Hello, my name is Marvin and I am a Starting Strength Coach (SSC) based in Singapore. I am proud to say that I am one of only five people in Asia with this credential. Legend says that its passing rate is at 15%, and I happen to be in that group on my first try.
I quit my full-time job and dedicated 16 months of my life to learn, understand, and apply the knowledge before finally flying to Denver to attend the seminar. Compare this to my first Personal Trainer certification that I took after studying for an hour and passed with 88%. You can understand why there’s such a gap in knowledge and also experience in the field.
Many people might ask, is the SSC credential worth getting? I would say yes. From a business point of view, we have clients from 6 continents, 23 countries. Some clients fly in from other countries just to meet us for a few days and fly back home. We have cases where they’ll make a day trip to Singapore, train for 2 hours, and immediately go back home. A few clients especially adjusted their travel itinerary to Singapore. We are forever grateful that people put so much trust and resources to meet us.
However, the biggest joy of my career as a Starting Strength Coach is the impact that I can make to the people under my care. I am so lucky I got a chance to meet Shaun (who was at that time the only SSC in Southeast Asia) and to be able to train and learn under him throughout my journey. I am also fortunate to be allowed to watch all of Shaun’s clients when they workout. They were patient enough to let me try to coach them when I started learning.
This month, I’m going to share some stories about how I decided to transition my career from business operation management to barbell coaching. I will also share how Shaun mentors me on becoming an SSC. So here is just part 1 of my “Road to becoming an SSC.”
The day that I met my mentor
It was Mayweather vs. McGregor that day. I booked a session with Shaun after knowing that there’s a Starting Strength Coach in Singapore. It was 26 August 2017 and I already registered myself for a lifting meet in October. It was a big deal to have an SSC in Singapore, knowing that it’s such a difficult thing to acquire, and the coaching was nothing short of excellence. That day I squatted 100kg for 3×5, pressed around 40kgs, deadlifted around 100kg as well. I can’t remember my bench.
However, it was not my first-day lifting weight. I started around a year earlier and trained with my friends through a program called Stronglift 5×5. I got injured a few times during that one year. Nothing serious, but I can attribute the injury to my lack of knowledge of doing the lifts and the lack of efficient programming. So after the session with Shaun that day, it was easy for me to decide to join his group class: Wednesday at 7:30 pm and Saturday at 10:30 am.
The day I wanted to become an SSC.
One day, I saw a lady in her 60s coming to the gym using her bicycle. Her name is Patricia. Pat cycled around 7.5km from home to the market and the gym amidst Singapore’s aggressive traffic (locals would agree). Pat is very slim and tall. To be honest, she looked quite frail at that time. However, she carried her heavy groceries into the back of the gym with no problem.
She changed her shoes and started warming up for squat. 20kg, 25kg, 30kg, 40kg and more. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I can’t believe that a 62 years old lady was still this active and strong, especially when she mentioned that she started training because of osteoporosis. Whatever she does must have been working. True enough, after a year, she rechecked her bone density. She was no longer having osteoporosis.
My parents are slightly younger than Pat. I am curious whether I can do this to my mom and dad, and also myself 30-40 years down the road. Strength training is everyone’s key to maintain their quality of life and taking care of your loved ones as we age.
I believe to this day that there’s always demand in service or product that improves the quality of life. Still, unfortunately, there are too many misconceptions about barbell training that scares people who need it the most, the older generation. I also think that the information about barbell training has never been as readily available as now. I believe more and more people will pick this up.
At that time, I was working for a Japanese apparel brand. I joined them knowing that they are providing our customers with excellent quality products that people need. I stayed for five years with the company believing that one day I can run my own business with a business model that I trust. Once I understood how effective the Starting Strength method was, I realized that I would enjoy coaching and helping people to get stronger more than managing a retail business.
The day I became an intern.
Then, Shaun’s gym was still less than a year old. His business was growing, but that night, I happened to be the only person in his class. We went to have dinner together after the session, and I asked him how to start learning to coach people. The conversation turns into an internship offer, which I gladly accept. The condition of the offer was that I need to finish reading the blue book (The Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training) before I start.
It was enlightening. You know when the sky opens, and the light of God shines at your face? It’s that moment when you know your life will change.
As an intern, I will come two days a week, during my full-time job’s off day, which I usually set to be on Wednesday and Saturday. A typical day in the gym starts as early as 7 am and end as late as 9 pm. During the coaching sessions, my task was to help clients load the weight, and just to watch and learn. Occasionally Shaun will ask me questions and let me coach his client for a set or two. He usually asked, “Can you see that? *insert some form error* “. If I say yes, then he will say, “Fix it!”. During the earlier days, most of the time I just froze. I didn’t know what to do.
A lot of times I can’t see what the issue was. I didn’t understand the movement model enough to be able to see the deviation. A lot of time I will need to record videos of the lifter, just to review and ask again after their session. It was overwhelming, yet I can’t think of the faster way to learn than to spend your days doing it.
The process of Shadowing
In 1971, Gunnar Johansson published a study regarding the perception of human motion by the movement interaction of the leading human joints, represented by 13 lights (one at the head, one on each side of the shoulder, elbow, wrist, hip, knee, and ankle). He found from this experiment that humans are very adept at recognizing the natural human movements from the organization of the lights. Even when some portions of the lights are removed, we can still make sense of the action done.
If you are interested, you can watch the video here.
Just like seeing all these 13 lights as once, we can observe a complete human motion from head to toe. This observation is called global reception. Observing global movement allows a more straightforward view of the general pattern of movement. As a coach, comparing the global movement to the model can be very useful in understanding the general deviation before narrowing the focus more closely on the specific part of the movements. We call this local reception.
I often asked Shaun during those times, what should I see first? He said, “EVERYTHING”! It’s evident that when he said that, he had internalized the movement model that he’s teaching. He was able to grasp the lifter’s movement pattern as a whole and to spot any deviation from the standard just by eyeballing it within a second. If we are still in the Gunnar Johansson experiment, Shaun is the example of being able to observe how all these lights move relative to each other at once.
Based on the global observation of the movement, he could decide to zoom in more to a specific part of the lifts. For example, when the depth of the squat was questionable, he would move to a better angle and locally observe the relative position of the crease of the hips to the top of the patella.
For a beginner like me, I needed to do just the opposite. If I turn on all the lights and try to interpret all the visual information at once, I will be overwhelmed. Instead, I needed to think more locally by only switching on a few lights in a specific body part. For example, in a squat, I just need to ensure that the depth is okay until it becomes automatic to determine the depth faster and effortlessly. Then, I can move on to check the other lights and more lights at once.
At one point, I was starting to be able to notice more and more errors just by looking. I began to be able to fix more errors as well, but I saw a lot of lights locally as separate systems. I made mistakes by telling my clients,” GO DEEPER! – SQUEEZE YOUR BACK! – KNEES OUT!” – “LOOK UP!”. Imagine receiving those cues within 2 seconds, how would you react?
I fell victim to the common beginner coach syndrome to fix too many things at once because I didn’t know how to prioritize. I didn’t have a full understanding of the model to see the errors as a whole. A few mistakes in the lifts can happen because of just one main reason. A very experienced coach, like Shaun, can distil all of the information in the movement to one or two cues that fix most of the errors happening. If that cue doesn’t work, they would have other cues in their arsenal to help their clients.
So as my knowledge expands and my experience grows, I was able to understand how these lights interact with each other, how one aspect of a movement can influence the other. I became more efficient in giving cues. I know which one to fix first based on priority. It took me three months of this process before Shaun started to entrust me with a client instead of just following him coaching. More about it next month!