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Building the Base of the Strength Pyramid by Bill Starr - CrossFit Journal

In Coaching, Olympic Lifts

March 31, 2010

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Many people take the wrong approach to strength training. Bill Starr says the simple, focused approach is the best way to build strength quickly.

When constructing any sort of structure, from a simple shed for the back yard to a stadium that will seat 100,000 people, you need to create a solid foundation first. If this isn’t done properly, the structure will not be substantial, nor will it last for very long. This same idea applies to the process of developing a strong body. Time and energy must be spent establishing a firm base. I like to think the pyramids of Egypt were built in this manner: they could only go as high as the foundation would support. The same goes for the human body.

While most of those who embark on a mission to make their bodies functionally stronger understand the logic behind this idea, very few put together a program that will satisfy it, mostly because the real reason they start lifting weights is to obtain bigger arms and chests. Another mistake many coaches and beginners make is that they include far too many exercises in the routines. Then there are those who start off using a sensible program containing only a few basic exercises. They inevitably become impatient and begin adding in more and more movements before their foundations are solid.

Building a solid foundation is actually a simple process, but that point is usually missed because many coaches and athletes try to make it quite complicated. Complicated has to bring better results than simple, right? It’s just the opposite, and that is confusing to many people who are engaged in teaching or trying to improve their functional strength.

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27 Comments on “Building the Base of the Strength Pyramid”


Tom Seryak wrote …

This article is refreshing in so many ways. I think many times trainers feel compelled to "wow" new clients with variety, as the solution to boredom. Fitness isn't boring when improvements are realized, which is best done with simplicity and progressive overload...the forgotten training principles!

I have one comment in regards to teaching the power versions of clean and snatch prior to the full versions. I have observed that this approach works well with some, but not all. I have several clients that have had more success in learning the full version first...and the snatch before the clean. It is more the exception than the rule. But, I have found when clients can't master the timing of the second and third pulls in the power versions, sometimes they do better learning the full versions. Overall, great article thanks Bill!


wrote …

This is a fantastic article! Good job


wrote …

If this article were free, I'd send it to everyone who asks me how to start a strength training program. And to more than a few trainers and athletes I know. It keeps things clear, and it provides simple, specific recommendations.

My only comment is that it assumes the athlete is male. All of the information and recommendations apply just as well to men or women, but the mistakes/bad choices it assumes the trainee/athlete is making are typically those made by men.

It's a small part of the article and doesn't affect the value of the insights or recommendations. Since the intended audience here seems to be trainers and coaches who read CFJ, it's not really that important. And I know that, for practical purposes when discussing strength training, it's often easier to assume a male subject.

But because the article would be so beneficial to beginners from a wider cross-section of the fitness world, it might be nice to see it address some mistakes that beginning women typically make or incorrect assumptions beginning coaches/trainers have when coaching women.

That doesn't affect the fact that this is a great foundational article, though.


wrote …

I have always enjoyed Bill's writings. I don't always agree with him, but he is a great writer and gives a lot of good advice.


wrote …

Great article, and is very articulate about training ATHLETES! Similar to our Strength Training Philosophy. We train all of our athletes-male and female-in the clean and power clean. Much like we do at our school-


wrote …

Awesome article, this refreshed my view on strength training and made me think more about the basics! Thanks Bill


replied to comment from rusty pagano


You did not understand my comment. I'm not saying Bill's advice isn't great for men AND women or that women need different advice.


wrote …

Read the first page, had to stop cause i know i would sit there and dwell on it for too long.

Bookmarked for later.


replied to comment from Simma Park

I like your idea of addressing some of the mistakes or misconceptions that women may have. I hear all the time from female friends who workout that they don't want to do heavy squats or strength training in general because it will make them bulky/huge/over-developed, etc. As the article states, a proper foundation of strength will benefit everyone, including long distance atheletes and such.



wrote …

Great article, is this a subtle hint that Cf'ers who compete in the games or similar need to periodize, with strength being the base to their further success?


replied to comment from Shane Scott


It's so true that a lot of women have those misconceptions and fears, but I think this article has more to do with people who have already committed to strength development as a goal. And I don't know that someone like Bill Starr should be bothered with trying to persuade women who don't want to weight train to do so (not that it wouldn't be great if he did).

I was thinking more along the lines of a lot of things I've encountered and observed in martial arts and women's/girls' sports. I feel there are 2 common scenarios. The first is when athletes and coaches believe that women should concentrate most on the lower body because "that's where women are strong". There's a mistaken idea that, in doing so, women are "playing to their strengths". The other scenario is that female athletes and coaches try to overcompensate by working the upper body preferentially, figuring that they are compensating for female upper body weakness. Both approaches ignore the need, outlined so well in this article, to develop balanced strength and develop the whole body together.

I just want to note that Bill addresses both scenarios here, but it mostly assumes a male athlete, with the motivations that a male athlete has for concentrating unduly on the lower body or the upper body. I'm not accusing him at all of being exclusionary in any way, and my comment isn't a criticism or even a suggestion for improvement, given the audience he has here of people who are fully capable of understanding that these situations apply to both men and women.

But it's the kind of article that would be great for as wide an audience as possible--for anyone who wants to embark on a strength training regimen or anyone who wants to start a trainee or client on one. And in that case, it would be nice to bring in the women's/girls' point of view a little more explicitly. That's all I meant.


Dane Thomas wrote …

I hope that folks understand that what Starr and Rip advocate is fully sufficient for 90% of the strength-training pyramid (which would be closer to 99.9% of the population at large.)

Those concentrating on O-lifting might do well to pay more attention to Starr initially and add in Coach B for specific technique. (Starr would be great for that as well but we have much more video from Coach B.)

Those who are more interested in Powerlifting can pay more attention to Rip until they are very solid with the basics, then transition to Louie and more Westside methodology.


wrote …

great article! It just could be a bit more specific about when good foundations have been build. For example at 165lbs bw and a 230lbs Back Squat could you change to using Front Squats?
And a bit off-topic would doing Front Squats instead of BSquats promote a "lighter frame"?


wrote …

Don't bother! I didn't see anything in this article that I couldn't find in a Men's Health or Muscle Mag. This was a complete waste of time & very un-CrossFit in it's approach & methodology. I'm surprised that it got published on the Journal.


replied to comment from Michael Reilly



wrote …

Great article. I always look forward to articles from Bill Starr. I wish there were more of them.

As for all the critics, Starr did communicate to the largest audience possible and included all the pertinent information to support his position. He did not need to include a female perspective, and he could not define what constitutes a solid foundation without having some experience with the person building it. The article was about building a foundation of the basics which in this case was strength before moving on to the sexier stuff. And to illustrate his point, Starr used experiences from his career as a coach and trainer. He did not need to include any other information, female perspective or definitions.


replied to comment from Michael Reilly

I agree with you Michael that this article wasn't quite fitting in with the Cossfit model of constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. But without a good foundation, one's potential may never fully materialize. I think Starr wanted to drive home the point that patience within a core group of extemely valuable movements can pay great dividends over time. Based upon what I read, he's seen people give up too soon on those foundation movements and never reach their full potential.


replied to comment from Patrick Lewis


I am not "criticizing", nor am I firing some kind of salvo in the culture wars.

Writing is not just about the quality of the information you present. It's also about the voice you use, the audience you assume, etc. Does Bill Starr "need" to include perspectives, definitions, etc. to which women would better relate in order for his information to be good and his recommendations valid? Of course not, and I made it abundantly clear that that was not what I was saying.

Does any writer in any traditionally male-centered field "need" to address perspectives, definitions, etc. that would be easier for women to relate to? Only if he really cares about extending the numbers of people who would be inclined to be receptive to his message to include more women.

I don't want to speak for Bill Starr, but I don't think I'm wrong in saying that CF, at least, has an explicit interest in improving reception of its message from female athletes out there.

I was merely making the point that I'd like to see the potential audience maximized, should this kind of article be published somewhere with wider reach. There's more to getting a message out than just having top-notch information and advice.


wrote …

There's an important question this article doesn't explore: how does this change what you do in your box(assuming you agree with his assertions)?

Based on this article, is anyone thinking about changing how they on-ramp their beginners? Is anyone thinking about taking a break from the WODs to work their core lifts? Or, is this just an interesting article that doesn't really change anything for you?

@Lee and Michael,
Keep in mind that CFHQ looks to a stable of so-called "subject matter experts" that weigh in on their particular specialty... emphasis on specialty. For instance, as far as I know, Louie Simmons isn't a crossfitter and doesn't want to be. He's a power lifter. Still, as a community, we're interested in his perspective and how it might better inform what we're doing. And just because it's in CFJ, it doesn't mean we take everything Louie says as the gospel truth. The same applies to Starr.


wrote …

Great article, but not necessarily very functional in its outlook!

Moreover, it's a widely known fact that calf raises are for homosexuals! (Not that there's anything WRONG with being homosexual, but dear god, there's definitely something wrong with calf raises.)


replied to comment from Simma Park

The potential audience is maximized in this article with the exception of a few editing errors. Starr prescribes both the squat and power clean for male and female athletes, and leaves the shoulder girdle exercise sport dependent. Yes, he used flat bench press football players as an example, but that is what he knows. If he had been a softball coach he would have probably used a different example. The other three examples: one was another football example, one was a teenager assumed to be male by sports played, and the other was a female coach.

Like I said earlier there were editing errors the nouns and pronouns did not always agree and went from plural/ambiguous to masculine, but that is an editing error. Even the pictures were somewhat balanced. Out of the seven pictures: 4 were male, 2 were female, and one had both males and females working out together. How is this not reaching out to include the broadest audience possible?

Bill Starr has taken what he has learned and applied it to the broadest possible audience. He wrote about what he knew not what someone told him or what he thought. If you want a more one to one ratio of male to female in an article then write it yourself. Don't complain when someone writes an article and say that it was not written with you as an audience in mind.


replied to comment from David McKay

What does this article have to do with performing constantly varied functional movements with high intensity?

Calf raises ... really?
Pick up this month's copy of Flex & you'll get the same advice that this article gave.


replied to comment from Michael Reilly

I agree with you on the calf raises. You won't find me doing them anytime soon.

Without a base of strength you are not able to perform constantly varied functional movements with high intensity. You are focusing on only one aspect of crossfit. Certainly a person will see excellent gains in strength, power and cardio capacity by doing only main site WOD's. However I program myself to have a strength bias with the belief that I will see even greater strength and power gains which ultimately lead to being able to perform better within a WOD.

I would argue that this article explains very nicely the core of crossfit(minus the calf raises, etc.)and if you ignore these fundamentals you are doing yourself and the people you train a big disservice. Strength and power will always help in every aspect of GPP.

Jarrett is correct in the fact that you need subject matter experts. You need to take what Bill Starr has written and apply it to your training with crossfit.


replied to comment from Patrick Lewis


First of all, it's unlikely that Bill Starr chose those pictures, or that, if this article were published elsewhere, that those pictures would accompany it.

I make my comments solely based on the text.

And if you look a the text, you'll see that it is almost entirely male centered, with only one mention of a woman, a coach. The article starts off with the assumption that most people start lifting to get bigger chests and arms and their mistakes originate in advice from muscle mags. I can guarantee you that the vast majority of female athletes do not start lifting for these reasons, and they do not get their mistaken ideas about strength from muscle mags. Therefore, from the beginning of the article, the article assumes a starting point that is inaccurate for almost all women who will read this article.

Also, there is 1 instance of the pronoun "she" in the entire article and 2 instances of "her", all of them when talking about the "female coach" he mentions. And the female coach's situation is generic, not specifically about female athletes' concerns (which is fine and good), whereas in numerous other places, male-specific situations and concerns are mentioned with the assumption that these are "universal" or "general" concerns, which they are not.

As I said, I personally don't find that a detriment to the information or the value of the article to me or to other readers of CFJ. And, as I said, this is the kind of article I would send to everyone who asks me about starting a strength program. But for the women who ask, I would have to say, "The article is written from a very male perspective, but the information in it applies equally to you, so don't worry about some of the assumptions it makes." All I'm saying is that a few simple changes could remove the need for me to say that.

I just don't understand why you seem to have such a huge chip on your shoulder regarding what was a simple idea for making the article more far-reaching in tone. I honestly am in no way offended by Bill Starr's article. What offends me is your insistence that I am somehow being unreasonable in making this observation. Do you have a problem with women making reasonable suggestions about ways to make athletic resources more inclusive of their perspective?


replied to comment from Simma Park

I think we are going to have to agree to disagree on this one. With the exception of the editing errors which I attribute to the age of the author and a lazy editor. I see it as an inclusive article where the author used his personal experience to illustrate and support a position.

The author used his personal experience as a coach and trainer to illustrate his position. Judging from what I have read about the author, he works predominantly with male athletes so, the situations he describes are going to be predominantly male. Does that mean that they don't include women? No, the examples are all inclusive, but it is up to the reader to substitute big arms and chest for whatever it is they prioritize.

This is article is a fine example of how to write an article with the exceptions of the editing errors. The positions are clearly defined, illustrated, and supported. Most importantly the author was able to keep the readers attention by not cluttering the article with useless examples that distracted the reader from the main point.

The statement you made about telling women that the information is equally applicable to them even though the article is written using male examples tells me you are an intelligent reader. Do you really feel the need to say that? Obviously, you think the article has value or else you would not recommend it. Why do you feel the need to say that? Are those people mentally challenged and not able to think for themselves?

I was just defending the article. You are the one that decided to make it personal. I think you are wrong in your observations and suggestions, but I do not think you are unreasonable. No, I am all for women doing what they need to do to take better care of themselves. The problem I have is when they expect someone else to do it for them instead of doing it themselves. As I said earlier if you want an article written from a female perspective then write it yourself or find an experienced female coach or trainer to write it for you.


wrote …

As a (relatively) beginner crossfitter, I found this article extremely helpful. Thanks to the author for providing advice on how to build a solid base! I've started incorporating two days a week of the "big three" into my crossfit routine, and I expect it will only help my other workouts and ensure I'm consistently building up my strength.


wrote …

The best advice I was ever given was "keep it simple". this has been the backbone for all my strength and conditioning training. if your foundations are rubbish the rest is like a domino affect. this article stamps that home which i love. As crossfit becomes more and more popular my concern is what was once simple will soon become flooded with trainers trying to lure more clients, bringing in the complicated to crossfit gyms, already. but anyways im going off track. just a great article and had to say so.

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