The Ultimate Game-Changer: StrongFirst SFL

Late Sunday night, I returned home following an amazing weekend in New York City.

Had I been in NYC for a show? A night on the town? A touristy extravaganza?

Nope, even better: I was there to spend the weekend assisting at the three-day StrongFirst Barbell Instructor Certification (SFL) at Five Points Academy (to any of my readers in the NYC area: check that place out!).

Obviously, this wasn’t my first time attending an SFL; I had earned my certification last summer during what was ultimately a life-changing experience. I was honored and excited to have been asked to assist this last weekend, and curious about what would be different between the two times. Just a few of the questions that occurred to me were:

  • Would I learn as much?
  • Would I notice different things about the material and lifts that were taught?
  • How would the experience of coaching other coaches be different than working with clients and training buddies?
  • Would it be as transformative of an experience?
  • Would it be as much fun to attend the certification in a new role?

The quick answers to the above questions ended up being yes; yes; yes; similar in many ways, and unique in others; and absolutely!

But those abrupt replies obviously don’t do the experience justice… and so it is that I am taking this opportunity to write a bit about what it was about my experience as a student at an SFL that changed my life, and then explore some of the additional gifts from attending again, this time as an assistant.

The First Time Around: SFL Boston, July 2014


When I signed up for my first SFL—which was held at Skill of Strength, an absolutely incredible facility—I wasn’t yet either a personal trainer or a coach: I was a graduate student and writing coach who was working on developing the manuscript for my first book of poetry.

Why in the world had I signed up then? Because I had already been lifting for a while, and it wasn’t hyperbole to say that I had fallen in love with the barbell. Developing strength changed my relationship to:

  • my body: I had come to be grateful for it exactly the way it was and to be excited by its abilities, rather than focusing on its aesthetics and size. I learned to love it for what it could do, not long for what it “should” look like.
  • my mind: I discovered that there is a certain quality of focus that comes while setting up for—and then completing—a lift that is unparalleled. The more time I spent being present and detail-oriented when I practiced my lifts, the more present I was able to be for my life outside the gym.
  • my emotions: It’s no secret that exercise can minimize stress, depression, and anxiety, or that regular physical activity yields a plethora of cognitive benefits. Who couldn’t benefit from a bit more equanimity and focus?
  • the world: The more I discovered my potential for strength, the taller I stood and the more confidently I spoke. Conversely, the more I humbled myself and remained willing to continually improve, acknowledge my present limits, and still have faith in my future potential, the more understanding and patient I was with other people.

These benefits were so exciting to me that I began to realize that I wanted to share them with others, that I wanted to allow my path from sedentary sickness to strong, fit badassery to be of service to others. I started to suspect that it wasn’t just about me anymore.


And so I signed up. I was the only student there who wasn’t already working as a coach or trainer in some capacity, which made me a little nervous. However, I stood tall and stayed present, determined to do my best and get all that I could from the weekend.

It didn’t hurt that the StrongFirst community is so supportive and welcoming: at no point was I made to feel unwelcome, different, or less-than. Everyone there simply wanted to see everyone else succeed and learn.

First, a quick summary of the weekend—the lifts covered during the three days are the:

  • Zercher squat
  • Front squat
  • Military press
  • Back squat
  • Good morning
  • Bench press
  • Deadlift (sumo and conventional)

These lifts are taught in beautiful detail, step-by-step. Each step of the way, students go to the barbell that they share with their team members (each team was made up of four or five people) and practice the lifts: all the students who aren’t lifting are watching intently and offering coaching cues and suggestions to help each other improve. Meanwhile, the assistants and instructors are offering further suggestions and guidance to all.

Students also go through warm-ups and mobility complexes that are effective for strength training. Furthermore, there are several lectures/Q&A sessions throughout the weekend regarding barbell programming, including ways to integrate kettlebell training and conditioning with a strength training program.

As I wrote in a recent email to a good friend: “It’s an in-depth look at only a few lifts and at the different approaches to programming for those who have an absolute strength focus versus a muscular endurance focus versus a sport-specific focus versus a focus on general health and wellness for life in general. I tend to prefer this sort of learning over a superficial look at many more things. The days are long, but so fun that the time flies right by.”


In order to pass the certification, students need to pass several strength tests and technique tests; furthermore, they need to demonstrate safe and effective coaching methods and professional behavior throughout the weekend.

If a student doesn’t successfully complete a strength or technique test, he or she can retake the test within six months. I feel that this is worth mentioning because I was unable to successfully complete the military press technique test: women need to complete five reps at 1/2 body weight with impeccable form, and I was only able to complete 4.5 reps.

(Even so, I felt like a success: prior to that weekend, my 1RM on the military press was equal to half my body weight. It’s not too shabby that the methods I was taught during the weekend brought my 1RM to a 4RM! With just a bit of practice, I was able to retake and pass the test within two weeks of the certification.)

And, to wrap this up so that I can continue on to my experiences last weekend, here is how it changed my life:

It completely changed my approach to programming. As soon as I began training after the cert, I followed one of the programs described in the manual: by the end of that cycle, I was doing 2 sets of 5 reps at what had been my 1RM for both the bench press and back squat. I then followed another one of the programs exactly as written, and experienced similar gains. Since then, I have studied the information on programming in the manual and put together some of my own programs that are grounded in the principles therein, but have made them my own… and have continued to see incredible progress.

It helped me forge connections with people who share my passion for safe and effective strength training: many of the people who were there have become friends, mentors, and professional connections, all wrapped up into one.

It showed me that, beyond the shadow of a doubt, I want to be a coach and that I have what it takes to be a coach. That quality of focus that comes from setting up for a lift that I described earlier? It’s even more inspiring when it’s directed at noticing what is going on within someone else’s form and helping them improve. That rush that I get from successfully completing a lift? It pales in comparison to watching someone else’s success.

It was right then and there that something inside of me shifted. Oh, sure, I completed my master’s degree and my manuscript… but I was also diving into texts on training, anatomy, and strength training. Even though I was already working two jobs—a graduate teaching assistantship and freelance editing—I accepted an offer of an entry-level position at my gym so that I could start gaining knowledge of the nitty-gritty operations of a fitness facility.

What kind of person intentionally adds research, a third job, and extra studying into their lives when they’re already in graduate school? Someone who’s crossed a line and discovered their purpose.

Nothing was going to stop me… and so far, nothing has.

Lift It Again, Sam: SFL New York City, November 2015


I’m just going to make a confession: I’ve been staring at my screen for minutes on end, just trying to figure out how I could possibly fit this last weekend’s experience into words. I guess I’m just going to have to give it my best shot.

Let me go ahead and circle back to the questions that I listed at the start of this post:

  • Would I learn as much?
  • Would I notice different things about the material and lifts that were taught?
  • How would the experience of coaching other coaches be different than working with clients and training buddies?
  • Would it be as transformative of an experience?
  • Would it be as much fun to attend the certification in a new role?

There is no question that I learned as much. Of course, the basic material that was taught was similar between the two, but I was able to hone in on the finer points. One of the quotations from a former SFL participant that is included on StrongFirst’s website is from John “Scott” Stevens, who said:

It was like drinking from a fire hydrant, in the best possible way. The amount of information and material I leave with to be mastered will challenge me for years and benefit me for the rest of my years as a trainer.

That’s not an exaggeration. Last year, the whole certification was basically one moment of having my  mind blown followed by another: I don’t think I’d ever previously had so many “A-ha!” moments in such a short period of time.

I think it came down to this distinction: this time, I was able to focus more on not just what was being taught but also how it was being taught.

I was able to listen to the way that the peerless Dr. Michael Hartle and Phil Scarito were able to articulate the what, how, and why behind lifts, technique, and programming and hone in to how they were able to make such complex material accessible (without simplifying or minimizing the complexity!).

I compared the coaching styles of the other assistants—from the no-holds-barred directness of Ellen Stein; to the dance between vigilance, humor, and focus of Reneta Music; to the unassuming eagle eye and encouragement of Marshall Roy—and recognized the value in each of these approaches.

I was able to listen to the lectures on programming and connect them to my own experiences—for myself and the people who I’ve trained with—since my certification. What had been theoretical, new information that overflowed with talk of percentages and progressions now had roots and context within my own direct experience.

As I mentioned before, there was some difference between coaching coaches versus coaching clients or helping training buddies, but also many ways where it was similar.

For instance, cuing someone to improve their form is cuing someone to improve their form. Obviously, different people respond better to some cues than others, and this can be influenced by the degree of someone’s level of experience and knowledge of anatomy… but that process of finding the cue that makes everything click is not fundamentally different.

What was unique was the importance of going beyond cuing the person doing a lift and being aware of what the other members in any given team were noticing. If one person was setting up for a lift, I’d have his or her team members looking on from different angles to describe what they were seeing and to notice what changes happened following different cues.

The SFL isn’t just about learning how to lift: it’s about learning how to see—really see—what’s happening in the body of someone else when they’re lifting. It’s about learning how to identify good form and how to locate and correct any of the many ways that good technique can break down.

This is the good stuff right here. These are the tools that separate those who know the material in a textbook or article from those who know how to apply that information and use it to help others. This is where mind, heart, and body come together and forge exceptional coaches and safe, healthy athletes.

Was it transformative? Of course it was! I already mentioned the ways that watching the SFL leaders and assistants inspired me, but it would be completely inaccurate to say that they were the only ones who inspired me.

All of the students there were top-notch coaches and trainers from different places—from California to Costa Rica to Boston, and many places in between—and each brought so much enthusiasm, so much willingness to learn and to teach.

Before I got involved with StrongFirst, I had no idea of the degree to which the people in the fitness industry can become a family to each other. Every time I get together with someone from StrongFirst—whether it’s an old friend, someone I’ve just met, or a large group—I am blown away by their camaraderie, passion, knowledge, and kindness.

This sense of community continually inspires and energizes me along my own path of strength, as both an athlete and a trainer. Last weekend wasn’t transformative in the same way as the previous year, because now I am already committed to this new career… however, the increased depth of enthusiasm and expanded connections to this family of students and teachers of strength is no small thing! Every single person there was an exemplar of dedication and service to others.

Every. Single. Person.

Now, in regards to the question of fun: I think there was every bit as much laughter throughout the weekend as there was grunting, biomechanical breathing, and clanging of weights.

Even though we were all at the gym from 8:15 am until 6-ish each day (minus the time when we left for lunch—everyone knows that lifters love to eat!), smiles and jokes abounded and friendships were made. This was every bit as true for the leaders and assistants as it was for the participants.

You might think that 10 hours a day was enough for a group of people to be together, but oh no—the frivolity and shenanigans overflowed into dinners that lasted for hours. Each night, I got back to my hotel room smiling and excited for the fun that the next day was sure to bring.

(And, as an added bonus, when I did the strength and technique tests this time around for my recertification, I passed them all with flying colors!)

Both of the weekends that I spent participating in an SFL stand out as some of the most engaging, educational, fun, and inspiring times of my life, and I quite simply don’t have the words to say how grateful I am to be a part of the StrongFirst barbell program.

I’ve certainly carried on a lot longer than I usually do in a blog post, but I wanted to do my best to do justice to these experiences. If you are a strength coach or an athlete who wants to take your barbell training to the next level, I strongly encourage you to enroll in an upcoming SFL certification. 

And, if you’re in the Boston area and are interested in training with a StrongFirst-certified barbell instructor, please feel free to contact me directly!


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