Welcome! In this post, you will learn about Starting Strength for seniors. Is it safe, what to consider, are there better programs, etc.
You’ve probably wound up here because someone recommended starting strength to you or if you are trying to find if Starting Strength is suitable for a senior family member.
Many people think starting strength is just a workout routine but it’s actually much more than that. It’s a comprehensive book and a training system with all the necessary principles and instructions for improving functional full-body strength.
Starting Strength has a large global fan base but it’s especially popular in the US where it originates from and where it has a coaching franchise.
Starting strength has also been criticized for many reasons, mainly by people who don’t realize its function, goal, and target audience.
And the truth be told, the program has its flaws, but we’ll talk a bit about the most important ones for seniors later on.
More importantly, Mark Rippetoe has built a coaching business around this program, meaning that it’s possible to get a professional coach to guide you in the system.
But the question is if starting strength is suitable for seniors? In my opinion, it definitely is, with certain considerations.
What Is Starting Strength
As I said, many people, especially on the Internet think that Starting Strength is simply a strength training program with defined exercises, sets, and repetitions.
In reality, it’s much more than that. Starting Strength (Amazon affiliate link, I will earn a small commission if you buy. Helps run the site) is a strength training book by Mark Rippetoe that outlines effective principles of strength training and an effective strength training program for novices.
What sets Starting Strength apart from most of the competition is the amount of detail and description for the reasoning behind the program and the selected exercises.
Everything in the program is laid out and explained in the book in great detail. Some might argue that at times with too much detail, but I personally think it’s beneficial and even necessary.
It helps people new to strength training comprehend what is actually important for improving strength and what is essentially a waste of time.
The book defines differences between strength training and exercise, explains the principles of progressive overload and stress – recovery – adaptation cycle and outlines the most effective exercises for building full-body functional strength.
The program is based almost exclusively on barbell training due to reasons I’ll explain in the next chapter.
Starting Strength has been around for almost two decades already and it has built quite a following.
The author Mark Rippetoe has also built a coaching system around the Starting Strength system and coaches can be found in most larger cities in the US.
As an interesting tidbit, a very large percentage of Starting Strength coaches are very highly educated.
I think this speaks words for the program. Intelligent people recognize intelligent programs.
Key Principals Of Starting Strength
Starting Strength sets of by defining training as a different process from exercise. Training is a process with a goal and planned steps to achieve that goal while exercise is simply performing any kind of physical exercise.
This divide is important because Mark recognizes that people often go to the gym to achieve some type of short-term or long-term but they don’t approach it systematically and thus end up failing, or wasting a lot of time.
So, according to Starting Strength, strength training is the process by which you enable yourself to lift heavier weights than you can now.
To achieve this the book lays out the principle of stress – recovery – adaptation -cycle.
In the case of strength training stress is lifting a heavy load for a set amount of repetitions. In this program, the aim is to lift more weight than in the previous workout in every workout for the same amount of repetitions.
Recovery comes in form of rest, food, and sleep. Starting Strength doesn’t go very deep into nutrition but the idea is that while performing this program, you will need to be in a caloric surplus, i.e. eat enough to gain weight.
If you performed the first two steps correctly, your body should adapt. For young novices, the program gives about 48 hours to adapt before the next workout. The adaptation is tested by increasing the weight in the next workout if you got all the repetitions in the previous one.
One key principle of Starting Strength is also the “Novice effect”, which essentially means that people who are new to strength training will improve their strength very fast in the beginning and don’t really need complicated programming.
Let’s look at how the training program makes use of these principles next.
The Standard Workout Routine Of Starting Strength
The main exercise for every single exercise is the squat. The reasoning behind this is that the squat is the most effective exercise for increasing full body strength.
The deadlift is a good second but suffers from limited knee and hip flexion angles and it’s more demanding on the central nervous system, meaning the it can’t be performed as often as the squat without overreaching.
Since starting strength includes both of these and the power clean, it’s apparent that it’s very focused on leg and core strength.
This is because functional strength is dependent on your leg, hip, and core strength. Moving heavy objects with your upper body requires a strong lower body.
Heavy leg training is also beneficial for systemic adaptation. Balancing a heavy barbell on your back while performing deep squats will force your whole body to grow stronger.
In the basic program, there are three workouts per week, always with a minimum of one day of rest between. Each workout is started with the squat, followed by a press (bench or overhead) and finished with a pull (power clean or deadlift).
Flaws Of Starting Strength
Ok, it’s time to talk about the flaws and cons of Starting Strength I mentioned in the beginning.
As we covered already, Starting Strength can be very effective in building a very strong foundation of strength and muscle mass.
The biggest issue with the program is safety in my opinion.
While all the exercises are covered exceptionally well in the book, the truth is that it’s very easy to perform them wrong.
That’s of course not the fault of the book, it does its best to minimize the risk of performing the exercise wrong but if you are learning them on your own it can be hard to perceive your body positions during the exercises.
This is usually not dangerous with bodyweight training, but when you load the spine 10s or 100s of pounds, it’s important that you are not compromising your spine with bad positioning. Especially for seniors.
The second con of the program is the mentality that all humans are alike, suggesting that a single routine works for everyone, and if it’s not working the fault is in you. “You’re not doing the program”.
I agree with this principle to a degree. It is true that a program like Starting Strength works for the vast majority of people and that’s the whole point of it, it takes the guesswork out of the process.
But it’s important to recognize that there are outliers. People that can’t perform some of the exercises correctly due to biomechanical reasons.
And there are people that just don’t respond well to strength training and simply cannot progress at the rate the program requires.
And most importantly, a large percentage of people can’t learn these barbell exercises on their own safely, especially if they’ve been sedentary most of their life.
Fortunately, there is a solution to these flaws that Mark has recognized. It’s coaching. And that definitely something every senior should get before following a barbell training system like this.
My Own Experience With This
I’ve run the linear progression of Starting Strength a couple of times myself in the past but I’ve never gotten coaching for it. So I tried to learn the program on my own and I personally always run into the same problems.
As the weights start to get heavier, especially in the squat, I tend to develop quad tendinitis which will eventually lead to a longer training break and a loss of lower body strength.
This happens with any program that incorporates high frequency squatting and it seems to be my individual weakness as I’ve trained with several people who have never had this issue. Just goes to show that individual differences are real.
I’ve also pulled my back during heavy squats and heavy deadlifts suffered from nerve irritation in both arms, felt constant fatigue, and just general aches and pains.
Surely most of these issues were due to deficiencies in my technique back in the day but after strength training for over a decade I know I’m prone to certain injuries and I have since gotten coaching in Olympic weight lifting and know my lifting technique shouldn’t be the issue anymore.
Starting Strength as laid out in the book doesn’t really encourage you to pay attention to minor pains and listen to your body. The general mentality seems to be that only real injuries, i.e. pulled muscles or disc herniations require attention.
But I’ve found out that if I don’t listen to my body and keep on pushing against small pains, it will eventually lead to an overuse injury or worse.
All that said, Starting Strength is what helped me build a strong foundation of functional strength and I’ve recommended it to several friends. If I could go back in time, I would get coaching for the main movements in the very beginning and probably listen more to my body.
I guess my most important message is that train safely, no matter what any program tells you.
Starting Strength For Seniors
So now that we know what Starting Strength is and what the pros and cons are, let’s look at if it’s suitable for seniors.
Like I said, in my opinion, the biggest flaw is starting strength is safety if you try to follow it on your own.
It’s very possible to injure yourself if you do not know what you are doing and seniors will have a lot more health considerations than younger populations.
But it also puts a lot of stress on your muscles, connective tissues, and cardiovascular system. All of which are more prone to injury in seniors.
Of course, Mark and the coaches of Starting Strength recognize that seniors are a whole different subject and they are not the target audience of Starting Strength. But they also recommend barbell training for seniors to fight the effects of aging as you can see in this video for example.
But this is once again where coaching comes in. Starting Strength can be extremely beneficial for generally healthy seniors that when done under the supervision of a certified coach.
A coach can make sure you are learning and performing the exercises correctly, take into account your physical limitations and recovery capacity.
That’s why I only recommend you try Starting Strength or any other barbell general strength program under the supervision of a certified coach that has experience in coaching seniors.
It’s a lot more expensive than trying it on your own, but at an older age, you have to keep safety and longevity as the main priorities.
If you can’t afford to coach, I would recommend lighter forms of exercise combined with bodyweight strength training. And even then it would be wise to plan your program with an experienced trainer or a physiotherapist.
I hope you found this article about Starting Strength for seniors useful. If you have any questions feel free to leave them in the comments section below and I will get back to you.
As a recap, in my opinion, Starting Strength is one of the best strength training programs for novices due to the pragmatic and scientific approach that’s based on evidence and experience.
That said, I can only recommend the program for seniors if you take coaching. Starting Strength is a great book anyone will benefit from reading, but the actual exercises are demanding and the workload is not designed for older people as is.
But if you manage to find a Starting Strength coach near you, I promise you that strength training is one of the best things you can do for your health as you age. And I don’t there’s a better way to start than this.
Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed the article. See you next time!