I Failed the SFG Level II Strength Test

I failed the SFG Level II strength test. That’s how my Level II Certification weekend started, so I might as well start this article that way, too. For those who are unfamiliar, the Level II strength test is a one-arm press with a half-bodyweight kettlebell. For me, that was the 48kg bell.

On my first attempt, I barely made it up halfway. The Master Instructor who was running the Level II, told me, “Go get your head right.” I stalked around for a bit, tried again—and failed again.

SFG Level II Strength Test
Close only counts in horseshoes.

I’d come to Level II to pick up the Beast and put it over my head. I came to demonstrate what I’d learned and practiced and get that coveted Level II Certificate. I came to show that I was technically sound and deserving of the title I sought.

These were the wrong reasons.

I had succeeded at the press previously, and my training had been on point all the way up until the Certification in Chicago. What was going on? What was I missing?

It wasn’t my training. It wasn’t even my mindset. I was strong, capable, determined, and confident. Some nerves, maybe, but no more than caused by the excitement of any StrongFirst event.

What I was missing was a sincere and deeply personal reason—a worthy why. Technical know-how and strength are not enough. Nor is mindset, even. What I was to learn was that I needed to give my training a little space to breathe, and more than likely so do you.

Experiencing the SFG Level II as a Student

Over the course of the weekend, I made seven total press attempts. Each one got further than the last. Number seven was as close to lockout as a person can get without actually getting it. I held the bell there for close to thirty seconds, and then failed again. I knew I would succeed on number eight. But then we did a deliciously awful ten-minute clean and jerk workout, and after that there was no gas left in the tank. All other skills and tests went fine, but the press was not to be.

All weekend, I had been listening intently, trying to find the trick—that “magic bullet”—that would help me get this press. It never came. I was listening too closely. I was caught up in the details of technicality and couldn’t see the forest for the trees.

At Level I, I was made dizzy by the detail of so many movements. In contrast, at Level II, I kept hearing, “It depends.” Especially in regards to the bent press. Which, although it has become one of my favorite movements to perform, can be a rascal to coach. Obviously I’m not saying that Level II is without technical merit. Instead, I would say it is plenty technical, but with smoother edges.

I couldn’t reconcile what that meant while I was actually immersed in the Level II Certification weekend. There was something more nuanced about the coaching. Something creative. Our Master Instructor would go on to tell us, “I am so not a science person. If I assert anything scientific, it’s only as a way to express an art form.”

Indeed, SFG II was all about taking coaching to the next level—rendering it into an art form. And this is a way harder thing than the technical stuff.

Experiencing the SFG Level I as an Assistant Coach

A few weeks after my Level II experience, I got my first opportunity to assist at an SFG Level I Certification. This was as amazing, if not more so, than actually attending as a student. There’s simply nothing like being surrounded by so many strong, intelligent, and talented people. It raises you higher just sharing the same space. Not to mention that your fellow coaches and the students are of course looking to you to be better, stronger, sharper than you were the last time.

SFG Level I
Guiding candidates through the get-up at the SFG Level I Certification.

Of my StrongFirst experiences thus far, assisting was by far the most cerebral. Lots of good questions came from the candidates, and all my hard work up to that point paid off in my confidence that I belonged there to answer them. But one thing in particular really stood out: the obsessive level of detail in many of those questions from the candidates.

Generally speaking, I’m a big fan of detail. But my Level II experience was still nagging me—that there’s something more to all this than technical detail or strength. And it wasn’t until the end of my weekend of assisting that I figured out what it was.

The students who performed the best on the Level I tests were not necessarily the strongest. Nor were they the most technical. Sure, they had some of both of those things. But the main thing was that they were automatic. They had practiced relentlessly. Mindset didn’t even seem to matter anymore, because it was already a done deal in their heads. There was no question. No chance to worry.

The most successful students knew why they had come, and it was not to pass the Level I snatch test. It was something more. Something that made the snatch test and skill tests cake for them. This was an added nuance to the positive attitude I’m always preaching. Even if you have a clear endpoint and a positive attitude during your journey, you still need to know where you are starting from and what your core motivation really is. Success begins with a purpose. And a question. “Why am I here?”

So, Why Are You Here?

I entered my Level I with no particular expectations. StrongFirst was entirely new to me, and though I practiced hard, I did not know the organization well enough to be deeply invested in it. I knew I wanted to be there, and I knew I wanted to learn. I was prepared and open minded, and so it went well.

At my Level II, I was mostly prepared. But I was anxious. I was overthinking everything. Checking my phone on breaks and fussing over the weird rubber turf of the venue. Wondering if I was going to look tough in any of the photos they took (not so much). And my unstated but definite goal was to pass that press test.

It was a poorly chosen goal. I should have come in with something loftier. Specifically, to learn to coach like the masters who were all over the place at this event. I should have slowed down enough to ask why I was there, and made sure the answer I gave myself was the right reason.

At Level I, they told us we would be practicing and refining the basics for the rest of our career, but the truth of it is that I and many others had approached it looking for the step-by-step instructions that made us worthy of the title “Coach.” We came for our checklists and expected to leave with a certificate. But it doesn’t work like that. Because no amount of technical know-how can substitute for a seasoned coach’s eye. That’s what I was missing at my Level II: I was aiming too low.

The details of it all—the technicality and the positioning and everything—this stuff is all in your manual. It’s a treasure trove like no other document or book out there. The StrongFirst manuals are as straightforward, clean, and concise as it gets. If you want details, they’re there.

But you do not attend StrongFirst events primarily to pass the tests. You’re there to build yourself into a better athlete and better coach. Ask all the questions you want, but the answers that will help you in the long term, as both a coach and athlete, are not the testing standards.

SFG Level II Certification
That’s me in the bottom left, enjoying the company of strong, intelligent, and talented people.


In case you missed the byline on this article, I did end up getting the press only three days after I returned from assisting. I hadn’t really pressed much in the weeks since attending my Level II. I hadn’t become significantly stronger. Standing around in a black shirt and long pants in the San Diego sun while assisting at the Level I had not imbued me with super powers.

All that changed was that I got out of my own way. I felt more confident from coaching at the Level I. And something I had heard at every single StrongFirst event finally clicked. You’re not picking up the kettlebell and running through a checklist. “Shoulders even, eyes fixed, glutes tight…” Even if your attitude is on point, you’re not going to analyze a 48kg bell over your head.

In my case, that press was not going up if I was inspecting every aspect of my position before starting. It was not going up if I was thinking of passing my SFG Level II or what that certificate would look like on my wall. And it most definitely wasn’t going up if I was trying to look good while doing it.

It only went up because I stepped up and said, “Time to press this here weight.” The weight never mattered. What mattered was what was on the other side.

Check our schedule for an SFG Level I or SFG Level II in your area.

Greg Woods
Greg Woods is a strength and movement-focused personal trainer and endurance coach. He believes all humans should be knowledgeable about and train in as many modalities as they can, as evidenced by his many and varied certifications including: SFG II, MovNat, Z-Health, CrossFit (with specialty courses in endurance and gymnastics), USAW, and NASM. His special interests include mobilization for heavy lifters, corrective exercise, neurological training, run form, and convincing people they can do more than they thought possible.

After 2000+ hours coaching CrossFit, Greg has been broadening his horizons with ever more kettlebell training, gymnastics, and natural movement – specifically focusing on these principles in his own personal training company started in 2015: Structure Strength and Conditioning.

He also recently opened a small gym, Legitimate Movement, in Durham, NC with his good friend Kevin Perrone.

In his spare time, Greg Woods writes fiction and loves to travel
Greg Woods on Facebook

11 thoughts on “I Failed the SFG Level II Strength Test

  • I scrolled down to see what I thought would be a mass of comments about how amazing this article was. I found this article very insightful and well done.

    “Do not throw your pearls before pigs” rings true based on some comments, but thank you, Greg, for putting this out there for those looking to learn.

    • Great article man. I like your writing style. Sometimes you have to use a lot of words to say very little when that little thing is very important.

      I love the ‘mindfulness’ angle that whoever picks and edits these articles is following.

      I’m up for my SFG1 soon. I WAS not so much stressing about the test as focusing on it.

      “In October I gotta do snatches”

      Thanks for reminding me why the journey of building up to that number is more important.

      In October I get to do snatches better.

  • So in short you were not able to press the weight earlier because you were overthinking…..and later when you stopped overthinking and started feeling the weight and some higher purpose it went up?

  • You must be new to StrongFirst, Chin. Welcome. A central tenet of StrongFirst is “strength has a higher purpose.” It’s core to this organization and community.

  • Greg …

    Regardless of how your article is received … you know how to write.

    At the heart of your article is the idea that we need to ask “WHY”. Why lift? Why get strong? Why aim for a PR?

    Asking “Why” is a good life practice not just something to apply in the gym.

    Examine the “Why” you are doing something will often help you crack the nut on “How”.

    The StrongFirst coaches, as a group, are the best trained instructor/coaches in the business.

    StrongFirst instructors are more than glorified gym rats and DI’s … they are ‘life coaches’ who are transforming peoples lives through the keystone habit of a disciplined strength & fitness practice.

    That’s a big “Why”.

    Keep scribbling, you got skills.


  • “In his spare time, Greg Woods writes fiction” Of course, clearly evident in the overly descriptive manner of expanding a single point into an entire article. Your opinion that the reason you couldn’t press half bodyweight was that you didn’t have a “Higher Purpose” like everybody else who passed easily. Your last lines read like the brochure of some hocus pocus New Age hyper-spirituality, or a teenager who takes himself too seriously.

    So you effectively handicapped yourself by trying to “look good” while pressing – you just weren’t physically prepared to complete the lift with the self-imposed difficulty. Changing to a non ego-related goal allowed yourself to drop those handicaps. You rationalized that having a “Higher Purpose” was a more ideal goal to have and that your original goal was not worth pursuing, in order to justify to yourself that it was fine to drop that goal to pass the test. Objectively speaking, you failed to complete what you set out to do and you compromised on your goal. On one hand it appears that your ego was the barrier to passing the test, on the other, you were just too weak to handle your original goal and pass the test. It’s all a matter of perspective.

    Look, as adults we prioritize, consider and make choices. And then take responsibility for those choices. People do whatever the hell they want for their own reasons. Unless it’s criminal and/or cause for potential injury, there’s no reason some are more right or more wrong than others. Some motivations appear to others to make your life more difficult, but if you can justify them to yourself and you’re happy about it, there’s nothing wrong- they’re just things you consider important. If you chose to change your goal, that’s fine, you did it for yourself. That’s all. No need to write an entire article for something so trivial.

    • “No need to write an entire article for something so trivial.”

      Didn’t you just write a whole long, self-important comment for something at least as trivial as the article? Hypocrisy at it’s finest and most tone deaf.

    • Hello Chin,

      I think your post is hyper critical of Greg who is sharing his emotional and thought process to a failed lift that had a lot of self imposed positive and negative consequences. Chin don’t I think your points or comments are “objective”. In the future please be kind and courteous with your comments. It seems to me, interpreting from what you posted, it seems you have already have learned this facet of knowledge. I could be wrong. None the less, just as the strong first community welcomes all levels of physical fitness, I think we should show the same courtesy and respect to whomever posts an article to the forum. I have learn a lot from these posts. Chin, with your comments I think you have hindered everyone that comes to this blog the freedom to express their feelings and thought about how to achieve strength. To the future contributors of this blog, please feel free to write what you want, how you want and as much as you want. Thank you for all that have posted in the past.


    • What I enjoyed about your article, Greg is that you use your name. No hiding behind something. True character rather than hiding as a critic.

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