An Uncut and Unfiltered Interview With Strength Coach Mark Rippetoe

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To date, this was one of the toughest interviews I’ve ever held. What do you ask one of the strength and conditioning world’s better known coaches, who also writes for a living, and already has a boat load of content published online? Let me tell you, it’s not easy.

If you’re an avid strength athlete, then chances are you’ve heard of Mark Rippetoe. This could be because of his popularized coaching techniques, his well-known book Starting Strength, or even the other training-related books he’s written. Regardless of your reason, the point still stands that you’ve probably seen his name at one time or another.

In the interview below, it’s exactly as the title of this article states: Uncut and unfiltered. I didn’t want to leave out any details for the sake of possibly hurt feelings, because that’s not how Rippetoe is. If you’re easily offended by an opinion of another, then you’re in for an interesting ride.

Boly: When you wrote Starting Strength, what inspired you to do so? Did you see something lacking in the industry? 

Rippetoe: Well, a long time ago, I noted the fact that periodization was at a time in common use and was kind of a problem. Basically, it was assumed that everybody should be doing Matveyev Undulated Periodization. This is back in 1999-2000, and in fact, I saw an article in the Strength and Conditioning Journal one month that was titled, “How to Periodize Your Abs,” and I thought, “This is really out of control, and makes so little sense.” These people have really lost their grasp on what’s going on here. So there was that and the fact that I developed a new way to start my lifters when they joined the gym.

Everybody I used my method with made good progress. Whether they stuck with it was up to them, but everyone that joined my gym, I’d show them how they had a significant improvement in their strength over the first four weeks of their program. An increase that could take up to six months had they done the Matveyev Periodization model. In other words, I was doing this much more efficiently than they were, so I wrote an article about it and submitted it to the Strength and Conditioning Journal, and of course they responded with, “If you don’t think everyone should be doing this type of periodization, then you just don’t understand periodization.” 

So I thought, “That’s interesting, so I don’t understand.” I thought about that for a while, and in the process of knocking out a revised version of that article I got to the point where I figured, “I write better than most people anyway, so I probably should just start writing.” At the time, I had some guys that encouraged me to write them the methods I used for teaching the squat in the gym, so I wrote that down as the first chapter for Starting Strength, and the whole book followed from there.

So the thing that got me started writing was the dissatisfaction I had with the lack of understanding folks had for how the body actually adapts to stress.

Boly: So stemming from that point, how did you originally put that training ideology into the works? Was it through trial and error over the years? 

Rippetoe: When I bought the gym in ’84, the first thing I did was teach members how to do the barbell exercises. We’ve always done the squat, bench, deadlift, power clean, and I added the press in much later, but the barbell exercises have always been the basis of what we did. What it originated as was a way to show the people that joined the gym that they were in fact making progress.

I wrote the workouts down for them, and after eight workouts I’d show them the numbers. I’d say, “Look what you’ve done, here. You’ve added 100 lbs to your squat in the past 6-weeks.” Then I’d ask, “And do you feel better?” And they’d respond with, “Well, yeah, my kids feel lighter, I’m not having trouble at work anymore, so yeah, I do feel better.”

Basically, it was a membership retention scheme. The free market, it works, you give people value for their money, and this was how I quantified that value. Strength is what: Production of force against external resistance. If your deadlift goes up 150 lbs, then you have gotten stronger. Could you do this the day you came in? No, you couldn’t, and now you can.

For example, A friend of mine just started training with us about a year ago. I’ve known this guy for about 20 years and he had open heart surgery back in the summer of 2016 (a double bypass). He had never really exercised at all, and came in after his ridiculous bullsh*t cardiac rehab waste of time nonsense they had him do. He came in and said, “I think I’m ready to start.” 

We started him off with the squat, bench press, press, and the deadlift. Obviously, I didn’t have him doing power cleans because that would be stupid. The first night he deadlifted 88 lbs for a set of five, I said, “In a year you’re going to be doing 250 lbs.” He laughed at me and said, “This almost killed me. This is possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” So I said, “You know what, when you do 250 lbs, you’ll tell me this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but you’ll be doing it with 250 instead of 88.” 

Sure enough, he deadlifted 250 lbs about a month ago and said, “I don’t think I could have done another one.” In which I replied, “I know, you said exactly the same thing when you were at 88 lbs.” It’s just a simple accumulation of stress, recovery, and sufficient adaptation produced by barbell training. We don’t care about what’s going to happen in a year, but what’s going to happen next workout. The trend is always upward. Our eye is on a year from now, but the thing that produces the adaptation is the increase between workouts.

That’s what you focus on, and that’s what produces the results you’re paying for. If you go in a gym and they got you doing a brand new exercise every time you go in there, and nothing ever goes up and it’s just new, and variety is the only variable, then you don’t get anything done. Yeah, you do more than if you’re sitting on the couch, but that doesn’t accomplish anything. If stronger’s what you want to be, then you pick five/six exercises, and you make them go up every workout, while the variable’s the load – not the exercise.

Boly: When you settle on the volume in your programming, what do you base that off of? How you change intensity and volume for the workouts? 

Rippetoe: Volume is defined as the number of reps per workout. We use fives. We start off with five, the older guys start off with fives, then they’ll go down to triples, and women will do doubles and I’ve talked about that in several places.

And if you’ve read my book, then you’ll understand why we use fives over tens and twos, it’s all been hacked to death. The default is always fives because it works. I’ve been doing this 40 years, and five always works. Fives work for everybody. It’s the most productive type of training for long lifting careers, as fives will be the thing that produces the greatest amount of strength improvement for that entire career. You’ll occasionally use lighter reps, you’ll occasionally use lower/higher reps, but you’ll always come back to fives because fives work.

That’s what we start everyone on because it works. You know it works because everyone that does it reports that it does. This is not even debatable, it’s not just something we do. Is the sun coming up in the East in the morning? Yes it is. That’s why we use fives. It always works, and every time it’s tried it works. Now you can do fours and sixes, but that’s just a version of fives. Nobody got strong doing 15s, because 15s are light weight, and you can’t get strong lifting light weight. Nobody really got strong doing singles because it’s not enough workload. Fives are the break even point between singles and 15s.

It’s enough work and enough reps to get the work volume up, and they can be done with heavy enough weight to produce an excellent strength increase. So the way I decide is this: Are you a living breathing human being? Yes, then you’re going to do fives, and that’s the nature of the decision.

Boly: On a personal note, do you ever think about how your work has and is going to leave a lasting impact on the fitness industry for a very long time? 

Rippetoe: You know, since I don’t have any kids, yes I do. I understand that we’ve made a big impact on the strength and conditioning world, probably more than anyone else (and I know many other guys will disagree with this). The reason we have is because everything we do works, every single time it’s done. It doesn’t depend on drugs, supplements, or anything else, but you simply getting under the barbell and doing what we advise.

If you do that, then everybody gets stronger and they get stronger faster, and more effectively than if they use anyone else’s method. I think this is very important, but what I’m disappointed in is that so many people in this industry fail to recognize this. Look at professional and collegiate level strength and conditioning, what are they doing in the weight room? They are fu*king around. They’re wasting a bunch of time with having their athletes display athleticism in the weight room that they already know they’ve got, because that’s why they hired them.

You hire D-I college athletes because they were an outstanding athlete in high school. You know they can do cone drills, jump around, and balance dumbbells over their head – you already know that because they’re a good athlete to begin with. Your job is to get him stronger, and you don’t get people stronger with five pound fu*king dumbbells. I don’t care how you use them, they’re not heavy enough. You already know they’re a great athlete with a good vertical, balance, and reaction time, so why does the entirety of your program involve them putting on silly displays of athleticism.

That’s not strength and conditioning, but you can fix that by taking all of your freshman in the weight room, find out how much they can squat below parallel, fix their form while you’re assessing that, and then have them go up 10 lbs the next workout. Then do that again, and again, and pretty soon everybody on the team is squatting 550 lbs. And that’s a baseline strength – that’s not even remarkable for genetic freaks that comprise college strength and conditioning.

It disappoints me that our simple approach has either not been understood, or appreciated in situations like that. But really it shouldn’t disappoint me, because what difference does it make if a freak athlete gets a scholarship. I’m more concerned with his grandmother, and I’m more concerned with people who really need to be stronger and benefit from being stronger more than a young man does.

You can take a kid who hasn’t gotten many educational opportunities and make a really good athlete out of him with enough hard work under the bar. Get him strong, get him noticed, get him recruited, and get him through school for four years. That’s important. I guess it shouldn’t bother me that pro athletes want to do complicated rate of force development nonsense, because I really don’t care. I think we’re making a splash in the market that needs the splash the most, which is the general public.

Boly: You have simple coaching approach. In your opinion, what are you thoughts on the state of the fitness industry with all of the social media trends and coaching?

Rippetoe: I’ve got some highly developed opinions on that, as I do [with] most things. First, let’s be clear about what coaching is. Coaching is directing the activities of the guy you’re coaching, so he moves in the way you’re trying to get him to move. So if I’m coaching the squat, I have a model of the squat in my head (what a squat should look like), and my model is not dependent on anthropometry. In other words, my model recognizes that someone with short legs, and a long torso is going to look different in the squat than someone with long legs and a short torso.

It’s the model of the movement pattern nonetheless, the model is determined by the relationship between the load on the bar and the ground, and how the body reacts with that. That’s what we’ve developed, so my model has to be translated into an improvement in this guy’s performance on the platform. I have to have the information in order to form an educated opinion, I have to teach him how to do the squat in a way that conforms with the model, I have to evaluate what I see him doing subsequent to me teaching him what to do, and I’ve got to to be able to correct the thing I see him doing wrong.

That’s what coaching is. Now, how can you do that on Instagram alone? You can’t.

Boly: Do you have any thoughts on trends in the fitness industry that you think need to go away? 

Rippetoe: Functional training needs to go away. All that is is a way to avoid learning how to coach lifts. It’s a waste of time. Clients like it because it’s never boring, it’s something new every week. And CrossFit isn’t the enemy here, I do think CrossFit has grown too quickly, but I think the enemy is the certifying agencies – the traditional wisdom people. That’s the most toxic expression of functional training, and it’s bled its way into college and professional athletics. It just needs to go away, sooner than later.

One of the reasons I think it hasn’t gone away, and this is going to sound harsh, but sports coaches aren’t very bright usually – I’m often not impressed with their intellectual capacity. And they’re all going to be mad at me, and they’re already trying as hard they can to ignore us anyway, so if they’re mad that’s fine. They’re just not very bright, or they’d understand that yelling, screaming, and jumping around on the floor, while not showing a five pound increase as often as possible in fundamental strength is a waste of time. And more importantly, it’s a waste of the kid’s potential.

For example, here’s a kid (a freak athlete) who’s never been trained for strength and can’t squat 275 lbs below parallel, and you’re trying to show him all this fancy band stuff and RFD stuff, while jumping around on the floor – why? Well, I’ll tell you why, because the coach doesn’t know how to coach the squat, and he refuses to learn, and that’s all there is to it. He can’t coach the clean, he can’t coach the press, the deadlift, and he won’t learn, and that’s why – because that other sh*t is easier.

It makes the head coach think the strength and conditioning guy is doing good work because, “Hey this stuff looks like football, he must be making better football players.” Well, you know what? They were football players when you hired them, they just weren’t very strong football players. And the strength and conditioning coach could be making them stronger, but instead of doing that he’s showing the head coach how athletic these boys are who he already knew were athletic to begin with. I don’t understand it, it’s terribly frustrating.

Boly: Thank you for the honest answers. And I want to thank you for the genuine responses that I think most love you for in the industry. 

Rippetoe: Or they hate me for, which is fine.

Feature image from @startingstrength Instagram page.