seeking informed criticism of StrongFirst

George Locke

Level 2 Valued Member
Hey,

I've been getting more into StrongFirst style training, although I enjoy doing my own programming (badly, I'm sure) too much to stick with any of the programs y'all offer, at least at this time in my life. I've read S&S and ETK, and, most recently, The Naked Warrior. I've enjoyed trying to employ the techniques described in TNW (e.g. spiral tension, irradiation), with good effect afaict.

Strength training is a hobby of mine; another one of my hobbies is "scientific skepticism" Skeptical movement - Wikipedia and cultivating my critical thinking skills. One common critical thinking recommendation/tool is to seek out opposing viewpoints so as to better understand the strengths and weaknesses of one's own beliefs. So I'm wondering if there's any critique of the ideas and methods of StrongFirst that you've seen that struck you as being relatively fair or well informed.

It's difficult to find. To put it sarcastically, anyone who disagrees with me is obviously wrong and they very well could be a poopyface. IOW, given a premise that StrongFirst is doing a lot of things right, anyone who says different would ipso facto be making some error; a maximally "fair and well informed" critique would become an affirmation and not a critique. More concretely, if you look for people with bad things to say about kettlebells broadly, you'll find lots of stuff like, "I don't think kettlebells do a terribly good job at developing any parameter unrelated to kettlebells," that, I'm sorry to say, coming from a coach I like and respect for being generally science-guided. I can provide the link if you want, but the point is that this can hardly even be called a critique (the statement was made without elaboration). It tells me nothing except this one man's opinion, which is not what I'm after.

Is there anyone who has seriously considered StrongFirst programming and offered comment?
 

Oscar

Level 6 Valued Member
One critique I have found is that kettlebells are only good for conditioning or strength endurance, not for strength training. I think that comes from picking up a 16 kg to do 2 hand swings. I OTOH can only snatch a given kettlebell for 10 reps, so if I do sets of 5 it certainly is strength training.

Not sure if this is what you were talking about.
 

wespom9

Level 6 Valued Member
Certified Instructor
My biggest critique is that there is too much good information and programs, I don't know if I'll live long enough to read and implement them all.

In all seriousness...
"Take what is useful and discard the rest" - Bruce Lee
I for one have taken far more than I have discarded.
 

North Coast Miller

Level 7 Valued Member
I have never seen an informed criticism of SF training methods from anyone who has used them or used similar approaches to strength and conditioning, ever, by anyone. Even folks who use very different training methods have nothing negative to say.

The closest to calling by name is this older blog post by S Maxwell where he doesn't level any criticism per se but maybe defines it in a somewhat narrow scope:
The Official Steve Maxwell Website


The closest other criticism I've read was from no more than a handful of folks on the web saying generally they got stronger in the lifts they practiced but felt the carry-over wasn't very good. Many, many (many) more folks have reported plenty of good carry-over, so take that with a shrug and who knows how these people were actually training.
 

George Locke

Level 2 Valued Member
The closest to calling by name is this older blog post by S Maxwell where he doesn't level any criticism per se but maybe defines it in a somewhat narrow scope
That's a very interesting article. I find it a bit odd that he thinks of SF as having "extrinsic" since one of the defining features, in my mind, is the (intense) focus on quality of movement. Indeed, one of my main training goals is the meditative aspect of the practice, and that's a big part of what brought me here (for me, strength training functions as "focus" meditation as opposed to "mindful/openness"). I can't say I agree with his characterizations of "high volume" training, but it certainly fits the bill for the kind of critique I'm after. Thanks for the link!
 

Steve W.

Level 7 Valued Member
Well, I'm not sure that "opposing viewpoints" are necessarily relevant. One expression that Pavel uses a lot is "there's more than one way to skin a cat." There are lots of ways to train the body that people have used for various purposes and with various degrees of success. The fact that a particular way (using "way" to encompass principles, means, and methods) is successful doesn't invalidate others. The fact that a particular way isn't perfect (none are) doesn't invalidate it. So to me, it isn't really a matter of being "for" or "against" StrongFirst, as much as just choosing whether and how to implement its principles, means and methods -- or not to.

Even though I generally accept and follow StrongFirst principles, means and methods, I certainly don't regard them as perfect or necessarily the best choice for everyone, and I often disagree with specific ideas and practices within StrongFirst.

I know @Steve Freides often discourages criticism of other systems here, and I also find that outside criticisms of StrongFirst are often based on misconceptions, unfamiliarity, or an obvious agenda of the critic. There are a lot of systems that don't appeal to me or don't make sense for me (or in some cases don't make sense TO me), but I don't spend much energy thinking about those systems.

In cases where I disagree with StrongFirst orthodoxy, I either don't discuss it here (although I do sometimes get caught up engaging in a debate), qualify what I say as based on my individual experience, and/or explicitly state that it is a deviation.
 
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Bro Mo

Level 6 Valued Member
The closest I can come to a criticism is the implication that carryover is higher than what I have found it to actually be. If approaching as a list of training programs, the carryover from a training program is likely not as beneficial as a program with exercises and protocols selected for a specific purpose. Without a purpose, almost anything will probably work. Many of the programs here are designed with specific constraints and objectives that may not align to individual objectives unless those objectives are vague.

However, if approaching StrongFirst as a school of principles rather than a list of programs, I cannot offer any critique as the principles are all top notch. Apply the principles to a tailored program and I would consider it some of the best training available.
 

Jake Steinmann

Level 1 Valued Member
As you rightly observe, I think you’re going to have a hard time with this, for a few reasons.

One: You’re asking on a StrongFirst forum. People here are going to be predisposed to think favorably of StrongFirst, and view any critique of StrongFirst as uninformed by default. That’s not a knock on anyone here—asking people for good critiques of something they like is generally pretty tough.

Two: StrongFirst is a training method, but it’s also a company and a culture. Finding critiques that separate those is really tough. As a minor example: I actually don’t love Pavel’s writing…the “evil Russian” schtick doesn’t do much for me at this point. BUT that’s a style criticism, not a critique of the programming. A lot of the critiques you’ll find online mix the two, so you’ll get stuff like “SF sucks because Pavel blah blah”.

Three: Getting a neutral, informed critique is going to be really tough, because the folks most likely to want to critique are not neutral arbiters. It’s going to be other strength training organizations or groups that have a reason to knock SF down.

Honestly, if you really wanted to interrogate the SF methods, I’d say the best way to do it would be to go back to the original sources. Pavel is pretty good about citing his sources in many of his books … go dig out the primary materials he references, read them, and see if you come to the same conclusions. Does the material actually support the proposition it’s being cited for? Obviously, that is a hell of a lot of work, but if I really wanted to interrogate the SF methodology, that’s how I’d do it.

Alternatively, read up on programming methods and strategies, and do some kind of compare/contrast. Does SF programming comport with generally accepted methods? If not , why not?

Just some thoughts
 

Sean M

Level 6 Valued Member
I don't have citations readily available, but a flavor of the criticism I have come across:
  • Loading parameters in most programs are too light, e.g. 1-5 reps with 8-10RM (RoP) isn't as effective as singles and doubles up to triples with 3-5RM
  • Volume manipulation is inefficient compared to intensity (load) manipulation, especially for novices
  • Kettlebells are an "ok" conditioning tool, but aren't the most effective strength-training tool (barbell is). I think it was worded: if you want mediocre levels of strength and conditioning, kettlebells "deliver". If you want superior conditioning, run. If you want superior strength, barbells.
  • S&S "loses the forest for the trees": people stay on it too long, it's supposed to be a quick way to restore (or gain for the first time) GPP before moving on to "real" strength work
  • The Soviet weightlifting methodology is a) inextricably linked to doping of the era, b) apples-to-oranges due to the amount of selection and control the Soviets had over young men in those days, compared to the "land of the free" where genetic potential found its way into the NFL instead of Olympic sports, c) unnecessarily complex, especially for beginners, and d) best left in the dustbin of history (along with the USSR)
  • I believe the girevoy sport people give the skeptical face to hard style, thinking it odd. Like how Happy Gilmore swings a golf club?
  • Kettlebells get lumped into the general criticisms of "functional training" because they are used (and often explicitly marketed as) functional training tools.
I think anyone with an opinion on these matters is probably too bought-in (on either side) to be moved, and anyone without a strong opinion doesn't (and shouldn't) care enough about the politics. At the end of the day we're all just doing something we enjoy with a system we find (at least anecdotally) credible. We're all just moving weight around to become a better version of ourselves, when it comes right down to it.
 

Steve Freides

Staff
Senior Certified Instructor
Elite Certified Instructor
I don't have citations readily available, but a flavor of the criticism I have come across:
I can't resist ...

Loading parameters in most programs are too light, e.g. 1-5 reps with 8-10RM (RoP) isn't as effective as singles and doubles up to triples with 3-5RM
What "isn't as effective" very much depends on the trainee. Most people will find "single and doubles up to triples" doesn't allow sufficient volume, particular if hypertrophy is one of the goals as it is in many programs, and I don't know anyone who's completed the ROP and not added at least a little meat on their shoulders.

Volume manipulation is inefficient compared to intensity (load) manipulation, especially for novices
A program written for a single weight that consistently delivers progress is nothing less than brilliant. The single weight has many things going for it - that it makes adherence to the program easier and therefore more likely is, without a doubt, one of the best things about it. This is true of the ROP and also true for Simple and Sinister. This forum contains a number of very good suggestions about using more than one weight in the ROP and I believe those changes are all for the good for those able to follow them.

Kettlebells are an "ok" conditioning tool, but aren't the most effective strength-training tool (barbell is). I think it was worded: if you want mediocre levels of strength and conditioning, kettlebells "deliver". If you want superior conditioning, run. If you want superior strength, barbells.
Kettlebells are an ideal tool for strength-endurance training, and an excellent tool for many kinds of strength training. Carryover from strength-endurance work to conditioning is well-documented - it's a good choice for someone who wants conditioning without doing a lot of conditioning training. And strength-endurance work is an excellent adjunct to conditioning training. Full-body, limit-strength training warrants a barbell, I agree. I will add, however, that we are only just beginning to understand the benefit of maximally explosive work with lighter weights done for high volume (like A+A, S+S).

S&S "loses the forest for the trees": people stay on it too long, it's supposed to be a quick way to restore (or gain for the first time) GPP before moving on to "real" strength work
Really? For practitioners of sports other than heavy lifting, it is again, a near-perfect match in many cases and can be practiced, with benefits, for years.

The Soviet weightlifting methodology is a) inextricably linked to doping of the era, b) apples-to-oranges due to the amount of selection and control the Soviets had over young men in those days, compared to the "land of the free" where genetic potential found its way into the NFL instead of Olympic sports, c) unnecessarily complex, especially for beginners, and d) best left in the dustbin of history (along with the USSR)
Our mission is to take the _principles_ of successful lifting program and distill them into _practical applications_ for the rest of us. No one at StrongFirst is suggesting that everyone should train like a full-time weight lifter or powerlifter.

I believe the girevoy sport people give the skeptical face to hard style, thinking it odd.
I find men in kilts throwing trees odd. Powerfully swinging a kettlebell, on the other hand, seems quite normal and is quite widely accepted - more than girevoy sport, I'd venture to say.

Kettlebells get lumped into the general criticisms of "functional training" because they are used (and often explicitly marketed as) functional training tools.
There is nothing wrong with the idea of functional training, only with some of its implementations. Criticizing the idea of training having a function is like criticizing the idea of a burger as food - there are many poor examples, but should not condemn the entire category.

Alright, that was fun to do. Thank you, @Sean M . I'll probably regret it, but it was fun nonetheless.

-S-
 

Jake Steinmann

Level 1 Valued Member
S&S "loses the forest for the trees": people stay on it too long, it's supposed to be a quick way to restore (or gain for the first time) GPP before moving on to "real" strength work
This is sort of what I meant by critiquing the culture, not the training program. Saying "people stay on the program too long" isn't an critique of the programming, it's a critique of the people using the program.

Which, y'know, can be a conversation, but I don't think it's what the OP was looking for.
 

Bret S.

Level 6 Valued Member
Certified Instructor
As you rightly observe, I think you’re going to have a hard time with this, for a few reasons.

One: You’re asking on a StrongFirst forum. People here are going to be predisposed to think favorably of StrongFirst, and view any critique of StrongFirst as uninformed by default. That’s not a knock on anyone here—asking people for good critiques of something they like is generally pretty tough.

Two: StrongFirst is a training method, but it’s also a company and a culture. Finding critiques that separate those is really tough. As a minor example: I actually don’t love Pavel’s writing…the “evil Russian” schtick doesn’t do much for me at this point. BUT that’s a style criticism, not a critique of the programming. A lot of the critiques you’ll find online mix the two, so you’ll get stuff like “SF sucks because Pavel blah blah”.

Three: Getting a neutral, informed critique is going to be really tough, because the folks most likely to want to critique are not neutral arbiters. It’s going to be other strength training organizations or groups that have a reason to knock SF down.

Honestly, if you really wanted to interrogate the SF methods, I’d say the best way to do it would be to go back to the original sources. Pavel is pretty good about citing his sources in many of his books … go dig out the primary materials he references, read them, and see if you come to the same conclusions. Does the material actually support the proposition it’s being cited for? Obviously, that is a hell of a lot of work, but if I really wanted to interrogate the SF methodology, that’s how I’d do it.

Alternatively, read up on programming methods and strategies, and do some kind of compare/contrast. Does SF programming comport with generally accepted methods? If not , why not?

Just some thoughts
I can't resist ...


What "isn't as effective" very much depends on the trainee. Most people will find "single and doubles up to triples" doesn't allow sufficient volume, particular if hypertrophy is one of the goals as it is in many programs, and I don't know anyone who's completed the ROP and not added at least a little meat on their shoulders.


A program written for a single weight that consistently delivers progress is nothing less than brilliant. The single weight has many things going for it - that it makes adherence to the program easier and therefore more likely is, without a doubt, one of the best things about it. This is true of the ROP and also true for Simple and Sinister. This forum contains a number of very good suggestions about using more than one weight in the ROP and I believe those changes are all for the good for those able to follow them.


Kettlebells are an ideal tool for strength-endurance training, and an excellent tool for many kinds of strength training. Carryover from strength-endurance work to conditioning is well-documented - it's a good choice for someone who wants conditioning without doing a lot of conditioning training. And strength-endurance work is an excellent adjunct to conditioning training. Full-body, limit-strength training warrants a barbell, I agree. I will add, however, that we are only just beginning to understand the benefit of maximally explosive work with lighter weights done for high volume (like A+A, S+S).


Really? For practitioners of sports other than heavy lifting, it is again, a near-perfect match in many cases and can be practiced, with benefits, for years.


Our mission is to take the _principles_ of successful lifting program and distill them into _practical applications_ for the rest of us. No one at StrongFirst is suggesting that everyone should train like a full-time weight lifter or powerlifter.


I find men in kilts throwing trees odd. Powerfully swinging a kettlebell, on the other hand, seems quite normal and is quite widely accepted - more than girevoy sport, I'd venture to say.


There is nothing wrong with the idea of functional training, only with some of its implementations. Criticizing the idea of training having a function is like criticizing the idea of a burger as food - there are many poor examples, but should not condemn the entire category.

Alright, that was fun to do. Thank you, @Sean M . I'll probably regret it, but it was fun nonetheless.

-S-
Thanks gents!
 

Nate White

Level 1 Valued Member
This has been an interesting thread. I think some questioning of a methodology is healthy, but you have to be darn careful about what criticism you pay attention to, especially if it's coming from someone with limited or no experience with the method they're criticizing.

Whether StrongFirst's methods and kettlebells are the right tool for a particular individual all depends on the goals of the individual. Where kettlebells shine is in their versatility. You can do so much with just a few or even just one.

Kettlebells are an "ok" conditioning tool, but aren't the most effective strength-training tool (barbell is). I think it was worded: if you want mediocre levels of strength and conditioning, kettlebells "deliver". If you want superior conditioning, run. If you want superior strength, barbells.
In response to the post above, I want to paraphrase something I got from Dan John (I don't remember if it came in person or from one of his books): "The human body doesn't know the difference between a barbell, a kettlebell or bodyweight. It only knows load, tension, effort, etc."

My belief and experience is that kettlebells and StrongFirst's methods are highly effective for making people stronger and more resilient. Whether this applies to someone's specific goals is for them to decide.
 

Marino

Level 6 Valued Member
People promoting cardio activities (rowing or running) will say that the emphasis on strength is less good for the heart than cardio, and the conditioning you get from kettlebells is inferior to the conditioning you get from cardio activities.

Of course there's nothing to stop you doing strength and cardio work and the sort of conditioning you need to lug beer barrels up flights of stairs or do heavy work in the garden / moving house etc. is quite different from the conditioning needed to do a 10k race.
 

Jak Nieuwenhuis

Level 6 Valued Member
This is an odd thread.

Of course Strongfirst programs are limited to some extent.

Are you looking for confirmation that it is an imperfect system, or..?

It's like any other tool. Or a backpack, or a car, a knife.. You pick these things not because they are perfect, but because they get the job done. Style and method come down to personal preference.

Does Naked Warrior work to make you stronger? In my experience, yes.

Is it immune to criticism (flawed)? In my experience, no, it is not immune.

Do kettlebells build more strength than barbells or bodyweight? I'm sure for some people, some of the time, in some seasons..
 
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