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Starting Strength in the Real World


SSOC Case Study: Phillip Midkiff

by Matt Reynolds, SSC and Joel Rasmussen | June 14, 2018

phillip midkiff mid-squat

Phillip Midkiff is a 64-year-old man battling an intense skin cancer on his temple via daily radiation treatments that require a nearly 4-hour round-trip commute. He’s also an online client of mine, part of the Starting Strength Online Coaching (SSOC) Family, currently in the middle of his LP, and one of the toughest (and most likeable) humans I’ve ever met.

I’d had the honor of coaching Phillip and his lovely wife a few times before he joined SSOC. He held off for most of last year, doing his best to walk through the Starting Strength Method and LP on his own. But two weeks after our last coaching session together, something changed...

From Phillip:

“Maybe he’s tough enough.” The doctor was referring to me, and I did not like what I was hearing. Six months earlier I was a typical, 64-year-old going to the gym, exercising, pursuing conditioning, and not getting any stronger. I discovered Starting Strength and was drawn to Mark Rippetoe’s scientific explanations and philosophy. My biggest fear was becoming feeble and helpless during the upcoming last 20 years of my life, so I bought into the value of strength and hard work.  
StartingStrength.org pointed me to Matt Reynolds, who lived a manageable three hour drive away. My wife, Diane, and I reached out to him and had two sessions with him; both sessions being helpful, informative, and inspirational. I began training, reading everything I could on the Starting Strength website, and listening to the Barbell Logic Podcast.
However, two weeks after the second session with Matt, a large skin cancer appeared on my right temple. This caused concern as I had a history of multiple skin cancers in this area of my head. My life quickly became filled with doctor visits, medical procedures, surgery, recovery, and general sense of fear concerning the future. I was distracted, and my training suffered.
So now Diane and I were consulting with a radiologist in anticipation of radiation therapy to kill lingering cancer. The doctor was telling us the side effects, which included fatigue caused by the inflammation of burned skin. The doctor was telling Diane that she and I should stay in hospital-owned lodging nearby so as to eliminate most of the 3.5 hours driving time for each of 30 days. My wife told him that I wanted to drive every day so I would be home at night. That is when the doctor said, “Maybe he’s tough enough to drive.” The last two words did not matter. The first four words burned into my psyche. Unacceptable!

You see, I had bought into the Starting Strength mind set: you man up and do what it takes. I had seen many inspirational videos of young and old, male and female being brave under the bar. I appreciated the no-nonsense content of the “Ask Rip” video series. I experienced a physical and mental wake-up when, during my second session with Matt Reynolds, when he added twenty more pounds to my personal best deadlift and said “lift it.”

phillip midkiff locks out a deadlift

But nothing gripped me as did the Barbell Logic Podcast interview of John Wilson. I was in awe of this man. He trained under the bar while undergoing chemotherapy to beat cancer. John met his challenge through courage and grit, setting the standard for me, for “tough enough.” I resolved that I too would be “tough enough” to meet my challenge: to train while taking treatments and to drive every day despite fatigue.
Driving required only that I muster grit, but I needed coaching and accountability to train under the bar.  I reached out to Starting Strength Online Coaching and counted myself blessed to get coaches Matt Reynolds (who isn’t available to take new clients any more, but made an exception and specifically chose to coach me) and his excellent intern, Joel Rasmussen.
My first SSOC workout was 6 days before my first radiation therapy session. The workouts have been hard. The coaching demanding. The critique positive. The accountability always there. Now, half way through the treatments, the radiation has been, and is, painful and irritating. However, I spend my time thinking of how I will approach my next workout, not how I will approach my next radiation session.
I am halfway through the treatments. So far, so hard, but so good. I am thankful for the support of my wonderful wife, the powerful examples of the Starting Strength community, and the support, leadership, and accountability provided by SSOC and my community there. My resolve remains to be “tough enough” as I press on to the end of treatment and the goal of greater strength. 

Details about Phillip’s Training from Matt and Joel:  

If you ask us “who embodies what you look for in a client” our response is “Phillip Midkiff.” He has not missed a workout, is determined, and continues to add weight to the bar despite the near daily 4-hour commute for his radiation treatment.  

Since Phillip received a few in-person coaching sessions with Matt before signing up with SSOC, he had a solid foundation to start.  We started Phillip on a standard Linear Progression, focusing on perfecting his form on the squat, deadlift, press, and bench press. Although we are a bit less concerned about making standard 5-pound jumps every session, with his age and recovery issues due to the cancer and radiation treatment, we’ve still been able to add 5 pounds every session to squat and deadlift and 2.5 pounds on the bench and press for a full month.  

Because of the added stress of recovering from the radiation treatment, we expect to decrease the volume a bit earlier than normal, moving Phillip from 3x5 on the lifts to ~3x3 by week 6 or so, in order to keep driving up intensity (and thus force production) throughout the entire radiation treatment period.   

In the first month with SSOC, Phillip has added over 120 pounds to the bar, he is getting stronger despite the cancer, the radiation therapy, and the hours on the road. We have an initial questionnaire we send out to clients as they start with SSOC. In response to his long term goals with us, this was Phillips response: “I want to be a magnificent specimen at 80 years old.” With his attitude and resilience, he is truly on his way to this goal.


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