenty of strength athletes graduating to 4, 5 and 6 day per week programs with many of the athletes he trained with using 2 a day workouts 1-2 times per week.
While Bill wouldn’t recommend anyone start on a 6 day per week program, he strongly believed in setting up a workout to adhere to the work capacity demands of the athlete first and foremost. Basically, if an athlete needed to get more work in to progress, but was already at the limit of per volume workout, Bill would add more exercises or more volume on a separate day of the week.
Regardless of the specific routine, Bill had some underlying principles he stuck to after decades of competitive success as a coach and athlete. First, unless an athlete was elderly or no longer participating in sports training, Bill Believed “the best strength program is one in which you work all the major muscle groups in each session”.
Bill believed that there should be one major exercise for the shoulder girdle, the legs and the back. Bill suggested adding in accessory movements as needed to strengthen particularly week muscle groups. He cautioned against adding in too many accessory exercises as he believed that overall workload at each workout needed to be strictly accounted for.
Bill was so adamant about working all the muscle groups in each workout that he encouraged trainees to have a abbreviated version of their workouts they could perform if they were ever short on time or in a facility with limited equipment.
“I also suggest that trainees have one special routine they use when time is short. I have a great deal of control over my training time, but I still end up using this abbreviated workout, which I call a Bridget Fonda, a couple of times a year. It’s short and sweet – but far from easy.” – Bill Starr
The second principle Bill believed in was that workouts need to be divided into heavy, medium and light days. Bill had specific ways to break up these workouts for 4, 5 and 6 day per week templates. For his standard heavy, medium and light 3 day per week workout, Bill suggested using variations of exercise for the main parts of the body: back, legs and chest.
In order to make the heavy, medium and light template work, Bill would have athletes perform a lower volume of work, less intense work, or easier variations of an exercise on the different days of the week. For example on a heavy day an athlete might perform squats, on a medium day they might perform front squats and on a light day thy might perform squats again but with half the volume of the heavy day.
Third, Bill believed that 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps was the best rep range for the majority of compound movements. This translated into his 5×5 routine but his real belief was in 4-6 sets of 4-6 reps for all beginner and intermediate trainees. Bill liked this rep range as it provided a good amount of stimulation to the nervous system, ligaments and muscles.
As a trainee became more advanced bill believed in using lower reps to stimulate the nervous system and ligaments more then the muscles. As a strength athlete became more advanced there would be regular use of triples, doubles and singles in Bill’s programs.
Fourth, Bill believed in his “40 rep” rule for accessory exercises. For all gymnastic type exercises like chins and dips as well as accessory exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, lateral raises etc… Bill believed in doing around 40 total reps. This could be 3 sets of 12-15 reps, 2 sets of 20 reps or 4 sets of 10 reps. The only exception was for the calves which Bill believed needed at least 3 sets of 30 reps to respond.
Fifth, Bill believed in working up to a final hard set without burning out. Bill was against standard pyramid training where higher reps with lower weights were used before the heavier set. Instead, Bill simply used the same reps he planned to do on his heaviest sets with lighter weights.
Bill used these lighter weight work sets to accumulate volume without becoming too exhausted. If an athlete wanted to do higher rep sets with lighter weight, bill recommended doing it as a back off set after the heaviest weight sets. this is very similar to the Reverse Pyramid Training.
I think Bill’s ideas about ramping up weight might be even more effective then reverse pyramid training. The reason is that reverse pyramid training requires that you do multiple warm up sets to get to your working weight. Generally these warm up sets are not included in the total volume of training recorded.
for example, if you are doing back squats for a top set of 4-6 reps with 350 lbs., you might do the following to warm up. 135 x 10, 225 x 5, 285 x 2, 315 x 1. At this point you have already accumulated 3360 lbs. of volume. If your warm up fluctuates from workout to workout it might seriously impact the volume you are recording in your workout logs.
The rep set method Bill employed allows you to record all warm ups sets and accumulate some volume while minimally impacting your top end sets. It also leaves room for higher rep back off sets after the ramp up. He gives the example of how he would ramp up for a final set of 5 reps with 315 lbs. in the back squat. 135 x 5, 185 x 5, 225 x 5, 275 x 5, 315 x 5.
It You Take Them Seriously, Dumbells Are a Serious Strength Tool
Bill Starr was a huge fan of using dumbells for accessory exercises as well as a for primary strength exercises. On example was Bills support for super heavy dumbell training. He suggested many ways that olympic lifters and athletes could use dumbells to build up their primary lifts.
“Two strength exercises that Olympic weightlifters used to do with heavy dumbbells were cleans and clean and presses. They used them to improve pulling and pressing power, and the dumbbells really got the job done. It was a true test of strength to be able to clean 200-pound dumbbells and press them.”
Bill even discusses a competition he had with some of the guys he trained with to see if anyone in their gym could clean and press a 220 lb. thick handled dumbell. He said that only two lifters in his gym were able to lock it out overhead. Both men were able to standing press over 350 lbs. using a barbell.
Bill mentions that he believes too few athletes use heavy dumbell training. During his time as a college level strength and conditioning coach he only had three athletes ever clean and press 100 lb. dumbells out of about 2500 athletes he trained. Bill believed that a lifter needed to be able to clean around 300 lbs. to even be able to clean the 100 lb. dumbells.
Bill used dumbells for accessory exercises in most of his programs. The main way he recommended them is for use in lower weight higher rep sets at the end of a workout. If an athlete needed to take a break from a main barbell lift this is where Bill would use heavy dumbell training.
The main exercises Bill would use heavy dumbell training for was as an alternative to cleans, presses, bench press, incline press, upright rows or bent over rows. Bill would substitute any of these exercises for a period of time for the same movements done with heavy dumbells.
In the case of the clean and press Bill actually believed the dumbells were superior for shoulder strength and development. He writes about how the dumbell clean and dumbell press require more of a focus on the deltoids then the same exercises done with a barbell. He also believed both exercises could be used to strengthen the barbell versions of the lift.
Standards for this lift are hard to find, but in his article “The Lost Art of The Dumbell Clean and Press (NSFW)” Jamie Lewis lists some standards he got from some of Joe Weider’s writings from the 1950s.
Training Heavy Presses
Bill Starr believed in training the standing press very heavy. Back when he started lifting, the standing press was still a part of Olympic Weightlifting competition. It was the first lift performed at each meet and determined which lifters wold advance in the rankings.
For this reason, most lifters allocated at least 1/3 of their training volume to the press or its variations. Bill writes about how being able to press 1 rep with your body weight was a fantastic goal for a recreational lifter and a good beginning benchmark for competitive lifters.
Since the press occupied a great deal of lifters training volume many were capable of some pretty outstanding presses. Bill mentions that a good goal for competitive lifters was 1.5 times bodyweight. When the lift was still contested there were even lifters that were capable of pressing twice their body weight.
The main forms of the press that were used in training were the Olympic press and the military press. The military press was the standard strict press that most people are familiar with.
Bill recommended cleaning the weight from the floor before doing all of your reps for military presses. For sets and reps, Bill recommended the standard 5 sets of 5 reps for anyone using the military press for general strength.
The Olympic press was the competition specific version of the press that allowed lifters to hoist some ridiculous weights. For this version, the lifter would keep his feet closer together and push the stomach out while bowing the shoulders back. Holding the weight up high over the delts while keeping the elbows tucked into the lats allowed the lifters to use their bodies like a bow for this version of the lift.
For most lifters trying to get stronger, Bill recommended a normal military press. Bill also believed that most trainees would benefit from focusing on the press and its variations more then any other upper body exercises.
Bill believed that the strength gained in the press carried over to other upper body movements more then any other exercise. Bill also believed that training the press strengthened the rotator cuffs and prevented them from getting injured while performing other less balanced lifts like the bench press.
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.