The Value of Apprenticeship | Steve Ross

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In the fitness industry, some professionals take their job seriously
– though unfortunately, many do not. Too often, personal trainers
are little more than paid babysitters for adults who wouldn’t
otherwise go to the gym. Workouts are made up on the spot, pins are
set on machines and the trainers can generally hold a conversation to
kill an hour of time. As long as the client is sweating and gets sore
the day after, they’ll call it a win and everyone goes home happy.

However, if measurable
and quantifiable progress is what they’ve promised a client, then
kneeling one-arm cable rows, hip thrusts and planks on a Bosu ball
simply won’t cut it. Instagram feeds are full of trainers who have
their clients perform dozens of exercises that all have one important
thing in common: they don’t require coaching competency from
the trainer. In fact, their selection is predicated precisely on the
basis that they don’t need to know how to teach or coach any
complex movement pattern like the squat, press, bench press, deadlift
or Olympic lifts.

There are, however,
some individuals who decide to take on the responsibility of learning
anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and programming. They then spend
years teaching and correcting movement patterns across a spectrum of
demographics to effectively help the people they’re working with.
Time is a finite resource, and when we’re trusted with some of a
person’s precious time we should have the integrity to maximize it as
best we can.

It to Win It

The Starting Strength
Coach credential is widely recognized as the most valuable
certification in the industry, and by far the most rigorous to
obtain. Potential coaches don’t even get to talk about what they know
until they have successfully demonstrated their ability to teach,
coach, and correct the major barbell exercises in front of Rip and
other staff coaches at a seminar. The pass rate is low because the
standards are high, and there is very little wiggle room. You either
know what you’re doing or you don’t – and this isn’t something you
can fake your way through. Coaches on staff know immediately the type
of candidate they’re dealing with, and if they’re prepared. It’s that

As candidates prepare for the seminar, they’ve likely spent
thousands of hours on the platform getting people stronger and
solving the complex problems that arise. As is often heard during the
Friday evening lecture, staff are there to identify coaches,
not to produce them. To have any chance of getting through the first
part of the certification process, the legwork needs to be done well
in advance.

Before the Starting
Strength Gyms franchises began popping up and affiliate gyms were few
and far between, coaches who prepared for their evaluations did so
the hard way: they had to spend years coaching friends and family,
getting one-on-one clients, and offering free sessions to whoever was
willing to be coached. The process was long, and I’m sure more than a
few potential coaches gave up when they realized how long it would
take to do it on their own. When the franchise model started and
apprenticeships became available, everything changed.

Strength Apprenticeships

The value of getting a
coveted spot as an apprentice in a franchise or affiliate gym cannot
be overstated, because it is the fastest and most efficient way to
learn what you need to know to become an effective strength coach.
Some people will inevitably view their time as a service and expect
renumeration for the hours they spend at the gym. I’ve had
conversations with potential apprentices who immediately bring up
money when inquiring about whether we can offer them a position in
Brussels. These are never the kinds of people we want – they’ve
come to us because they need our help, not the other way
around. Bringing up money right away tells us everything we need to
know about that person’s motives for wanting to come here.

The ones who are
actually deserving of one of these spots know they will be paid, but
they also understand that they’re there to receive an education, a
new career, and a fast track to a certification that is in high
demand. They ask questions about coaching, are curious about the gym
and its culture, and are eager to contribute. They know they’re
here to learn from coaches who have done it before them – the
information and experience is worth its weight in gold. After all,
had they been able to do it by themselves, they wouldn’t be asking
for our help in the first place. We love talking to people like this,
and I personally feel an obligation to pay it forward when it comes
to helping them get to where they want to go. If someone is serious
about getting it done and is in it for the right reason, then we’re
all in.

Learning from Day One

When an apprentice
walks into a Starting Strength facility, they’re immediately
immersed in an environment with dozens of lifters of varying
demographics who show up specifically to be coached. They don’t need
to spend any time trying to convince people to try barbells, because
it’s already been done for them. It’s hard to convey to people just
how valuable walking into a situation like this is. As a personal
trainer in an industry-standard machine-based gym, it takes a long
time to a build a barbell clientele on your own, and most trainers
will never get to a sufficient number. When you start as an
apprentice at a Starting Strength facility and the clients are
already there, all you have to do is show up and learn.

You get to skip the
hardest legwork that was needed to get these gyms to where they are.
In short, you’re jumping to the front of the line to ride the train
that was built by others, so that you can get to where you want to go
faster. It’s an incredible opportunity that I hope you appreciate,
and I would encourage anyone who wants to earn the SSC credential to
do everything they can to secure one of these spots. Additionally, if
you are currently working as a personal trainer and are looking make
a change, Starting Strength is now offering coach development events
to make it easier to learn more about this first hand.

Path to the SSC Credential

When I retired from
professional basketball and started coaching people in a commercial
gym, I did so for five-and-a-half years before attempting to pass the
platform evaluation. Over 3 of those years were spent solely teaching
the Starting Strength method to anyone who would let me coach them. I
paid 730 EUR (790 USD) per month in rent to the facility I was
working out of and had to spend months on the floor trying to acquire
a clientele to coach.

It’s a
less-than-glamorous activity to engage in after being a professional
athlete but it needed to be done. Clients would come and go as
Brussels is a very transient city, so the number of people I was
coaching would fluctuate on a regular basis. Many people I spoke with
had no interest in barbells and could not be talked into it, no
matter how much I went on about the benefits of strength training. I
wasted countless hours on people who never even wanted to be coached
in the first place. This is, unfortunately, part of the process if
you’re going do this by yourself.

And in total, I
paid that gym almost 50,000 EUR (54,000USD) during my time there, and
most of it was spent trying to chase down the Starting Strength Coach
credential. Had the opportunity to intern in a franchise or an
affiliate gym been available to me, I would have happily done it for
free. Knowing what I know now, the time and money I would have saved
– not to mention the amount of knowledge and experience I would
have gained – would have made my life a lot easier.

I’d have jumped at
the opportunity to learn from an SSC on the floor, in real time,
while seeing huge numbers of people eager to train that I could not
get on my own. On busy days at the commercial gym, I was working
between 9 and 12 private sessions with little or no breaks between
clients, and doing it 7 days a week. When I think back to the
mistakes I made and the problems I couldn’t solve, I cringe knowing
how fast a seasoned SSC could have guided me through those
challenging times. The funny thing is, I really believed that I was
making great progress!

World Training, Expedited

I know that coaching 9
to 12 people in one day seems like a lot of practice, but it
absolutely pales in comparison to working in one of these gyms. First
of all, the small group format of up to 8 lifters means the
apprentices receive a ton of information and learn at a much faster
rate than they would on their own. In a single class, that person
might see more than 200 reps of the squat alone, and often from
wildly different types of individuals. Try to understand what that
means for the development of the coach in comparison to working with
a few lifters individually. What they’re seeing in those 90 minutes
forces them to analyze complex movement patters from various lifters
in real time, plus ensure they’re conforming to the model of the

With more than 5
classes in a day, a full day at one of these gyms can provide the
coach with thousands of reps to watch, analyze and correct if
necessary. All the while, they have SSCs by their side, asking them
questions about what they’re seeing, which forces them to think and
accelerates their progress. I haven’t met the majority of my SSC
colleagues in person, as we live all around the world, but I’m
confident that each of them would be willing to help potential
coaches in any way they can. Apprentices at these locations can get
more done in a week than a personal trainer does alone in 3 months.
Trust me on this because, I’ve done both extensively.

Barbell Apprenticeships

At our gym, we’ve been
very fortunate with the apprentices who have come here to learn and
prepare for the platform evaluation. Though the Starting Strength
franchises would be the absolute ideal place to go, unfortunately
this isn’t a realistic option for candidates who live outside of the
United States. Currently, we have three apprentices working at
Brussels Barbell who have all made the decision to leave their homes
and move to Belgium to learn and work in our gym. They’ve relocated
from Brazil, Bulgaria, and Italy, respectively, and have all
seamlessly fit in with the lifters here. They’re learning and
improving all the time.

All 3 of them work
extremely hard, are great with our lifters, and ask questions when
they’re unsure of something. Because our gym has continued to grow,
they’re being exposed to tens of thousands of repetitions a month
and are learning to think on the fly, adapt to lifters, and make
programming changes to different demographics as needed. As they
continue to hone their skills before making the trip to Texas, we
will be with them every step of the way to help prepare them however
we can. The progress they’ve made from their first day on the floor
until now has been a pleasure to watch.

Every couple of weeks
on the Starting Strength Slack Channel there’s another announcement
congratulating a new SSC for passing the evaluations and earning
their credential. Not surprisingly, they mostly come from the
franchise gyms where they had been lucky enough to learn from the
exceptional coaches on staff and fast-track their development. Just
like the Starting Strength method itself, becoming a coach through an
apprenticeship is:

Simple: Show up and
learn from the coach.

Hard: Work to learn and
improve everyday.

Significantly expedite the rigorous process of becoming an SSC.

If you want to join the
small number of coaches who are improving lives through barbell
training, you might as well do it efficiently.  

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