The Starting Strength diet: A review in 2020

Mark Rippetoe and Starting Strength are responsible for getting a ton of people into lifting with their simple training program. While the training plan is quite straight forward there remains ambiguity around what your diet for Starting Strength should look like.

Let’s take a look at what Starting Strength says about nutrition, and test that against what the wider industry is saying these days.

The diet for Starting Strength: A review in 2020

At a glance…

  • We are what we eat
  • Focus on your proteincarbfat and fibre intake
  • The original Mark Rippetoe diet for Starting Strength guidance still has some merit
  • A lot of the more recent Starting Strength material online is inconsistent with the original message, and unhelpful
  • Starting Strength nutrition should be led by your goals, and measured against objective metrics(bodyweight and waist circumference)

 

Why does proper nutrition matter?

“You are what you eat” – quite literally. Your body will turnover what you consume and extract the nutrients it needs. 

As health conscious people we want to make sure we feed the body all the micro and macronutrients it needsto replenish itself and – hopefully – grow muscle tissue and / or drop body fat.

Where does nutrition fit with this?

It is the base for everything. Without proper nutrition you are fighting with one hand behind your back when it comes to weightlifting – be it Starting Strength, Texas Method, HLM, 5/3/1 or whatever routine. 

But there is good news – understanding the handful of basics is quite straight forward and there are a few rules of thumb you can use straight away to impact your diet and help see results.

How should a beginner diet?

The four key things to consider when looking to better understand how to control your diet when beginning strength training are:

  1. Macronutrient split – how much proteincarbohydrate and fat grams we consume. In a nutshell we need protein to repair and build muscle, carbohydrates to fuel our workouts and fat to keep our cells and mood healthy
  2. Total calories – this is a function of the macronutrients (there are 4 calories in a gram of protein or carbohydrate, and 9 in a gram of fat). If we eat more calories than we expend then our weight trends up, and vice versa.
  3. Fruit, vegetables and fibre – the more of these we get the better, generally. These are high quality components packed with useful micronutrients our body will use. Fibre helps our digestive tract stay healthy.
  4. Feedback metrics – so how do you define success? I would suggest a bodyweight and waist measurement taken regularly

The ‘Mark Rippetoe’ diet for Starting Strength

Mark Rippetoe (or Rip as he’s also known) is the man behind the Starting Strength novice linear progression program, including the book and website.

The Mark Rippetoe diet for Starting Strength novices has become synonymous with people putting on vast amounts of bodyweight and ending up pretty fat with poor body composition. Is this really what he recommends?

[ You can check out the book in question on Amazon by clicking the below ]

I think this is actually a misunderstanding of the material Starting Strength has put out there (see the clarification for instance where they reference some people losing weight in the first paragraph). The ‘official’ diet for Starting Strength novices is actually one to support continued strength gains – so adding enough fuel to keep the bar moving, while staying in a 10% – 20% body fat window (again this is straight from the clarification article). 

So trainees will be moving their bodyweight up or down to support keeping a 10% – 20% body fat percentage, and their training goal of increasing absolute strength.

This does not seem entirely unreasonable for a beginner linear progression program. So where did the stigma come from? I think it is:

  1. Poor interpretation of the nutrition guidance – Mark Rippetoe is not a dietician (and in fairness to him, doesn’t claim to be) so the material around this is generally fairly high level guidance in broad ranges. This leaves room for interpretation.
  2. Not reading or following the program – the internet being what it is a large percentage of people claim to be doing, or have done, Starting Strength who really aren’t, or haven’t. They are picking up on snippets available for free online and running with it. This is fine, but again snippets have opinions and interpretations layered on top.
  3. Inconsistent online messaging – Starting Strength has a forum which is littered with queries on diet with scalding answers pushing people to gain weight to drive progress. Most of us these days get our data from the internet and therefore these regular barbs and off-the-cuff recommendations to ‘eat through sticking points’ soon become stronger reference points for us than a book or article we have read some time ago.

Modern take on Starting Strength nutrition

I think the broad, core guidance is still useful if we can disregard a lot of the posturing that has crept in around it. Some of the relevant nutrition tips that we should champion:

  1. Keeping bodyfat in a range – I have no huge issue with staying in the 10% – 20% range recommended by Starting Strength. The downside is that it’s quite a wide range and measuring bodyfat is not straightforward
  2. Adjust your nutrition to support your goals – the “blue book” and the online “clarification” article both use examples of people gaining AND losing weight. Assess your ambitions and use your nutrition to head in the right direction
  3. Get an adequate protein intake – current guidance on protein intake is to keep it in the range of 1.6g/kg – 3.0g/kg each day.
The Starting Strength program is not an excuse to binge on bad food - GOMAD is not mandatory
The Starting Strength program is not an excuse to binge on bad food – GOMAD is not mandatory

I think it’s also handy to add a few further details, most of which have been captured SOMEWHERE in the Starting Strength nutrition forum or similar, but have not made it in to many of the official publications:

  1. Consider your fat intake – fat has more than double the calories per gram compared to protein or carbohydrates and it is very easy to overeat it accidentally. Keep an eye on fat intake – you may be surprised at how much you can eat accidentally!
  2. Monitor useful metrics for your results – bodyfat is hard to measure accurately. Bodyweight alone ignores bodyweight composition or quality of weight gain/loss. How about your bodyweight, plus a regular waist measurement to keep an eye on a decent bodyfat proxy metric? Sounds good to me.
  3. Eating through sticking points is not often appropriate
  4. GOMAD (gallon of milk a day) is not often appropriate
  5. Revisit your goals periodically to make sure they are still relevant – maybe it’s time to start losing weight or focusing on something different to the absolute weight on the bar
  6. When the program stops working then accept it and move on to something less aggressive – regardless of nutrition, Starting Strength usually lasts 6 – 12 weeks. Restarting it and beating yourself up because your lifts aren’t as high as someone else online is not going to change this. Move on to a routine that you can progress on.

You can find all sorts of more detailed posts on the details of diets online, above is a few actionable snippets.

Conclusion

If we can put the controversy of the brand to one side, the underlying nutrition guidance offered in the original Starting Strength “Blue Book” does still have something to offer – even if it suffers from being fairly general and non-specific.

So what approach to diet would I recommend now? Eat between 1.6-3.0g/lb of protein and keep fats under control, manipulating your carbohydrate intake to fuel your goals. Use useful metrics such as bodyweight and waist measurement to keep an eye on how your body reacts, and use this to help shape your ongoing nutrition plan.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *