Starting Strength Changed My Life

by Ray Gillenwater, SSC | March 04, 2020

ray gillenwater transformation before and after starting strength

I’ve always been wary of zealots that are convinced they have the solution to life’s problems. Not necessarily because I doubt their own personal experience, I simply doubt the validity of any claim that’s not empirically verifiable. I’m a skeptic by nature and it would be hard to find a more committed evangelist of Starting Strength than me. 

What’s the difference between “chakras” and Starting Strength? The effects of Starting Strength can be studied, measured, and reproduced. You can see for yourself what I looked like before I did the program, 85 lbs ago. For more evidence, I can also introduce you to my above-average-at-computers-but-below-average-in-athleticism brother that is now referred to as the “strong guy” by his Jiu Jitsu classmates. You can meet my wife (whom I met thanks, in part, to Starting Strength) and she'll show you how, at ~125 lbs, she can squat 185 lbs for reps, isn’t “fat,” and as unfeasible as it may sound to mainstream fitness followers, she would be described (by them especially) as “toned” and not “bulky.” And more notably, she’s capable of navigating life’s daily physical tasks with or without my assistance – like unloading bulk food items after a trip to Costco. 

I can tell you story after story, including one about my close friend Brandon, a former Crossfit coach, my sparring partner, an ex-football player, a dad, and someone that’s been suffering from chronic back pain for most of his adult life thanks in part to how much he and I enjoyed life in our 20s. After successfully convincing him of the virtues of the Good Book (the blue one) he’s completed his Novice Linear Progression and is setting lifetime PRs instead of worrying about his back.

Then I can tell you the secondhand stories. Trainees that have reversed type II diabetes, or have recovered from catastrophic injury (like falling off a roof), or those that have reversed osteoporosis, as well as several other physical and psychological turnarounds that if claimed by any other organization, I’d be instantly suspicious. And that’s one of the most important qualities of Starting Strength: it represents the people’s values that built it. Rip and Stef are purpose first, business second. Their quality and integrity standards are rare, and thanks to decades of consistent behavior, the community understands that any concept, product, or service that Starting Strength releases will have been thoroughly thought through, and will solve an important problem. 

So yes, there’s a touch of fanaticism among our adherents, me included, but our zealotry is firmly grounded in empiricism. I am conscious of this when I tout the benefits of Starting Strength to my ex-colleagues that ask me why I left a lucrative career in tech to open Starting Strength Gyms  across the country. I fully acknowledge that when I explain how we are the only ones in the industry that do what we do, and that we can create drastic physiological changes in any living human, that I sound like someone who's just discovered homeopathy. That’s okay, because if the conversation happens to be face-to-face and I haven’t seen this person for a few years, it will be difficult for them to call bullshit based on the changes they can see right in front of them. 

I miss my old friends, but my colleagues are now Rip, Stef, Nick, and a group of outstanding franchise owners – and that’s it – instead of being required to work with countless faces in a large organization that may or may not share my values, work ethic, or goals. This job has also brought me closer to my family, as I get to work day-to-day with my brother and sister, two of the most talented people I know. Ben (the computer and BJJ guy) was a Chief Technologist at Northrop Grumman, and then came out to join me in Singapore when I was working for BlackBerry to run our app development ecosystem in the region. He now manages technology for the gyms and his team has built all three of our custom apps: the digital logbook, the TV screen app, and the member sign up app. 

Jen, my sister, was an Environmental Engineer, living in Alaska where she visited remote areas above the Arctic Circle to analyze the environmental impact of proposed oil and gas projects, traveling by snowmobile and helicopter while carrying a shotgun for Polar Bear defense (maybe it might scare one away?). She now runs gym construction, and is the reason why our build-out guide is over 100 pages of maniacal detail. Several General Contractors have remarked that we’re more particular than well-established franchises, and we take that as a compliment. 

Other than the people I work with, one of the most satisfying parts of my job is talking to prospective franchise owners that have their own stories about how Starting Strength has changed their lives for the better. One shared that the Novice Linear Progression is the reason his kid doesn’t get bullied in school anymore, and went on to win a high school wrestling title without ever having learned how to wrestle. Others talk about the complete reversal of their knee/back/hip pain, and most have a renewed perspective on what they’re capable of after becoming stronger. 

I do my best to share these stories with Rip and Stef because although they get case studies on the forum and thank you emails from trainees, they don’t get to have lengthy conversations with hundreds of people that are thoroughly grateful for the body of knowledge they’ve produced. Another way of putting it is that I get to interact with enjoyable people that I can relate to, every day, as part of what I do for a living. One of my biggest frustrations when working at a big company was not being able to decide whom I work with. 

Some of these prospects are people that are facing the same conundrum I did: does it make sense to leave a corporate or government job to get into the business of helping other people get strong? It seems that I’m not the only one that feels that having a dress code, being required to show up to a certain place every day at a certain time, having a “boss,” lacking belief in a company’s purpose, and being completely dependent on someone else’s business decisions is not an ideal way to spend 50 hours of one’s  week – especially considering that we only get to enjoy a few thousand of those weeks before it’s all over. 

Another reason for my gratitude that I haven’t yet shared publicly: I am cautiously entertaining the idea that getting strong has helped me manage an autoimmune disorder that’s been a disruptive problem in my life: Crohn’s Disease. There was a time when I was worried about eating – not sure what meal might cause severe abdominal pain, hence my previously emaciated stature. When I started exercising and eating less processed food, the recurrence and severity of symptoms declined, and I lived in this uncertain state for several years, anticipating of the next flare up. Since completing the Novice Linear Progression and becoming a consistent lifter, not only do I not fear food, I have fewer worries about my future physical condition. I cannot recall the last time I’ve had GI issues. Instead, I now get a feeling of joy when I engage my abdominal muscles and realize that there is no sharp pain in response, just one of the countless things we all take for granted every day. 

No story of potentially conflating causation with correlation would be complete without a secondhand quote from a doctor. In this case, my gastroenterologist remarked that there didn’t appear to be evidence of Crohn’s from what he could see from my last scope (that’s short for colonoscopy, a less attractive word). There was ileum scarring, but no inflammation. It’s possible I never had Crohn’s (although it was diagnosed and re-diagnosed with each successive scope); it’s within the realm of possibility that it would have “healed” in this way on its own (even though it’s considered to be an incurable disease). Or it could be that my physical situation is so much better thanks to the dozens of pounds of additional muscle on my frame, that Starting Strength is to thank for this improvement. I can’t have a definite view on this, because there’s not enough evidence, but if I had to bet on it, I’d put my money on the cause of the turnaround being Starting Strength. Perhaps the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation will fund a research study in our gyms to prove my confirmation bias. 

I have a tremendous amount of gratitude for what Rip and Stef have contributed to the world that has improved thousands of lives. I am also grateful for their trust in me and the franchise team to build the gym business. I am grateful for all of the ways that Starting Strength has improved my own life: my work satisfaction, my family connection, my less skeletal appearance, my independence, and my physical capability. I’m grateful to Nick Delgadillo for encouraging me to initially approach Rip and Stef about the franchise gym idea, and for the work he does in helping gym owners be successful. 

And I’m grateful to the franchise team for being true experts in their fields and not releasing any product or service to the public unless it is of the highest quality: whether it’s a piece of equipment, a software application, a wall art graphic, or a marketing campaign – we have a robust, mature franchise system thanks to you and we are still a young company. Lastly, sincere thanks to all that are involved with this project whether directly or indirectly, especially the trainees at the gyms that trust us with their health and fitness. We get to do what we love thanks to you. Keep sharing your stories, it keeps us motivated to put in the extra effort required to never settle for anything less than excellence.

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