Starting Strength Online Coaching: A Review of Our First Year

by Matt Reynolds, SSC | January 24, 2018

On Dec 1, 2016, we officially launched Starting Strength Online Coaching, to the surprise of many. Starting Strength has always defined coaching as “getting our athlete to move the way we want them to move, based on a correct model of movement under the bar,” and this coaching must occur in real-time.

The obvious drawback of online coaching is that it cannot occur in real time, and thus, cannot be coaching at all, according to the above definition. Most versions of “online coaching” on the interwebs, after all, very rarely involve coaching any movement at all, but is rather “online programming” – where the client pays for a programming template to follow.

The conundrum confronting the Starting Strength Community was that over the past few years demand for Starting Strength Coaching has grown tremendously, but, with only 125 SSCs, the demand had outstripped supply, both in sheer numbers, and more importantly, via geography. Very simply, what was someone to do who lived in Philadelphia, or Boston, or Kansas City, or Minneapolis, or New Orleans, or Cheyenne, or Boise, or Las Vegas, or in any other country in the world other than England, Australia, Germany, Korea, and Singapore who desired Starting Strength coaching from an SSC?

“Online Coaching” has become a multi-billion dollar industry. People are looking for the kind of help that Starting Strength Coaches can offer. But there had previously been very few services offering coaching that is up to Starting Strength standards. And no service readily gave Starting Strength Coaches an entry into this huge market.

Enter Starting Strength Online Coaching. Very simply, we tried to solve a problem in the market, by giving those who didn’t have an SSC near them an opportunity to receive coaching from an SSC. 

The SSOC Platform

The primary feature that sets SSOC apart from every other “online coaching” service is that we watch and break down client videos from every single barbell exercise, on every single training session. We perform this video breakdown and feedback within 24 hours, and we have systems in place to make sure a client’s question or video never goes unanswered within the 24-hour time-frame (other than a 48-hour turn-around on weekends).

Clients receive programming on Sunday for the coming week. They perform their training sessions on their own time and upload videos of their heaviest work-sets (we teach you how to video yourself from the correct angle). Clients give feedback to their coach on each exercise, asking any questions they have about performing the movement correctly, programming, nutrition, injuries, etc., and the coach responds to the client with full video breakdown, answering any and all questions, within 24 hours.

All programming, training logs, video recording, video feedback, and back-and-forth communication are done right from the client’s cell phone on a clean user-friendly app called FitBot. This way, clients don’t have to use multiple technologies in order to benefit from online coaching. 

The Obvious Drawback

The obvious drawback to online coaching is that it cannot be done in real time. In-person, an SSC can correct form mistakes via cueing in real-time, on every single rep. An online coach can only make corrections from session to session. This means that it takes a little longer to get the form right with online coaching than it would in-person. But if your choice is between the 20-year old personal trainer at the local globo-gym and online coaching from an SSC, the decision is easy.

Because cues and corrections occur after the training session, we’ve had to develop new methods to communicate the Starting Strength model via written word. These written cues and corrections must be clear, concise, and memorable, since it may be 72 hours before the client applies them.

Furthermore, because the very nature of online coaching is impersonal, we have made personal connections with our clients a priority by:

  • Assigning each client a coach that we believe they would be great friends with, even if they weren’t in a client-coach relationship.
  • Impressing our clients with tremendous customer service.
  • Paying extremely close attention to detail regarding programming and outstanding video feedback.
  • Holding monthly Skype calls with our clients, with no agenda other than just making good personal connections and asking the client for their feedback about how their online coaching experience.
  • Frequently asking our clients about their personal (not private) lives, learning about their family, occupation, hobbies, etc., so we can better serve their needs.

How Our Clients Train

Every client that signs up for SSOC does a Novice Progression (LP) to start, no matter how strong they are. We’ve found that almost all new clients have serious form errors and have overestimated their working weights (at least with regards to what can be handled with good form), so we back their weights off just a bit and do an LP run-out. For the really strong ones, they’ll run out of LP in 3 weeks. For the rank beginners, they’ll often make progress for 4-5 months before we have to go to weekly training.

Virtually all of our early-intermediate clients will be put on Texas Method, Old-Man Texas Method, or Heavy-Light-Medium, which are all very similar programs. We continue to drive up intensity each week (rather than daily) while maintaining volume and frequency, i.e. the tonnage goes up because the volume stays the same but intensity increases weekly.

After that, we move to a 4-day split, teaching a few new supplemental variations such as Close-Grip Bench Press, Press Lockouts, Rack Pulls, Deficit Deadlifts, and Pause Squats, Box Squats, or Pin Squats (we have built an excellent exercise library, along with Starting Strength, that instructs the client in the performance of each exercise we prescribe).

As the client progresses, we’ll begin adding more volume over time to continue to accumulate stress. We can do this several ways:

  • We can add volume to the competitive lifts (usually in the 3-6 rep range) while still exposing our lifters to singles, doubles, and triples for efficiency with heavy weights.
  • We can add frequency (for example, adding another press or bench press variation to a “lower body” day).
  • We can add volume to the supplemental lift (2nd lift of the day, usually a variation) to get more stress and hypertrophy without beating the lifter up too much.
  • We can add volume via accessory slots such as chins/pullups/pulldowns, dips, tricep extensions, glute-ham-raises, and leg press.

Ultimately by this point we’d like to convince our clients to compete, with a United States Strengthlifting Federation meet being a great place to start their competitive journey. By competing, the client gets to occasionally taper volume while ramping up intensity, peaking for the competition, and getting the satisfaction of setting PR singles a few times each year.

What We’ve Learned

Consistency and correct form is everything – I cannot stress this enough. There is no doubt that genetics, training advancement, mindset, and programming play a role in client progress (and often lead to the most heated social media discussions), but based on our data these variables pale in comparison to consistency and correct form. That’s right – programming is far less important than correct technique and not missing workouts. It doesn’t matter what your program looks like if you miss half of your workouts and squat 6 inches above parallel. When our clients set their minds on never missing a session, and they purposefully apply the corrective cues their coaches give them for each training session, then without fail, they make outstanding progress on our system.

FitBot provides a tremendous resource for our coaches by allowing them to see each individual client’s “completion percentage” for 7 days, 30 days, 90 days, and the lifetime of their training. If a client has over a 90% completion rating, their progress is excellent, and their turn-over rate is virtually zero. Likewise, if a client has a completion percentage of 50-70%, their progress is far worse, and turn-over is much higher.

I have no data to back this up, but I’d guess that our clients are both more consistent and have a lower turn-over rate than most online coaching services, since our clients have daily contact with their coach, form review on every workout, and thus more accountability. We have replaced the perceived deficiency of online coaching – the lack of real-time form correction – with long-term relationships, and the benefit to our clients has been measurably excellent.

The Stats

Starting Strength Online Coaching has seen dramatic growth over the past year. With a staff of 62 people who have coached 975 clients in 2017, we’ve averaged over 10% growth per month and 140% growth in total since Jan 1, 2017. Our lifetime turn-over rate is 5.9% per month, which is tremendous for any online business, let alone one that charges, at minimum, $199/month.

Our current demographic breakdown is ~80% male and ~20% female, with 82% from the United States and 18% who are international clients. The average age of an SSOC client is 39, with 40% being masters lifters (over 40 years of age). Our youngest client is 14, and our oldest is 72.

starting strength online coaching demographics

starting strength online coaching distribution

For males under 40 years of age (of all levels of training advancement), the average increase after 16 weeks of training at SSOC is:

  • 8 lbs per week on squat
  • 85% in the Squat
  • 61% increase in the Deadlift
  • 47% increase in the Press
  • 40% increase in the Bench Press
  • a compliance rate of 79% across all men under 40

For males over 40 years of age (of all levels of training advancement), the average increase after 16 weeks of training at SSOC is:

  • 7 lbs per week on squat
  • 98% in the Squat
  • 62% increase in the Deadlift
  • 55% increase in the Press
  • 47% increase in the Bench Press
  • a compliance rate of 82% across all men over 40

For females (of all ages and training advancement levels), the average increase after 16 weeks of training at SSOC is:

  • 4.3 lbs per week on squat
  • 40% in the Squat
  • 59% increase in the Deadlift
  • 51% increase in the Press
  • 46% increase in the Bench Press
  • a compliance rate of 50% across all women

For Intermediate Males (of all ages), the average increase after 16 weeks of training at SSOC is:

  • 23% in the Squat
  • 20% increase in the Deadlift
  • 23% increase in the Press
  • 21% increase in the Bench Press

For Advanced Males (of all ages), the average increase after 16 weeks of training at SSOC is:

  • 18% in the Squat
  • 18% increase in the Deadlift
  • 18% increase in the Press
  • 19% increase in the Bench Press

starting strength online coaching strength increase

Compliance vs. YNDTP

Across all ages and demographics, 70% of SSOC clients “did the program” (within 80% of perfect adherence). For those that did not do the program (YNDTP), the primary reason (by far) was missed training sessions and therefore an overall lack of compliance. Other factors at play were injuries (usually non-lifting related), and just simply not following the program by not doing the prescribed weight, excluding main lifts, or including extra accessory work that was not prescribed by the coach.

We are striving in 2018 to have an 85% compliance rating, which far exceeds the 5.2% compliance rating by those in the Training Logs (according to research done by Dr. Nicholas Racculia in 2016).

Starting Strength Online Coaching has been able to provide coaching for nearly 1000 people who would have otherwise not been able to get coaching from an SSC in 2017. 70% of these clients “Did the Program” and averaged more than an 80% increase in their squat across all demographics in just 16 weeks. The experiment has been an overwhelming success, and we look to add hundreds more clients in 2018 to the SSOC family.

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