The Prep Course and Starting Solo

by Daniel Rodriguez PhD | August 17, 2022

Most of the people I have met in the Starting Strength Coach Prep Course (SSCPC) signed up with the intention of working in a Starting Strength gym or adding the SSC credential to their already-existing personal training business. Not me. I just wanted to be a better garage lifter. At least, that’s where it started. This article is about my experience in the prep course, starting out as a solo coach, and why you shouldn’t do that if you don’t have to.

Like many others, I trained alone for a while, and then eventually got serious enough to seek out an SSC. Fortunately, my workplace is close to Janecek Strength. On the first day I met him, John listened to me blather about how I had been “doing Starting Strength” on my own for months and just needed some programming help (which in reality translated to “I’m too broke to join your gym”). After watching me squat in a way that I swore was true to the Blue Book, he kindly told me that I was trying to do low bar squats with the bar in a high bar position, and that I would get hurt continuing to increase the weight that way. I was lifting better after day one at Janecek Strength. More time there made all my lifts better. But I wanted to be able to see barbell movements the way that he saw them and fix problems fast.

I started the prep course in July of 2021 and finished early November – just over four months. At the time I was regularly coaching kids Jiu Jitsu classes at an MMA gym that had a weight room. Access to that weight room made it easy to show friends and students how John had corrected my lifts. It also provided a place to organize a barbell class every Saturday morning so I could complete the coaching assignments. But the facility needed some things. So, in addition to coaching for free (as most newbies do), I also had to spend money on some equipment. I bought micro plates, a weight tree, a decent bar, wraps, belts of various sizes, a few pairs of shoes, and a decent flat bench (not to mention the concrete barbell holders and fishhook-style deadlift jack I made). The dedicated lifters eventually bought their own belts and shoes. But I had to be ready for anyone of any age to walk in every Saturday morning for a year. The cost of this preparation was unexpected to me, but I was excited to be coaching and got what was needed. If you start coaching by yourself, be prepared to buy some things.

My Saturday morning barbell class was running smoothly, I thought, and the lifters were starting to bring others along. They would come in around 7:45AM. I had to teach kids Jiu Jitsu at 9AM, so I would work fast through the teaching progressions with new folks. Eventually, each regular lifter arrived with their own logbook and a plan of what to do. I would shoot the required video for the prep course that Saturday, which made it hard to complete more than one lesson per week. Despite that, I was happy with my progress in the prep course. I was learning new things. The lifters at the MMA gym were happy with my coaching. But the time limitation and the fact that I was only coaching barbell movements once a week were serious problems that I didn’t comprehend at the time.

The prep course is essentially a relationship (hopefully a friendship) that you build with an assigned SSC as your mentor, while you discuss all the topics of the course with each other. I had Dr. Stef Bradford as my mentor. When she told me that she would be my mentor, I was immediately excited and intimidated. She is a co-author of the Blue Book and serves as an editor for everything that Aasgaard publishes. I knew she had a PhD in a hard science from an excellent university, and I recognized the opportunity to learn from such a great resource.

I don’t say this to flatter anyone, but rather to share how I have learned education best works: intentionally being with the people you want to be like. My PhD is in biblical Hebrew, and I spent years of my life in another country so I could study with one particular scholar. I highly valued his work and wanted to do what he did, so I moved to where he was, worked for him, studied under him, and got my MA and PhD with him. Now as a nerd trying to learn the barbell, I had the opportunity to study how to be a barbell coach with the scholar who authored and edited the barbell textbook I was using. The once-in-a-lifetime nature of this opportunity does not escape me, and I’m better for it. You might not get Dr. Bradford as your mentor in the prep course, but you will get someone qualified to teach you who is interested in your long-term success as a coach.

Each module of the prep course is a writing assignment, a coaching assignment, and a phone call with your mentor. If my writing assignment wasn’t up to par, I’d have to re-do it. My coaching assignments were never up to par, and I had to do most of them more than once. I suffered on the coaching side of the prep course because I was coaching solo. Having my mentor look at a few videos once a week was not enough to make me a sufficient coach in the time frame I anticipated. On one phone call near the end of my time in the course, I asked Stef if she thought I would be ready to opt-in at a seminar for the SSC platform test. She swiftly chuckled “No” and told me it would take at least another year – probably longer – if I kept coaching people for one hour every Saturday by myself. If I really wanted good reps coaching, she recommended I become an apprentice at a Starting Strength gym. The prep course students who apprentice at a franchise gym benefit from the staff coaches and SSCs who can immediately fix their mistakes in real time, and I had missed out on that.

The writing assignments in the prep course were like a master’s level university class, meaning that my mentor was interested in my ability to express my understanding clearly and concisely. Once I demonstrated that, we moved on. There is no way an online course can give me the years of experience I need to be an SSC. The course does not pretend to do that. But the course does equip me with the educational resources I need to become competent in barbell coaching, and to continue coaching after the course is over. As someone who is planning on opting-in at a seminar in the near future, the prep course is a place I can go to study. I can rewatch lessons that I haven’t watched since last year. I can listen to new discussions that mentors are having with students from recorded Zoom meetings. I can rewrite answers to questions from past assignments to prepare for the oral board. And most importantly, I have my mentor’s responses to those questions so I can compare my new answers with what she said in the past and see if I’ve learned anything. If I get really stuck, I can always shoot her an email.

When I was starting my last assignment for the prep course, I had my first Zoom interview with Brent Carter. I had never planned on working at a Starting Strength gym, but I really wanted those good coaching reps that Stef was talking about. Now, I’m an apprentice coach at Starting Strength Plano during the week and keep Saturday mornings for my own training. My lifters from the MMA gym sometimes send me videos of their lifts. I’m a better video form-checker for them today than I was an in-person coach last year. I made many mistakes with them that took at least one week to fix in the best-case scenario. If I could shoot those prep course coaching videos now, I imagine I would not have to redo so many of them. In fact, if I had been apprenticing in a franchise gym, I probably wouldn’t have gotten away with submitting a bad video to my mentor, at least, not so often.

One cannot overstate the usefulness of having an SSC in the room with you when you begin as a new coach. You need the time talking to them between lifts, having them whisper clues to you to see if you catch on, and seeing them make faces at you both to let you know that you are an utter disappointment and sometimes not wholly terrible. You need the embarrassment of the SSC correcting you in front of clients. You also need the long conversations when the clients are gone about why you said a certain cue at a certain time. Did you really understand that half-smart explanation you attempted? When those conversations start to happen, you’ve made some progress.

If you start coaching by yourself, it should be because you don’t have the option to be an apprentice because you live deep in the forest and train with a wooden bar and wooden plates that you’ve had to whittle. If you are within driving distance of a franchise gym (or an affiliate who is willing to have you), ask about an apprenticeship. You can be like me, start this thing by yourself, and make a whole bunch of mistakes that you probably won’t get the opportunity to fix. Or you can be smart.  

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