No Excuses Allowed: I Became an SFG II at Age 70

Greetings, my fellow students of strength. I am honored and privileged to be counted among the StrongFirst community. I recently passed the SFG Level II Certification in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. At seventy years of age, I was told I am the oldest person to pass.

Listening to the instruction at my SFG Level II Certification.

My Journey to SFG II

I was originally scheduled to take the Level II in Houston, Texas about two years ago. Two weeks prior to the Certification, I was walking my dogs when a car hit me – breaking both my legs, tearing the ligaments in my left knee, tearing the meniscus in my right knee, and leaving me with a full thickness tear in my right rotator cuff. Goodbye, Level II.

I spent a total of sixteen weeks on crutches. I will say, it was good work for the triceps. But here is where it actually gets interesting. When my wife, Julia, and I first met the surgeons at the VA hospital (I’m a Marine), they stepped out of the room to talk to each other. Upon returning, this is what they said:

When we read your records, looked at the MRI, and saw your age, we decided to tell you that you were too old for surgery. We were going to build you a brace and let you go. However, after seeing your physical condition, we elected to do the surgery. We realized your life would be ruined if we did not make every effort to fix this.

The surgeons went on to say they never recommend a multi-ligament repair to anyone over the age of 35, and they never see people in my condition at my age.

They and two other doctors told me my strength and physical condition at the time of the accident probably saved my life. At my age, the impact should have killed me, they said. Several friends also told me they thought I would never recover from the accident.

John Sullivan SFGII
The bottoms up series taught me more than I could imagine.

A Little History

I embraced kettlebells about eight years ago and passed my RKC at the age of 62. Prior to discovering Pavel’s training philosophy, I was a gym rat and cardio fanatic. But I hit some kind of wall with my training when I reached my sixties. It seemed the older I got, the weaker and fatter I was getting no matter how much I trained. I was tired all the time, too.

Of course, I was eating the typical high-carb and low-fat diet. I forget exactly how I found Pavel and the kettlebell, but three months after taking my first class, I was twenty pounds lighter and had gone from 17% to 5% body fat. Meanwhile, my workouts went from ninety minutes in length to under thirty minutes.

I actually stuck to the first half of Enter the Kettlebell for almost two years as I trained to achieve the RKC. I would train four days a week and never for more than thirty minutes. I was amazed at my results. It was clear: everything I had previously been taught about training was wrong.

The SFG Level II Cert

But let me get back to my Level II Cert. Following the surgery in June 2014, I was told I faced at least a year of therapy. Even so, I made a decision and a goal to pass the Level II in 2015. People told me I was crazy. They said I would be lucky to be walking correctly by then.

I parted ways with my physical therapist when I told her that prior to surgery I was doing a pistol on my left leg while holding a thirty-pound kettlebell. She said, “Why do you even want to do something like that? You are a perfectly functioning seventy-year-old. You can walk.” And that was goodbye to her.

For over a year, I created my own rehab program based on StrongFirst principles and strength training. My workouts were usually about forty minutes long and I trained four times per week. I did a lot of joint mobility and Original Strength training. It was months before I could do a good snatch or swing due to the knee surgery.

During this time, I was very guarded while practicing presses and get-ups due to my torn right shoulder, but it made me focus on form. I was actually able to press the 24kg kettlebell with my right arm and do a get-up with the 28kg, all with a full thickness tear in my shoulder. Unbelievable, right?

kettlebell windmill and jerk
Working on my SFG II skill set.

The Cert itself was a phenomenal experience. The energy from all the participants really carried me. I came away from the SFG Level II Cert with a new appreciation of the StrongFirst brotherhood/sisterhood and some new insights on training people.

This may sound strange, but the bottoms up series taught me more in a few minutes about breathing behind the shield, tension, connecting the anterior chain, and proper front squat form than everything I had done up to that point. I also believe the windmill and bent press are serious learning tools that I am going to start teaching people early in their training. These lifts just seem to “force” you to move correctly.

Aging Is Inevitable – Getting Old Is Optional

I will be 71 in fewer than forty days, and I feel stronger and better than when I was in my twenties. I can climb a rope without my legs. Don’t believe me? Check out the video below:

Prior to the car accident, I sustained a compression fracture in my lumbar spine, had eight pins placed in my left foot, and collected a broken right arm from skydiving, a bone graft in my right ankle from judo, and a severe neck injury from wrestling. Had I not found StrongFirst and kettlebell training, I would have plodded along with the weight machines and cardio that were getting me nowhere, and even making me worse.

Due to my StrongFirst training and my diet, I have virtually no arthritis despite all these injuries. I have none of the everyday aches and pains that so many accept as the norm.

StrongFirst really did save my life.

Special Note: If not for my incredible wife, Julia, who never lost faith in me, and the encouragement of the StrongFirst community, my achievement would not have been possible.

Photos courtesy of Pamela Maliniak.

63 thoughts on “No Excuses Allowed: I Became an SFG II at Age 70

  • An amazing and truly inspirational story, thank you for posting it. At 60 years old I have been wondering if it were over-ambitious of me to think about working towards doing SFG1. Now I’ve read this I believe it IS possible and will now be my goal. It will add new purpose to my training. 1st goal, though, Simple standard by the end of the year.

  • John,

    Thanks for sharing your story with us…and what an amazing and inspirational story it is.


  • Dear John (I couldn’t resist)

    Thanks for the inspiration. While I am just a youngster, 51, compared to you, I too extended my life via my level of physical fitness before my terminal cancer diagnosis over two years ago. My only treatment options for the cancer were surgical removal of the tumors. I have had two abdominal tumors removed one required the entire left lobe of my liver to be removed. I also had to have a large right shoulder labrium tear repaired during this time. I also got rid of the physical therapists during my rehab. In my opinion to be average is to be unhealthy.


  • Dr. J – you have truly turned my life around! I am so proud of you and so honored that I was able to cross you path on this journey. I hope to learn from you and wear out instead of rust out!

  • I’m a 60 year old Crossfit trainer who’s been wondering if I still have what it takes. Your amazing story gives me hope.

  • Mr. Sullivan,I too am a former marine very inspired by your article.I work with kettlebells folllowing Pavels Simple and Sinister program.Could you give more detail as to your diet.Thank you.

  • This is such an inspiring story and really goes to show that strength (of both body and mind) is a lifelong pursuit. Off to go and pick up my kettlebell now and follow your example!

  • John,

    An amazing and inspirational journey… Well done Marine. Like you I have spent most of my career doing high mileage running and some bodyweight exercises. Several years ago I developed a foot neuroma, during my last deployment to Afghanistan it got so bad I decided I had to give up on running. I went in the complete opposite direction and turned to old school strength training, started with a 5×5 program and fell in love with squats and deadlifts. I had messed around with kettlebells in the past, but about year ago I got serious with them to increase work capacity. I am stronger, have better mobility, and feel better than I ever have. Thanks for your story…

    Semper Fidelis

    Col Michael W. Taylor

  • Incredible! I believe Dr Sullivan, what you achieved physically is only an expression of your internal strength: strong mental fortitude and a whole list of loftty traits such as paitience, loyality, commitment…

  • John, I really appreciate your story.

    I have NOT grown old gracefully and quite frankly, I’ve rather gotten pissed about the whole process.

    Two months ago, just before turning 54, I started to turn it around.

    Your story is truly inspirational I am so grateful to you for sharing it with us.

    Thank you.

    • Yeah! Who says you have to get old. Wearing out is better than rusting out.
      I don’t want to be sitting on a rocker when I’m 90 saying “Man, I wish I would have……….”
      Go for it.
      Strength has a greater purpose

  • John – awesome achievement! Truly inspirational.

    Back in my late 20s (and a previous life) I worked as a labourer alongside a local builder in Northern Ireland from time to time. He was in his early 70s and I was still in solid shape, but I can honestly say I had trouble keeping up with him shovelling cement. He kept on working for another 15 years -!

    Like you he’d been in a horrific road accident in his 60s, got badly smashed up and was lucky to be alive. Don’t underestimate what you can achieve.

  • After 3 years of crossfit and up to 6 days a week. I questioned as to why I was working so hard
    Soaking wet, drenched workouts at age 61.
    Stopped going to gym and just worked out at home.
    Goals are needed for me since I am not playing sports.
    So POOF!!!!! here is a goal for me.
    Thanks for articel, a boost , a nudge to get back to gym

  • I read this yesterday and came back today to read it through again.

    The first picture says it all: Listening. Focus. Respect. Intensity.

  • Inspiring article. I would also find it interesting to know what kind of dietary changes you made.
    Best regards

    • Hello there,
      The most profound two changes I made in my diet was integrating the principles in the book “It starts with Food’ and getting on Grass Fed Beef. I get mine from Slankers in Texas… fantastic meat and great people.
      Sugar is poison for me. Once a week I eat what ever I want including some sugar.
      Usually a big sloppy cheese burger and cheese cake. Once a week. :).
      Hope this helps!

    • Pretty much Paleo as I said. I like the book IT STARTS WITH FOOD.
      Grass fed beef made a huge difference also. I could not believe how much a difference it made.

  • Dear John

    When you said you only did half of Enter the Kettlebell, that would be the same as simple and sinister correct? (swings and get ups only)

    I don’t have access to live sessions where I live so rely heavily on the Pavel’s books, youtube and ofcourse strongfirst.

    Thank you for sharing your incredible story!


    • Actually quite different that S&S although the same basic exercises.
      There is more focus on a longer swing period and a shorter get up period.
      Also done on alternate days. The warmup in ETK done CORRECTLY for 10 minutes is a workout in itself. There is so much to learn that 2 years of swings and getups and that warm up I not excessive in my opinion. I did fool with Rites of Passage but only for a few weeks at a time. Then right back to ETK basics. I did 90 swings rested a minute, then 3 sets of 60 with minute rest between sets. When this became easy I went up from a 20K bell to a 24K. Now I do 60 swings for the first set followed by 3 sets of 30. again I use the minute rest.
      Worked for me

  • It’s sad to say that my father Dr. John puts me and all my friends to shame. I keep a picture of him in my phone to show everyone who complains about all their ailments. Then I proceed to tell them what my father eats and how he works out. Everyone of them looks at me like I’m nuts. By the way almost all of my friends are on some kind of prescription drugs. My friends parents, my mother included. all have something (diabetes, heart disease, RLS, high cholesterol, etc..) Not one of them wants to believe that the food they eat is the reason they have these problems.

    Very proud to call Dr. John my Dad. Maybe one day I will be as dedicated as he is (I hope).

    Love you Dad xo

    • First – congratulations to your father. What an inspiring story. Second, may I ask what does your father eat? He mentioned previously being on a high-carb low-fat diet. What changes to his diet did he make?

      • He eats clean. There’s no measuring or starving. Just real food vegetables, protien and fruit. You can find the book on Amazon (IT STARTS WITH FOOD) by: Dallas & Melissa Hartwig. It’s not a diet, it’s a way a life. Good luck ?

  • Just yesterday, I had finished monitoring a training session for one of my longtime students, who is preparing to leave active military service. She assured me that her KBs were safely tucked away in her “household goods” shipment back to the free world, which pleased me to know–reminded her that the training was never intended to simply be a temporary pursuit while still in uniform, but rather for LIFE.

    You can bet that I forwarded this article her way as soon as I finished reading.

    • Prior to learning really good BW technique I used to fly with a kettlebell. Ive taken one on a cruise and on several flights. Delta luggage tore up my Russian Red’s Epoxy job. 🙂

  • what an incredible and inspiring personal testimony—– I suffered a severe shoulder injury back in August at age 62 after training under SFG Geoff Neupert for 4 1/2 years, primarily doing the double kettlebell lifts. My surgeon examined me and after making a remark about the incredible shape I am in even at age 62, immediately agreed to surgical repair because he recognized that I too, am FAR from being done with living a physical, robust lifestyle. I congratulate you on your results and your recent advance to SFG2 and I cannot find words to express the inspiration that comes from reading your story—-you have been injured FAR worse than I have been and yet you have accomplished the seemingly impossible. keep on keeping on………. as you have received VITAL support and encouragement from your brothers and sisters who swing the kettlebell, you are definitely passing that FORWARD!!!!!!!!!!

  • Dr John, thanks for being an inspiration. I will be retiring in several months. I wondered if an SFG cert was a reasonable goal at 65. Your story encourages me to push beyond conventional boundaries for “someone my age”.

    • Well Chuck you Know what I am going to say. :). Go for it. Age is an illusion. Aging is inevitable- getting old is optional … I trained for 2 years for my first RKC. I used the first 1/2 of Pavel’s book Enter the Kettlebell. Swings and Turkish Getups until 3 months prior to the the RKC then I added snatches. I NEVER trained longer than 30 minutes. EVER…. The 3 warm up drills are mandatory comrade along with other mobility drills like arm bars and goblets. You can do it. If I can do so can you. I weighted 128 at my first RKC. :)…. Was 64…. There are people here in this fellowship of strength that really inspire me … I met a woman with one lung who knocked out 100 snatches with one rest. Karen the latest Iron Maiden with 5 kids and age 46. These are my heroes.
      Anything I can to to help you let me know

  • Dr. John, I enjoyed your story and would like to pick your brain about training. I am an attorney in Sylvania, Ohio. I am 71 years old and have be using kettlebells, barbells and body weight for about 6-7 years. Prior to that I did barbell and dumbell work, for years. I am 5′ 8″ and 155 lbs. I think I am relatively strong, but do not really know since there is no one my age to compare to. My top deadlift is 300, Pull-ups Pavel style body wt only 14. Body wt. dips 18. I rarely bench press,so my best is 150 for 2 reps. I love Get-Ups, my best is 45 lbs each side singles. I also do a lot of swings but only with a 45 lb Kettlebell which is the heaviest the gym I go to has. I want to lose body fat but not weight. Bodyfat measurement is 18%. I like your percentage much better. Can you give me any hints on how to get there? I would appreciate any comments you have. Thank you. Ralph DeNune

    • You are very strong. My experience is that loss of body fat and increase of muscle at the same time requires careful attention to diet and not overtraining. Also High intensity short duration exercises like swings or snatches but only 2 x a week as they are really demanding and you don’t want to waste muscle. I like the whole 30 eating plan for 30 to 60 days until the digestion heals and you get rid of inflammation. Inflammation will cause you to hold fat. With your deadlift and pull up strength I would think you would be able to do a heavier TGU. This is just a GUESS comrade but you may need to check your mobility and stability. As I get older I am spending more time on proper form and joint function. There is now way I could press the 24K with a torn rotator cuff if my form was off. Or do a 28k getup. I am now spending at least 2 months on mobility and stability with some farmers carries and ball up work and some rope climbing thrown in 🙂
      Keep up the great work. I’ll be 71 in 3 weeks. Getting better not older

  • First off; fantastic job! Second; what was your PT’s problem? Perhaps I’m biased becasue I owned a gym for 10 years before going back to PT school, but our entire job is returning patients to their PLOF (previous level of functioning). If you can’t do that with a high level person, then you should be working in a SNF (skilled nursing), hospital, or LTAC (long-term acute care). If someone like you walked into my clinic I would be incredibly excited. It’s refreshing to see someone in their 70’s striving and achieving. I’m sorry you had a less than inspiring PT because someone like you can raise the whole energy in the clinic and inspire both clinicians and the other patients. Rant over. Keep aging the way we are meant to!

    • Hello Rich
      I was wrong to imply that the Physical Therapist was at fault. The fact that she was a PT has little or nothing to do with what I was trying to get across. She did a good job for me. What I was implying is the general attitude society has toward “seniors” and what is expected of us. I believe that seniors themselves are complicit in this mindset. They accept all the nonsense from the drug companies, and marketing people whose main motive is profit. We allow ourselves to be “advertised” into a wal-mart scooter…. It’s tragic really. When I was in Formosa (now Taiwan) in the 60’s I was a man with one leg hopping with a stick for a crutch going to work in the fields. He was strong and slim and there were no commodes there so he had to do a pistol I imagine several times a day. We have become a nation of softies.
      keep up the good work. Again I apologize for any insinuation that PT did something wrong.

  • Just great. I’ve been trying to come up with a word that means more than inspiring! Omniinspiring, Uberinspiring, Extrainspiring. Can’t think of one that it is in the English vocabulary. Such a word for such achievements does not exist. Off the scale, unchartered definitions of strength. Thank you so much for writing.

    • You are very kind. 🙂
      My head is swelling as big as the Beast….
      I am just an example of what the Strong First training system, philosophy and support system can produce. It’s all your fault 🙂

  • I took Level 2 with this man. I’ve never been so inspired in my strength pursuit as I was the day he tested into Level 2. He’s an amazing person!

    • Brian my friend,
      You should send our picture to SF. They will get a kick out of it. All 5’5″ of me and 6’10” of you…. everyone I show that picture to loves it. Thanks for the honor of supporting me throughout the weekend.
      I appreciate you.

    • No such thing as a former Marine :). Just temporarily Unassigned but always vigilant and ready. No telling when I will be needed again. Semper Fi.
      Strength has a higher purpose.

  • Respect! When I will celebrate my 70th birthday, I will surly put this story to the table… Thanks for sharing this inspirational story.

  • I have been struggling through some personal difficulties the past few years, topped off by a recent weight gain of 20 lbs., (belly, not muscle) feeling sorry for myself, generally lethargic, and carrying an overall negative spirit. One of the few positive aspects of my life has been my kettlebell training and this StrongFirst community. Reading this article, and so many of the articles brought to us by StrongFirst, ignites a tremendous will within to keep moving forward and look at every situation and see and proceed with a positive light – and truly BELIEVE that we can do so much more than we have done. This story by Dr. Sullivan is yet another example of the passion and strength that we all have access to when we choose to commit to a StrongFirst attitude. I am thrilled that i am only 50 and have 20 years to catch up to Dr. Sullivan, SFG II. Thanks for the inspiration … i will be re-reading this article many times.

    • Hello Keep Lifting,
      We ALL hit barricades in Life. That’s life. When I get to meet Our Maker I think he will say something like.”Well John how did you like that ride”. :).
      Courage in not the absence of fear, its action in the face of fear. I give people who are overweight and out of shape a lot of credit for even showing up at the gym and doing something about it.
      Keep up the good fight. There really is a light at the end of the tunnel and its not a train 🙂

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