Bill Starr Biography: How he Revolutionized Strength Training and Conditioning

bill starrCoach William A. Starr had an enormous influence on athletic training, and his workouts, in both their original and modified forms, still remain popular today. Coach Starr is credited with the creation of what has become the modern strength and conditioning industry. With nicknames ranging from Poppa to Starr-Man to Crazy, Bill Starr has earned the affectionate respect of his followers for his strong emphasis on effort. He taught athletes that hard work matters just as much – if not more – than native talent. Athletes everywhere have experienced a revolution in training because of his methods.

Bill Starr’s Career

Bill Starr began his life as an athlete, but later became a coach and writer. He was one of the original pioneers of York Barbell in the 1950s, and he was both a powerlifting competitor and an Olympic lifter. He went from being an Olympian to being a coach. He coached an Olympic team and also served as a coach and strength trainer for college athletes at SMU, the University of Hawaii, the University of Maryland, and Johns Hopkins University.

Coach Starr worked with the professionals, too. In fact, he became one of the very first strength and conditioning coaches in the National Football League. In 1970, he went to work for the Baltimore Colts in that capacity, and he also worked for the Houston Oilers.

In addition to being an athlete and a coach, Starr was also a writer. In fact, he helped kick off the idea of the training article in sports magazines.

He moved to York, Pennsylvania in 1966 to work as an assistant editor for Strength and Health magazine. He has also written for Iron Man, MILO and numerous other magazines. Starr is perhaps most famous for his 1976 book The Strongest Shall Survive: Strength Training for Football. Another of his titles, Defying Gravity: How to Win at Weightlifting, is a book about the art of power lifting and how to prepare for contests. These two fitness books cover everything from reps, lifts, and sets to nutrition, injury, and sleep, and they have been the bible of many weightlifters and contact sports athletes.

Starr even took a foray into fiction writing, with a bulky 725-page tome called the Susquehanna River Hills Chronicles.

The 5X5

Coach Starr is perhaps best known for his invention of the 5X5 workout, which has been modified to suit beginners, intermediate lifters, and advanced lifters. The original workout is still used by many.

Under Bill Starr’s 5X5 routine, weightlifters start out on the first day (typically a Monday) with heavy lifting. The routine is as follows:

  • 5 sets of 5 power cleans
  • 5 sets of 5 bench (the lifter adds 10 rep sets after the first eight week on the program)
  • 5 sets of 5 squats

Bill-Starr 5x5 workoutThe lifter increases the weights from set to set by ten to twenty pounds. So, for example, he might start with 5 power cleans at 125, then 5 at 145, then 5 a 155, then five at 165, and then 5 at 185.

Each week, the lifter increases the power clean and bench by five pounds and the squat by ten pounds, but only if he has successfully completed the required number of reps the previous week.

This first heavy day is meant to set the pace for the entire week. The remainder of the week will depend upon what the lifter accomplishes on this day.

The second day is a rest day. The third day, which will be Wednesday assuming the routine is started on Monday, is a light lifting day. Lifters use the weight from the third set on day one as the top weight for day three. The lifter then engages in the following exercises:

  • 5 sets of 5 power cleans
  • 5 sets of 5 incline bench presses
  • 5 sets of 5 squats

The fourth day is another rest day. On day five, which will be Friday if the routine was started on Monday, the athlete pursues a medium lifting routine. This means using the weight from the fourth set on day one as the top weight and engaging in the following exercises:

  • 5 sets of 5 power cleans
  • 5 sets of 5 overhead presses
  • 5 sets of 5 squats

The Big III

Coach Starr also developed what is known as the Big III workout, which is a 3X3 power training routine. The “three” refers to three specific exercises – squat, bench, and dead lift – conducted on an eight week cycle in two phases. The goal of the first, high volume phase is to improve coordination, build muscle mass, and enhance technique. The second, competition phase is geared toward increasing power and strength and improving the lifter’s technique with the use of heavy weights.

Lifters first figure out what their maximum is in each exercise and then add 25 pounds to the squat, 15 pounds to the dead lift, and 10 pounds to the bench press for a projected maximum. Take that projected maximum (PM) figure and use the following formulas to calculate the weight for week one:

  • squat: 0.58 X PM
  • deadlift: 0.58 x PM
  • bench press: 0.58 x PM

Each week, the multiplier changes, so that it is 0.6 for week two, 0.62 for week three, and 0.64 for week four.

Phase II is a bit more complicated. The lifter will need to use different multipliers for different days and weeks, as outlined below:

Week 1

  • squat: day 1 and 2, 0.6 x PM; day 3, 0.8 x PM
  • deadlift: day 1, 0.8 x PM; day 2 and 3, 0.6 x PM
  • bench press: day 1, 0.6 x PM; day 2, 0.8 x PM; day 3, 0.6 x PM

Week 2

  • squat: day 1 and 2, 0.6 x PM; day 3, 0.85 x PM
  • deadlift: day 1, 0.85 x PM; day 2 and 3, 0.6 x PM
  • bench press: day 1, 0.6 x PM; day 2, 0.85 x PM; day 3, 0.6 x PM

Week 3

  • squat: day 1 and 2, 0.6 x PM; day 3, 0.9 x PM
  • deadlift: day 1, 0.9 x PM; day 2 and 3, 0.6 x PM
  • bench press: day 1, 0.6 x PM; day 2, 0.9 x PM; day 3, 0.6 x PM

Week 4

  • squat: day 1 and 2, 0.6 x PM; day 3, 0.95 x PM
  • deadlift: day 1, 0.95 x PM; day 2 and 3, 0.6 x PM
  • bench press: day 1, 0.6 x PM; day 2, 0.95 x PM; day 3, 0.6 x PM

For more details on Bill Starr’s workouts, including spreadsheets for calculating sets, reps, and cycles, see:


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