Training Log

Starting Strength in the Real World

Welcome to The Judgment Zone

by Jen Smith | June 20, 2023

starting strength coach cueing a trainee

In the last ten years, a curious new trend has emerged in the world of health, fitness, and commercial gyms: the introduction of “The No Judgment Zone.” This “zone,” is exactly what it sounds like: a contrived little space where, once admitted, you are exempt from correction of any kind. You can run, jump, push, pull, and flop yourself around however you see fit – you are your own master, and pity the fool who dares judge you for it. For to judge, in this space, is worse than to err.

It’s no wonder the No Judgment Zone is so popular; in it you can get away with doing anything – or better yet, nothing. Because in a space where nothing is “wrong,” it follows that nothing can be “right,” so minimal effort is as lauded as maximum. Here, easy does work. And who doesn’t like easy? Especially for ten bucks a month.

At Starting Strength Gyms, we offer something different. We offer what might be called “The Judgment Zone.” This, too, is a contrived little space but, once entered, you will be judged. Your lifts, your form, your effort, your consistency – all of it will be observed, measured, recorded and yes, judged. And you’ll love it.

You’ll love being judged so much, in fact, that you’ll pay us to do it. Why? Because in the gym and in life, humans want to be judged. We train – and live – for judgment, every one of us, whether we admit it or not. What else drives us to improve in any facet of our lives? Forgive the disillusion, but it’s not the goodness of our hearts or our natural ambition. It’s approval – from ourselves, from others, maybe even from a higher power. We need to know that what we do matters, that our effort counts for us as much as our lack of effort counts against us. This is true in the gym, the classroom, the workplace, our relationships. The grimmest reality we could face is a world with no judgment. Because that would be a world where nothing we do matters.

At a Starting Strength Gym, everything you do matters. From your squat to your press to your deadlift, every one of your movements is studied by your coach, who then passes her assessment on to you. You are expected to apply this recommendation to your next attempt in an effort to improve it. If you do not improve it, you will be told that you did not improve it, and your coach will ask you to try again – she might even be so bold as to ask you to try harder. In other words, you will be judged. Not on your merit as a person but on the merit of your effort – although your merit as a person will certainly have a bearing on your merit as a lifter. Because if you have the courage to face judgment in the weight room, odds are you have the courage to face it in your life. Successful training – and living – comes not from a perfect performance that escapes criticism; it comes from having the spine to take criticism, and the humility to learn from it.

A good coach is like a good parent: strict, out of love. (You may wonder: does your SSC really love you? That depends on your likability. But for the sake of this argument, let’s say yes.) Case in point: we have a running joke at Starting Strength Beaverton, where a nod and “Not bad” from head coach Amanda Sheppard basically means you’ve reached Form Nirvana. This is because praise from Amanda means something. She is friendly and encouraging, but her approval is not given freely; her clients have to earn it. Yelling “Good job!” on the squat is easy on a coach, and takes two seconds. Teaching the squat correctly is hard on a coach and takes two hours. But that’s what good coaches do. They explain, they examine, they discern, they require. They judge.

It would be so much easier for your coach to take a weekend course, put on a tee-shirt and a smile, and welcome you warmly into the No Judgment Zone. But that is not a coach who cares about his client’s progress; that is a coach who cares about getting on with his day. And it’s a gym that cares about getting people through instead of getting people strong.

If you want to be a mediocre lifter and miserable person, studiously avoid judgment in the gym and in your life. The narrow, immediate relief of escaping it will soon be replaced with a broader and permanent malaise.

If you want to be a successful lifter and happy person, always seek judgment. Bear the criticism; take the heat. Acknowledging your weaknesses is a practiced skill that, with repetition, makes overcoming them easier – under the bar and in your life.

A Starting Strength client is a person unafraid of judgment. He listens, concentrates, gives his best effort and, on a good day, executes the lift to his coach’s satisfaction. That private victory goes with him out of the gym and into his day where the Judgment Zone of the world doesn’t rattle him a bit. Because really, it’s nothing compared to what he just faced on the platform.

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