The Path to the Starting Strength Coach Credential

by Tom Campitelli, SSC | February 26, 2014

become starting strength coach

As the Starting Strength system has grown and the number of trainees putting its concepts into practice has increased, the need for skilled coaching has become more acute. While numerous organizations offer personal training certifications and universities turn out undergraduate students with four year degrees in exercise science and kinesiology, few of these programs provide practitioners with the skills to teach others to train with barbells. In fact, it is not uncommon for a kinesiology student to graduate from their program with little or no formal classroom exposure to barbell training. Obtaining the industry-standard personal training certificate requires a bachelor’s degree in any field and a passing grade on a lengthy, two-part multiple choice exam. The training manual for this organization recommends that you inhale on the eccentric portion and exhale on the concentric portion of each lift. No demonstration of coaching ability is required to attain the certification. If the majority of one’s time as a coach is to be spent in the pursuit of making others stronger, then a credential that guarantees a coach can accomplish that task is necessary.

The Value of the Starting Strength Coach Credential

Mark Rippetoe laid out the basics of how to efficiently perform the fundamental lifts that should be included in any strength program in the third edition of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training. A simple and effective regimen for beginners to follow, frequently referred to as the Starting Strength linear progression, is included therein. As trainees advance past the early portions of their lifting careers and increasing levels of training complexity become necessary, Rippetoe’s third edition of Practical Programming for Strength Training provides guidelines on how to successfully arrange training schedules to allow for years of progress.

Despite thoroughly detailing these ideas in print, many of the core concepts behind how to perform the lifts and how to program them are misunderstood and misapplied. To increase the public’s exposure to this material, The Aasgaard Company conducts monthly seminars lasting two-and-a-half days throughout the US and Canada called the Starting Strength Seminar. One objective of the seminar is to identify those individuals who can competently perform and teach the movements laid out in Starting Strength. The coaching performance of individuals who participate in the seminar is evaluated by trained platform staff. At the end of the weekend a consensus decision among the staff is rendered for each candidate. If an individual passes his platform evaluation, he is then eligible to receive a written test.

Unlike other certifying bodies, the written test has no multiple choice questions. Instead, a series of essay questions must be answered that allow candidates to demonstrate their understanding of the theory behind this method, their ability to communicate these concepts, and their capacity to apply the concepts in different situations. This is a challenging exam and requires many hours to complete. It is not the stuff of certificate mills.  Successful exams are typically dozens of pages in length. At the beginning of the seminar, candidates are advised that passing the seminar and written exam require “graduate-level” efforts. This is not an exaggeration.

As a result of this rigorous selection process, very few candidates pass. Each seminar currently has room for twenty-five attendees. Out of those twenty-five, perhaps eight to ten opt-in to test for their Starting Strength Coach credential. Depending on the quality of the attendees, four might pass the platform evaluation. Of those four, perhaps two or three – or none – will pass the written exam.

While producing legions of coaches would be an advantage from a commercial exposure standpoint, our priority is quality control. Rippetoe wanted the Starting Strength Coach credential to indicate that a coach actually understood the material and could teach it. Earning the Starting Strength Coach credential should indicate that the individual can do something useful – teach a trainee, who may be a far cry from an accomplished athlete, how to lift safely and effectively and to become stronger.

The value of the Starting Strength credential is reflected in the effort required to earn it. Producing a critical mass of coaches becomes a much slower process this way, generating only a few every year. However, it assures that the credential is not diluted and that those who cannot teach others how to train with barbells do not get to call themselves Starting Strength Coaches.

If you wish to learn to squat, or pull the bar off the ground in a straight line, or utilize barbells to meet your strength goals, but have been unable to do so through the written and video resources available, then you would do well to find a Starting Strength Coach. It is the best process we have yet devised to ensure that the practitioner working with you actually understands this material. Many people have heard of Mark Rippetoe and Starting Strength. Numerous trainees look at sites on the Internet, start squatting, and consider their efforts to be following the Starting Strength program, whether what they do bears any resemblance to Starting Strength or not. The world seems to be full of people who know all about lifting and Starting Strength in particular. The results of our platform evaluations and written examinations would suggest otherwise.

Unfortunately, the fitness industry is plagued with certifications that confer little besides some initials after a last name. We cannot fix that. We can, however, make sure that our little corner of the training world is well-kept. We do that by identifying and credentialing only those coaches who can deliver what they promise – increased strength through barbell training coupled with the theoretical understanding to answer their client’s most important question – “Why?” 

Preparing for the Seminar

One question that frequently arises is whether an individual who has no intentions of becoming a Starting Strength Coach should attend a Seminar. Because part of the Seminar involves learning to coach others, this is a rational query. The short answer is that the Seminar is open to anyone who has an interest in barbell training. We want to find more coaches, but we also want more people to understand the theoretical underpinnings of what we do. The Seminar provides a deep examination of the physics, anatomy, and performance of the lifts. Those who have exposure to the material, both from reading the books and putting it into practice for themselves and others, get the most out of the Seminar. However, those that are quite new to this style of training, provided they are willing to take in a lot of new information very quickly, will also enjoy a valuable learning experience. So, no, you do not need be a coach or plan to work as one to attend. However, learning to coach the lifts, as you are made to do in the seminars, helps you to better understand and perform them.

Coaching is part of the learning process at the Seminar and it is also a convenient way to find Starting Strength Coach candidates. For those that do not want to coach the lifts and are less interested in the underpinnings of the Starting Strength method, The Aasgaard Company also offers Training Camps, which are shorter, less involved, and focus solely on the performance of the lifts.

For those who wish to earn the Starting Strength Coach credential, the Seminar is the venue for selection. We cannot turn a novice trainee into a qualified coach in two-and-a-half days. At the seminar, our aim is not to make coaches, but to identify coaches. Successful candidates are those who have prepared themselves with study, training, and coaching practice. The following sections describe how to undertake that preparation.


  1. Read and understand the third edition of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training in its entirety. This is neither a short nor light read. It may require multiple readings. Skimming the book won’t help you, nor will having the second edition on the coffee table at a friend’s house.
  2. Read and understand the third edition of Practical Programming for Strength Training. Again, read it more than once to get a better understanding of the material presented.
  3. Train in the way outlined in the books. Go through your own linear progression in its entirety. Make the low-bar back squat the basis of your training. Learn to pull the bar off the ground in a straight line for deadlifts and power cleans. Put on muscular bodyweight. Get stronger. Prove to yourself that training this way works. Identify and overcome problems. Struggle. Hit plateaus, deload, and go after the weights again. If you cannot work this out for yourself then you will not be an effective coach. Direct personal experience with these lifts and this system is essential and cannot be forgone. You must train if you wish to coach.
  4. Once you understand the fundamentals and have made genuine progress on your own training, start working with others. Watch people lift. Identify what they are doing and how you would cue them. Find someone you can help. Learn to succinctly and authoritatively cue them. The correct application of coaching cues is fundamental to the Starting Strength model. This understanding is one of the things we look for in a potential Starting Strength Coach.
  5. Watch form checks on the Starting Strength forums. Immerse yourself in how these lifts should look, how to correct common problems, and how to help people through the novice phase of their training.
  6. Learn the teaching progressions for each lift. The progression is a “script,” a formula that the Starting Strength system uses for teaching the lift quickly and efficiently. These progressions are the result of decades of refinement and we use them because they work. The teaching progressions for each of the lifts are laid out in Starting Strength. Learn them and use them to help your trainees.
  7. Use the resources on the Starting Strength website. There you will find dozens of articles and videos, a large and growing body of important information that the aspiring coach would be wise to absorb and digest. Watch and read and learn.

All of these things require time. You can’t become a coach in a weekend, a week, or a month. Remember, we are not interested in minting dozens of underqualified coaches. We want people that understand these principles. The Internet and the lifting world at large are full of people that think they know what Starting Strength is. Most do not, and in fact most have not even taken the time to familiarize themselves with the material, much less master it.

While not a necessity, having a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering is an asset. We have coaches with English and Philosophy degrees and coaches with no college degrees at all. Your ability to solve differential equations or use Mohr’s Circles to address problems in structural geology is not essential. But it won’t hurt, either. A Starting Strength coach must have the ability to think critically and evaluate technical material on its merits, and the continued growth of our system relies on the diverse skills and contributions of our coaching corps. The seminars and books have been improved from the interactions of thoughtful and inquisitive trainees who brought their educational backgrounds and observations to bear on these topics.

A basic understanding of anatomy and physiology are important as well. Starting Strength provides a good deal of anatomical information, but nothing can match the detail of a medical anatomy text such as Frank Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy. For those who want a deep dive into applied biology, Brooks, Fahey, and Baldwin’s Exercise Physiology: Human Bioenergetics and Its Applications is another foundational textbook. You don’t need these texts to pass the exam, but they should have a place in your coaching library.

Attending the Seminar

The seminar is physically and intellectually demanding. Friday night begins with four information-dense hours of lecture. Saturday is scheduled as a twelve-hour day and Sunday an eleven-hour day, and both frequently run longer. During this time, you will coach and perform the five lifts while taking part in the lectures and discussions. The seminar is an intensive exposure to the material and just being present and ready to lift is not enough. You will increase your chances of passing and getting the most out of the seminar if you follow the suggestions below.

  1. Take notes during the lectures. The written exam is largely drawn from the lecture material. While you do not want to spend so much time writing that you neglect to absorb and think about what is being presented, noting important points will be of use to you when you need to expound upon questions presented in the exam. For many, the act of writing during the lectures helps with retention, too.
  2. Bring weightlifting shoes. In fact, train with them and get used to how they feel. Chances are that you will prefer them. Also bring a long pair of socks or sweatpants. Attendees are told these things several times before the seminar, but people still show up without them. If you wish to become a coach, this is a good place to demonstrate your reading comprehension. Bleeding on the bar because you have nothing to protect your shins is bad form and poses a health risk to you and your fellow attendees. Inability to balance over the mid-foot during squats because of squishy running shoes is diagnostic of a lack of understanding, a lack of caring, or both.
  3. Train the model. As mentioned in the prerequisite section, if you wish to become a coach, you need to train. That process should enable you to demonstrate competency in performing the lifts. You do not need to squat 500 pounds to be a good coach, but you need to be able to demonstrate a proper squat and you need to have trained it on your own. 
  4. Be concise when you cue others. Trainees have diminished capacities to hear and respond to what you say while they are under the bar. Make it simpler for them and demonstrate to your platform coach that you can efficiently identify and correct form errors. Candidates who talk too much on the platform raise red flags for the coaching staff. We want concision. We want to hear short, direct commands that help your lifters move better.
  5. Ask questions. If you do not understand a concept, ask a question to clarify it. Talk to the platform staff about how you are doing and what you can do better in your coaching. If something needs to be corrected, perhaps you can do so on your next platform.

In the Event You Do Not Pass

Despite their best efforts, many promising attendees do not pass, so you may find yourself in good company. The process is designed to be rigorous and to select only those who excel at barbell coaching. As mentioned previously, two separate exams must be passed: the platform and the essay.

All Starting Strength Coach candidates receive an evaluation form after the seminar where each of the platform coaches have noted their impressions. This is the first place to address areas you may need to improve. Look for common themes among the comments from the various staff. Review the prerequisites section of this article. Is there something from that list you are missing? If you are not currently coaching anyone, then passing the platform evaluation is unlikely. If you have not done the program yourself you will not be able to guide others. 

The Starting Strength forums are overflowing with videos of people requesting form checks. You can watch all manner of lifts there and develop your eye for form faults. Determine what these trainees are doing and how you would cue them. Read the responses and sift the wheat from the chaff. Watching form checks online does not substitute for in-person coaching experience, but it still has value. Once you understand how these lifts should look, apply what you learned to your own lifting and to those with whom you work. Be creative. Find some trainees. Immersion in these topics coupled with coaching experience is essential.

Some attendees pass their platforms, but are then unable to pass the written exam. The exam is designed to be challenging and you need to be able to write clearly to pass. You will have ten days to complete the test and it is wise to start the work upon receipt. Leaving yourself two days to finish the test invites failure. People have turned in thirty and even fifty-page exams. While you may not need to write fifty pages, you will not answer these essay questions in eight pages, either. The questions require you to synthesize and apply the material covered in the seminar, which encompasses at least twenty-four contact hours over two and a half days. 

Failing the platform evaluation requires a complete retake of the seminar. We need to know that you can coach the Starting Strength method, and we can’t do that without full platform participation, which cannot be practically accomplished without completely retaking the seminar. Passing the platform but failing the written exam requires an audit of a future seminar. An auditor must be present for the entire seminar, but does not participate in the platform sections. Auditors must then pass a different written exam. 

During the time between the initial and subsequent seminars, re-acquainting yourself with the written and video resources available in the books and on the Starting Strength website is recommended. If you are weak on theory, then these materials will be of great use to you. Ask questions on the forums. The coaching staff has their own forum, which they moderate on their own time and with great patience. Plenty of Starting Strength Coaches hang out on the forums, maintain their personal logs, participate in discussions, and answer questions. Take advantage of this incredible resource. The less foreign these concepts become, the easier you will be able to put them into practice.


The Starting Strength Coach credential indicates a commitment to excellence, and is conferred only upon those who have completed a rigorous selection process. Once the credential is earned, the process for keeping it is also demanding. Starting Strength Coaches must engage in continuing education, community contribution, and documented coaching practice to maintain their credential. Earning and maintaining the Starting Strength Coach credential requires substantial and ongoing effort. This commitment to excellence is essential if we are to build a corps of talented professionals who can teach this system and ensure its growth and development.

When you decide to become a Starting Strength Coach, you are making a commitment to a professional standard. Many will not meet that standard and will not pass the platform or the written examination. Those who do will be committed to continuing study and contribution to maintain the credential. If you think you have that level of ability and commitment, then this article was written for you. We’ve told you what we look for when evaluating candidates, the resources you should exploit, the skills you should cultivate, the concepts you should master, what you should do to prepare for the platform and exam, the challenges you should expect to encounter, and how to try again should you fail on your first attempt. The rest is up to you.  

Read. Lift. Observe. Ask. Teach. Grow. Repeat.

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