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Strength in Recovery: Variations on the Ripptoes Workout

By James Parker

For many people involved in the weightlifting and strength-training aspects of fitness, including mixed martial artists and those that train in MMA, the name Ripptoes is synonymous with not only increasing your personal lifting records, but also in gaining a better physique. This routine is a deceptively simple template of few sets, short reps, and compound exercises—but it is endlessly adaptable to multiple training programs, and it can be a real training lifesaver at this time of year in particular. First, let me introduce the man and the program; then I'll show you how you can make it (pretty much endlessly) your own.

Mark Ripptoes
First a little background on Mr. Ripptoes. Mark started as a competitive power-lifter during the late 1970s and into the 1980s. He competed in many Olympic-style lifts, including the clean and jerk and the snatch. Mark was trained and coached by such notables as Bill Starr, Dr. Kilgore and Jim Moser. Although he believes he was not a great competitor, his abilities as a coach were never in doubt. He has been coaching strength and power athletes since 1980 and was one of the very first to take the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) test in 1985; he's been certified by them ever since. He was also certified as a USA level III weightlifting coach in 1988 and is currently certified as a senior coach, since 1999. Beyond authoring and co-authoring five books, chiefly popular among them Starting Strength (www.startingstrength.com), he still actively coaches national and international athletes, and individuals aspiring to be the same, at seminars nationwide and at Midwestern State University in Texas.

The Novice Program
The most famous of Mark’s ideas and training routines, and the one I’ll refer to in this article, is the novice program. The original program, which has been altered over time to reflect changes in modern athletic science (and which I will go over later), goes in a two-day pattern of workouts A and B. As one would suspect, the workouts alternate days, shifting back and forth consecutively during the five-day “work week” (Monday to Friday), with a day off from training in between workouts. In essence, Monday would be workout A, Tuesday a day off, Wednesday workout B, Thursday again off, Friday repeat workout A. Originally workout A consisted of three sets of five repetitions of the barbell squat, followed by the same for bench press. You would add a final single set of five reps for the last exercise: deadlifts. Workout B consists of the same three sets of five reps for the squat again, followed by three sets of five reps for the overhead dumbbell press, finished by five sets of three reps of power cleans. All exercises usually have two warm-up sets before the working sets, with weight much less than the proposed work weight. Mark often is quoted as explicitly reminding people not to add any other exercise (which would include arm exercises) to the routine, being that by itself this routine will develop the muscle size and strength you would want.

Here's what a Ripptoes novice workout would look like:

WORKOUT A
Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Reps Recovery
Squat Legs, back, core 3 5 60 seconds
Bench Press Chest, shoulders, arms 3 5 60 seconds
Deadlift Chest, shoulders, arms 3 5 60 seconds


WORKOUT B
Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Reps Recovery
Squat Legs, back, core 3 5 60 seconds
Overhead Dumbbell Press Shoulders, arms 3 5 60 seconds
Power Clean Lower Back, Core, Arms 5 3 60 seconds

Variations on a Theme
As I stated before, Mark himself alters the workout based on an individual’s response, both positive and negative, to his routine. In many cases, for the A workout he will change the deadlift from every other routine to alternating between deadlifts and power cleans, and changing plan B’s finish to three sets of 10 or five sets of 10 reps of back extensions. This routine plan is referred to as the Onus Wunsler Beginner Program. He also states that at this point in his progress, a trainee can and should add chin-ups or pull-ups to two of the days during the week, added at the end of the routine. Obviously, with five books out, he expounds on the basic plan into more extensive routines, but for the sake of what I wish to accomplish with my trainees and clients, as well as myself, keeping to this basic plan with very few alterations fits best.

Strength Training as a Recovery Plan
For myself and many of my fight training clients, it is around this time of year that they find the stress of making weight for the summer, keeping weight down in anticipation of the holidays, as well as the undo stress the holidays usually bring, is starting to take its toll. Most notably to me is the fatigue and lack of oomph they display before and during activities. Whether you believe in it or not, to me it’s a sign that they are “over-trained”. Over-training isn’t just something that happens in the gym based solely on how hard you’ve been training, it’s also a physiological response to a collection of other stressors. Something to note is that when the nervous system is over stressed, the physiological reactions that occur are similar to what happens when someone becomes a coach potato. A stressed body is one that is no longer operating at peak efficiency and so begins to operate at emergency thresholds—storing fat, retaining water, elevating heart rate for longer periods or during rest. Your body is a high performance machine that when put through its paces and taken to its limits also periodically needs to be allowed to idle.

What I recommend is a different style of training than the usual high-rep, high-set, or even high-volume circuit-style training. This is where Ripptoes and similar workout routines come in. This style of workout is designed to hit the body exactly the right amount to trigger growth, without over-taxing the nervous system. Many people feel incorrectly that workouts such as these will add too much mass or even worse, leave the body fat alone to keep collecting. However, one of the things about this routine is that by working your muscles harder in a shorter amount of time, your body can better process the food you take on—without negatively impacting your much-needed recovery. Ripptoes doesn’t allow you to rest unduly, as the shorter rep ranges dictate that you constantly try to increase your strength levels. Remember that Mark was a power-lifter, and so his routine is based on the principles of increased weight through full (or nearly full) body, compound movements (like what you’d accomplish in a circuit routine, but using fewer exercises in less time), to increase favorable body composition, muscular strength, and bone density.

Recovery Variations
After you have tried the Ripptoes Novice Program for at least a couple weeks to see where and how it might fit your physique, personality, and lifestyle, you can then alter it fit you better. One way to alter the routine is through the set ranges. Instead of keeping the sets at three, we take the two warm-up sets and make them not only mandatory (as I know many people completely blow off anything called warm-up), but make them a five-rep scheme as well. In addition, we add four more sets to the deadlift, while making it a once a week exercise along with the power cleans, changing the second A workout to include a bent-over row (indirectly targeting the lower back while attacking the latissimus and other upper back muscles). Also, now the bench (considered ineffectual for athletic training by many because of the restrictions a bench can have on scapula rotation) becomes a weighted front dip for workout A. For myself, instead of an overhead press for workout B, I insert a 20- to 30-degree incline bench press to target the same muscles that one uses to throw a punch. I also change the squat range to the top 20 to 40 degrees to maximize strength in the area where a kicker needs power. I also alternate between bent-over rows and power cleans with weighted-sternum pull-ups.

Another variation you can do to not only ramp up recovery but also keep your strength up is to lower the number of sets to two and add a second exercise in either superset fashion (drastically reducing the weight), or as merely a second exercise to take up the slack of the missing sets for one day of the week. Basically you are still doing the requisite five sets, but now are hitting two different exercises for the area worked. For example I might do three sets of dips (the first being a progressively heavy warm-up) for five reps, followed by either two sets of incline bench as a superset directly after each set of working weight dips, or by themselves as a separate grouping. The two sets instead of the typical three to four tends to help keep the stress to the nervous system down, while the superset of a different exercise for the same muscle group allows for a broader range of muscles to be stimulated. Another variation I’ve added to a couple clients that also train in MMA is a full-range bodyweight squat down to a step (or in our case an overturned tire) about a foot or less off the ground immediately after the heavy five-rep squats at 30-degree range. The short range, as I’ve stated above, is for functional, sports-specific strength increases, whereas the full range is to completely hit the lower body without too much overload to the nervous system.

Finish
So to finish, keep in mind that this is still a hard program, whether you do Mark Ripptoes original novice plan, or my variations to it. It is not like you are taking time off. You still need to eat well and get your rest. Hopefully you will have more days off from your usual weight routine, which should allow for your body to recover appropriately, while still enabling you to progress in your physique sculpting and/or your athletic endeavors outside the weight room. Make sure you fully understand the exercises described here before attempting them and do so with a weight load you can easily handle to get a feel for these exercises before moving up to weight that is more appropriate to the routine. For obvious reasons, a recovery style of routine needs to have safety as a first consideration. If you have particular injuries or problems with your body that make specific exercises unavailable to you, don’t be afraid to substitute exercises that fit you better as I’ve done in the examples above. For more on Mark Ripptoes, Bill Starr and their programs, please visit www.startingstrength.com. As always, be safe and have fun.

About James Parker: James Parker is a certified personal trainer, mixed martial artist, mixed martial arts conditioning coach, and freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.