Why I Fell in Love with StrongFirst (and How I Failed the SFG Level I)

To be honest, I did not hear about StrongFirst until the last year or so. Kind of embarrassing as a trainer, especially one who incorporated kettlebells into my students’ training programs. I was taught, vaguely, how to use them in our curriculum at National Personal Training Institute and I learned secondhand from other kettlebell certified trainers, so I thought I had the basics down.

I Am a Student of Strength

Then a wonderful student of mine told me about StrongFirst. I studied the website and amazing content, and determined StrongFirst was clearly the best of the best out there. Serendipity called and there was to be a Kettlebell Course in my hometown, Denver. This was no coincidence.

Of course, I jumped at the opportunity. The Course was headed up by SFG II Mark Snow, and I could see the level of skill he possessed and the passion he had for leading us to perfect our form on the basics. I fell in love with the system that morning. At lunch, I could not eat. I was too excited to get back and learn from Mark. That afternoon, I was like a kid that could not stop raising his hand in class. “Pick me to demonstrate, please!” “Pick me to show everyone my bad form and how to fix it!” I am not sure if the other students appreciated this or not, but no matter—we all learned a great deal that day.

Mark Snow Kettlebell Course
SFG II Mark Snow and our Kettlebell Course group—I am the little guy in the middle of the back row.

I Am a Teacher of Strength

After that Course, I studied the manual and set about practicing the basics every day. I incorporated the drills into my students’ sessions. Everyone loved it. People of all ages were learning how to safely deadlift, swing, goblet squat, press, and even get-up. We had grandmothers swinging kettlebells with safe form and inspiring others in the gym! At BBQs and parties, I could be found demonstrating how to do the get-up with a shoe. Life was good.

My eyes were fixed on my next goal—the SFG Level I Certification—but there were none upcoming in the Denver area. Then a little birdie told me there would be a Certification in Denver in just a few months. This surely happened for a reason. I registered the day it was announced and began training for it.

During this time, I had been dealing with a tragic family situation. My sister was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and I was responsible for taking care of her, as our parents are both disabled. My stress levels were off the charts, as would be anyone’s in this situation. I did my best to take care of her in hospice, run a training business and a gear review business, and still be present for my wife and dog.

Needless to say, I neglected taking care of myself. I still trained hard, but that was actually the problem. I did not allow my body, mind, and soul to rest. I did not take as good of care of myself as I should have. Less sleep, more stress, and inadequate nutrition equaled never being relaxed and recovered. This is number three of the SFG system—the yin-yang duality of relaxation and tension. I was mostly tension.

How I Failed the SFG Level I Certification
Don’t take yourself too seriously. It’s all about tension and relaxation.

I Am a Quiet Professional

The first day of the SFG Level I Certification was incredible. I loved the camaraderie we formed and the material we learned. We had one of the best, Master SFG Zar Horton, as our course leader. He was amazing to learn from—energetic, knowledgeable, and passionate in his teaching. Serendipity once again showed up as Mark Snow, the man who first taught me the StrongFirst ways, was our group leader. He was patient with teaching me to dial in my core when swinging, lock my shoulders during the get-up, and press through the ground on overhead presses. Priceless insights that have helped me become a better trainer.

Unfortunately, I injured my forearm on day two of the Cert. It was quite a sight, too. We were doing the end-of-day group workout and I was losing feeling in my left forearm. As a result, I was having a lot of trouble keeping a safe grip. I wound up launching a 24kg kettlebell right at Mark and some other instructors. Luckily for them, their ninja-like reflexes kicked in and they got out of the way in time—just as the bell went past them and into the brick wall. The only thing hurt was my confidence.

How I Failed the SFG Level I Certification
Getting cued on pressing through the ground.

A fellow student and now friend, Smilie, attended to my arm and tried to get it to stop spasming. I went home that night and iced it, stretched it, and tried to get it back to 100%. The morning of day three, I had to face a hard and embarrassing situation—I had to admit I did not feel safe doing the snatch test, nor did I feel safe even swinging the 24kg bell. This was so frustrating as I had trained for months for this opportunity and had it dialed in—or so I thought.

Life is not always fair and it does not go according to script. I told Zar and Mark about my forearm and they both advised me to not attempt to snatch test. That is when I truly gained another level of respect for StrongFirst. Safety is one of the seven principals of the SFG system. It is viewed as part of, not the opposite of, performance. So train safe, and know when to call it a day. This was something I learned the hard way that weekend, and I was grateful for the gentle reinforcement from my StrongFirst leaders.

How I Failed the SFG Level I Certification
Jarret Smilie and myself— taking it all in.

The Way I Carry My Strength Matters

As much as it humbled me to not complete the SFG Level I Certification, I learned a lot about life. I learned that strength is not only about being physically strong, but also being resilient of mind and body. I use the core principles I learned in our students’ training and in my life, and I share them with anyone who will listen.

Not only did I learn how to perform the six basic movements, as well as how to instruct them and how to implement drills, but I also gained new friends. Real friends that care about me and their effect the world. As I continued to take care of my sister, many of them reached out and offered support. It was truly amazing and I will forever be grateful. The StrongFirst community is full of great people, as strong in the traditional sense as they are strong in the heart.

Strength Has a Greater Purpose

If you have the chance to take a Kettlebell Course, then take it. If you fall in love with the system (and you will), then sign up for the SFG Level I Certification. Join the community, learn, and share. Treat your body with respect, treat others with respect, treat the kettlebell with respect, and be Strong First.

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Sean Sewell
Sean is a personal trainer and owner of Colorado Personal Fitness. He specializes in functional training for outdoor recreation. He loves using kettlebells as well as TRX with his students. He is NSCA- CPT, NPTI-CPT, and TRX Force certified.

Sean holds an American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) 2 certification. He is also the co-pilot for Engearment and is constantly testing out (and breaking) gear in the mountains.

When not training students in Denver, he can be found in the backcountry splitboarding, Tenkara fishing, hiking with his wife and dog, and drinking cold beer. Drop him a line anytime to chat about health, life, and gear: Sean@ColoradoPersonalFitness.com.
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9 thoughts on “Why I Fell in Love with StrongFirst (and How I Failed the SFG Level I)

  • Really enjoyed the article! I’m more impressed with stories like this that detail a “failure” to certify than a successful cert experience. Because ultimately, your “failure” was a definite success in my eyes. The next time I’m out in Denver (next year) with my wife and 3-year-old, I have a friend’s gym that I’m going to stop by to visit. Then I’ll stop by yours.
    Take care,
    -Ben Edwards

    • Hello Ben – thank you! So glad this resonated with you. I think we learn a lot more from failing than people think. The road to successes is never a straight line, its full of peaks and valleys – and thats why its worth doing. You get it for sure! Really honored that you would consider coming out to visit. Denver (and Colorado for that matter!) are incredible places to visit. My gym is your gym! Take care friend!

  • What a great article. What you achieved mentally is worth the price of admission alone and you know that. As to failure, that did not happen. Not everyone, including me, are successful during those three wonderful days. However, everyone in the StrongFirst family wants you to succeed and supports you in your effort to do so. There is no difference in those who finish on Sunday and those who finish by video. The outpouring of support that I received following my “failure” is one of the highlights of my life.

    • Hello Jim – THANK YOU for you wonderful and kind words. This is exactly why I fell in love with the StrongFirst community. You are proof of that. You absolutely get it! All the best to you and yours 🙂

  • Hi Sean, I am the tall guy in the top right corner of those pictures. I still wear black shirts and train every day for my sfg1. That was a good read, maybe I will see you again in class.

    Rock,
    Zach Rojas

  • “I studied the website and amazing content, and determined StrongFirst was clearly the best of the best out there.”

    Hmmmmmmmm.

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