A Starting Strength Devotee’s StrengthCon Experience

by Katelynn Barbosa | May 02, 2018

On April 6, two hundred of us Starting Strength devotees and diehards descended upon Wichita Falls, Texas for StrengthCon I. This was our moment to meet some of the most influential minds in Starting Strength and barbell training. This was our chance to train at the Wichita Falls Athletic Club, sit in on talks about important concepts in Starting Strength, meet other barbell people, and take the pilgrimage to our Mecca.

My name is Katelynn Barbosa, I have been training at Chicago Strength & Conditioning, a Starting Strength gym, for the past year and a half, and I am one of the 200 Starting Strength devotees who attended StrengthCon. I would like to share my experience with you by offering my four big takeaways from the conference:

1. Barbell People Are the Best People

While attending the talks, training at Wichita Falls Athletic Club, and, of course, having the privilege of spending time in the majestic state of Texas were all meaningful experiences, hands down the best part about StrengthCon was socializing with other barbell people.

strengthcon socializing

Where else can you freely engage any person you come across with the full confidence that your ears will remain unburdened with talk of the benefits of running? Where else can you join a table of strangers at your hotel for breakfast and break the ice by asking everyone what their favorite lift is? Where else can you squat in a gym full of people without being accosted by someone informing you that the barbell is too low on your back? Where else is everyone around you seemingly only aware of the existence of whiskey as an alcoholic beverage?

In my experience, StrengthCon is the only place. It is a wonderful place to be. There were people from all walks of life: young people, old people, male people, female people, and even skinny people. And everyone was so welcoming that even the skinny people didn’t feel marginalized. (Although a friend of mine said that he felt a macroaggression had been committed against him when he went to purchase a Wichita Falls Athletic Club T-shirt and it was suggested that a size small would fit him the best.)

Beyond deriving enjoyment from being around “my people” for a weekend, I feel that I made some long-term friends who I can now enjoy rooting for (thanks, Instagram) and who will motivate me in my own training for years to come.

Here are a few of the characters I met at StrengthCon:

Frank Sanders, a 66-year-old former navy seal training in Atlanta who can deadlift 476 and squat 376.

frank sanders

(Yes, he is as badass and as awesome as he looks in this picture.)

Renee Mathis, a grandmother who recently deadlifted 250 for 3 and trains in the Houston area under Andy Baker (Left, below). Bill Zeier, who squats 300 for three sets of five and trains in Colorado (Right, below).

strengthcon attendees

Bill and I shared a squat rack while training at Wichita Falls Athletic Club, which in case you didn’t know, is the fastest way to become friends with someone.

Marie Kunkel, a Starting Strength Coaching Intern and Starting Strength Online Coaching staff member, who trains and coaches, out of Iron City Athletic Club in Greensburg, PA. Marie is squatting well into the 250s for multiple reps.

I am quite confident that I will feel the impact of a weekend of interacting with Frank, Renee, Bill, Marie, and all the other fine folks I met at StrengthCon for a very long time.

In fact, I have already begun to feel those effects. Since returning to my training after the conference, I feel, more than ever, that I am training in a worldwide (I met a guy who flew all the way from China to attend StrengthCon!) community of lifters. One day just a week after the conference, I had to take a hellish 6AM flight and when I arrived at my destination, I felt like I had nothing left to give. But I found a gym and completed my training anyway, even matching my press PR for only the second time ever. As anyone who has engaged in barbell training understands, the process of training builds up the grit you need to dig your heels in and refuse to miss training, even when you’re exhausted.

But an extra motivator that made my training a little less miserable that day was the magical motivational atmosphere at StrengthCon. I knew that Frank, Renee, Bill, Marie, and countless others I met that weekend would find a way to get their training in if they were in my position and I knew they were rooting for me. So I got my butt in that gym and got my reps in.

2. Training with a Starting Strength Coach (SSC) Is Indispensable

The rigorous process for evaluating Starting Strength coaches guarantees a high quality product, so working with a coach will optimize your programming and training. This seems pretty obvious, but attending StrengthCon enabled me to see it for myself. Because several StrengthCon attendees were interested in becoming Starting Strength Coaches, the process for obtaining the SSC certification arose as a frequent topic in multiple forums throughout the conference. Here are facts I learned about the SSC evaluation process at StrengthCon:

  • Niki Sims explained that 20% of people who opt in for the SSC platform evaluation are successful, and of those only 50% write a successful exam.
  • Successful candidates read tons of books. At a minimum, Rip recommended buying a specific anatomy book and having a strong command of both Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training and Practical Programming.
  • Written exams must be many pages in length to have any chance of success.
  • It was stressed repeatedly that any potential SSC must get hours of experience on the platform coaching people or they will surely fail their platform evaluation.
  • During the platform evaluation, the powers that be will make sure to give the SSC candidate the most difficult client at the entire seminar when they evaluate their coaching acumen.
  • Official channels for better preparing potential coaches are in the works.
  • The standards for obtaining the SSC certification will never be relaxed “as long as Rip is alive.”

strengthcon discussion

Beyond these facts, I also talked to several people at the conference who were working toward obtaining their SSC certification and got to hear about the quest from their perspective. Everyone I spoke with who is working toward their SSC said that priority #1 is doing whatever it takes to coach several hours every week and get feedback from an SSC on their coaching. This emphasis on actual coaching experience gives me tremendous confidence in the SSC certification, and that emphasis doesn’t exist anywhere else in the fitness industry. By the time someone earns their SSC credential, I know I am getting more than just book-smart. SSCs have spent many hours watching people lift, solved movement problems associated with several different body types, and learned how to cue and motivate lifters effectively. That’s the kind of ally I need when I get under the bar. 

I can belabor the stringency of the SSC certification all day, but no experience can highlight the indispensability of getting coached by an SSC like the experience of training at Wichita Falls Athletic Club with a gym full of Starting Strength devotees. I saw so many people improve their form tremendously in such a small period of time solely because an SSC had eyes on them and gave them feedback in real time.

I believe the reason the WFAC experience was so beneficial for so many people was that the majority of StrengthCon attendees had not received in-person coaching from an SSC before. I think people were mostly reading the book, trying to follow it, and teaching themselves the lifts. For many people fitting that profile, they were so elated by the experience of actually getting competent coaching, it seemed like they were under the influence of drugs.

For the rest of us who routinely work with an SSC, either in person or online, the experience of training at WFAC was still incredible because we got the benefit of multiple new coaches’ eyes as well as the thrill of soaking in the atmosphere of a room full of motivated barbell people. Indeed, there was a woman on the SSOC coaching panel who had been getting coached online for a year, WFAC was the first time she had ever trained with an SSC in person, and she was absolutely effusive in her expression of how amazing it had been to train at WFAC earlier that day. I almost believe that if you came out to StrengthCon and only participated in the training session at WFAC, it would be worth your money.

3. It Has Never Been Easier to Access Starting Strength Coaching

As great as it is to get coached by an SSC, the vast majority of people are not able to access in-person coaching very frequently. This became quite visibly obvious when during the final talk of the conference, SSC Ray Gillenwater asked the room of two hundred how many of us train in a Starting Strength gym three times a week with coaching from a Starting Strength Coach and I was one of maybe a dozen people that I saw raise their hand. This isn’t surprising given that only 23 Starting Strength gyms exist in the world.

For those who are not as lucky as I am to live within half an hour of two Starting Strength gyms, Starting Strength Online Coaching (SSOC) is a godsend. Matt Reynold’s talk on SSOC and the subsequent panel discussion made me almost jealous that I only get in-person coaching for the following reasons:

  • A great deal of care is put into matching you with the best coach. If there is an SSC within close geographic proximity to you that you could make time to see once a month, they will match you with that person. They are also really good at matching personalities and have had to re-assign people to new coaches only a handful of times.
  • SSOC is composed of a community of SSCs and they don’t operate in silos. They communicate daily, ask each other for advice on lifters they are coaching, and all of them benefit from the wisdom of everyone else.
  • SSOC has access to all of the data and wisdom gleaned from coaching hundreds of clients for over a year, which they are using to find the best practices in coaching.
  • All of the coaches who participate in SSOC also coach lifters in-person, which is necessary to get feedback on whether their cues are working in real time.
  • It is also worth noting that many SSCs gets regular coaching from another SSC and more often than not, that coaching is done online. My coach, Karl Schudt, is coached by Robert Santana. Robert Santana is coached by Matt Reynolds. I heard Cassie Niemann say on her podcast that she is coached by Alex Kennedy.

Of course, in-person coaching is the best possible option but because it is so hard to get the SSC certification, there are not a lot of SSC coaches so Starting Strength Online Coaching provides a really great second best option.

strengthcon q&a session

4. K.I.S.S.

In my years as a Starting Strength devotee, it has become clear that simplicity is the central foundational principle that underlies every part of the Starting Strength program.

I first detected this principle when reading Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. When you get started in the program, what do you do? Three sets of five, adding five pounds to the bar every session. This is a very simple process. There are no percentages, you don’t decide the weight on the bar today based on your perception of how hard it felt two days ago, and there are only five barbell exercises and maybe chinups.

As I have delved deeper into learning about the Starting Strength methodology, I have continued to see this principle everywhere. The lifts are taught with a very simple method that uses as few steps as possible, cues are short so the lifter can process them while lifting, and once you no longer adapt to the novice linear progression, your SSC does not make a huge shift from one program to an entirely unrelated program but instead makes small adjustments in your current programming to ensure continued progress.

Then, I got to see simplicity in action at StrengthCon and it had a profound impact on me.

I was sharing a squat rack with two guys at WFAC. One of the guys on my rack was on his first novice linear progression and was squatting. Rip saw him complete a very difficult, grindy second set at 225 and came over to coach him. The guy wanted to deload the bar to 185 for this third set and Rip, with the same confidence and matter of fact tone that comes through in his writing, instructed him to keep the bar loaded at 225 and just focus on keeping his knees out this time.

I thought to myself “That’s in the book,” thinking how nice it was to see the advice given in real life right in front of me by Rip himself. Rip coached the guy through that third set, giving the knees-out cue, and all five of his reps at 225 were near perfection and fast. “So next week, put five pounds on the bar and do 3 sets at 230,” Rip stated in the same tone anyone else would say, “If you drop an object, gravity will make it fall to the ground.”

“As if it is that simple,” I thought. Oh, but it is…if you stop making excuses, nut up, do the work, and follow the program. 

And that visceral insight will empower me in the gym forever.

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