Going to Where the Clients Are

by Rebecca Fishburne, SSC | July 24, 2019

coaching the squat in a commercial gym

Individuals who seek out Starting Strength Coaches generally know what they want. These are the types of clients I encounter when I work at Fivex3 or who contact me via the Starting Strength website. These individuals are all in; they know the program, have read the books, and listen to the podcasts. More often than not, they have begun a linear progression on their own and are looking to refine their approach. They already speak the language of Starting Strength.

A larger portion of the clients I encounter are those who work with me at a local, commercial gym, the sort of place with several rooms dedicated to cardio equipment and muscle isolation machines, and only one decent squat rack for general usage. Most of the women there (and plenty of men) want to be thin and “toned”, so they focus on cardio and light weights to achieve that goal. Some of the marketing for group fitness classes and for various trainers boasts “No weights! No bulk!” – basically a foreign land and a foreign tongue.

While the attitudes in the commercial gym can be frustrating at times, the cool thing about being an SSC in this setting is that I have an opportunity to translate Starting Strength for people who don’t speak the language, many of whom have never heard of it and have never even considered lifting anything heavy. Here are three approaches I’ve used with varying degrees of success:

Set the Example

I do half my weekly lifts in the local, commercial gym, which as you might imagine is sometimes inconvenient, irritating, and comical. As a result, I’ve had many interesting conversations with gym members about barbell training in general, form on particular lifts, and programming. It’s surprising to realize how much just being visible and doing the lifts can affect other people. Two interactions really drove this point home for me. One regular cardio-enthusiast in his mid-50s was in the weight room one morning doing abs. He had a lot of questions about what I was doing and about my exercise recommendations for him as he aged. In the course of our conversation, I suggested that he read The Barbell Prescription. When I saw him the following week, I was surprised to hear that not only had he ordered the book, but he had finished reading it and had also ordered SS:BBT. He was astounded that everything he thought he knew about fitness was wrong, and he decided he needed to get stronger. (He was hogging the one good squat rack when he told me this.)

A different day when I was in the squat rack, I noticed that a woman about my age was watching me as she did many reps on one of the many machines. She was also a regular gym-goer, taking multiple group fitness classes per day and sometimes swimming or working on the machines in addition to the classes. Later she contacted me and asked if I would coach her on the barbell lifts. She told me she had always been interested and impressed by barbell training, but that it had seemed out of her league: “I did not see it as something an ordinary person would do.” As SSCs working in strength-based communities, it’s easy to forget that this view is actually fairly common.

Three years later, Lora still trains with me, and the positive impact this training has had on her life has been immense. She has built muscle and strength, but she has also redefined her attitude toward food, exercise, and her body image: “I was always limiting my calories. I think this was the main reason my body was in a fitness slump. I did not eat breakfast and was not getting enough protein. No more size zeros for me, but that’s okay. I’m working to get my body in the shape it’s meant to be, and I feel the best I have in years. I know I’m strong. I know I’m healthy. I have a positive self-image, and I’m working to stay that way, one lift at a time.”

Point People in the Right Direction

In my role as a general personal trainer, I get plenty of clients who don’t really know what they want. They know they need to “get healthier” or “get fit” but they aren’t sure how to get there, let alone what exactly that means. In helping them to more accurately define their goals, I explain the role of strength in a healthy, active lifestyle. That is usually a pretty easy sell. Given that these are not individuals who have come to me with the express purpose of learning the barbell lifts, I also try to assess their initial openness to using barbells.

rebecca fishburne bench hand-off in a commercial gym

Strangely, there are loads of people who believe barbells and heavy weights in general are dangerous, best left to younger folk, only for professional athletes, or are just for men. I’ve had my share of amusing exchanges with people who realize halfway through expressing such views that I train with barbells, and who then try to walk back those statements with amendments like, “Well, uh, I didn’t mean you.” If no such views are expressed, I briefly explain the benefits of barbells and the Starting Strength method. Often all I need to do is point them in the right direction and then give them some time to think. The Starting Strength resources speak compellingly for themselves.

I’ve learned to slow down and not assume that people have heard of Starting Strength before. In my initial consultation with Mylan, I thought I was being clear. I described the Starting Strength program for him, and he was interested. As someone who disliked going to the gym, the time-effectiveness of what I described appealed to him. I got him started with a linear progression, and he enjoyed tracking his progress. Eventually he began his own internet research on barbell training, and it wasn’t until then that Mylan realized that Starting Strength was “a thing.” It turns out in our initial meeting he thought I was saying “Start a strength program.”

If a potential client has a compelling enough reason for seeking out training, often simply providing information about Starting Strength is all that’s needed to get them started. One woman in her early 50s came to me for help after having been diagnosed with osteoporosis. The shock of this diagnosis at a relatively young age was compounded by the fact that her identical twin sister had normal bone density. She knew that weight training and some nutritional changes could help, but didn’t know how to start. A conversation with me about Starting Strength and a follow-up viewing of Shaun Pang’s video “Reversing Osteoporosis” was all it took to get a thin, vegetarian, yoga instructor under a barbell and to consider ways to add more protein to her diet.

Be Willing to Speak Their Language

Sometimes a potential client is sold on the idea of building strength but still harbors prejudices against barbells or even lifting anything they perceive as heavy. These are clients whose program may consist of bodyweight squats, raised kettlebell deadlifts, incline push-ups, and the like. All of these variations can be progressively overloaded, will make them stronger than jumping around in random patterns, and will allow them to experience the benefits of strength in their own lives. The reality is that in a commercial gym setting many clients may never want to touch a barbell; they may likely never do anything remotely approximating the Starting Strength method. But they also need not lay on a mat next to a trainer who has diagnosed them with butt amnesia and is telling them to think about activating their glute med. I have sold them on the goal of strength, and in the words of Lloyd Christmas, I think, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance?”

The first step often is building a working vocabulary. For starters, people need help redefining what is possible. Being the example and sharing stories of the masters lifters we train in the Starting Strength method helps to shift their perceptions. Many people have accepted the notion that becoming weak and feeble is an inevitable part of aging, and sadly some imagine a very low chronological threshold for when this process will begin. It’s hard to aspire to strength if you don’t believe it’s possible.

Sometimes, I have to rename exercises, to speak in language that is familiar to the client. One client insisted that she could not squat: “My knees … my doctor said….” You know the story. She was at a point physically where a bodyweight squat to a high box was the best option, but she could not bring herself to do it. A few inches into the descending movement, she would stand back up again insisting that she couldn’t squat. “No problem,” I finally told her as I pulled out a desk chair. “I won’t ask you to squat. I just want you to sit on this chair.” After “sitting to a chair” successfully for a couple of sessions, the client was willing to rename the exercise a squat.

People also frequently need help redefining the word “heavy.” I often translate gym weights into terms a general fitness client can more easily relate to, like a bag of dog food, a case of water, or a squirmy child. One woman who regularly performed zillions of squats with a 15-20# kettlebell looked at me wide-eyed and kind of fearful when I handed her a 36# kettlebell and asked for five reps. “Do you really think I can do that? It’s so heavy,” she said in a voice that conveyed her honest belief that my request was impossible. When I asked how much her kids weighed and if she picked them up, something clicked for her. She produced five squats that helped her redefine “heavy.”

Sometimes a client will surprise me. When Jenny started training with me she had several medical concerns and no intentions of barbell training. Her training sessions generally occurred before or after that of a client following the Starting Strength method. As time passed the dumbbell she held for her squat became heavier and more cumbersome; she started telling me how it was just her arms that were tired with each new and heavier weight. I sympathized, and occasionally I told her how much easier it would be to hold the weight of the barbell. One morning Jenny walked in, pointed to the squat rack and just flat out asked, “When are you going to teach me how to do that?” Now a low bar back squat is part of her regular program.

Not everyone comes to me speaking the language of Starting Strength with a clear understanding of the logic and science behind the exercise selection and programming. Often my role as a Starting Strength Coach in a commercial gym setting is to translate what we know works into a few words or phrases that a client can understand and implement. Some clients may never become fluent; some may continue to work in their native tongue. But even if a client never “does the program,” I have found that being willing to meet people where they are and to speak their language opens the door to life changing results.

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