Standing on the Shoulders of StrongFirst Giants

“If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” — Isaac Newton

Standing on the shoulders of giants means discovering truth by building on previous discoveries. That is exactly how I feel every time I assist at an SFG Level I Certification.

I have had the rare privilege to help as an assistant, alongside my teachers: Master Jon Engum, Master Fabio Zonin, Senior Instructor Cole Summers, and Senior Instructor Dr. Mark Cheng. I never hesitate to accept an invitation to assist. It is an opportunity to learn and teach alongside the best in the world, and to become a better teacher and student myself.

Louka Kurcer at StrongFirst Certification in Seoul Korea
Assisting in Seoul, January 2016. Photos courtesy of 이준영.

As an assistant, I am entrusted with important duties and responsibilities which all contribute to the successful outcome of the Certification. Furthermore, while maintaining the role of instructor, the student in me absorbs all the knowledge my teachers share during these intensive weekends. In doing so, I have come to realize I still have a lot to learn on the topic of kettlebells and strength.

I look back on where it all started, and I am grateful for all that has happened during the past three years. I have come a long way. My journey into kettlebells and strength began in the most unlikely of all places, and for you to understand where I am coming from, I have to tell you my story.

My Rite of Passage From Boy to Man

I grew up as an only child and my parents divorced when I was twelve. My father was an alcoholic and could not keep his job. My mom fell into deep depression and we were forced to sell our house. At school, I started hanging with the wrong crowd and soon enough, began using drugs.

I started dealing drugs when I was fifteen. It was an easy way to make money and I liked the attention. Deeper and deeper into the drug game I got, until it all spiraled out of control. Many people owed me money, I got into numerous fights with street gangs, and I became afraid for my life. I told myself I was going to do one last deal and get out.

At the age of twenty, I made the biggest mistake of my life. I made a deal that went terribly wrong. I was arrested and subsequently sentenced to an eight-year prison term.

Although I lost eight years of my youth behind bars, I believe everything happens for a reason. It was a “necessary accident” that took me through a journey of self-discovery and, most importantly, of strength. I went in a boy and came out a man.

Louka Kurcer Bland Correctional Center
My mom would come see me twice a year at Bland Correctional Center, where I stayed for over five years.

A Blessing in Disguise: Discovering My Strength

When I was taken to jail, I was stripped of my possessions. Everything I associated with my self-image: my friends, my things, my lifestyle—was gone. I had little contact with people back home. Stuck in a cell most of the day, I spent a lot of time in solitude, avoiding contact with inmates who were a negative influence. Some nights, I cried myself to sleep.

It took almost two years until I finally accepted that I was going to spend most of my twenties in a correctional institution, where my physical freedom would be limited inside barbed wire fences.

My own rehabilitation was a conscious choice. I decided I would do everything in my power to make myself into a better man and come out stronger. I spent my time in training, meditation, reading self-help books, and taking college courses. I also taught myself how to draw and paint portraits, which became a hobby.

Time alone helped to develop patience through meditation and introspection. The more I learned to calm my mind, the less I was moved by petty events or circumstances. Being patient was part of life. This kept me focused on the road ahead.

Patience, respect, honoring one’s word, strength of character, and loyalty were principles ingrained into prison culture. There were many unwritten rules and I had to honor them or face the consequences. My word was my bond and also became my reputation, and because of this I was respected.

With an abundance of free time, I dedicated myself to strength training, which became my passion. Through calisthenics, I was able to train at any time. It became the perfect mental “escape.” I could transport myself to a different place far beyond the barbed wires.

Training helped me to become strong physically, which was key in allowing me to survive. Not only did it help my confidence, but when other inmates saw me training, they knew I was not to be messed with. People knew I was serious from the way I carried myself, and my appearance deterred others from preying on me.

For years, I read all the fitness books and magazines I could. I would sit for hours, analyzing, copying, and tearing out programs from different resources. I became the go-to-guy for training within my small group of trusted friends.

One day, I came across a book called Power to the People by Pavel Tsatsouline that changed everything for me. Among the multitude of training books and programs, Pavel’s simplistic, yet highly effective approach, stood out like a diamond in the rough.

Louka Kurcer and Pavel Tsatsouline of StrongFirst
In summer of 2015, I finally met Pavel at Plan Strong in Vicenza.

I became obsessed with Pavel’s teachings. My friends and I ordered most of his books and shared them. I studied them continuously and practiced many of his programs. I received the Hardstyle magazine, where I learned about kettlebells and the “school of strength.” Along with Pavel, people like Jon Engum, Geoff Neupert, and Doc Cheng indirectly became my mentors.

About six months before my release, the Rec Supervisor at the facility ordered two pairs of kettlebells. No one knew how to use them except for me and my friends. Well, sort of. This was my first exposure to kettlebells. This awkward and unusual weight felt “heavy” compared to the more traditional dumbbell. Little did I know then…

Becoming StrongFirst – A Dream Becomes a Reality

I made the decision to become a certified kettlebell instructor once I got out. I wanted to lead others by example, teach the skill of strength and inspire young people to make better choices by sharing my story. Upon my release in 2012, I signed up for a HKC in Toronto, and that’s where I finally met Master Jon Engum. He told me about Pavel’s new organization called StrongFirst.

This was it. This was destiny speaking to me.

I immediately signed up and started preparing for the industry’s toughest and most challenging certification: the SFG Level I. It took me over a year to prepare. In November 2013, I attended a certification in Toronto. That’s where I met Master Fabio Zonin and Senior Instructor Cole Summers. The rest is history.

Today, I continue my quest as a student as well as a teacher of strength. I travel the world teaching what I love most. I share my story whenever I am invited to assist at a certification in hopes of inspiring others. In my free time, I visit incarcerated youth whose lives have been affected by drugs and violence. For some, I offer hope and strength.

Louka Kurcer Speaking at StrongFirst Certification
Sharing my story at the SFG Level I Certification in Vicenza, June 2015.

A Heart of Steel

Do not be discouraged by challenges in life. I went through hard times and came out stronger. The road ahead is bumpy and sometimes we may fall. But it is our attitude and our approach that makes us who we are. Although we may fall, we get up, stand tall, and continue our march toward the top.

Never in my mind did I think about quitting. My inner strength, my heart of steel, carried me through difficult tasks like the snatch test during that initial weekend. But the journey is not over after you succeed in passing your SFG Level I Certification. You will find there is a lot more to discover within the StrongFirst system. We are the School of Strength, and you do not go to school for one day, but you go back to the well of knowledge over and over again.

Practice and polish what you have learned. Become an expert. There are myriad intricate details within each movement, within each rep. Be curious.

Rediscover what you have “mastered” and become a student again. Sign up for another StrongFirst Certification and take on a new challenge. Find a mentor, such as a StrongFirst instructor, and shadow him. Play and never stop learning. You never know where the journey my lead you.

29 thoughts on “Standing on the Shoulders of StrongFirst Giants

  • Louka I wish you the best always! I am also glad Dennis had you as a friend. I know it made the time go a little easier and faster. Keep strong and happy always.

  • Hi Louka,
    I happened upon this site and your story by accident. Or maybe as you said above that ‘everything happens for a reason.’ I was inspired by your story, mainly because you survived 8 years of isolation. It speaks to me because I also have tried to use strength training as a way to cope with estrangement, divorce, depression and career loss. I was terrified of trying any of the free weights in the gym, which is not too unreasonable for a man over 55 with a torn medial meniscus and 100 pounds overweight. I still consider myself a beginner in strength training, but I have discovered how much better I feel from doing squats, deadlifts and pushups. I never imagined that a prescription of the deadlift for depression, can be more effective than prozac.

    I have no experience with kettlebells and never heard of Mr. Pavel Tsatsouline, but your story here has definitely piqued my interest. So I hope to learn more from exploring the site and checking out the Strength books that you mentioned.

    Thanks for sharing,

  • Louka,

    The day I met you, I decided you were a brother in strength and attitude.

    Proud of all that you have done, and eager to be on your side rising to the top.

  • Louka, I had the honor to know you by person, you are such a great person, full of energy and positive vibes. Your eyes are full, eyes which have seen a lot and want to see more. You are an amazing teacher at 360°. In and out, simply wonderful!! ?

  • Thank you for sharing this great article and story, Louka. It is very powerful.

  • Thanks for sharing your story, truly inspiring and humbling that you have overcome such adversity, and have become a teacher of strength.
    You mention that you practised meditation alongside your strength training. May I ask which kind and if you continued after you were released from incarceration?
    Best Regards

    • Hi Jesper, I studied Tibetan Buddhism while there. I practiced meditation derived from that and also Zen.
      I still continued after my release, but found it challenging to maintain my practice. I do not “sit” anymore, but apply mindfulness as much as possible throughout my day.

  • Louka, I will never forget the memories of us working on strength training. Even though we were inside prison, we were miles away in our mind. You were such a good trainer then so I can only imagine how good you are now. Also thanks for all the art lesson to. Keep doing what your doing. Everyone is soooooooooo proud of you.

  • Louka, thank you for sharing your life story.

    You were able to overcome so much adversity and turn your life around.

    It is so inspiring to know how the power of one’s mind can truly lead to major changes of attitude and lifestyle.

    You are a real life role model of what is possible when you harness your grit and determination to be the best you can be.



    • Marc,
      I hope I’ve inspired a few people by sharing my experience. Thank again for your support 🙂

  • Louka, that’s an inspiring story. Congratulations on turning your life around from the toughest of situations ( I can only imagine!).

    • Yes absolutely Rachel! We had a school there where teachers would come give us classes. I was a GED tutor there for three years.

  • Louka,

    Thanks for sharing your story, that touches hearts and melts some eyes. You are a hero, Sir. I wish you best.

    Abdul Rasheed

  • Louka.
    I have a deep respect for you and all you stand for.
    After reading this I am deeply touched and inspired and my respect which was already strong has grown beyond measure.
    You represent StrongFirst in every way. You demonstrate strength in the physical realm but also strength psychologically, spiritually and personally.
    Respect my friend and oh how honored I am to call you friend.

    • Susan, you are an amazing person. I really appreciate your words. Until soon my friend 🙂

  • Louka, man, there is no strength greater than yours – the strength to overcome your previous mindset, outlook on life, and seemingly unstoppable path toward self-destruction. You’ve gone farther on the road toward self mastery than most of us will ever go, and I’m proud to say I know you! Can’t wait to see you at a StrongFirst event in the near future!

  • Hey half of my face is shown on the StrongFirst website!!! (the picture where Louka shows the lockout)

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