Starting Strength – The vegans of the strength-training community

Yes, the title of this post is very much tongue-in-cheek but, like all humor, there is a lot of truth to it.  On the surface, the communities couldn’t be more different.  Peruse any Starting Strength forums or groups and you’ll quickly realize that their 2nd favorite topic is probably the consumption of meat.  And I’d very much doubt there are numerous threads in Vegan forums extolling the virtues of powerlifting, much less Starting Strength.  If both communities were cars, then Starting Strength would a used Ford F150 pickup with a gun rack and Vegans would be a Toyota Prius.

I respect the ideas and the body of knowledge of both camps.  In any given week, about 75 percent of my meals are technically vegan, with the remainder containing some very well-sourced organic meat and dairy products.  I find this “omnivore” approach works best for me.  Similarly, Starting Strength was huge influence on me when I first started strength training.  In the past 8 years I have bought 4 copies of the Starting Strength book as I gave my first 3 copies away to friends.  It’s a fantastic book, perhaps the best strength training book ever written for the general public.  I still strive for perfect “starting strength” form in my squats and deadlifts.

To be fair to Starting Strength, the methodology is very science-based and is all about protocols and form what will elicit strength gains for most, if not all, lifters.  It’s very pragmatic and no-nonsense about its stated goal.  Veganism can be considered both a dietary regime and/or an ethical choice.  Which seems fairly straight-forward,  you’d imagine, yet there exists a very vocal strain of “magical thinking” amongst some vegans (more about this later).

So how are they similar?  Simply put, both communities are very Orthodox to a really weird extent.  I stopped reading Starting Strength forums because it became very apparent a favorite past-time was ridiculing “heretics” who dared question any of the methodology.  Many people posting seem to consciously mimicking  Rip’s (the founder of Starting Strength) style of treating most questions as inherently stupid so, cue the weary sigh, let me lay some common sense on you.  This is also why I quickly stopped watching any Starting Strength youtube content that isn’t strictly a form tutorial.  Rip’s manner is grating but it’s his personal style,  you can either take it or leave it.  That so many people want to emulate it is strange and, I think, makes Starting Strength a drag.  So there are some really great ideas, but the overall vibe of the community is sort of off-putting.

Vegans, well, what can I say that hasn’t already been said?  It’s a shame that the bat-guano crazy vocal minority give veganism a bad name.  It’s a highly viable dietary regime for many people, for general health and even for athletic performance.  There is a long, growing list of vegan athletes.  The ethical reasons, if that is a prime motivator, are sound.  So why must it be sullied by the zealotry of a fairly large minority?  Many of us have met the stereotypical smug self-righteous vegan with a capital “V” in real life, you know the one with whom no actual discussion or discourse if possible.  Why do so many vegan Youtubers (and especially that guy who did the “What the Health” documentary) come off as easily triggered, programmed cult members?  You can literally see, when looking into their eyes, that some function of critical thinking has been switched off.  And speaking of “What the Health”, why the bad science and misrepresentation?  Guys, the facts literally speak for themselves…why twist things?  And why the hyper-sensitivity to criticism?  It makes the whole community look “cray-cray”.  When’s the last time you saw an easily triggered vegetarian?

The Starting Strength methodology is a great tool.  I believe that everyone interested in strength training should read the book and run the protocol a few times.  You may find that at some point another training protocol fits your needs and that is (or should be) OK.  Eating solely plant based is great but the reality is that the majority of the population will likely never do it.  Pragmatically speaking, what is the greater good;  that 5 percent of population become strictly vegan or that a much larger percentage reduce their meat consumption significantly?

Obstacle or opportunity?


This post has been ruminating for some time now and has been inspired by conversations with my kids, some great feedback I received a few weeks ago from a fellow blogger and, believe it or not, the latest Chris Rock special on Netflix.  Chris has this riff about how bullies provide an essential part of kids’ educational experience.   It’s funny, of course, and like all great humor it’s 1 part exaggeration to 1 part truth.  It’s an old idea that periodic bursts of stress promote the most growth.  It’s the major principle underlying strength training as well the inspiration for that famous Orson Welles quote in “The Third Man”:  “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Habitual readers of this blog know that I have been dealing with 2 injuries for the last few months.  As an athlete, the correct response to being injured are rehab, analyze how  you injured yourself and, finally, continue to train those movements that you can safely do.  In my case, I haven’t been able to do a low-bar squat for 3 months now, and have only been able to start dead-lifting again in the past few weeks.  So I have spent the last few weeks refining my competition bench technique and training to a level that would not have been possible if I had to also concentrate on heavy squats and deadlifts.  At the same time I’ve come to rely on, from sheer necessity, a number of accessory exercises (safety-bar squats, belt squats, glute ham raises, etc) that I should have used in my training previously but never did.  Now that I am, very carefully, dead-lifting again my training is focusing on technique, technique and more technique.  As I will only doing benchpress in the next competition, I can now afford focus more on improving my technique and strengthening the main-movers of the dead-lift.  I’m not so focused on pulling the most weight for the next competition.  Improved technique, more experience in important accessory exercises, an appreciation for prehab and mobility training and a stronger bench press – I’m not saying I want to get injured again, but it can (if you have the correct mindset) teach you some important lessons.

I’ve always said that boredom is an essential parenting tool.  Yes, allow your kids to get bored or create situations (camping weekends without cell phones) that force them to rely on their creativity and curiosity.  Boredom is a subliminal teacher that teaches you lessons on the sly.  The smarter a person is, the lower their threshold for boredom, and that’s a good thing.  If you are bored, you will be forced to provide stimulation to your brain.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with kids these days besides the fact that we, their parents, allow them non-stop access to smartphones, streaming video and video games.  Without a doubt, boredom is what saved my high school career and what allowed for my subsequent success in university.  I grew up, not rich, in a 3rd world country in somewhat special circumstances.  The phone didn’t work half the time, we didn’t have TV (even if we had, there were only 2 channels which only played a few hours) so my only forms of entertainment were sports, hanging out with friends and books.  And did we ever have books – of all kinds.  My mother got her doctorate at Harvard so we often her schoolmates/colleagues visiting us.  So many people left behind books – all of which I devoured.  History, social sciences, politics, physic, philosophy, etc.  So I was not only reading these books, but was able to discuss them with my mother and her friends.  It’s obvious when I describe it this way that I was learning, but it didn’t occur to me at the time.  I simply had nothing else to do.  Later in my high school career I shot myself in the foot scholastically with bad attitude/partying, etc – and the only thing that saved me was this base of knowledge I had accrued.  My classmates were often amazed that the “less than model student” often had the answers to difficult questions.  Once, I famously entered a school essay contest because the prizes were all expenses paid week-long trip to a student congress type deal in Washington, DC.  We had to write about government.  My essay won first prize and my buddy’s essay (which I wrote for him) won 2nd prize.  Predictably we had a good time in DC as well as a few minor disciplinary problems.

The country where I grew up was, and sadly remains, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.  It also has one of the strongest, most vibrant cultures I’ve ever encountered and, like Renaissance Italy, absolutely radiates creativity and “thinking outside of the box”.  People are poor but find a millions forms of expression and, hopefully, a way out of their situation.  I am not singing the praises of abject poverty, not by a long shot.  Too much stress with no periods of respite break a person.  Also, countries where poverty and boredom abound but intellectual curiosity and expression are discouraged are volatile and unstable.

Motivational speakers love to cite, to the extent that it’s become clichéd, that the Chinese word for “crisis” signifies both “danger” and “opportunity”.  Some things are too good to be true as this appears to be a poorly interpreted translation.  A closer translation is apparently “a point where things happen or change” which decidedly more neutral.  Which I think is more logical as, in my experience, how you react to stress or obstacles is like billiards, a game of angles.  If you get the angles right you in billiards, you will sink your balls while positioning yourself to sink the remainder.  If your shots are just a little bit off, good luck to you.  So stress or obstacles can serve stimulus for growth if managed correctly.  This increased strength will set you up for further success when opportunities arise, provided you play the angles correctly.


Detours – why getting there is half the fun…

Last Christmas, as an after thought, I bought my 10 year old son a somewhat crappy skateboard as a sort of oversized stocking stuffer.  I have no idea why I bought it nor did I have any clear indication that he’d like it.  And, in fact, when he opened this present he literally said “why did you get this for me???”.  He was genuinely puzzled and freely admitted he had absolutely no interest in skateboarding.  The next day, for the heck of it, we went to a covered garage with plenty of smooth concrete so he could test out his new skateboard.  My son put his leading foot on the skateboard, pushed off and, I swear to you, you could see a visible “Aha, where have you been all my life” moment as it happened.  He loves skateboarding, he is OBSESSED by it.  In the short space of 5 months he has racked up hours and hours of practice, innumerable  bruises and a growing number of tricks in his repertoire.

As any skateboarder, on parent there of, can tell you , the absolute foundation, the bedrock upon which modern street skating is built upon is a maneuver called the Ollie.  The Ollie is sort of hard to describe and, trust me, much harder to master.  The skater basically pings the back of the skateboard off the ground, jumps and simultaneously leads the front the skateboard with his lead foot so it levels off and creates “jumping motion”.  This allows one to jump onto obstacles or, even cooler, off of obstacles.  It’s an absolute bitch.  There are no short cuts, if you want to Ollie, you must pay your dues.  I have played a number of sports but I’d be hard pressed to find an example of a movement that is as timing and muscle-memory dependent as an Ollie.  As you might imagine, the past few months I have seen my son try to Ollie thousands of times.

Fast forward a few months, hours upon hours of practice, some broken then upgraded skateboarding hardware – my son can Ollie.  He ollie’s onto things, and off….and does all the other tricks he has already mastered and others that he  continues to master.  No other skill in any other team sport he’s played has been so hard won, nor so self-taught.  The victory, then, is that much sweeter for being so personal

Flashback many decades, I walk into a karate dojo at roughly the same age as my son when he discovered skateboarding.  This was the late 1970s when absolute ignorance regarding the martial arts reigned.  I went to the lesson as a lark, but I can tell you the “aha moment” is real.  I felt it, and was absolutely hooked for a numbers of years.  Almost nobody understood what I was doing, or why I was doing it…until such a time that I became demonstrably good enough to win competitions and garner other residual sorts of attention.  I realized that the desire to learn and to get better at this passion meant that other people would notice, as an almost unintended consequence.  Then you become known as the person who does that thing, and either you are comfortable with it, or not.  In this example,  I eventually succumbed to physical and, I suspect,  a morale burnout.  I regret doing that, perhaps a more mature person would have dealt with it better.

Fast forward a number of years – my son is happy with team sports but really finds himself, expresses himself with his skateboard.  His sister, my daughter,  has been competing for many years in international gymnastic competitions.  She is, at this actual moment, traveling to a competition in Northern Italy.  I remember her “aha” moment as well, when I brought her to gymnastics lesson when she was  7.  It was plainly obvious then, as it was with me and my son years later, that this was “her thing”.  When I was competing in Karate tournaments or boxing rings, I always had an opponent. In sports like Gymnastics, you are the only factor, the only point of judgment.  I respect the guts it takes to get up in front of hundreds of spectators.  She handles it far better than I or her brother would.

So, yeah, I powerlift.  Trust me, nobody is more surprised than me.   I love getting stronger, I love the challenge and difficulty.  I never would have predicted this but, then again, you can’t predict “aha” moments.  The trick is in appreciating the detour.