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Academic Preparation for the SSC

by Nicholas Soleyn, SSC | July 25, 2018

troupos teaches the model at a starting strength seminar

The Starting Strength written exam is the second step in the evaluation process that identifies and certifies Starting Strength Coaches (SSCs). The certification process begins when you opt-in to the platform evaluation on Friday night at the Starting Strength Seminar, signaling that you are fully prepared to demonstrate your coaching ability and your academic preparation for the entirety of the process. Upon passing the platform evaluation, no mean feat, you will receive the exam and the clock starts running. You have 2 weeks to complete and return it. As I hope this article will impress upon you, this is not a lot of time to complete your task. Passing the platform evaluation without already being prepared to sit for the exam means you are too far behind to catch-up. The time for preparation ended when you opt-in.

The exam tests the SSC candidates’ knowledge of the Starting Strength methods for coaching and programming, their experience applying these methods in their coaching practice, and their depth of understanding as demonstrated through the logical application of the scientific and theoretical principles upon which the Starting Strength methods are built. You are expected to demonstrate a mastery of the Starting Strength subject matter in the written exam commensurate with the professional level of coaching these methods that you must demonstrate on the platform.

Accordingly, your academic preparation should be similar to that of a masters-level student in a narrow field of study. The master’s student develops both a general knowledge base and a contextualized understanding and application of that knowledge through study and practice. For this exam, you will need to have studied all the materials that present the core of the Starting Strength methods, considering and applying these principles in real-life – for your own training and others’. Where your knowledge may have been lacking, either in study or in real world application, you will have learned, studied, and thought about these things. The exam tests these principles through your ability to analyze them and present your answers, both in the context of barbell training and in the abstract of the principles on which they are based, requiring that you demonstrate logic, skill, and creativity in how you consider their application.

For most SSCs, this education began with Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd ed. Many people pick up the book for the purely selfish reason of wanting to get stronger. Some actually do what the book says and experience this inevitable outcome. Some fewer still go on to read Practical Programming for Strength Training, 3rd Ed., and, perhaps, get the coaching bug, deciding to help other people get strong too. Of this group, some of us completely geek out, go completely down the rabbit hole, and study these materials with the intent of becoming a Starting Strength Coach.

The high standard for attaining the SSC credential comes out of this fact: A certification’s value accrues from the people to whom it is attached. As a group, the Starting Strength Coaches are professionals who place practical effectiveness above convention, fad, or theory, and they are constant students of this very narrow subject matter. And each coach contributes to the group’s knowledge base in some way.

This standard requires the SSC to have a level of expertise that far exceeds those who have been merely exposed to the materials – those who have read the books to make themselves stronger, and seminar attendees whose goals are to improve their own training. The SSC candidate must demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the core materials and all related available information, including SS:BBT, PPST, all the freely available information online through StartingStrength.com, and all the information presented at the Starting Strength Seminar, as well as the skilled application of that knowledge and the ability to discuss the underlying principles creatively. This is the basic standard for the evaluation process as a whole.

If there is anything that this article should impress upon you, it is the need for intentional preparation and the readiness to sit for the exam when you show-up to the seminar to try and pass the platform evaluation. You do yourself a disservice by only preparing for the coaching assessment.

To help drive this point home, here are a few observations I’ve made about the written exams that I’ve graded these past few years: The Starting Strength written exam has about a 50% passage rate. And that is after having culled the number of candidates down into a small number of people who were skilled enough at coaching to pass the seminar platform evaluation. Moreover, the word count for passing exams ranges between 15,000 and 35,000, and is heavily skewed in favor of the longer exams. That comes out to an average of about 1,500 edited well-thought out words per day over the two-week examination period. For reference, Stephen King, one of the most prolific modern novelists, writes 2,000 words per day.

Knowledge

Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training and Practical Programming for Strength Training offer contextualized knowledge of how to get people strong using barbells. From the coach’s perspective there are two basic aspects of the process of getting strong: Coaching and Programming.

Coaching is the process of developing correct loaded human movement in a trainee.

“A true physical coach is a teacher who uses a model as the basis for the instruction of a movement. A model is developed by establishing a set of criteria that serve to create the most efficient and effective movement patterns for the purpose of that movement.”
– Dan Flanick

Coaching is a constant process, given the day-to-day differences in the weight on the bar, the combination of exercises, the trainee’s energy level and mental attitude, and the myriad external and internal factors that affect a person’s ability to make his body do what he wants it to. There is a learning curve. Deviations from correct are larger at the beginning of the coaching process, and the execution of the lifts improves as coaching and practice accumulate. In training terms, coaching guides the execution of the acute stress in the stress/recovery/adaptation model of training.

As Jim Wendler told the SSCA in his 2014 keynote lecture, “Training is like tacos. You have your meat, cheese, beans, and the tortilla. The basic elements are the same. Training is like that – you squat, press, bench, deadlift, and power clean. The difference between good and bad tacos and the difference between good and bad training is the quality of the ingredients and how you put them together.” The quality of a trainee’s movement allows for predictable loading and predictable responses to loading. The quality of programming – the way in which we manipulate stress, accommodate recovery, and use the adaptation process – helps ensure continued progress as the lifter adapts through training.

In contrast, programming guides the cumulative effect of training. It is the on-paper manipulation of variables that directs the adaptive process for accumulated improvement over a period of time (“on-paper” because actual training will not adhere to the planned program 100% of the time). How to address deviations from the plan lies in the coach’s experience applying sound programming principles to meet the lifter’s needs. Both coaching and programming are necessary for an individual’s efficient long-term progress – coaching, because it allows us to rely on a consistently-applied stress and a therefore-predictable response to that stress, and programming, because it considers the training history of the individual and controls the stress to ensure that adaptation continues to accumulate as the individual advances.

platform work at a starting strength seminar

Knowledge begins in the context of its application, and that context will guide your study into the general principles that better help you understand it. Here are two examples: First, the model for each lift includes knowledge of mechanics and anatomy. You do not have to begin with a broad understanding of anatomy (though it helps), but the models in Starting Strength will expose you to anatomical terms (proximal and distal, medial and lateral, abduction  and adduction, etc.) and the major muscle groups involved in each lift. This should guide your study: What do these terms mean and how do I use them correctly? What are some of the details of each of these muscle groups – origin, insertion, and function? And your skeptic’s mind should be asking why you might really need to know these things if your goal is just to lift better and become better at helping others lift.

Second, everyone can sit down and write out the Novice Program – it’s in the book you have read. Fewer connect together the basic principles of exercise science that the books expose you to, along with with the architecture of programming derived from the basics of stress/recovery/adaptation, to arrive at the Novice Program and its appropriate applications. And an even better understanding of these principles is demonstrated when the individual trainee requires personalized deviations from the program that must remain based on the principles of stress/recovery/adaptation, and then tempered with your experience and your own study-acquired understanding. 

The Exam

Testing the candidate’s knowledge of coaching and programming means testing that which makes Starting Strength Coaches the best at what they do. For example, the definition of a coach, used above, requires a model. You should expect to thoroughly demonstrate an understanding of the models used in the Starting Strength Method for the basic lifts – the squat, bench, deadlift, press, and power clean. The models are based on a mechanical analysis of the lifter and the barbell as a two-part system operating in a gravitational framework, an understanding of the basic physics principles of leverage, gravity, the concepts of Center of Mass and Center of Balance, and the relationship between the two. They describe the most efficient performance of the lifts, and why this is the case regardless of individual anthropometry.

The ability to demonstrate this knowledge on the exam comes from having already deconstructed the Starting Strength models of coaching into their basic principles, examining them, restating them to your satisfaction, and then painstakingly explaining them in a way that allows them to be understood – from the most basic premise to its logical conclusion. In the following example, an explanation of why the bar must be over the middle of the foot includes a discussion of gravity, mass, leverage, work, force, and their relationship to movement, mechanics, and balance. A series of possible premises from which to proceed might look something like the following:

  1. Weight on the bar is the measure of the force of gravity acting on the mass of the loaded barbell.
  2. Weight is a function of gravity pulling the mass of the barbell toward the earth’s COM.
  3. Gravity’s pull occurs in a straight line from the barbell’s COM to the earth’s center.
  4. This gravitational force vector operates in a straight vertical downward direction, perpendicular to the level floor.
  5. The weight on the barbell is therefore only the vertical downward force of gravity’s constant pull on it.
  6. The barbell will move in a straight vertical line downward unless force is applied to the barbell. This force may be the “normal” force of the ground that resists the force of gravity, or the force generated by the lifter.
  7. Both normal force and lifting force are calculable based on the weight of the bar.
  8. Work in this context is defined as the Force applied to the load multiplied by the Distance the force moves the load: W=FxD. Since the force (gravity) being opposed is vertical and not horizontal, all work performed is also vertical and not horizontal.
  9. Within the lifter-barbell system, movement of the barbell is a direct function of the force applied to the mass of the bar by the lifter. Horizontal movement requires force production that is not involved in doing work on the bar.
  10. Force not applied to moving the bar vertically through a given ROM reduces the force available to move the bar vertically.
  11. Reduced force available to move the weight vertically reduces the system’s ability to move the load.
  12. A vertical bar path is therefore the most efficient way to do work on the load.
  13. The major premise: “Correct” for any lift includes an execution model that allows the lifter to lift the most weight over the movement’s ROM, given the bar’s position and the fixed constraints defined by the movement.

One could go further and discuss other issues that force you to consider the principles built into the model that apply outside the context of barbell training. For example, as we look at leverage and moment arms, it is easy to understand that moment arms operating in a gravitational framework are measured horizontally from the point of rotation, like a hip or knee joint, to the position of the barbell. A more advanced understanding involves the relative angle of the segment of the body in question, its length, and the way these factors are manipulated to influence moment force. These concepts apply to physical work in any context, and often have a bearing on the use of tools other than the barbell.

Every question in the Starting Strength Exam must be answered to its fullest extent. For example, take again the issue of the bar path over the middle of the foot. Every single person who has read SS:BBT and/or attended a seminar knows that the bar must be over the middle of your foot. Most will also understand that this is “efficient” or “balanced.” Few will be able to explain why the bar must be over the middle of your foot based on a correct definition of gravity and how it works. Those who do will be well on their way to a good answer on the exam.

You should have built your knowledge base by thoroughly investigating each aspect of each model and why they are designed the way they are, and you should have the tools to construct your own explanations of them all. By breaking down the model into its constituent concepts, from theoretical basis to practical application, you learn more about what you’re going to teach. When you understand how a wrench turns a bolt, it helps explain why we squat the way we do, how this squat looks different for varying anthropometries, what deviations from the model do to its performance, and why it is necessary get your trainee to move correctly.                                                                       

Creative Application. Problem Solving.

On the written exam, skill is much more difficult to test. Indeed, the written SSC exam only looks at markers of skill, like experience, leaving actual skill to be evaluated during the Platform phase of the seminar. A highly skilled coach has experience with a wide variety of clients, from the young, underweight kid to older or detrained adults. Any skilled coach will approach masters lifters differently than high school athletes: your expectations will be different even though the basic process for getting them strong is essentially the same. Skill can therefore be tested by presenting a variety of training scenarios and judging the candidate’s responses.

The SSC exam tests creative application and problem solving. A significant part of the ability to resourcefully apply knowledge, experience, and intelligence to a problem usually comes from what you learn by questioning the material. Beyond simply learning about it, you must apply some level of critical examination to it, deepening your understanding of it through questioning it. Very plainly, in order to fully understand something, you must have spent some time trying to tear it apart.

For coaching – the ability to communicate in a manner that produces correct movement – this means that you must have spent time thinking about the models we coach, as well as the process of coaching them: What coaching is or is not? What makes a good coach? What makes you a good coach?

For the Starting Strength Coach, it means having spent time critically examining how we coach. For example, we use step-by-step teaching methods. Every person who has sat for the SSC exam knows these teaching methods, but simply reciting them word for word does not demonstrate sufficient understanding to pass the exam. Rather, the SSC candidate should understand why the teaching methods work under a model-based approach to coaching. Ideally, SSC candidates should understand the coaching of movement well enough that they can formulate their own teaching methods if this is made necessary by a particular client’s situation.

Few Starting Strength Coaches would have trouble teaching any barbell lift that is not one of the core lifts. Loaded human movement may be complex, but it is consistent within the constraints of gravity, balance, and the barbell. A good coach knows this and understands how to apply the information about coaching to a wide variety of movement problems. This ability, although intellectually dependent, is also intimately tied to coaching experience – something that can only be acquired with time and effort on the platform working with trainees.                                                                        

Programming

There is less call for creativity in applying programming principles, because programming does not require anything close to the level of personalization that is necessary to solve movement problems for different anthropometries and different levels of movement skill. The stress/recovery/adaptation cycle is dependent on human physiology, and there is far less variation in human physiology than there is in human movement, human anthropometry, and individual human ability.

We know what works optimally – especially for novices – from hundreds of thousands of applications, and we try to keep people as close to optimal as possible. Doing back flips to accommodate a non-optimal situation usually means that you will have gone too far afield from what we already know works to be considered effectively or efficiently training. Almost everybody is a special snowflake with respect to their movement under the bar – almost nobody is a special snowflake with respect to their programming for the first couple of years.

There are instances when clever or creative solutions to common problems are necessary. For example, quite often a masters lifter will be unable to perform a full squat on day 1. In this case, we cannot optimally train for strength, since squats are optimal, but we can arrive at a squat within a month or two by “bending” the rules. We must consider the limitations of standard barbell equipment and plan to use the things that are required to get the job done. You might consider changing the sets and reps and frequency of training. For situations like this, the details of both exercises and programming must be altered – and can be altered without abandoning the basics of stress/recovery/adaptation.                                                                       

Identifying Issues in the Exam: A Trigger Warning

Perhaps the most common pitfall to which I have seen SSC candidates succumb is the failure to properly spot the issues presented in the questions. If you do not thoroughly analyze and discuss all the issues presented by the question, you can answer correctly but fail for being incomplete – recall the word count and the length of successful exams. Issue spotting is an exam technique that tests your working knowledge of all the materials covered by the examination.

An “issue” is any fact or factual inference, any concept, or any observation that requires a thorough discussion or analysis to communicate complete understanding. For example, I can say about squatting that “The most efficient way to move the bar is in a straight vertical line.” To the well-prepared Starting Strength enthusiast, this statement begs the question: it basically says that the most efficient way to move the bar is efficiently. To fully communicate the idea behind this statement, you would have to define “efficient” with a complete analysis. Your knowledge of the underlying materials should cause words like “work,” “gravity,” “leverage,” and “force” to drift to the front of your brain. Again, a prepared SSC candidate should be able to write several pages explaining this statement, if necessary. Certain words should act like hooks or triggers that require in-depth analysis and explanation.

Every statement of position contains a proposition or collection of propositions. This is true whether we are discussion the weather or talking about barbell training, with certain general terms being used in ways specific to the subject at hand – “jargon” as it were. A “squat” may be the simple act of lowering yourself down and standing back up while keeping both feet on the ground, or it may be a collection of specific reference points, angles, and conscious movement, depending on the audience. Recognizing the issues  that require explanation means having enough knowledge to identify these propositions and discuss them.

For example, “Joe is a novice” is a simple declarative statement that contains several propositions. Specifically, that there is such a thing as being a “novice,” that novices are somehow different in ways that are important enough to understand, that Joe is of that class, and that defining that class may be important when making programming decisions for him. A novice has a very specific definition in Starting Strength-speak – it is a person who can recover from a training stress in 48-72 hours. It does not mean a person who is weak, untrained, or bad at controlling his body under load, although these things may also be true. The assertion that “Joe is a novice” is a specific statement about his training capacity based on the stress/recovery/adaptation model for programming, and the training variables that arise from that model: exercise selection, frequency, sets and reps, and general organization.

Practically speaking, any knowledgeable coach who prepares to train a detrained elderly client for the first time will know by the person’s age that several issues may come up within the training session. Older people’s ability to perform these movements, how different anthropometries affect the movement, and their initial strength levels will affect how you coach that person. Their physical condition, training history, and their age and sex will affect how you program their training. Changes and accommodations will probably be necessary, and those must be guided by your knowledge and experience, which trigger the ability to spot these issues quickly and correctly. And unfortunately, knowledge and experience must be earned. The hard way.

SS:BBT carefully crafts each exercise model from the most basic physical and physiological principles. Read or listen to the materials from the website. And answer the questions “Why do we squat in the first place?” or “What is strength?” to your satisfaction before you ask “How do we squat properly?” These major premises drive much of what we do as Starting Strength Coaches. Begin to think and write based on your developing understanding of the basic principles that inform the model and you will be well on your way. 

Good luck!


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