Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Six Short Stories About Training at WFAC

by Phil Ringman | April 04, 2023

phil ringman finishing a press while rusty coaches him at wfac

I was having lunch recently with three friends, all of us now in our mid 60s to early 70s. One of my friends has taken up pickleball, the current “in” sport for aging weekend athletes. While we were eating, one of my friend's occasional pickleball partners came by the table to say hello. The pickleball partner, also in his 70s, was a top-ranked tennis player in high school and in the military. The conversation turned to the previous athletic exploits of the rest of us, and our new friend, who did not know me from Adam, turned and said, “You look like you were a football player.”

I nearly fell out of my chair. I've never played organized football, let alone been mistaken for a football player. In fact I was pretty much the opposite of a football player – I was a distance runner for 51 years until sidelined by bone spurs in my big toe.

I began strength training at Wichita Falls Athletic Club nine years ago, at age 59. That can be the only possible reason why he thought I was a football player. Obviously, I am stronger after lifting for several years. But I never thought that I would actually look bigger and stronger, particularly since my bodyweight is essentially unchanged, staying pretty much between 215 and 220 pounds since well before I began lifting.

A Famous Gym

When I first started training at WFAC, I didn't fully appreciate that it is one of the most well-known gyms in the country. Pretty much all I knew at the time was that Mark Rippetoe, the owner, was a prominent guy in the strength training field, and had written some best-selling books.

A long-time runner, I had only been training at WFAC a few months, lifting one day a week while still running three days a week. It was a Sunday afternoon and I had the gym to myself when I heard a knock at the front door. The doors are locked after hours and on weekends, and we're not supposed to let in non-members, but it was a 30-something couple who looked harmless so I opened the door to see what they wanted. They said they had “always wanted” to see the WFAC and could they come in and look around?

They said they were driving cross-country on I-40, which at its closest point to Wichita Falls is at least two hours or so to the north in Oklahoma, and saw that going through Wichita Falls was “not that far out of the way.” They looked around for a few minutes, took some photos on their cell phones, and left. Apparently visiting WFAC is a bucket list item for some people.

That was my first clue that there was something special about WFAC. I have since met lifters from China and Portugal who have taken the time and spent a significant amount of money to travel to Wichita Falls for in-person instruction from Rip and other SSCs at the weekend seminars. And I’ve met coaches from England and Belgium. Wichita Falls is not an easy place to get to. Not counting international flights it still involves at least one and possibly two plane changes, or flying and then renting a car and driving 120 miles from either the Dallas or Oklahoma City airports.

I'm spoiled. It takes me under 10 minutes to get to WFAC.

Why People Need Coaching

Not too many months after meeting the cross-country travelers, I was training on a Thursday afternoon and one of the Starting Strength Coaches, who came from out of town to help at the seminar that weekend, had come in early and was visiting with Rip in his office, which is just off the main training area. Even though I didn't hear anything else in their conversation, at one point I distinctly heard Rip telling the other coach, “That's why people need coaching.”

I can't prove it, but I was doing squats at the time and I am certain the comment was directed at me. My crime was poor form and insufficient depth. I should have taken the comment to heart and gotten a coach. But since I was squatting only once a week, and at that time I still viewed lifting as a supplement to my running, I ignored it. I knew I wasn't squatting correctly much of the time, and I wanted to do it correctly, but I figured I could get it eventually on my own. Not necessarily.

Trusting Your Coach

Fast forward several years. Now no longer running, I had gotten decently strong following the Starting Strength program with help from a friend, the books and videos, and occasional informal coaching from the WFAC coaches. Squats had improved but were still far from consistent. I finally realized I did, in fact, need a coach to help with technique and programming, and I hired one of the WFAC coaches, Rusty Holcomb, 16 months ago.

phil ringman with his coach rusty holcomb

Recently Rusty changed my programming to a heavy deadlift only once every four weeks (“heavy” obviously being relative) instead of every week in order to allow more recovery time for my 68-year-old body. I didn't think a heavy day once a month was enough. It's not that I doubted Rusty, but it was new territory for me and I wasn't sure what that would be like. “Don't worry about it, you'll be fine,” he said, more than once.

The day came. I added five pounds to my deadlift from four weeks earlier and (fairly) easily did a set of three, and then easily did two backoff sets of three each at 90 percent of the top weight. And on the next cycle a month later I added five more pounds. Sure enough, I was “fine.”

Here is the heavy day schedule, on Fridays, alternating squats and pulls every other week:

  • Week 1 - squat ( 1x3 heavy set, 2x3 backoff sets)
  • Week 2 - rack pull (2x3 heavy sets)
  • Week 3 - squat (1x3 heavy set, 2x3 backoff sets)
  • Week 4 - deadlift (1x3 heavy set, 2x3 backoff sets)

Monday is volume day, including a 1x5 “light” deadlift at 80-85 percent of my most recent heavy deadlift. Wednesday is light day. Press and bench press are alternated every other training session, so over a two-week period there are three sessions of each.

If you can, get a coach. And then do what he tells you.

An Old Folks' Rehab Center

I don't know the age breakdown of the people who train regularly at WFAC, but I suspect the average age skews older. I am not the oldest regular trainee but I am on the older end of the spectrum. When I trained in the afternoons I noticed that I was often the actual oldest person there. Now, since hiring Rusty, I have moved to M-W-F mornings and train at the same time as Nick, a retired firefighter, John, a retired special forces guy and sheriff's deputy, John's wife Alys, and me, a retired financial advisor. With all of us coached by Rusty.

Nick noted one morning that if a stranger accidentally came in the WFAC door, not knowing where he was, he would see all the gray hair and think that he was in the rehab center at an old folks' home. However, it would become clear pretty quickly that WFAC is not your typical rehab center because of the amount of weight being moved by the people with the gray hair.

“Full Metal Jacket”

I have never trained anywhere else so I don't know what it is like at other gyms, but lifters at WFAC are very supportive and encouraging to each other, even sometimes during warmup sets. It's not hard to tell when someone is pushing their limits, especially when the coach is loudly giving cues. Other lifters tend to pause and watch, and offer their own encouragement. Unlike big box gyms where everyone is doing their own thing, and nobody knows or likely cares what the others are doing, everyone at WFAC is essentially doing the same program. So the encouragement is more meaningful because every other lifter has either already been there, or soon will be.

One morning a younger WFAC regular came in and told John, who is known for his encouragement to other lifters, that he was “going to need the “Full Metal Jacket treatment” that day when he got to his rack pulls. (For those not familiar, there is a memorable scene in the 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket where Gunnery Sgt. Hartman, played by the late actor R. Lee Ermey, meets his new platoon for the first time, using some extremely colorful language.)

John's language was not remotely as colorful as Sgt. Hartman's, and obviously the lifter still has to do the hard work, but somehow hearing other people encourage you, and knowing they're also watching you, provides the little bit of extra oomph to successfully complete a heavy set. I find this at WFAC, and I'm glad I'm here.

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