Earning the SSC Certificate from Abroad

by Steve Ross, SSC | May 26, 2021

scott acosta coaching at a starting strength seminar

The Starting Strength® brand is growing. With new franchises opening up and more in the pipeline, the demand for competent coaching has never been higher. The bottleneck for growth, however, has always been the certification process — which is reflected in the relatively small number of coaches who have successfully made it through. Rip has said on numerous occasions that the standards for earning the credential will never be lowered just so that the number of coaches can continue to grow. Sure, it would be better if there were SSCs in every city, but doing so at the expense of cheapening the credential will never be an option.

That said, over the last few years, various changes have made the journey towards the SSC credential more accessible to potential candidates. From the prep course and coaching development camps to the apprenticeship program, anyone who is serious about becoming a coach now has a clear path toward making that happen. However, while the prep course is available worldwide, there are currently no coaching development or apprenticeship options available abroad, so international candidates face a steeper climb. If you’re looking to get this done, and you’re not living in the US, it is going to be harder.

Currently, there are only a handful of SSCs outside of the US and only a few on the European continent – but the demand for coaching here remains high. I’m originally Canadian and the only SSC living in Belgium, and I had my credential for all of 10 days before email requests for coaching starting to land in my inbox. People want competent coaching, and they seek out SSCs because the credential is widely regarded as the highest valued in the industry. The reason for this is simple: it’s the hardest credential to earn and people recognize that fact.

In this post, I’m going to explain how I got this done from abroad and hopefully help my fellow non-American friends give themselves the best chance to succeed. Remember, my path was a bit unconventional because of the distance. Between the cost of the seminar (plus opt-in fee), flights, accommodations, food, etc, this is not a trip to be made if you’re only “kind of” prepared. If you factor in a time change as well as the pressure of performing on the platform while jet-lagged, you need to be as ready as possible.

1. Read the books. All of them. Several times. For those of you who are brand new to this, the books are Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd edition (by Mark Rippetoe; the blue book), Practical Programming for Strength Training 3rd edition (by Mark Rippetoe and Andy Baker), and The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After 40 (by Jonathon Sullivan and Andy Baker). When you’ve read through this rather dense material several times (this will take some weeks), do yourself a favor and read them again. Every time you do this, you’ll pick up something new that you previously missed, or something will click that didn’t quite make sense before.

I can’t stress this enough. Mastery of the foundational principles of anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics is a must if you’re going to apply the model to people who have trusted you to make them stronger. If you’re planning on taking people’s money, you owe it to them to actually know what you’re doing. Scour the website and YouTube channel and devour as much information as you can. Everything you come across will have some value.

2. Sign up for the prep course. This one was huge for me while I was preparing for my platform evaluation. The staff has taken all the material you need to know and broken it down to more than 20 modules that makes the learning process easier for students. You’re getting a streamlined version of the major principles you need to know to be a professional strength coach, and you’ll be expected to complete written and video coaching assignments each week. The best part of this is that each student will be assigned a mentor to help guide them through the course. They are there to correct your mistakes (and you will make plenty of those) and teach you how to be a better coach every single week.

You’ll get immediate feedback on your work and they go out of their way to make themselves available to you. My mentor, Scott Acosta (head coach at Starting Strength Memphis), let me pepper him with questions for months and we scheduled more calls than he probably cares to remember while I was preparing for my evaluations. He was instrumental in my passing and I couldn’t have done it without his help.

3. Actually train. Regardless of how well you know the material, or how well can regurgitate something you heard on a podcast, if you haven’t spent serious time under the bar then this isn’t going to work. There are some things about coaching a thing that can only be learned by actually doing the thing yourself. If you don’t know what it’s like to be scared to try the 5th rep because the previous one was the hardest thing you’ve ever done, then you haven’t actually trained. If you haven’t actually trained, it stands to reason that you cannot ask someone else to do something hard that you have never experienced yourself.

This means you need to go through the LP – and I mean seriously go through the LP and get into more intermediate programming. If you’re not a competent, experienced lifter, it will be much more difficult to recognize deviations from correct technique in the lifters you’re coaching. This is a recipe for being exposed as unprepared at the platform evaluation, and you will not pass. Submit videos to the message boards at Starting Strength Forums for form checks whenever you can. All of the coaches there have seen at an ungodly number of reps in their lives, and they will probably see something that you don’t. This is an invaluable resource, and you would be wise to take full advantage of it to better your own lifting.

4. Coach. This is the by far the biggest roadblock to people successfully passing the platform evaluation. On game day, you’re most likely going to be given the most challenging lifter in your group, and you’ll be expected to coach them at the same level as the coaches on staff. This is no mean feat – the margin for error is very small and you may have to solve complex problems with your lifter, in real time, and find solutions quickly. All of this is done in a high-pressure situation where you won’t have endless attempts to figure things out. A decent coach can successfully get people moving according to the model, but a good coach — and one that may pass the platform evaluation — needs to be able to do this quickly and efficiently.

The only way to prepare for this is to get as many people in front of you as you can, prior to making the trip to attend the seminar. When I attended my first one in Boston in 2019, I did fairly well, but I just hadn’t coached enough different people (with different bodies) to give myself the best chance at passing. On my way there, I was convinced that I would do well because I had prepared as much as I could, or so I thought at the time. When I returned to Brussels four days later with my tail between my legs, I started offering free workshops every week to anyone who wanted to learn how to lift correctly. What this did was expose me to five new people each week and allowed me to home in on different issues that I hadn’t seen in the clients I was coaching regularly.

A few months of doing that put a lot of new lifters in front of me and I felt significantly better prepared for when I made the trip back across to Las Vegas for the second attempt. The bottom line is this: you need to coach a lot of lifters before trying to pass the platform evaluation. You can know the theory inside and out, but the first step in the certification process is the actual coaching, and experience doing this must be gained on your own. This is the one thing that they cannot help you with. They do not make coaches at the seminar. They identify the ones who already are.

5. Study. If you successfully pass the platform evaluation, pat yourself on the back because you’re one of the roughly 12% who do, and you are now halfway home. With that out of the way, all that stands between you and your credential is a two-hour oral board where you will have to articulate to the coaches on the call your understanding of the model, anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and programming. You’ll usually have a few weeks to prepare and if you’re anything like me, you would do well to find someone who is willing to listen to you talk about everything you’re learning. I retain information more effectively when I verbalize what I’m studying, so I spoke about it to literally anyone who would listen.

I re-read the entire prep course numerous times and practiced answering questions that I thought may come up on the oral board. I went into this exam with a stockpile of visual aids that I had acquired during my studies. I had a white board and markers ready to draw if asked, plus several wrenches, a scapula and a spine and pelvis on hand just in case. Three coffees later and I was ready for the 2:00 a.m. Zoom call with a panel of very smart people looking to find out what I knew. Trust me: prepare for this call as much as you can, because you’re not going to want to do it a second time.

Once you’re through the oral board — meaning the team is satisfied with your understanding and your articulation of the model is where it needs to be — then you will have finally earned your SSC credential. With this title comes the certainty that people will reach out to you seeking your services, and you will be recognized as an expert in your field. You’ll have successfully separated yourself from the vast majority of people in the industry, and you’ll be able to command a premium rate for your expertise.

I know there will be some people who read this article and ask themselves if it’s worth it. “Can’t I just train people with a very basic understanding of my job?” “Can I get by with a certification comprised of an online, multiple choice test, that didn’t require an actual demonstration of coaching real people, in real time under the scrutiny of experts in the field?” “What about those certifying bodies that boast they certify thousands of new trainers a year?” Yes, you can take those routes, and it would make you a part of the vast majority of fitness professionals. I spent several years in a facility where that was most certainly the case, and it became very difficult to be in that environment after a while. Plus, in all the years I was there, I had never received one request for coaching outside of the facility. The Starting Strength Coach credential is the only one that generates calls for coaching on a regular basis, and it’s because people understand its value and how hard it is to earn. Since then, requests come on a regular basis from people all over Europe – and I can assure you this is the norm, not the exception.

You’re looking at a bare minimum of a year, but mostly likely closer to 1.5 to 2 years to get this done. The amount of time needed to gain the necessary experience coaching the model can be extensive and there are people who have taken even longer than this. Becoming a Starting Strength Coach is very hard, and it requires time, commitment, and of course effort. But, as we like to say, easy doesn’t work.  

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