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In the Trenches:

An Interview with Mark Rippetoe


by Matt Reynolds

Meet Justin. Most of us involved in the strength and conditioning


world know lots of kids like Justin. Justin is an eighteen year old,
5’10” gangly kid who weighs about 160lbs soaking wet. He’s
worked out consistently in the gym for six months now. He’s
training chest and arms several times a week and he even makes
time to get some leg training in on the leg press or smith machine
every once in a while. Problem is, he isn’t really getting any
stronger and he can’t gain weight to save his life.

All of us know guys like Justin. Maybe you train kids like Justin.
Hell, maybe you are “Justin.” As strength athletes and coaches we’ve all had kids like Justin ask
us how to gain weight, and get bigger and stronger. We spend valuable time talking to these kids,
giving them the information they need to succeed, and then a few days later we see them in the
gym doing preacher curls and they say, “well I talked to my friend about what you said and he
said he tried it once and overtrained so I decided to do this thing I read about.”

Are you kidding me?

I work at a gym where there are tons of “Justins” – skinny little kids doing curls, working out on
machines, never progressing. These same kids have the same bodies year-after-year and continue
to do the same thing in the absence of results. Sure, they’ll switch from the EZ-bar curl to the
hammer strength curl, but you couldn’t pay them enough money to put a bar on their back and
squat down to their heels. Have you met guys like Justin? Are you a Justin?

Now meet Mark Rippetoe. Mark can take guys like Justin and put 40lbs of muscle on them in a
few months. He’s the best there is at training novice lifters and increasing their strength and size
in a short amount of time. He’s had so much experience and success with novice lifters that he’s
just released a book outlining his methodology called Starting Strength. Mark is a huge
proponent of the basics: full squats, deadlifts, cleans, overhead presses, bench presses, etc., and
the book reflects that, teaching proper form on the lifts, how to coach them, and to program them
for success.

Mark is the guy responsible for starting Wichita Falls Athletic Club – one of the most successful
gyms in America at producing national caliber athletes out of little kids. “Rip” (as his friends call
him) is one hell of a strength coach, but he isn’t the kind of guy you’re gonna see on the cover of
Men’s Health. He’s gritty, hairy, and a little rough around the edges. He likes to eat dead animals
and drink dark beer. (His affinity for good beer is so strong that he “regards American Corporate
Beer and the people who prefer it as a serious cultural problem, much worse than homelessness
and poverty.”) Yeah, he has a way with words too.

One of his fellow coaches described him as having “a weird Viking fetish, short shorts, and a no-
non-sense type of smarts. He has many years under the bar, worked with a full metric shit-ton of
athletes and has the academic wits to battle most PhD's.”

And he can drink a gallon of milk in 15 minutes…and keep it down.

You can’t do that.

But more than anything else, he can take you skinny little kids and turn you into men. He can
give you pride and a sense of accomplishment. He can make you part of something special if you
want it bad enough.

The question is…do you want it bad enough?

The Early Years


Matt: Give us a little info on your background. What is your age, height, weight? Has Wichita
Falls always been home? What is your educational background? Where and who do you coach?

Rip: I am 49, tower over most other men at 5’8”, and weigh 215 with no noticeable abs. I am
single, never been married, but that doesn’t mean that I am gay, necessarily. I hope my girlfriend
Stef will back me up on that. I have lived in Wichita Falls most of my life, except for a short
while spent in Colorado in the early 80s (the 1980s, not my 80s). I have a BS in Petroleum
Geology from Midwestern State University, a thing I wish I was using just about now. But I am
the proud owner of the Wichita Falls Athletic Club, for 21 years now the best damn weight
training facility in Central Wichita Falls, Texas. You’ll have to walk several blocks to find a
better place to train. I primarily coach novices, meaning that I teach a lot of people how to squat
and clean.

Matt: What sports have you competed in? Did you play sports in high school and college? How
did you get into strength training? How did you get into coaching?

Rip: I played soccer in high school, back when soccer was regarded as “European.” I later
competed in powerlifting, from 1979 through about 1988, and I actually managed to win the
Greater Texas Classic in 1981. I was active in the sport until the late 90’s when I began devoting
my time and attention exclusively to weightlifting. Glenn Pendlay, Lon Kilgore, and I got the
ball rolling in North Texas about that time, using WFAC as our training hall, lab, and
headquarters.

I started lifting weights in college to look more like Conan, and never really succeeded. I was
slow to mature, in many ways. We had a rather large tornado here in 1979, an event that affected
many people’s lives, certainly mine. Bill Starr was in town afterward, taking care of his oldest
daughter that had been injured in the tornado, and I ran into him at Midwestern’s weight room.
He took me in as an understudy, and taught me many things.
I have always been a better coach than an athlete, since I was not gifted genetically and was
never very coachable either. I don’t claim to be that good a coach, for that matter. But I cook a
decent chicken fried steak.

Matt: You mentioned Bill Starr. For those who aren’t aware of the greatest strength coach
America has ever seen, fill us in on Bill and your relationship with him.

Rip: Starr is one of those guys that make a tremendous impact on the people he’s close to, in
more ways than you’d expect. He has a very highly developed personality. He and I have been
friends for quite a while, and we have a lot of dirt on each other. I also function as his book
warehouse, and have all the copies of Defying Gravity in print. But you’ll have to buy them from
him.

Wichita Falls Athletic Club

Matt: So you met Bill in 1979, and then a few years later you opened Wichita Falls Athletic
Club. Can you tell us why you decided to open the gym, and how that came about?

Rip: David Anderson, another friend of Bill’s and fellow Wichitan, gets the credit for that. Billy
helped him open Anderson’s Gym while I was in Colorado, he operated it until he could stand it
no more, and I bought it from him in 1984. Seems like 1894. I moved it to a better location a
couple of months later, expanded it twice there, and moved it to our current location in 2001. We
are a rather serious strength training facility, as serious as we can be within the context of getting
the bills paid in a commercial gym in a small market. We have seven power racks and attached
platforms, six competition benches, six weightlifting platforms, lots of good straight bars, York
and Sonata plates, bumper plates of several makes, bands, chains, kettlebells, 2 reverse hypers, 2
glute/hams, and a rubber-topped sprint track. We’re probably the only commercial gym in North
America where EVERYBODY squats below parallel and half of the members own weightlifting
shoes. And I would assume that WFAC is one of the oldest sole-proprietorship gyms in the
country.

Matt: Earlier, you mentioned Glenn Pendlay and Lon Kilgore. How did the “strength trinity”
come together?

Rip: Glenn’s wife Nikki, then his fiancé, moved down here for a job about 1993, and she needed
a place to train. Being a sensible girl, she ended up at WFAC, and so did he several months later.
Had I been a sensible boy, I would have killed him then and saved myself a lot of soreness and
aggravation.

I had heard through the grapevine that MSU was going to finally update their PE situation and
hire Dr. Lon Kilgore to establish a strength lab. This was after Glenn had been here three or four
years and had moved to Montana State at Bozeman. I called Lon and introduced myself to him,
assuring him that he’d have a decent place to train while he was setting up shop at MSU. After he
got here and got the thing up and running, Glenn indicated that he’d like to come back and finish
his MS in ex. phys. back here in Wichita Falls. Glenn had known Lon for years since they were
both Kansas guys, and apparently everybody in Kansas knows each other. But think about this
weirdness: Glenn moves back to WICHITA FALLS from BOZEMAN, MONTANA. That, my
friends, is evidence of mental illness.

So, these guys both ended up here, we all trained heavy, we all knew we could learn something
from each other, and my place was the only gym
that knew about chalk. We had no other choice.

Matt: Tell us about Glenn.

Rip: At this point in time, Glenn may be the


single most knowledgeable person in the country
regarding the science and practice of strength
training. This admittedly bizarre claim (made by
me, not him, by the way) is based on the fact that
he has an IQ of about 180, he reads about 6000
words per minute and retains all of it, he has read
the vast majority of the published literature on the subject – both academic and lay – and he has
successfully applied it to hundreds of junior and open athletes over the past 8 years, making
Wichita Falls Weightlifting the most productive junior team in the history of the sport in the US.
Glenn was a very good powerlifter, is a pretty good weightlifter when he has time to train, and
has developed a coaching eye that is better than anybody’s. However, he is about half deaf, and
he should wash his shoes out occasionally.

Matt: Tell us about Lon.

Rip: Lon has been a national-level lifter since he was 12. He has forgotten more about
weightlifting than most people will ever have a chance to learn. He is also a talented artist, a
skilled politician, an intelligent, methodical investigator, and a thorough planner. He is
responsible for all of the good ideas we’ve had over the past several years, including Starting
Strength, and he likes Guinness.

Matt: So who does what at WFAC? How do you divide up the responsibilities?

Rip: WFAC is a commercial gym, and our members get the bills paid for us. Carla Nichols is our
personal trainer here, one of the few I’ve ever even heard of that uses barbell-based programs for
her clients, people in the standard personal training demographic that normally get cast on the
dung-heap of machine training by default. Carla is very good at working with an older, more frail
population, but on a daily basis she gets to demonstrate the effectiveness and superiority of free
weights even when used with what most trainers would term “special populations”. I’m proud of
the fact that she sticks by her guns, when most of the industry has become such a watered-down,
unprincipled mess.

I set up all our new members on a program – a free weight program. We do a complete program
for new members, such that when they leave after the first workout, they know what they’re
going to do when they get here next time, from warmups, to exercise order, correct technique for
the exercises, sets and reps, time between sets (and why we take it), to how much to increase the
weight next time. I have done it this way since I bought the gym in 1984. Literally every person
that can physically assume the position has been taught how to squat at WFAC. If they can’t
squat, they start on the leg press until they are strong enough, and then they squat. Most new
members welcome the offer of a program, since most people don’t know what to do and are glad
to be shown more than just where the Cybex machines are. I work with each new member as
long as necessary for them to be able to safely and productively function in a free weight gym.
We probably have a lower attrition rate than most clubs, but the general public, even a better than
average piece of it, is lazy, and most quit sooner or later. But this has given me an opportunity to
learn quite a bit about how to teach a wide variety of people how to use barbells.

The weightlifting team works out of the Performance Sports Conditioning training room, where
we also teach kids and varsity athletes the lifts. We have a pro sprint track on our north property,
and PSC works with sprint mechanics out there. Glenn and I operate PSC alongside the rest of
the gym activities. We have six platforms, bumpers, bars, and squat stands back there. Glenn
coaches the team back there during their practices. He doesn’t usually help up front unless I am
just so damn busy I need the help. That doesn’t happen often enough.

Matt: Glenn tells a story about attending an Elite Coaches Symposium. He mentions that all the
US coaches were asking the foreign coaches what the secret was to their country's success in
weightlifting. The US coaches were looking for that secret program, or a set and rep scheme, and
the foreign coaches answered that the secret to their success is in the infrastructure of the system,
and not with the program. They spoke of the talent pool they have to pull from (think China), and
then the key to success is giving the athletes the atmosphere they need to succeed.

My question is, how have you guys at Wichita Falls set up an atmosphere that breeds success in
the strength and weightlifting world?
Rip: At first this looks like a chicken and egg question – does a successful program grow, or do
you grow a successful program? When Glenn started this deal, we had a just a few kids. But I
can tell you that without a successful start, we wouldn’t have a successful program. It has
snowballed significantly over the past couple of years, and that is evidence of a functional
infrastructure, but if we had not had early success as a team and as individuals, there would have
been no word to spread. Glenn, as I have said, is a very good weightlifting coach, and built a
team of successful lifters with his good coaching that went out and told their friends about the
program, who then wanted to be a part of this successful program. We know how to get novice
lifters very strong very fast. They like that, and their friends want it too.

In a country with an “infrastructure” like China, where there are something like 2.2 x 10²³
registered lifters, it may very well not matter what sets and reps you use, since you can just
shitcan the weak ones and keep the strong ones. There the culture offers fewer distractions, and a
coach has the luxury of a large pool of talent that is actually motivated to lift weights. Here we
actually have to either manufacture strong athletes or try to convince the talented ones that the
NFL isn’t really all that useful. WFW has been successful because we have a coach that knows
how to make weightlifters, and we have done it often enough that we have achieved “critical
mass”. So yes, there is a secret set and rep scheme at WFW, and we’re not tellin’. Furthermore,
unless you intend to transform this culture into something like China, (personally, I would
oppose that) you’d better get yourself a set and rep scheme so you can produce some athletes and
achieve critical mass too.

And as far as the facility is concerned, I doubt that our old training hall (before the PSC remodel)
could have been considered part of the formula for success. Not by a sane person. Atmosphere in
there was actually something you could see, and it wasn’t pretty. An “atmosphere of success” is
composed mainly of success, and success comes from knowing what you’re doing. Granted, we
have record boards and t-shirts and logo stuff, and the kids are proud to have them, but they are
proud of the success the logo represents. They come to practice knowing that they’re training on
the same bars and platforms that national champions have trained on. And they’re being trained
by the same guys. That seems to be a part of the atmosphere.

There are several individuals in the USAW coaching hierarchy that seem to believe you can do it
the other way around, i.e. “If you build it, they will come.” Well, they haven’t come yet. I think it
depends on what you mean by “it”.

Starting Strength

Matt: So the word is that you can take a high school kid off the street and put him on a training
program that will put 30-40 lbs of muscle on him in less than 6 months without drugs and
without spending more than 3 days a week in the gym. Simple question…How? (And what are
you feeding these kids?)

Rip: I have done that several times. It is a very simple concept, really. You cause the body to
need to be bigger, and then you feed it so that it can get that way. We squat EVERY SINGLE
WORKOUT, three times a week, adding weight EVERY workout, along with the other basic
lifts. We do no other assistance work. We do no running or other endurance training at all. We eat
four big meals a day. Twice a week you have to try to get thrown out of an all-you-can-eat place.
We drink a gallon of milk a day - a whole gallon of whole milk.

The problem, of course, is finding a high school kid off the street who will do it exactly that way.

Matt: And your new book, Starting Strength outlines this process?

Quite thoroughly. The squat chapter alone is 60


pages, and the book contains over 700
illustrations. It is designed to teach the coach or
personal trainer how to coach the squat, bench
press, deadlift, overhead/military press, and the
power clean. Most of the book is devoted to the
methods I have developed for teaching these lifts,
an analysis of the mechanics of the correct
execution of each lift, and how to fix most of the
problems encountered in coaching them. One
chapter is devoted to programming, and maybe
that is an inadequate treatment, but my primary
emphasis was the teaching method and faults and
corrections for the most important barbell
exercises, the ones most often performed
incorrectly and the ones most critical to success.
There will be more about programming later, I
promise.

Matt: The book outlines the importance of the


core lifts for beginners. However, an intermediate lifter, advanced lifter, or even a world class
athlete can benefit from the book as well correct?

Rip: I’d like to think so. I consider myself knowledgeable, and I learn things every day, as most
knowledgeable people do. Starting Strength is the most detailed treatment of the core lifts in
print, and even if a guy disagrees with 90% of it – and some people will - there would still be
some useful stuff in there somewhere. A copy of the deadlift chapter, for instance, was reviewed
by an advanced, experienced master’s powerlifter we know, who PRed his deadlift the next week
using some cues from the method. And it never hurts for an experienced lifter to be able to say
just the right thing to a novice to fix a form problem. Makes us look smarter.

Matt: You mentioned that your beginners squat every single workout. What is it about squatting
that works so well at making kids so strong and big?

Rip: It’s because they’re so goddamn hard. They load the whole system, not just a piece of it.
They essentially work all muscle groups underneath the load – which is all of them except the
neck, and that is used isometrically. Its range of motion – when done correctly – is greater than a
deadlift or power clean. Done with sufficient intensity and volume, it produces enough stress to
evoke a hormonal response, something no isolation exercise – or circuit of isolation exercises –
can do. Squats, better than any other single exercise, load the whole body in a way that causes
the body to respond as a whole.

Matt: Likewise, I noticed you didn’t do any “core stability training” using Swiss balls or balance
boards in Starting Strength.

Rip: I am of the opinion that anyone who can squat 400 below parallel without a suit or press
200 overhead has a strong core. I am of the opinion that when a person increases their squat, they
have increased their core strength. I am also of the opinion that if a person wants to strengthen
their core, they must make something quantifiably stronger. It is hard to quantify a Swiss ball.

Matt: So how different is the training outlined for beginners in Starting Strength from what you
are doing with your top athletes in football or Olympic lifting at
Wichita Falls?

Good technique on the basic lifts doesn’t differ for any athlete,
since good technique is dictated by human anatomy. Our
approach to programming novices is different than that which is
currently in vogue, since we don’t use unloading days unless we
have to – we just put more weight on the bar every workout until
that stops working. It will eventually, and at that point the
programming needs to get fancier. But not until then. Our
advanced athletes are obviously programmed differently, and that
will be the subject of another book. Starting Strength is primarily
a way to teach correct form on the basic barbell exercises, and
many years experience in teaching barbells to rank beginners has
been condensed into its 240 pages. Since everyone has form
problems, Starting Strength has something that everyone can
learn.

Matt: So how long does it typically take before a kid starts to stagnate from all the squatting
without backing off?

Rip: Your standard 5’8” 150 junior in high school that will not eat will get stuck in about a
month. Then he’ll quit anyway, so let’s talk about your non-standard 5’8” junior that actually will
do the program. He’ll gain 5-7 pounds the first week, 15 lbs. the first month, and put 100 lbs. on
his squat before he even slows down. Remember that as his squat goes up, his bodyweight does
too, so it’s really not the same kid every workout. It’s a little bit bigger kid doing the workout,
one that responds a little bit better than the previous version of the kid. He literally adapts fast
enough that the concept of “1RM” or “5RM” is not valid, since the tested max applies to a kid
that doesn’t exist anymore. The weight gain drives the strength increase, and the strength gain
makes him bigger if he eats enough. Most practitioners do not get to see this happen (since
trainees that will actually comply with such a program are very rare), and most academics will
argue that it can’t (since they’ve never seen it in a peer-reviewed study). But I’ve had several
trainees gain 60 pounds their first year at the gym. I’ve had lots of kids gain 30 pounds in 4
months. Lots. It obviously varies with the individual, but simple linear progress can continue for
3-6 months before any changes at all to the program need to be made.

Strength and Conditioning Coaches

Matt: Wow. You sold me.

Let’s finish with some advice for strength coaches out there, primarily those looking to work
with high school kids or those already in the trenches of a high school. What can they do to
succeed? (teaching correct form, programming, atmosphere, etc.)

Rip: Start training yourself. Most of the folks that end up “coaching
strength” at the high school level have been given a job for which they are unprepared in a field
in which they have no experience. You don’t have to have been an elite lifter to be a good coach
– I sure as hell wasn’t. But you have to at least have been under the bar enough to know why we
don’t look up at the bleeding ceiling when we squat! If you still think we do, Starting Strength
will explain it to you. So start training. Your athletes can always tell.

Matt: Thanks again Rip!

In the next issue we’ll talk to Mark and Glenn Pendlay about programming for beginners,
intermediates, and advanced lifters including a discussion of the 5x5. Until then, go to
www.StartingStrength.com, buy his book, and start getting bigger and stronger.