Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Observations on Working with a Coach

by Phil Ringman | March 08, 2022

phil ringman with a rack pull

I had been lifting for eight years without a formal coach and made good progress early on. Enough progress to get to a 315x3 deadlift at age 63, after four years of lifting, and while still running three days a week. I stopped running a few months later due to hallux limitus, essentially arthritis in my big toe. Continuing to run might, or might not, have further aggravated the toe to the point of needing surgery, but I made the decision to stop anyway.

Why I Hired a Coach

I live in Wichita Falls and train at WFAC. A friend got me started, and being at WFAC has allowed me to get occasional coaching and guidance from the various coaches there, the other more experienced lifters, and occasionally Rip. I read the books and had a few years of experience, so I knew a little. Probably enough to be dangerous.

When I could no longer add weight each workout and recover properly, I did exactly what you're not supposed to do and bounced between several different rep and set schemes. Consequently, for the past four years, my progress has been almost non-existent. I finally realized I needed help. I needed someone to fix my form, which ranged from poor to occasionally OK, depending on the lift, and to tell me what to do next.

I had gotten some help over the years from one of the coaches, Rusty Holcomb, and have had the opportunity to watch him as he coached his official clients while I was doing my training sessions. So, one day last October during a particularly frustrating period when I failed several times on the deadlift at weights I had already done, I asked Rusty if he would consider coaching me.

So, now at age 67 and after eight years of lifting, I have a coach. We began in late October 2021.

What Rusty Changed

Prior to hiring Rusty I was lifting two days per week - squat and bench press on Monday and press and deadlift (alternating with rack pulls) on Thursday, doing each lift only once per week. And at most, I would do three sets of three at weights that were heavy for me. My rationale was that it takes us old(er) guys longer to recover so I thought I was supposed to do fewer reps and sets in order to properly recover. For the deadlift and rack pull, I did a single work set of three. In hindsight, it's no wonder I was making little progress.

The immediate and probably biggest change Rusty made was to increase my workload significantly.

Now I am lifting three days a week – Mondays and Fridays with a light workout on Wednesday (pushing the Prowler and either a light press or light bench.) I am squatting twice per week, with proper form and to proper depth most of the time, and pulling heavy twice per week. On the squat Rusty had me doing five sets of three each time until recently, roughly a three fold increase in reps over what I was doing on my own.

On my own, I was deadlifting once a week and substituting the rack pull once or twice a month. Now I am both deadlifting and rack pulling each week. He initially had me doing two work sets of three on the rack pull and deadlift, but it became clear that I wasn't completely recovering. So he cut me back to one set of three.

I am now doing three times the squat reps and twice as much heavy pulling as I was doing on my own, even after reducing the work sets on the deadlift and rack pull from two to one. He also increased my bench and press days from once a week to three times every two weeks.

The lesson: at age 67, I can do a lot more than I thought. And I wouldn't have discovered that without Rusty's coaching, programming, and encouragement. And his ability to discern the line between "just right" and "too much" work. I think he found that line for me.

A 405x3 Rack Pull PR

When I first started lifting at age 59 my goal was simply to get stronger and, as Rip says, to try to "stave off death." The first time I deadlifted 225, I thought there was literally nothing more that I could achieve athletically.

Obviously I couldn't have been more wrong, and soon began to wonder whether three-plate or four-plate pulls were realistic. I hit a 315 deadlift about four years ago, but progress has been slight since then. I didn't hire Rusty to achieve specific weight goals, but after hiring him, and adding five pounds per week to my rack pull, 405 was coming closer. And it became a goal.

And then I began to get really nervous. It seemed like I was thinking about it all the time. I had added five pounds per week for several weeks. Five more pounds shouldn't be a problem. I've done the work. Hurting myself was not likely. When the day comes, I either lift it or I don't. If I don't, I try again next time, or Rusty modifies my programming.

So, the day for 400 came. Rusty, who has to keep up with a lot of clients and their programming, asked me what my work set weight was that day. I told him I was "supposed" to do 400, five pounds more than the previous week. "What do you mean 'supposed' to do 400? You're GOING TO DO 400," was Rusty's response.

With rack pulls, it sounds like the building is falling down when you set the heavy bar back on the pins between reps. Coupled with the cues and encouragement Rusty was yelling, pretty soon the seven or eight other people in the gym were yelling for me. A coach's support, along with other people who happen to be watching, goes a long way to successfully finishing a heavy set.

And I did a 400x3 PR. A week later I did a 405x3 PR.

Granted, it is a rack pull from the third pin and not from the floor. But it is still 405. And I'm still 67.

After I finished the 400x3, another lifter, who admitted to being nervous in his earlier days, told me his former coach told him: "If you're not a little nervous going to the gym, you're not lifting enough weight." I guess I’m lifting “enough” weight.

Still Working on the Squat

Squats are where I am making Rusty earn his money. My form, prior to hiring Rusty, ranged from terrible to poor. I had gotten to 225, but I'm sure my depth was high, since it almost always was too high. Rusty dropped the weight way down and had me squat to a box in order to get used to the proper depth. He gradually weaned me off the box while adding five pounds per workout.

I'd worked back up to 180, but when we went to 185, it was like I'd forgotten everything I’d learned and done in the past few weeks, including proper depth. I couldn't seem to do anything right. So he dropped me back down again, less so this time, and we started adding two pounds, instead of five. I recently hit 201 but struggled again with form and depth. So he has now switched me to a volume day/heavy day schedule. The volume day is five sets of three at about 93 percent of the planned weight on the next heavy day, which is two sets of three.

I hired a coach because I was stuck due to two fixable issues: poor technique and not knowing how to program effectively. Four months in, it's some of the best money I've ever spent. My form is consistently better ("1000 percent better" on the squat, according to Rusty), I don't have to figure out on my own what to do each training session, and my numbers are moving up.

Hire a coach if you can.

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