With a 622-pound squat, 396-pound bench and 633-pound deadlift, Mark Rippetoe wasn’t the strongest lifter in his day. That said, his knowledge has resonated with athletes for nearly 40 years. A strength coach and author of “Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training” Rippetoe believes that a barbell is the only tool you need to improve sports performance, pack on muscle, and get super strong. Check out what “Rip” has to say about “functional fitness,” and how to become a  stronger, more advanced lifter.

Muscle & Fitness: What defines a novice, intermediate and advanced lifter?

Mark Rippetoe: Somebody that’s really strong can’t get much stronger easily but somebody who’s never trained before can get stronger quickly. A novice hasn’t progressed very far towards their physical potential and can recover from the stress of one workout in 48-72 hours. By recover, I mean the body adapts to a specific overload event (the workout) in order to be able to lift more weight in the future. You’re only a novice for about 6-8 months then you’re intermediate. Strong and adapted to stress, now it takes heavier weight and more volume to overload, and recovery from heavier weights and more volume takes 5-7 days. An advanced athlete will likely be a competitive weightlifter and it may take a month or more to accumulate and  recover from the stress of an overload.

How many exercises should the intermediate lifter be doing per workout?

People trying to be strong need to use eight exercises their entire career. We select exercises based on their ability to use the most muscle mass over the greatest effective range of motion. We don’t balance on Bosu balls with one foot behind us and one in front with 10-pound dumbbells in our hands because that doesn’t cause adaptation to occur. It’s not hard enough.

What is the best way to get conditioned while trying to build strength?

Although a novice gets in better condition by getting stronger, there’s a role for conditioning in the post novice athlete. The Prowler is the most useful conditioning cool because it doesn’t have an eccentric component and therefore doesn’t cause inflammatory soreness response.

Is there a role for direct ab work for core strength?

Weighted situps can be a productive exercise for somebody who has never hurt their back. If you tweak your back, avoid situps and back extensions forever. Conventional wisdom is that by doing situps and back extensions we strengthen our core, but I would ask you to reflect upon situps and back extensions versus a 500-pound deadlift for the strength of muscles that keep the spine still.

What role does sports specific training for a competitive athlete?

There should be no attempt made to make strength training look like your sport because that waters down the effectiveness of the exercise you’re trying to do to obtain strength. There is no such thing as sports-specific strength training. The most efficient way to acquire strength is the way you acquire strength. Then, practice on the field with the movement patterns in which you use the strength as applies it to the sport.

What are your thoughts on this functional fitness trend for the general population?

Functional training isn’t as effective as barbell training because the loads are too damn light. It’s not being done heavy enough to constitute training but it’s not similar enough to sport to constitute practice. Functional training is an exercise method that places the balance problem ahead of the force production problem. Practice is the execution of movement patterns that depend on accuracy and precision in performance circumstances. Throwing a ball, shooting your pistol, swinging a racquet, all must be practiced. Training is how you get strong. Performance is what happens on game day.

Aside from “Starting Strength Basic Barbell Training,” what other modern strength programs do you like?

The only other one I like is Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 program. It’s an excellent late intermediate and advanced program. The rest of them use too many exercises and don’t understand why any effective strength program must be predicated on the strength, adaptation, and recovery cycle.

Rippetoe’s Top 3 Strength Tips for Starters  

1. Driven by Hips

The squat is a hips exercise. To most effectively use your hips, point toes out at 30 degrees and shove knees out so they stay parallel to your feet. Throughout the squat, look at the floor four feet in front of you and drive vertically with the hips.

2. Be Balanced

When setting up for a deadlift, place your feet in a position so the bar is one inch away from your vertical shins. The bar will be directly over the middle of the foot, which is the center of balance for the pull.

3. Straight to Press

At the top of the overhead press, shrug traps upwards to lock the bar out. It is anatomically impossible to impinge the shoulder in this position.