Life after the Service with Starting Strength Gyms

by Inna Koppel, SSC and Jacob Pearce, SSC | March 22, 2023

inna koppel and jacob pearce recruiting veterans for starting strength gyms

"The military is really high and really low," recounted Starting Strength Coach Jacob Pearce, formerly an infantryman in the United States Army's 101st Airborne Division. "You don't get this nine-to-five job where everything is the same every day, right down the middle. You get these great best days of your life, followed by the worst days of your life."

Historically, combat veterans have experienced grueling difficulties after returning home. According to the Pew Research Center, only 1 in 4 service members leaves the military with a job lined up [1]. In addition to homelessness, veterans struggle to find or maintain jobs. Not every veteran aspires to venture from military life into security or law enforcement. Starting Strength Tampa's Head Coach Jacob Pearce understands that.

Pearce worked as a mechanic for marine boats upon exiting the Army. “Being an infantryman who is trying to be the best, trying to be something different, to be somewhere different…I felt like I was wasting my time,” said Pearce. He observed the lackadaisical, careless attitudes of his employers and coworkers. Pearce found the work devoid of meaning and purpose. “I started to get real empty, unsure what I was doing, where I was going from here.”

An onerous sense of dread crept into Jacob's life: “I was pretty much on my last straw. I've gotta try something else. Everything I've been trying has given me nothing. I was extremely depressed. My anxiety was taking over because I didn't know what I was doing. I was unable to support my family. My mental health was down.” Pearce used his GI bill to attend an educational program for personal trainers to anchor himself mentally.

Pearce began writing strength training programs for clients. A wise instructor noticed Pearce's aptitude for programming strength training. The instructor allowed Pearce to borrow his copy of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd edition. Reading the squat chapter, Pearce resonated immediately with the book's approach.

“I was progressively getting weaker at the school, doing all these personal trainer things. All these isolation movements, balancing on a ball, and all this other stuff. Every time I tested my max squat or my max deadlift, it would be lower. I was concerned,” said Pearce. But he noticed a marked change when he did the Novice Linear Progression for himself. "Within a month, I was setting personal records on everything. For five reps, not just one. All my old one-rep PRs were now for five reps."

Pearce met Starting Strength founder Mark Rippetoe at a squat camp and saw a new goal for the future – becoming a Starting Strength Coach. “I went from gym to gym looking for a job and brought the book with me and my portfolio from school. I told them that I don't know if you guys know what this is, but hire me. This is what I'm gonna do.” Pearce secured a job as a personal trainer at Zone Athletic Club in Denver. “I told them that this is what we're gonna do, and this is what it's gonna do to you. And every single client that I trained with Starting Strength saw improvement.”

One of Pearce's clients, a 74-year-old man named Greg, was experiencing pain in his knees and back. “He could barely squat halfway down without pain, without falling off balance.” Pearce used modifications like the box squat to show Greg how to perform a correct squat. Every time Greg came in he would say, “Man, I can't believe my knees don't hurt anymore. I got out of bed yesterday with no pain.”

But the COVID-19 pandemic found Pearce and his wife moving to Florida – he had lost all the clients he worked with in Denver. Pearce found himself disheartened and in need of direction. He listened to an episode of Starting Strength Radio. In episode #90, Rippetoe spoke with Jon Miller. A former Army infantryman, Miller later created Outlaws, Inc. to help veterans transition from combat to civilian employment.

“At the end of the podcast,” Pearce remembered, “when they started talking about veterans transitioning out, Rip made a very specific statement: “A lot of these guys join the service probably because they had a rough childhood. Probably had an abusive parent. So they decided to join the Army because they didn't know what else to do. Then they decide to get out and still don't know what they're going to do. Then they end up with depression and all these other problems. When you could have just had a plan.”

“Well, I guess he's talking to me,” Pearce laughed. Pearce had to leave his wife and children behind to find a gym offering a Starting Strength apprenticeship: Starting Strength Austin. “It was just as life-changing as when I first discovered the Starting Strength book. I was overwhelmed with all these new people,” said Pearce. “But I'm not a quitter. I'm gonna do this thing.”

Pearce has walked the path from Apprentice to Coach and is confident in how well-suited the apprenticeship is for veterans. “The apprenticeship is actually set up like the Army sets up your progression to becoming a non-commissioned officer (NCO). They don't really care how strong or fast you are. You show up as a Level 0, like an Apprentice. If you make it through that, you're like a Level 1. They understand that you're not a coach, but you're not brand-new. And it goes up from there. You're not a private anymore. You're a specialist or a corporal if you're lucky. But ultimately, if you want to be an NCO in the Army, you have to sit in front of a board of Sergeant-Majors who are going to ask you questions about your job. That's what I did in the Army. I became an NCO. I went from knowing nothing to knowing a little bit to helping train a little bit, to being an NCO.”

Jacob Pearce started with nothing in the personal training field and has ascended to one of the highest-paid positions in personal training. He signed up for an apprenticeship and received a response almost immediately. “I completed the form, and Head of Recruiting Inna Koppel got back to me on a Saturday,” said Pearce, “And then by the following Tuesday, I had back-to-back interviews with coaches across the country.” Pearce began his apprenticeship in Austin under Starting Strength Coach Nicole Rutherford. “She was one of the few people who had an immediate open position for an apprentice,” Pearce explained.

Following his tenure in Austin, Pearce worked at other Starting Strength locations in Boston, and in Orlando under Head Coach Pete Troupos. Upon completing his Platform Evaluation, Pearce became certified as a Starting Strength Coach, this enviable achievement is one that fewer than 200 people possess in the entire country. As of April 2023, Jacob Pearce will serve central Florida as a Head Coach at Starting Strength Tampa.

“Jacob’s story is almost universal, and we can do something about it,” says Jon Miller. He has worked with dozens of transitioning service members through his company Outlaws Inc. and as the director of employment for the ETS-Sponsorship Program. Over the past two years, Miller has guided Starting Strength Gyms to become one of the first national level apprenticeships recognized by both the Veterans Administration and the Department of Labor in the fitness industry. “As an SSC, you can really have a positive impact on the world. I think that’s why it’s ultimately so attractive. Now that it is GI Bill eligible, everyone wins: It’s a viable career path with purpose.”


1. Parker, Kim et al., "The transition to post-military employment," Pew Research Center, September 10, 2019, The transition to post-military employment

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