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Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Set Up Is Everything: Notes and Reflections on the StrongFirst Barbell Certification (SFL)

I spent this past weekend attending the StrongFirst Barbell Instructor Certification (SFL). This was my second experience with a formal StrongFirst course (the first having been the SFG last year), and while I'm still processing a lot of the information, I'm going to try and get some thoughts out while they're still fresh in my head.

SFL Versus SFG

Naturally, there's an impulse to try and compare the SFL to the SFG. In some ways, they are very similar, but many others, they are vastly different.

The similarities: both the SFL and the SFG required, at least for me, some fairly intense prep. The strength standards for the SFL were, for someone relatively inexperienced in the barbell lifts, somewhat daunting (especially the bench press test--more on that later). While the nature of the prep was different, both courses had me putting a lot of time in the weight room beforehand.

The SFL was, like the SFG, extremely well-organized and structured. There was a plan, and it was followed. Never once was there a sense that Doc Hartle or the other coaches (Mike Perry and Joe Sansalone) were lost, or struggling to figure out what to do next. That may not sound like much, but having trained with people who were pretty much making it up as they went along, that's huge.

Both the SFL and SFG place a huge emphasis on technique and proper movement. This was not about just getting the reps was about getting them in right.

That said, for all the similarities, the feel of the two courses was very different. A large part of this is size--the SFG I attended easily had over 100 people, all broken up into small teams that were relatively isolated. Sure, there was some occasional cross-talk on a break, and some large group workouts where everyone came together, but honestly, I could probably walk by someone who attended my SFG on the street and not know it (not someone from my team, but others...possibly).

By contrast, the SFL was seventeen people, and three coaches. That meant everyone got to interact with everyone, and there was a greater collective unity among everyone in the course. I can't imagine walking past one of the people from the SFL on the street and not recognizing them. It was just a smaller, more intimate environment. And that was cool.

The coaching at both courses was excellent. Again, the SFL was smaller (just three coaches for the whole group, instead of...I don't even know how many at the SFG), but that just meant we got more attention from each coach. I got some excellent help from Doc Hartle and Joe Sansalone, and Mike Perry is always excellent to work with.

As I noted, there was a lot of information to take away from the weekend, and I'm still digesting it, but these are a few things that stood out.


Programming is one of those aspects of strength training that I really do not know enough about. This course gave me a LOT more tools to work with on that front. It's actually slightly overwhelming, and it will take me a while to process (and even longer to play with), but it's nice to have. I'm actually glad to have this information early in my strength training journey--it means I'll have a long time to experiment with it.

What You Practice Is What You'll Do (Or, How I Missed the Bench Press Strength Test)

I know, I know. I've said this before. Other, much smarter people, have said this before. It is not a new concept.

It is, however, totally the reason I missed the bench press strength test.

See, the test requires you not just to bench press one and quarter times your body-weight for one rep, it requires you to do it in a strict, powerlifting style fashion. That means a pause before the descent, a pause at the bottom, and a pause before you rack the weight.

I did not practice the pause at the bottom nearly enough, so under duress...I didn't pause. Blasted the weight right up, and then realized I had blown it. Fortunately, I have six months to submit the press on video, and I know I can make the lift...I just have to do it right. Still, it was a good reminder. You fight the way you train.

Pick A System

This came up in the SFG, but it me more clearly in the SFL, partly because of the greater depth of the programming discussions/lectures, and partly because of some other thoughts that have been rattling in my head lately.

The short version of the idea is this: pick something, anything, and get good at it. Want to try a system where you lift once every two weeks? Fine, do it. Lift twice a day? Fine, do it. But really do it. Dig into it and work at it for a significant period of time before you decide if it works for you or not.

This has some obvious carry over for martial arts as well, and probably warrants a separate post.

The Set Up Is Everything

This definitely warrants a separate post, but I can't finish writing about the SFL without talking about this. Over and over throughout the weekend, Doc Hartle emphasized the importance of a correct setup in making a good lift. The better you position yourself, he reminded us, the better the rest of the lift will be. There's a lot of carry over for this concept in martial arts and life, so I'm going to leave some of my thoughts on that for a separate, longer post.

The Bottom Line

The SFL was, like the SFG, a really amazing course, and between the two, I feel like I have a huge box of tools to play with and experiment with for a pretty long time. While I have no intention of stopping learning (there are a lot of holes in my knowledge I want to fill), the two courses together have given me a very solid foundation. I'm looking forward to growing more, and working this material some more.

Highly, highly recommended. If you have an interest in the barbell lifts, this course is worth checking out.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


This was inspired by a different source than my dabbling post, but it feels connected. 

On the wall outside the weight room at my local Y, there's a gallery of the various personal trainers who work there. You know the deal: each trainer has a framed picture with a list of their credentials, experience, and a little quote on their training philosophy. Each trainer has a list of specialties--usually a couple of things like "fat loss" and "senior fitness" or whatever.

But there is one who has, I swear, about twenty separate "specialties" listed. Fat loss, athletic performance, powerlifting, olympic lifting, injury rehab...the list just keeps going.

I don't doubt that this trainer knows something about each of these subjects, but seriously? That is not a list of specialties. That is a list of dabbles.

A specialty is an area where one has concentrated their efforts. By implication, if not direct definition, there is a greater effort put into this study than is normally reserved for that study.

Just because you've studied something doesn't mean you specialized in it.

To draw an example from the medical profession: all specialists (in that context) are doctors, but not all doctors are specialists. And the idea of having multiple specializations is ludicrous. (One of my wife's frequent complains when watching TV is that "doctors", particularly in sci-fi shows, are trauma surgeons, brain surgeons, infections disease docs...they are every specialty that the plot requires. She can handle wormholes and aliens, but that stretches suspension of disbelief too far.)

I've seen this in martial arts as well---people who purport to specialize in five different art forms, or whatever.

It's ridiculous, and should stop.

Look, I get it. Specialists are cool. But you don't need to be a specialist in order to be a good fighter, or a good teacher. There's a reason not every doctor is a specialist. Sometimes you need a brain surgeon, but sometimes you just need a general practitioner to tell you "no, it's just a headache."

If you want to specialize, that's cool, but be prepared to put time and effort in far above and beyond that of most other practitioners.

And remember that "specialization" is not a synonym for "thing I like".

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Stick Grappler commented on this post

"I find I have too broad a focus in my training, and should just narrow it down to 1 or 2 aspects/styles. Too many choices, not enough time to train them all."

Edited to add: Stick Grappler's comment got me thinking. This post isn't directed at him, particularly. The comment just made me think of this stuff.

Martial arts instructors often look down on the dabbler. The person who studies a number of different arts, often with great enthusiasm, but who is trying to learn so much that they are hindering their own path toward mastery. The disdain, on a certain level, is understandable. Most instructors have found a system, or small set of systems, that they have devoted themselves to mastering. And those on the path to mastery are rarely satisfied with just being okay, or even pretty good, at their chosen discipline. They want to be the best they can possibly be at it.

I get that line of thinking. But, in thinking about the dabbler, I have to wonder...are they so awful?

Will someone who spreads their training out amongst four or five different arts ever be as good at any one of those arts as someone who devotes themselves solely to one of those arts? No, probably not.

As a concrete example of this: I have watched good MMA fighters box with good boxers. The boxers always win, hands down. It's not that the MMA fighters aren't good, or tough, but they are in the boxers' world, and in that world, the boxer is king.

As I think of that, that's actually a very illustrative example.

The MMA fighter will not be as good at any single discipline as the boxer, Nak Muay, BJJ specialist, or Judoka. The MMA fighter can't be. For every hour they box, the boxer will box for five. If it's a race, the MMA fighter is losing.

But it's not a race: the MMA fighter doesn't need to be able to out box the boxer. That's not his sport. The MMA fighter needs to be able to fight in MMA, not boxing.

(Of course, MMA is a specialization of it's own at this point. The example isn't perfect. Still, it sort of works, especially if you take it out of the realm of the competitive athlete and just look at the average trainee.)

If you have two hobbyists: one spends a year doing nothing but boxing. The other spreads his training time between boxing, Muay Thai, and BJJ, with an occasional self-defense class. At the end of the year, the one who devoted all of his time to boxing will be a better boxer. Both, however, will probably be in better shape than when they were sitting on the couch. Both will be more competent than the average, untrained person in hand-to-hand combat. And both, presumably, are having fun.

So...what's the big deal? Really? That the dabbler will never be a master? If the dabbler doesn't care, why should the coach? Not every student can be a master. We know this.

If the dabbler is meeting their goals, having fun, and being a good student when they're in class, I'm having a hard time finding much fault with them.