Texas BBQ: Talking Shop with Mark Rippetoe

TAGS: Mark Rippetoe, strength, powerlifting, strength training, strength coach, Elitefts Info Pages, barbell, training

A brief introduction

If you haven’t read the book, Starting Strength: A Simple and Practical Guide for Coaching Beginners, you really need to. It’s on just about every strength coach and performance coaches “must read” list. Those who don’t have it on their list haven’t read it yet. It’s not just a book for coaches though. Anyone who trains with weights needs to read and study it.

The author of the book, Mark Rippetoe, owns and operates the Wichita Falls Athletic Club in Wichita Falls, Texas. If you peruse any of the popular internet weight training forums, his name is sure to pop up. This book is helping to set the balance in the weight training world. Besides containing the most detailed information you’ll find about performing the big lifts, it helps convince the newbie that following your favorite bodybuilder’s ghostwritten routine from the glossy muscle mag is not what you should be doing.

His new book, Practical Programming for Strength Training, takes program design to the next level and shows how and why a trainee’s program evolves. Here is a short biography on Mark for those of you who don’t know him and haven’t gotten a copy of the book yet. This comes directly from his book:

Mark Rippetoe, CSCS, is the owner and general manager of Wichita Falls Athletic Club, CrossFit Wichita Falls and Performance Sports Conditioning. He has 25 years experience in the fitness industry and ten years personal experience as a competitive powerlifter. He has coached athletes in barbell and strength sports since 1980. He was in the very first group to sit for the NCSA’s Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist exam in 1985 and has been continuously certified since then. He was certified by USA Weightlifting as a Level III Coach in 1988 and currently holds the Senior Coach certification. He has coached numerous national level competitors and many thousands of people interested in improving their health and strength.

On to the visit

Recently, I moved back to California from Indianapolis, Indiana, where I had worked as a strength coach and personal trainer for the past four years. As I plotted out my course, I noticed that Wichita Falls wasn’t that far off the beaten path. I thought it would be great to get down there for a workout at a good gym and get a chance to talk with Mark to ask him some questions about Starting Strength.

I love books, but there is always some weakness to the written word (sometimes things are inferred). So I thought it would be a nice opportunity to talk to him directly and see him in action. It turns out I got my questions answered and much more. I emailed and called Mark before I left, and he said he would love to have me come down. Cool, I was set.

Now, the hard part would be convincing my wife to drive a few hours out of the way in the twenty-six foot rental truck so that I could workout and hang out with Mark for a bit. A friend suggested she could get a manicure or a massage while I worked out and talked to Mark. Brilliant! Compromise is what marriage is all about, right? Also, I convinced her that a side benefit (for both of us) was that we could get some honest to goodness Texas style barbeque afterwards.

Luckily for you, I had a voice recorder with me so I got our conversation on tape and transcribed it for you below. But first, let me tell you a bit about the gym and some odds and ends that I picked up just from being there. The gym was very easy to find thanks to the directions Mark gave me over the phone in an awesome Texas drawl. I pulled up and saw the large sheet metal sided building, and it brought a smile to my face. It was my kind of place. I took a quick glance at the area outside of the back of the gym, and I saw a couple of tractor tires for flipping, a nice outdoor track, and a chinning bar. The smile on my face got even bigger.

I parked the Penske rental truck on the side street and headed in while the wife headed around the block to get the above mentioned manicure and a Starbuck’s. As I walked in the door, I immediately noticed a thick, muscular guy in a WFAC T-shirt with a foot up on a bench tying his shoes. It was Mark. We introduced ourselves and had some small talk. Mark then took me for a tour of the gym and showed me around. It was exactly as I expected. I couldn’t believe that a commercial gym like this actually existed! I won’t go on and on about what equipment the gym has since you can see it for yourself on his website.

Mark said I could workout and then we could chat after he was done training a client. While I was working out, Mark was working with a client and the other coach, Carla, was doing the same. Just as you would expect, Mark and Carla were taking their clients (both were middle-aged females) through the basics—squats, presses, deadlifts, chins, glute ham raises, etc. I also got a chance to see a couple of his Olympic lifters train while I was there (one was doing back squats with a low bar style—more on that later).

A few random things

I noticed that while Mark had his client doing chins (he had her doing assisted chins with a band), he used an interesting set up for the band. Instead of choking the band over the chin bar and putting a knee or a foot in the loop like most of us typically do, he stretched the band across the safety pins in the rack at a certain height and the client put her feet on the band. (He has tall racks, enabling a person to keep their legs straight while they chin. If you don’t have a tall rack, you could simply bend your knees and place the knees on the stretched band.) It seemed a little easier to get in and out of and another way to go about progressing (lowering pin height) rather than changing bands.

A couple other interesting tidbits—Mark uses micro-loading (making smaller than a total of five pound increases) on some exercises when necessary. He also uses speaker magnets from stereo joints when they remove the old car speakers for this purpose. (They usually cut them out so they are automatically encased for you and the magnets don’t break.) While I thought of it, I also asked Mark the easiest way to make a platform (for deadlifting and Olympic lifting) and what he would suggest. He simply said that the easiest way is to use six, 4’ X 8’ sheets of plywood and lay them crossways on each other (alternate directions making three layers). Glue them together and use wood screws to fasten. Then put two rubber mats on top and screw those in as well.

Questions and answers

Following the workout, Mark and I sat down in his office. I asked him several miscellaneous questions that I had jotted down on a notepad.

CR: I see that you have Bill Starr’s original York weightlifting set (set up on display in the corner of the gym) that he used over at the local YMCA. How did you meet Bill Starr?

MR: I met him at the Midwestern State University weight room here in Wichita Falls. He was in town taking care of his daughter.

CR: Let’s talk about a few things from Starting Strength. I’d like to talk about some miscellaneous things some colleagues and I have discussed that you have addressed in the book. For example, when you first teach someone a squat (a beginner), how “hard” (relatively) do you go on that first workout?

MR: What I do is work with an empty bar until the client’s form is correct or until I feel like the addition of 20 lbs or so would improve the client’s form. With some bigger guys, it helps to have something to push on. When we get form down, I’ll just take incremental jumps that I feel are appropriate for that individual until I get them up to a point where my eyeball tells me, “That’s enough.”

Now with some people, it just has to do with form getting a little shaky. I wouldn’t ever take somebody (on the first workout) to a point where bar speed would drop. If you go that heavy on the first day, you’ll cripple them. You’ve got to be very conservative on that first day. So the first day I just watch them until their form just starts to get kind of ragged. Then I stay at that weight for two more sets of five.

CR: Then the next workout you add weight?

MR: For the next workout, we’ll go up 10 or 20 lbs. This depends on whether the client is a male or female, young or old, good form or shaky form or form that needs more work.

CR: You’ll just ride that as long as you can, correct?

MR: Every workout. You’ll always add some weight (as long as form is correct). If you don’t, you’re not causing overload.

CR: When the trainee finally hits a plateau and needs to make a change to the routine, what kind of poundage (for the sets of five on the squat) have you seen your guys get up to with this linear progression?

MR: It obviously depends on the size, age, ability, and interest of the trainee, but the neighborhood of 300 lbs is typical. Most people who join a gym are in for the short haul only, but for the guys that stay six months, it is unusual if they don’t squat 300 for five unless they’re lighter. But these things are highly individual matters.

CR: With a beginner, you will squat three times per week, correct? How many workouts (generally) will you take before you get to the point where bar speed would drop?

MR: The second workout should go up heavy enough that bar speed drops a little on the work sets. From then on, things are hard. Making progress on squats three days a week can last quite a while depending on the finesse with which things are approached.

CR: Let’s move on to a something that confused me a bit in Starting Strength. You mention that when descending on the back squat, you want the forward travel of the knees (dorsi flexion) to occur toward the beginning of the movement rather than occurring at the bottom of the movement, correct?

MR: What I want is the forward movement of the knees to occur at the beginning at the top.

CR: So you initiate the descent with the knees breaking first, before the hips?

MR: No, the knees break at the same time the hips break. The knees then quit moving forward when they get as far as they will go.

CR: I’m glad you cleared that up. I was almost under the impression that you wanted the knee break to occur prior to the hips breaking, and this surprised me.

MR: No, the knees do not break before the hips break. It is simultaneous. The best way to handle this is not to tell them to go forward with the knees but coach them to push the knees out. If they go out, they’ll break properly. The set of cues for each set of individual errors may be completely different. Some people I have to tell to bounce out of the bottom of the squat, some I have to say don’t bounce. Some people will over do things. I know how I want it to look and then I have to explain that to people.

CR: Let’s talk about a common squatting error that you mention in Starting Strength—the knees caving inwards. Can you explain more about the rationale you gave in the book? You stated that it is caused by weak adductors, not weak abductors.

MR: The abductors don’t really do anything when you squat. Let’s look at that anatomy real quick. What are the hip abductors?

CR: Gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and the tensor fascia latae.

MR: Look at the origin and insertions of the gluteus medius and minimus. How efficient are they at actually keeping that much femur out from that point of insertion? I’ll bet you that with a rubber band I can probably keep your knees together at the bottom if you are actively trying to abduct your knees. You don’t actively abduct your knees. What you are doing is not abduction. You’re putting your legs in an abducted position at the top and going down that way so that you don’t have to actively abduct at the bottom position with the TFL and the two little baby glutes. That’s all the abduction that takes place.

That abduction takes place at the top in a mechanically goofy position on a long femur. So there’s not really any abduction taking place. If you point your toes out properly and keep your knees in line with your toes, then you are in an abducted position from the initiation of the movement. The abductors have the function of keeping the knees in that position when you set them there in the first place. But you don’t actively shove the knees out. When I give that cue—to shove the knees out—I tell people to do that before they get adducted. It really is not hard to do if your toes are right, etc.

The question now becomes, “Why do the knees stay out as you come up?” I understand that this is hard to visualize. Look at what the adductors do on the way up. They originate at some point on the medial pelvis, and they attach on the medial femur. If you understand this anatomy, the question then becomes, does that distance increase on the way down and decrease on the way up? If it does, then the muscle is contracting and the muscle is contributing to the movement out of the bottom.

The fact is that when you get down to the bottom position with your knees out, those adductors (just like the hamstrings) form part of the rebound platform that involves the pelvis and the femur out of the bottom of the squat. If you allow your knees to come together at the bottom—notice I didn’t say adduct your knees, but if you actively allow your knees to come together at the bottom—you are doing exactly the same thing as you would do if you shoved your ass up in the air before the bar leaves the floor on a deadlift. You’re moving a joint without loading it.

In other words, when off the floor in the deadlift, if you shove your ass in the air and then pull the bar off the floor, the quads are supposed to help pull the bar off the floor. If you go ahead and contract them without moving the weight, then the weight hasn’t moved but your quads have moved the knee joint. So how much work have they done? They haven’t done any work. It’s now left up to the hip extensors to do the whole damn thing without much help from the quads. Now, in the bottom of the squat, the adductors are supposed to help you come up. On the way down, the adductors get longer and on the way up they shorten, correct? So that means that thesemuscles are contributing to hip extension. Now if I let my knees cave in, I have just contracted my adductors, but I didn’t make them do anything if I haven’t raised anything with them! If I make my knees stay out, then I have to use my adductors. They have to get strong enough to contribute to the movement.

CR: So bringing the knees in allows the quads to take over more?

MR: Yep, throwing all the work on the quads and taking the adductors out of the movement. Just like in the deadlift when you stick your ass up in the air, you’re taking your quads out of the movement and making your hamstrings and glutes do the bulk of the work. It’s a way to cheat.

Strengthening the abductors is not the solution because they are not weak. Weak adductors are the problem. That’s what is so counterintuitive. You strengthen the adductors by keeping the knees out. When you keep the knees out, the adductors have to do their share of the work. Keeping them out is, partially I suppose, a function of the abductors. But it’s not that they are weak.

You can prove this to anybody who’s been squatting with their knees pointed forwards. Make them shove their knees out and make them squat with the knees out. Then ask them the next day, “What got sore?” No one will ever tell you that their abductors got sore. They will all say that their adductors were sore. That tells you all you need to know right there. Do the exercise perfectly correct and then see what gets sore. That will tell you what muscles are working and what you’ve been doing wrong.

CR: While I’ve been here, I’ve noticed that you have your Olympic lifting guys “low bar” squat. Can you explain the rationale behind that?

MR: Yes. Because I don’t see why a high bar back squat benefits the Olympic lifts. I’ll tell you why that is. Why do we back squat? To get strong, right? That’s it—period. In the Olympic lifts, the back squat is not a contested lift. The only thing that matters about doing the back squat is how strong you get. We can get stronger doing the low bar squat than we can doing the high bar squat. The high bar back squat does not mimic any part of the pull. The bar is never up on your back in the pull.

CR: As opposed to a front squat.

MR: Yes. The reason we front squat is because we are going to front squat out of the bottom of a clean. We’re not going to back squat out of the bottom of a clean.

CR: So a front squat is very specific and a back squat is general.

MR: That’s right. A back squat is general. So why don’t we use a more effective general form if it’s just used for providing general strength? It’s also easier on the low back (because the lever arm is shorter), which gets plenty of a beating already. I’ve always used the low bar position. No one has ever explained to me why the high bar style is better. It’s just that the high bar style has always been done. Why do Olympic lifters never do deadlifts? They don’t do them just because they never have. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do them! They did do deadlifts at one time though. Do you know when? In the 60s at York when we were actually winning shit. It seems to me that if you have a 600 lb deadlift, your 400 lb clean coming off the floor is going to feel lighter than if you only had a 475 lb deadlift. I only have my Olympic lifters deadlift once every two weeks. If you’re not strong enough to deadlift quite a bit more than you clean, then you are not strong enough. Period.

I’ll tell you what I think the deal is. I think that most Olympic lifting coaches fall in love with being able to technically coach the snatch and clean. They forget that at some level the whole thing must involve you being strong too! If you’re going to be an Olympic lifting coach and you are in love with coaching the snatch and clean and jerk, that’s real good. But you also need to be able to coach the squat because that is what makes your people stronger. You must also be able to coach the deadlift and have them do the deadlift.

You must also be smart enough to understand that the deadlift is different enough from a clean to where the two movements do not interfere with one another. You pull the deadlift off the floor slowly because the weight is real, real heavy. If you are pulling your clean off the floor as slowly as a heavy deadlift then you are not strong enough. The fact that you’re pulling the deadlift off the floor slowly is because it is heavy. It also means that if you get good at deadlifting then your clean can come off of the floor faster and easier because it is relatively lighter.

CR: What comment do you have for those who say that a high bar squat develops the quads more?

MR: I say, “What do have against your hamstrings, adductors, and glutes?” The quad involvement is one aspect of the squat. There is one school of thought (if you can call it that) that says the reason you don’t need to go below parallel is because the quads aren’t involved beyond this point. What are we doing here, substituting the squat for the leg extension machine?! If all you want to work is the quads, then you just need to do leg extensions because you do not understand what in the hell is going on here.

We’re not just trying to work a muscle group. We don’t care about muscle groups. We care about movement patterns and functions. Like I said in the book, we don’t have favorite muscle groups. We work as many muscles as we can shove into the movement for as large a range of motion as we can get them to work in with proper form. We want all of the muscles involved in the movement to get big and strong, not just one or two of them. Really, that is one of the reasons that I like a low bar squat. It takes a bit of the stress off the quads and the knees, which are beat up enough in most people.

CR: I noticed that you are now affiliated with CrossFit and that you are doing some writing in their journals. How did you get started with CrossFit?

MR: I started officially doing CrossFit in January 2006 because we were doing elements of it already. We just didn’t have it organized like they did. CrossFit works for a whole bunch of people. It’s not going to work for powerlifters, Olympic lifters, or people who need to be very specialized metabolically. But that’s not what it’s for. It can be for guys like me who are through with that stuff and are looking for a way to stay in shape, have fun with their training, and challenge themselves. They can be competitive with themselves and their buddies.

People misunderstand what CrossFit is for. People on the internet forums beat up CrossFit all the time. Typically, those who do that are 18 years old and don’t understand that not everyone is in the gym for the same reason. It has been my observation that the people who get the most out of CrossFit are the ones that come to it with a strength training background. I have stated that in print before, and Greg Glassman (founder of CrossFit) agrees with me on this.

If you’re a skinny 5’10”, 155 pound kid who can’t squat his body weight, you should probably wait to use CrossFit until you get your squat up to 300 lbs and you can bench press your body weight. Then when you get ready to do CrossFit, you will do it a whole lot better. No one would argue with that. By the same token, for an active 50-year-old guy like me who doesn’t plan on doing another powerlifting meet but still wants to have fun with his training, CrossFit might very well be a good way for him to train. Also, CrossFit is a great way to prepare for any eventuality you might face if you’re not a lifter. For example, if you’re in law enforcement, a firefighter, or a special operations kind of guy who has a physical job to do but doesn’t know what that job might involve today, CrossFit is a great way to prepare.

Physiologically, here is the interesting thing about CrossFit. If you train right in the middle of the glycolytic range like CrossFit primarily does, working at the limits of you glycolytic abilities most of the time, what you find is that there is spillover to the other two energy systems. In other words, glycolytic training has an effect on the oxidative system without training the oxidative system directly. We have a theory on that, and Lon Kilgore (co-author of Starting Strength and a researcher/professor at Midwestern State) is working on a study to investigate this. It also has an effect on the ATP-CP system. What this means is that things are even less specific in this regard than we initially thought.

Think about it like this—if you’re out jogging and doing long, slow distance work, let’s say five miles, what does that do to your oxygen saturation? It’s not going to be depressed at all if you are fit enough to jog five miles. Let’s say the saturation level is 99 percent. When you go out and jog five miles, your oxygen saturation is not going to drop enough to perturb the system to cause an adaptive response because it doesn’t deplete it any. But if you do the CrossFit workout, “Fight Gone Bad” and do three rounds of five minutes working as hard as you can possibly work, your oxygen saturation might get down to say 95 percent. This is what causes an adaptive stress, and that is why it has an effect on the oxidative system. That is also why long, slow distance stuff has no effect on the glycolytic systems.

What you’ll find is that CrossFit is very good for many people, but it’s not good for competitive lifters because you need to get specialized. The more specialized the metabolic requirements of your sport become the less applicable CrossFit becomes because it is a very general approach. However, this leaves a whole bunch of people in a position to benefit from CrossFit. Looking at the metabolic demands of soccer, CrossFit might be great for soccer. For other types of sports like football, it wouldn’t be so great. It works great for recreational athletes to improve their general condition. The bottom line is that it is very useful for many people. It has been a great thing here at the gym to keep many people interested and motivated.

I should mention another benefit of CrossFit. What other organized activity is there to do that could get people to do the Olympic lifts? There are now more people doing the Olympic lifts in the U.S. than at any other time in history because of CrossFit and Greg Glassman in Santa Cruz, California. He hasn’t received the credit he deserves for this.

Finally, here is a way to get people doing the lifts. That doesn’t mean there are more competitive Olympic lifters yet because CrossFit primarily uses the lifts for conditioning. I’ll tell you what though. CrossFit is planning to put an Olympic lifting team together, and because there are enough good athletes doing CrossFit, they may be about to stomp everyone’s asses. There are also more people coaching the Olympic lifts through CrossFit than there have been in the past. CrossFit is the best friend Olympic lifting has had since Bob Hoffman. Hopefully, the powers that be will realize that soon.

CR: Can you tell me about your new book, Practical Programming?

MR: Practical Programming for Strength Training is now available. The premise of the book is that training programs have to be tailored to the training advancement level of the trainee. Novices don’t get the same program that advanced athletes get because they are at a different level of approach to their genetic potential. The more adaptation room you have, the faster you adapt, and the more adapted you already are, the slower your progress will be.

Practical Programming for Strength Training explains why this is necessary, and it provides specific examples of programs for athletes at all levels of advancement. It will be the only book of its type in print. With Starting Strength, it will form a fairly complete package of information for the strength athlete. The next project is a new, longer edition of Starting Strength that we’re working on now, which will include much material on the major assistance exercises and their proper technique and use.

CR: Sounds great. Well, the wife’s waiting, and it’s time to eat. Thanks for the workout and taking the time to talk with me. It is much appreciated.

MR: No problem. Stop by anytime.

Closing

A few weeks ago, I came upon a sample preview chapter from Practical Programming. There is a caption next to one of the pictures in the sample that states, “Don’t be shy about asking “experts” questions. Call them, email them, and meet with them. It’s a rare expert who doesn’t like to talk about what they know. Even if you don’t agree with everything they say, you can learn something from everyone.” I was very fortunate to get a chance to meet with Mark Rippetoe, and I’ll be a better coach because of it. I hope you benefited from something in this article as well.

By the way, we never got the Texas barbeque until we got to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a day later. I know, I know. It wasn’t real Texas barbeque. Mark had said the best place in town had closed a couple hours ago, and it was too late. Oh well, another reason to stop back in the future.

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