Training Methods On Trial: The Strongest Shall Survive

Training Methods On Trial: The Strongest Shall Survive

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Does This Classic Strength Plan Stack Up?

Three big lifts, five sets of five reps, whole-body workouts… what’s not to love? A couple of things. Let’s examine the SSS plan.

In this series, I take a fresh look at legendary training programs, like Super Slow Training, German Volume Training, and Breathing Squats. In some cases, we’ve seen a program’s greatness validated. In others, we’ve uncovered its shortcomings.
In this installment, we’ll dive into the OG of performance training: “The Strongest Shall Survive” (SSS) by Bill Starr. For this one, I’ll use a different evaluation approach because Bill Starr doesn’t really make claims about the program’s superiority. He only presents what he did as a strength coach. So instead of an official trial, we’ll evaluate each component of the approach.
This book/system was one of the first real training programs for building a bigger, stronger, faster, and better-conditioned body for sport (in this case, football). To the best of my knowledge, it’s also the system that’s the foundation of the 5×5 approach.

What’s “The Strongest Shall Survive” System?
It’s a pretty simple program:

The core is Bill Starr’s big three: the squat, bench, and power clean.
You do 5 sets of 5 reps for each of the big three in ramping fashion, leading to one top set for the day.
You do three whole-body workouts per week.
Workouts are organized into heavy, light, and medium days.
You do the big three as a circuit.
You work fast. Starr gives the example of an athlete who completes the 5 x 5 of the big three – as a circuit in 15 minutes – on the light day.

The program also allows a few accessory exercises:

Leg Curl: 2 sets after the big lifts
Leg Extension: 2 sets after the big lifts
Ab Work: In the warm-up

The book also provides an option to use different lifts on light days, like a military press instead of bench press, and a front squat instead of back squat.

Training System Evaluation
Component 1: Focusing on Starr’s Big Three (Squat, Bench, Power Clean)
Starr incorporates so few exercises in his program to make it more doable in a crowded school setting. In those days, colleges didn’t have multi-million-dollar gyms. His athletes needed to get a complete training stimulus from the smallest number of exercises possible. These three exercises were chosen so that most muscles would receive sufficient stimulation to grow and get stronger.
I don’t think we can argue about the selection of the back squat. Ask a hundred strength coaches to build a program with only three exercises and most would include it.
Few people would argue with the inclusion of the bench press, either. Although, if you really wanted to maximize overall muscle development, the incline press might’ve been a better choice.
The power clean might not be as unanimous, though. I love the power clean and power snatch. They’re certainly great exercises for athletes. But an argument could be made against using them in a program with limited exercise selection.
First, because of the technical component, some athletes might take a long time to master the lift. For what it’s worth, I prefer the variation where you do it from the hang position (starting the bar just above the knees), which is technically easier.
Also, while the bench press and squat can be good strength and muscle-building exercises, the power clean has limited value for building muscle. It might lead to some muscular imbalances by developing the upper back, biceps, and hamstrings less than the pressing muscles, quads, and glutes. Something like a deadlift or, even better, a Romanian deadlift might’ve been a better choice if you wanted both strength and muscular development.
Bill Starr wasn’t a deadlift lover. He once wrote an article about how to increase your deadlift without deadlifting, and he was a former high-level Olympic lifter, which likely explains his choice. While he does address the possible hamstring imbalance by recommending leg curls as an accessory exercise, he doesn’t address the upper back/lats and biceps.
Still, it’s almost impossible to get complete body development with only three lifts. When I use a similar approach, I use four exercises: a squat, a press, a pull, and a hinge. But if you limit yourself to three, his are pretty good.

Component 2: Doing 5 x 5 with Heavy, Light, and Medium Days
There are several different variations of the 5 x 5 approach. In some, you do 5 sets across (same weight for all sets). In others, you do your heaviest 5 first, then decrease the weight on the subsequent sets, or, like in SSS, you start light and work to the top weight for the day. The latter is the easiest to recover from. Out of the 5 sets, only two will be challenging.
Starr doesn’t give specific percentages to follow during the ramp-up, but he gives us some examples of weight used by his athletes:
Heavy Days

60% x 5
65% x 5
75% x 5
80% x 5
85% x 5

Medium Days (90% of heavy day)

55% x 5
60% x 5
65% x 5
70% x 5
75% x 5

Light Days (80% of heavy day)

45% x 5
55% x 5
60% x 5
65% x 5
70% x 5

Note: The percentages are NOT what you use to select your loads. I’m only illustrating what a ramp can look like. On heavy days, you work up to the heaviest set of 5 you can lift in good form. This result is used to calculate the top weight for the other two days.

So let’s say that on the heavy day, you hit 200 pounds for 5 reps.
The moderate day (top set is 90% of your 5RM) will make the top weight 180 pounds.
The light day (top set is 80% of your 5RM) will make the top weight 160 pounds.

Five challenging reps is the best rep number to build strength (not to improve your capacity to demonstrate strength, which is best done with sets of 1-3 reps). It will develop both muscle mass and neurological efficiency very well, at least if weights of 80% or more are used.
Let’s look at the muscle growth potential. For a rep to be effective at stimulating growth, it must recruit the fast-twitch fibers and reach a point where rep speed slows down (either because of a heavy load or fatigue).
In a normal set, you start to recruit the fast-twitch fibers when the load represents 80% of your maximum capacity at the beginning of that rep (not of the set). When training with fairly heavy weights, you’ll get 2-4% weaker with each rep because of fatigue.
If I’m using 85% on the bar (top set of the heavy day), from rep-to-rep it looks like this:

Rep 1 = 85% of maximum at the beginning of the rep
Rep 2 = 88%
Rep 3 = 93%
Rep 4 = 97%
Rep 5 = 100%

In that case, all 5 reps will be effective at stimulating growth, which is pretty much the maximum you can get out of a set.
But what about lighter sets? They won’t be as effective. Let’s just look at the 5 sets on the heavy days:
Set 1 (60% bar weight)

Rep 1 = 60% of maximum at the beginning of the rep
Rep 2 = 63%
Rep 3 = 66%
Rep 4 = 69%
Rep 5 = 72%
Number of effective reps = 0

Set 2 (65% bar weight)

Rep 1 = 65% of maximum at the beginning of the rep
Rep 2 = 68%
Rep 3 = 72%
Rep 4 = 75%
Rep 5 = 78%
Number of effective reps = 0

Set 3 (75% bar weight)

Rep 1 = 75% of maximum at the beginning of the rep
Rep 2 = 78%
Rep 3 = 81%
Rep 4 = 84%
Rep 5 = 87%
Number of effective reps = 3

Set 4 (80% bar weight)

Rep 1 = 80% of maximum at the beginning of the rep
Rep 2 = 83%
Rep 3 = 86%
Rep 4 = 89%
Rep 5 = 92%
Number of effective reps = 5

Set 5 (85% bar weight)

Rep 1 = 85% of maximum at the beginning of the rep
Rep 2 = 88%
Rep 3 = 93%
Rep 4 = 97%
Rep 5 = 100%
Number of effective reps = 5

That means the heavy day provides you with 13 effective reps per lift, which is pretty good. You need 20-25 effective reps per week for a muscle to grow maximally. But not all workouts are that demanding, and that means they’ll have fewer effective reps.
Without going through the same listing I just did, the light days will provide you with 2 or 3 effective reps, and the moderate days will give you 3 or 4 effective reps.
The weekly total of effective reps is thus 18 to 20 per week (for a muscle). It might not provide you with the maximal rate of growth, but it’ll be a significant growth, at least for the muscles directly trained.
Of course, this is only from looking at the sets/rep scheme. There are other factors in the plan that might affect growth (and strength) development. More on that later.
As far as strength is concerned, anecdotally, the heavy, light, medium (or heavy and light) approach has stood the test of time and is used in tons of very effective strength programming dating back to the 1930s.
Pretty much all of the Russian and Soviet lifting plans used this approach. And so did the programming approach of Fred Hatfield and the Texas Method. Heck, we can even argue that the Westside Conjugate System of Louie Simmons also involved a heavy and light approach. The dynamic effort day is considered light.
While the light workouts in SSS might not directly stimulate strength gains, they do help with technical efficiency on the lifts without affecting recovery too much. This makes it a valuable tool because the more technically efficient you are, the more you can lift on your heavy days.
While the SSS program doesn’t specifically talk about lifting tempo, to get the most out of the light days, you’d use a fairly slow eccentric (to get better technical improvements and motor learning) and accelerate the concentric as much as possible.
Accelerating will increase force output. While this won’t help with hypertrophy, it’ll make the set more effective from a strength-building perspective by developing neurological factors, especially the recruitment and high firing rate of the fast-twitch fibers.

Component 3: Doing Three Whole-Body Workouts Per Week
The program’s schedule isn’t a surprise considering when the book was first published (1976) and its author. By the 1970s, lifters had started using the body part split and training 5-6 days a week. But weightlifters and powerlifters still use the three-day-a-week, whole-body approach. It had been the main training split for close to 50 years at that point. Many of the greatest physiques and strongest bodies were developed by that approach.
The benefits of a whole-body split:
More Even Fatigue
When you train a muscle, the peripheral (muscle itself) fatigue can last for one or two days, sometimes more. A fatigued muscle won’t perform as well as a fresher muscle. If you use a whole-body split, you at least fatigue all the muscles fairly evenly as opposed to other splits which leave some muscles with a high level of fatigue and others with none.
That’s important for an athlete, especially if he has sport practices or speed work. Doing these with uneven fatigue can alter the movement pattern (the nervous system relying less on the fatigued muscles to do the work), which can change technique and lead to injuries. If you have an even amount of fatigue, you get a short-term decrease in performance, but you don’t change the motor pattern.
Higher Frequency Per Lift
The whole-body, three-times-per-week split allows you to hit the big lift three times per week, as opposed to one or two in most other plans. From a strength/performance perspective, this is beneficial.
It speeds up motor learning, and motor learning is about the frequency, not the quantity, of practice. And it improves the neurological factors involved in force production faster, especially intra and intermuscular coordination.
One interesting thing: The more mastered and automatic a movement is, the less of an impact it has on the nervous system. That’s why high-level weightlifters can snatch and clean & jerk daily, but if you try it you’ll feel fried rather quickly.
Lower Myostatin Expression
A whole-body workout increases follistatin twice as much as a lower-body workout and three times as much as an upper-body workout (1).
Follistatin is a myostatin inhibitor. The more myostatin you express, the less muscle growth you can get. Thus, a plan that increases follistatin will give you more overall muscle growth.
Less Impact of Central Fatigue
By having at least one rest day before every workout, you reduce the likelihood of having lingering central fatigue. This will maximize your performance on each workout.
As I often say, training one day on and one day off (or just three days a week) is not for those who want to train less; it’s for those who want to train harder!
That said, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. There are reasons why whole-body workouts can fall out of favor and other splits became more popular:
Not Everyone Likes the Feel of a Whole-Body Workout
It doesn’t give you the same pump and local fatigue as a body part or even an upper-lower split. While that has nothing to do with your results, some people might be less motivated because they don’t feel it as much and don’t get a nasty pump.
You Can’t Use a Lot of Exercises for a Decent Number of Sets
Most whole-body programs that do use a lot of movements are typically low-volume plans where you perform one set per exercise, sometimes two.
If you want to do 4-5 sets per exercise (superior for strength), it limits the number of exercises you can do in a session to 3-5 movements. You have at least eight major muscle groups. You can’t hit them all directly with several sets, much less use multiple exercises for each.
The Last Exercise Might Be Less Effective
In a normal setup, a whole-body program based mostly on the big basic lifts will cause you to accumulate fatigue as the workout progresses. The last exercise in your workout might be done in a state that’ll give you a subpar performance. Starr used the circuit format to counter that.

Component 4: Doing the Big Three as a Fast Circuit
Starr recommended the circuit setup because it was the best way to train a large group of individuals with limited equipment. But he also mentions the positive effects on cardiovascular capacity. I’m not debating that point. I’ve written an article on circuit training, including strength circuits, which is what Starr recommends.
Circuits can positively impact VO2 max, mitochondrial density and function, and other health markers. But these improvements aren’t the same as dedicated aerobic conditioning work.
Starr also recommends training fast, and that’s where the program might show the first kink in its armor. He gives an example of one of his athletes completing the light workout in 15 minutes. That’s 15 minutes to do 5 sets of 5 on squats, power cleans, and bench presses.
This super-high density could work for the light workout since the loads are fairly light. I also understand that the workout time on the medium and heavy days would be longer. But the recommendation is still to go fast. While he doesn’t give precise rest period recommendations, it’s safe to assume that it’s 90 seconds or less.
The issue? You’ll quickly build up a lot of central fatigue. While you might have enough rest for an individual muscle or exercise (each movement would come back around every 4-5 minutes), central fatigue would build up, making the sets less and less effective. I’ll give Starr a pass since the concept of central fatigue wasn’t understood back then.
Central fatigue refers to a weakening of the drive that the nervous system sends to the muscles to make them contract. The stronger the neural drive is, the more fast-twitch fibers you can recruit and fire quickly. If you create enough central fatigue, the neural drive becomes too weak to properly recruit the fast-twitch fibers, leading to inferior performance and stimulation.
Shorter rest periods lead to faster central fatigue accumulation and inferior performance. Most studies looking at rest intervals find better results with three minutes of rest versus one.
So why not just keep the circuit format, but take three minutes? Sure, that can work. But now we have nine minutes between sets of the same exercise, which can also lead to suboptimal performance.
My recommendation? Do the light workout as a circuit and the heavy workout the traditional way. The moderate day could go either way, depending on your primary goal. For strength, hypertrophy, and technical efficiency, do the moderate-day exercise per exercise. And if you focus more on conditioning, use the circuit format.
But to maximize strength development, avoid the circuit format and take your three minutes between sets.

So Is This a Good Athletic Performance Program?
The Strongest Shall Survive plan was originally designed as a strength program for high school and college football players. Most of the system was designed to accommodate training a lot of players at the same time. So, you’d expect me to say it’s a great plan for athletic performance. Well, not so much.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s a lot to like about this program for an athlete. It’ll certainly get you stronger, and the circuit format might even improve anaerobic capacity and aerobic power. However, it lacks the key element of developing power, speed, and agility – arguably more important than strength for most sports. I would’ve loved to see plyometrics/jumps and maybe medicine ball throws in, maybe as part of the warm-up rather than ab work.
I concede that the sprint and agility work might’ve been performed with the football practices or in separate sessions. But, by itself, this program wouldn’t be my first choice for athletic performance.
The Final Verdict
If you’re into mostly strength and performance, there’s a lot to love here. It’s not surprising that it inspired many future programs. It can be used very effectively for strength development in an athletic program, but if you’re an athlete, you’ll have to include explosive work like jumps, throws, and sled/Prowler sprints to make it a more transferable training plan.


Bagheri R et al. Effects of upper-body, lower-body, or combined resistance training on the ratio of follistatin and myostatin in middle-aged men. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Sep;119(9):1921-1931. PubMed.

I believe this program and the ones it inspired have a lot of value. I know alterations of these programs can work at all levels, but a lot of its benefits fall to the newer trainees that may perhaps be guilty of overconsumption and therefore overthinking.
The submaximal sets are great for technique learning, and the top sets are great for learning how to train hard and push yourself. High exposure to these movements is vital for someone starting out. People can be guilty of staying with them for too long though – 5x5s are brutal once the weight gets high enough.
I think once linear progress starts to grind, you need to figure out what your long-term goals are and evolve in that direction. If that’s a more strength-catered HLM like Texas Method, go for it. If it’s a more athletic endeavor your after, you gotta find something more sport specific. Hypertrophy? Bye bye minimalism.
As a first foot into the world of training, you can go a lot worse than the variations of this method.

I agree 100% with everything you wrote.

I really enjoyed the break down of % and effective reps. I never realized how that works. I also do 5×5 often and I believe I need to lower my % for the ramp.
Does the Texas Method also ramp? I remember reading an article about the Texas method using 75-85% of your 5 RM I believe. I wonder how that translates into percentages of your 1 RM

Actually, the Texas method uses more like 75 – 85% of your 1RM, not of your 5RM.
Monday = 5 x 5 (sets across, not ramping) with 90% of your 5RM
Wednesday = 2 x 5 @ 80% of the weights you used on Monday
Friday = Ramp up to a new 5RM (which you will use to select the weight next Monday)

T NATION – 3 Nov 10

The Texas Method
A proven strength training method to help you keep making progress after the newbie phase. Check it out.
Est. reading time: 11 minutes

Would you be able to do one of these for 531?

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