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J O U R N A L
ARTICLES
The Holy Trinity of Strength Training
The back squat, press and power clean are huge parts of the CrossFit program.
Legendary lifter and strength coach Bill Starr explains why they’re so important for athletes.
Bill Starr
If you’re looking to build brute strength, you need to avoid machines and biceps curls. Instead, focus your time
in the weight room on a small number of core exercises that hit the main muscle groups.
It’s no surprise to find heavy, low-rep workouts in CrossFit. They’ve been the core of strength training for years.
It’s called keeping it simple—and it works.
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®
CrossFit is a registered trademark of CrossFit, Inc.
© 2009 All rights reserved.
Subscription info at http://journal.crossfit.com
Feedback to [email protected]
Holy Trinity ...
(continued)
Less Is More in Strength Training
In the late ‘60s, when the interest in strength training for
football was increasing exponentially, Tommy Suggs and
I began traveling to high schools and conventions to give
demonstrations and talk with the coaches. Our goal was
to teach them how to correctly do the various weighttraining lifts and put together a functional program with
minimum equipment. We also wanted to find out just
what they were doing.
The main reason the
Big Three—or any other
simplicity-based program—
works well is that all the
energy of an athlete is
put into making the large
muscles and corresponding
attachments stronger.
What stood out in all their programs was that they were
doing far too many exercises in a workout. The prevailing
idea at that time was that every muscle group, big and
small, needed to be given attention in a weight-training session in order to get a stronger body. We took a
different route and came up with a simple but effective
plan that could be done in a short period of time with
minimum equipment.
We selected three exercises: bench press, back squat and
power clean. We called them the Big Three.
The Big Three would hit the three major muscle
groups: shoulder girdle (upper body), back, and hips
and legs. All the lifts would be done for five sets of
five. Research had shown the best set and rep formula
was four-to-six sets of four-to-six reps, so we chose the
median of five-by-five to make it easier for coaches
setting up programs for large numbers of athletes.
Together with the power clean, the bench press and
the back squat are your best bets for gaining a
large amount of strength very quickly.
2 of 7
®
CrossFit is a registered trademark of CrossFit, Inc.
© 2009 All rights reserved.
Subscription info at http://journal.crossfit.com
Feedback to [email protected]
Holy Trinity ...
(continued)
Tommy and I were both active in Olympic lifting, so
it might have seemed natural that we would use the
overhead press for our shoulder-girdle exercise. While
we believed the press was the best upper-body exercise
for athletes, it was getting a great deal of bad publicity
at that time. Several newspapers and magazines carried
articles by prominent sports medicine doctors who stated
that heavy pressing was harmful to the lower back. Plus,
word was out that the press was about to be eliminated
from official competition for that same reason. Although
neither of us believed the press to be harmful when done
correctly, we didn’t want to deal with that battle. We were
already fighting one over full squats and their effect on
the knees. The flat bench became our shoulder-girdle
primary exercise.
The squat was a no-brainer. It’s really the backbone of
the program.
The power clean is the perfect lift for any athlete wanting
to gain strength, and it has the added benefit of enhancing
athletic attributes such as foot speed, co-ordination,
timing and balance. The Big Three would be the basic
program for athletes at any level. As they got stronger
and the workload increased, other lifts would be added
to the routine. Finally, we inserted the heavy-, light- and
medium-day concept, which had been around since
the ‘30s.
During the following year, we promoted this program
wherever we went and wrote it up in the magazine we
edited, Strength & Health. At conventions, we demonstrated the three lifts and passed out information on how
to put together a program for a large number of athletes.
Then we waited for the feedback, wondering what
the biggest problems might be. As it turned out, there
were none.
At the Kodak National Coaches Convention at the
Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., that January, we
didn’t have to sell the program. The coaches sold it for us.
Strength Is About Moving Iron—Period
The main reason the Big Three—or any other simplicitybased program—works well is that all the energy of an
athlete is put into making the large muscles and corresponding attachments stronger. The main problem with