First Year of an Affiliate

by Steve Ross, SSC | March 14, 2023

steve ross coaching a lifter on the deadlift

Over the last few years, the Starting Strength brand has been growing at an incredible rate. Driven largely by the launch of franchise gyms, there are now 19 locations open and a dozen more in the pipeline. I suspect it won’t be long until most people who are serious about their training will have one of these gyms to visit on a regular basis.

The reason for the rapid growth is simple: this stuff works to get people stronger, and it works better than any other method out there. Rip has laid out a blueprint for performing the major barbell exercises for long-term, even life-long increases in strength. People recognize its value and the science-driven body of work that comprises the method, and these gyms are busy. All of them.

Outside of the franchise locations, there are a small number of additional facilities where trainees can have access to a Starting Strength Coach, excellent equipment, and do the program in a fantastic training environment. There are 13 Starting Strength Affiliate Gyms in operation and, as you might expect, the vast majority of these are in the United States. All of them have one or several SSCs on staff, and like the franchise locations, they are also busy.

Outside of the US, the only three affiliates are in Mexico, Singapore, and Belgium, and I am fortunate enough to own the latter.

My business partner and I opened Brussels Barbell in the summer of 2021, making it the first ever Starting Strength Affiliate Gym in Europe. The city was and still is packed with facilities that do just about everything except get people stronger. There are commercial gyms, “functional training” and kettlebell gyms, Body Pump classes, and of course, CrossFit. Simply put, if you want to waste your time and money at a gym, Brussels is a great place to do it. Everywhere you look you can find fitness white noise, confusing messages, and unqualified professionals having clients squat on Bosu Balls or roll around on the floor. I have even come across a studio that advocated “deadlifting” with up to 8 different stances, including staggered and front-foot elevated with a trap bar. Seriously, this is a thing – I can't make this stuff up.

Our motivation for opening the gym in Brussels was two-fold. Firstly, we wanted to create a place where people could cut through the bullshit and specifically train for strength. Secondly, we wanted to spread the Starting Strength method as much as possible. I’ve spent my entire life in gyms and tried just about everything you can think of, and nothing came anywhere close to getting me as strong as Starting Strength has. It works. It works every time it’s applied correctly, and I have seen this with literally hundreds of people who have walked through our doors.

Our results speak for themselves. Every person in this gym is considerably stronger than when they first arrived, and are now able to do things that seemed unfathomable to them on day one. But here’s the thing: these things only seemed impossible to them. We knew this would happen, we told them it would, and we cheered along as it unfolded. That’s the best part about doing this! The results are predictable, and happen for everyone, every time.

From the first day we opened, not one week has gone by where an email or call hasn’t come in from someone living outside of Belgium, willing to make the trip to Brussels. Every time they do, it’s always some version of the same line: “Finally, there is an SSC in Europe!” Some are absolute beginners who are looking to learn lifts, while others are already training and want to come in for a form check. Regardless of their motives, one thing never changes: they know about Starting Strength and their understanding of its value motivates them to hop on a plane or get in their car to travel to the capital of Europe.

I want to stress that these visits rarely, if ever, have anything to do with me individually as a coach. Sure, I earned the credential, but in this case, we win by default. Anyone in Europe who is looking for help from a Starting Strength Coach must come to Brussels. The reach of this method is more expansive than most of us probably realize, and my colleagues who work remotely can attest to that.

From our first day as a new gym, I was confident that people who were familiar with Starting Strength, and even those who had randomly come across it on the internet, would stop by to train with us. While the most serious would plan family trips around our availabilities to host them in our gym, again, we can take absolutely no credit for this. That is the strength of this brand and how it has become the most widely known strength training method on the planet. What I was more curious about, however, was how the people who came to us with no knowledge of this would react to starting the program.

You must understand that when people first hear about what we do after being in commercial gyms or CrossFit boxes for years, it can be a hard sell. Trying to explain that three sets of five is all they need at the beginning raises every eyebrow in the room. The skinny gym bros who are used to two-hour leg days are skeptical (to say that least) that the goals they seek lie not in sets of 12-20 on eight different exercises, but simply 15 hard reps of a correctly performed squat, 5 lb heavier than last time.

Typically, females aren’t sure why we tell them that they can and should lift heavy, just like the guys in our gym. When it’s been drilled into fitness culture for decades that light-weight high-rep isolation work is more appropriate for them, it can take some convincing on our part and a lot of trust on theirs. Older people are often terrified of doing anything hard and heavy because they’ve been told that walking will suffice as they continue to age. They’re understandably afraid of getting hurt, and old backs and cranky knees can be major roadblocks to taking the plunge and getting started.

We’re fighting an uphill battle, but once we get them started and they stick with it for a few weeks, we’ve enjoyed the same results with everyone, every time. Across the board, and no matter where or when they started, every person in this gym feels better and looks better when they get stronger. It doesn’t matter how they found us or what their motivation was for first walking through the door, they all come back saying the same thing.

They start to appreciate the decision they’ve made to voluntarily do hard physical tasks every week. They appreciate the logical nature of the process and the accountability their logbooks (which we make them keep) provide to them. They fall in love with the process that they have complete control over, because they can always choose to show up and get under the bar. Bad backs don’t hurt anymore, poor posture is remedied, and sore knees feel better after doing what seems so counterintuitive to them; they squat, press, bench press and deadlift.

It’s not because they’re stretching, foam rolling, getting massages, or working their “core,” but rather because they’ve gotten their bodies stronger than they’ve ever been before. They are now able to produce significantly more force and do things they previously couldn’t do. All we did was show them how to move correctly, loaded these anatomically normal movement patterns with a barbell, and added a little more weight each time. These small jumps in weight, over time, produce enormous gains in strength – and it changes, quite literally, everything about that individual.

There’ve been an increasing number of signals that we’re on to something with our gym and with Starting Strength in Europe. First and foremost, in December 2022, we were able to expand our gym and double the floor space. We’ve gone from five racks to nine, and have been able to add a space for general conditioning when it becomes appropriate. Expansion after just 16 months is something we can certainly be proud of, and we’ve worked very long days to make this happen, but the key to what we’re doing is the product and environment we’re providing to our lifters.

We’ve also hosted four Starting Strength training camps and each one has sold out. Again, we win by default, but the speed at which the spots sell lets us know that a lot of people around Europe are hungry for strength training, are eager to learn and are willing to travel long distances to get proper coaching. On top of that, more and more coaches around Europe have started contacting us about potential apprenticeship opportunities. As Visa requirements for foreigners in the US can be tricky and time-consuming, and spots at a franchise gym are hard to come by, our gym is the next best option.

Brussels Barbell is full of lifters of different ages, abilities, demographics, and anthropometries that can substantially increase the learning curve of potential coaches. Our three current apprentices (one Portuguese, one German, and one Bulgarian) are seeing and coaching hundreds of reps from dozens of lifters every day. They are all getting better at a markedly faster rate than they would have working one-on-one as personal trainers on their own.

The first year and a half has been a bigger challenge than we anticipated, but also a far more rewarding one than we imagined. There is now a community of people from all over the world who convene at Brussels Barbell to train for strength, forge new friendships, and cheer for each other’s accomplishments – often outside of the gym too! We promised them all that we would teach them a method of strength training that delivers results. All we ask them to do is show up, get under the bar, and give it an honest effort. This has taken all of the guesswork out of the equation and given them a clear path to continual progress. We’re not messing around with the latest fads and trends or making promises that we can’t keep. We know Starting Strength works because it always has and always will. Very few people in Brussels knew about Starting Strength, but that’s changing – quickly.

Starting Strength is now firmly planted in Brussels and just yesterday, a 14-year-old teenager high-fived the 64-year-old for her new deadlift PR. Seriously, how cool is that?

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