StrongFirst Instructors and the Obligation of Quality

In 1998, at a much different point in my career, I wrote a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Ethics entitled Disclosure of Operating Practices by Managed-Care Organizations to Consumers of Healthcare: Obligations of Informed Consent.

My coauthors and I argued that because of healthcare’s complexity, health plans were obligated to tell consumers about their major operating practices before enrollment. Only with accurate a priori knowledge could healthcare consumers make informed decisions about which plan to join and what to expect. Empowerment through information, we concluded, was the best way to enhance quality of care systemically.

Now, almost twenty years later, I am thankfully, blessedly out of health policy and wellness consulting, but busy building my retirement gig—my kettlebell coaching practice—relying on my SFG Certification and this remarkable group called StrongFirst.

StrongFirst Instructors and the Obligation of Quality

StrongFirst-trained professionals should be as unique and transparent in presenting students with their major operating practices (i.e., their core philosophies as professional who are in the business of physical training) as they as they are in their evidence-based and disciplined approaches to training.

Given the lack of transparency and false claims that abound elsewhere in the fitness industry, taking this approach is an irreplaceable and inimitable way to build trust with a potential student.

The Fitness Industry Is an Abject Failure

Interestingly, as I have shifted from a conventional strength-training model to one built around kettlebells, I see a corollary between the arguments I made to policymakers almost two decades ago and the ones I make today to athletes and coaches in other sports, as well as everyday people looking for a sustainable, evidence-based path to better health.

The relationship between the two environments? Quality matters.

To wit: if you pursue quality above all other characteristics, you are far less likely to be disappointed than if you chase speedy, inexpensive, or gaudy outcomes that are more likely than not unrealistic, unachievable, or useless.

I can make a strong argument (and have) that the fitness industry is an abject failure. The reasons for that claim are complex and multifaceted, but the evidence to support is, as the lawyers say, res ipso loquitor. We are the fattest, softest culture in the history of Western civilization, and we are more addicted to medical care (which is marketed to us incessantly in all its unctuous forms) than we are to the unique forms of self-respect and self-reliance that derive from the planning and performance of physical work.

StrongFirst Instructors and the Obligation of Quality

If there is one element more than any other responsible for the desultory impact of the fitness industry on health, it is the industry’s commitment to the fallacious rather than the factual, and the dominance of egotism over evidence. Far from the pursuit of quality, the fitness industry is drowning in its own claims of excess (lose thirty pounds in thirty days), conflicts of interest (have I shown you around our in-house supplements store?), and narcissism (you don’t have abs—what a loser you are).

Even many sports coaches—who, quite frankly, should know much better—fail miserably at getting themselves out of their own echo chambers. In the past couple of years, my son and I have heard the following from coaches who, shockingly, didn’t know better, and, worse, didn’t care about their ignorance:

  • “Strength training is bad/dangerous for kids.”
  • “To improve flexibility, you should do long-hold static stretching. Twenty minutes daily. In fact, you can stretch while you read a book or watch TV.”
  • “Muscles in the front of the body pull, while muscles in the back of the body push.”
  • “Because of all the striking they do, boxers develop a spiral muscle in their forearm that wraps around their wrist.”
  • “To move forward with power, you should envision that your legs are contracting in a circular fashion.”
  • “This is abduction,” as the speaker brings his legs together in what is clearly adduction.
  • “Strength has nothing to do with power. To be powerful, you just need to be fast.”

And these statements just touch the surface of what people believe and say about fitness and training.

If these kinds of canards slide by without challenge or correction, we’re no better than the people who made the statements in the first place. Part of the burden of leadership is a willingness to bear loads that others avoid, including transparency and, when necessary, controversy, to ensure that the truth will out.

If you’re afraid of this challenge, then it’s hard to see how you differ from any 2:00am infomercial host selling a fitness miracle in a box. Talking about leadership is not the same as leading.

StrongFirst Instructors and the Obligation of Quality

My Commitment to Quality

As I build my coaching practice, I have made a point of letting potential students know that if they want quick fixes, platitudes, and technically sloppy instruction, they’ve come to the wrong place.

The kettlebell is the ultimate no-nonsense training tool (c’mon, it’s a black cannonball with a handle—how much more menacing and no-nonsense can you get?). In a like vein, I let people know (in a friendly way) that I am equally no-nonsense.

The following is my personal and professional commitment to quality for everyone I coach, including my family and friends who I guide as a labor of love:

  1. I will be unmistakably clear with you about why hard style training is important and the challenges that it will present to you. This is not sit-on-machines and read-a-magazine training. That cannonball with a handle, like a U.S. Marine, can be your best friend or your greatest adversary. It’s up you which one it ends up being.
  2. I will teach you how to do the Big Six kettlebell techniques the right way, adjusting as necessary based on your specific needs or limitations. This matters not just for results, but for safety. If you breach fundamental principles of safety, you can put your desire for results on hold, perhaps indefinitely. If you cannot do something well enough to benefit from it because I was inattentive in my teaching, that’s my fault, not yours. If you refuse to practice, well, you can guess where I stand on that.
  3. I will ensure that when it comes to facts, I know what I am talking about. The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Any coach who willfully misinforms a student about facts (particularly those not in dispute, such as whether strength improves health and athletic performance or the difference between adduction and abduction) is committing educational malpractice. Today, indifference to facts results from one of only two things: arrogance or ineptitude.
  4. I promise you no other result than my best teaching so that you feel competent about building a safe and sustainable kettlebell practice for yourself. Your long-term results will depend on your long-term commitment.
  5. To that long-term end, I will help you, support you (even after your contract ends) and answer your questions to the best of my ability, but ultimately you are the make-or-break piece in this puzzle. The kettlebell cannot do your work for you, make you go to bed at a decent hour, resolve your toxic relationships, or stop you from over-indulging your favorite overindulgences. Your choices will define you and form the boundaries of the progress you make.

That’s it. Five critical quality-related elements that every student of mine hears.

Not everyone is comfortable with this. There are plenty of people who want the quick fix or embrace the mythology of great results from little or no work, and far too many people who will sell this package to them. After all, the entire government-sponsored myth of improved health and reduced mortality through casual walking is based on a fiction—take 10,000 steps daily. It is a claim that is wholly unsupported by evidence.

StrongFirst Instructors and the Obligation of Quality

StrongFirst Defines Quality

As strength coaches who strive for quality above all else, we are uniquely positioned to have a singular impact on the fitness-consuming public. We are nonconformists who are dedicated to the principle that the pursuit of quality in training is its own best reward.

No matter whether or not you ever do cleans with a pair of 28kg kettlebells, you will do all you can for yourself by setting a goal, developing a plan, and working safely and correctly through that plan in pursuit of your targets. That is very nearly all you can ask of any person. And it is the only sensible path to improved risk factors, a better quality of life, and perhaps a longer life.

The dictionary defines “quality” as a degree of excellence; a standard of something as measured against other similar things. To that, I add this: a quality coach is a person who never lets ego supplant evidence, is unafraid of facts and the truth, and pursues those things relentlessly so as to empower his or her students to engage in the right thinking that leads to right action.

In the physical training world, that person more often than not has a StrongFirst credential after his or her name. Quality matters.

25 thoughts on “StrongFirst Instructors and the Obligation of Quality

  • As someone who works in a big box gym environment, I was giggling while reading this… Then I cried a little.

    We have a long way to go…

    Lead from the front.

    Thank you Vic

    • Mark,

      Thanks for your note. That lead from behind stuff never really worked for me. Not my style, as you can probably tell. Your recognition that “we have a long way to go,” is an important point of self-reflection and self-awareness that is often missing in the fitness industry.


  • What and impressive article!

    Then, I’m sure I can get the right answer of the question that I have haved a long time. It’s about breathing when doing snatch.

    The official guide of SFG I on youtube states that all the rules of swing applies to snatch and one should practice the biomechanical breathing match.

    In other clips(not official ones) however, made by SFG I or II, I can see 2-cycle pattern of breathing, which is totally different from that of the swing. They exhale when downsing, inhale when upswing, and then exhales and inhale on the top of the swing. That is different from my learning from an certified SFG II. Other points are completely same and I can’t find fault in it.

    Is it an acceptable variation, or not?

  • Thought provoking! One thought it provoked:
    Do we actually need an expensive 50 year controlled study on walking and life outcomes to tell us that walking 30 minutes a day is better for a person than being sedentary? Shouldn’t we be happy that the government advises that? I’ve heard Pavel say he doesn’t care what the research says or explanations for exercises or protocols as much as he cares that this or that system has worked and still works from experience.
    We “aren’t entitled to our own facts”, but what is a “fact” in health, fitness, and nutrition? Some scientific study will tell you that every thing we do at StrongFirst is contraindicated, and that every food you eat is bad for you. And then studies will also support what we do. Our observations through experience and consistency in a tight and controlled system at StrongFirst: the stuff works, who cares what a poorly controlled, small sample study says about the importance of avoiding any loaded hinge movement.
    Pavel has written endorsing, and countless people have used and succeeded with passive stretches while watching TV or reading a book: yet its listed as one of the examples for a miserable failure of ignorance.
    Please take the tone of this correctly. I loved this article, and it just raises its own hard direct questions with its well written, hard, direct assertions.

    • JCA17,

      Thanks for your note. I apologize for taking so long to reply to your comment, but I was on vacation, and I am one of those people who really goes on vacation. Just getting back into the swing of things now.

      You raise several really important issues, probably too many to discuss here, so I’ll go with just one, and that is the value of the published literature. Pavel is fundamentally correct when he asserts that observation and experience can often reveal more about effectiveness or ineffectiveness than studies. Small-scale observation (in the form of, first, anecdote and then case reports) is, of course, the foundation of the evidence pyramid. Whether the body of evidence about XYZ topic or method ever grows from there depends on the particulars of study funding, investigator bias and agendas (they all have them and are almost never transparent about them), and quality of the study protocol.

      I, for one, believe that the scientific peer review process is broken, and, as a result, most of the studies produced in the literature really tell us very little of value. This brings us back to the fundamental question of how, then, do we judge the effectiveness of a particular strategy and then dare to teach it to people? We watch, measure, analyze, learn, tinker, tweak and repeat the process on small scales (individuals and small groups). Because these are self-selected and highly motivated individuals, it’s really difficult to translate the processes and results to the broader population.

      Take, for example, the issue of flexibility/mobility. No area of exercise science is so poorly studied and unsettled. Because my practice’s focus is helping middle-aged adults age successfully, I tell people very clearly that if you have a pain-free normal range of motion of your joints, stretching (despite the decades-long mythology) is superfluous to your fitness strategy. The facts: there is no proven “best” (or even good, better, best) way to stretch; there is no mortality benefit (i.e., it doesn’t help you live longer while there are proven mortality benefits to both cardiorespiratory endurance and strength); and, even the quality of life benefit (i.e., does it facilitate activities of daily living?) is uncertain.

      Now, if you want to stretch because you derive satisfaction from it, and your opinion is that you feel better when you do it, go for it because unless done incorrectly or over-zealously, it’s very unlikely to hurt you. On the other hand, if you seek to greater function in a sport that matters to you (such as golf, tennis, or swimming), then you must pursue a mobility/flexibility strategy that is specific to those needs.

      I did not take offense at anything you wrote. I really appreciated your curiosity and skepticism. Thanks for writing. Vik.

  • Awesome article! Thank you Vik! I have worked in Preventive Medicine for 18 years and the principles and quality of teaching I have learned from StrongFirst is what I have been promoting for many years of health before fitness.

    • Thank you, Marius! I wish more people in Preventive Medicine took the same approach to their teaching that the people of StrongFirst take to theirs.


  • Kettlebells seem to give me a LOT more in terms of cardio and mobility training over barbells or even dumbbells. Real world strength and fitness is predicated as much on mobility and cardio as on raw muscular strength. I love my kettlebells and I love everything I have learned from Strong First!

    • Chris,

      I am with you 100%. I spent my entire adult life (from age 17 to age 56) in a conventional bodybuilding mode of training (you know the model…chest/back, legs/arms, abs/shoulders…repeat with some variation), and for cardio I ran or cycled. It was not until I took up martial arts almost four years ago that I became very aware of how my training strategies had left me strong and aerobically fit but relatively immobile. I was very good at moving in a straight line, not so good at twisting, turning, and redirecting energy.

      Enter the kettlebell! I took up kettlebells in the summer of 2014 to support my karate, and I have never looked back. I particularly like the fact that I can vary my training in any way I need to, in order to accomplish specific goals. The Turkish Get Up and double KB front squates completely changed my mobility, allowing me to progress to 3rd degree Brown Belt in just three years.

      This is a life-changing training modality.

  • Love this Vik. Six months into training for Level 1 cert currently, and colleagues of mine who are already certified have told me stories of awful mechanics during the snatch test that passed. Also, my physical therapist asked me last week: what does snatching a bell 100 times in 5 minutes have to do with being a good instructor? In our strive for quality, I didn’t have a good answer for her. What are your thoughts on this?

    • Brian,

      Thanks for the note, and I am sorry for taking so long to respond. I was on vacation and mostly offline.

      Yeah, the snatch test. My nemesis. I did not pass at the cert and did a video submission. I, too, struggled with the “why” of the snatch test…especially after I botched it at my cert.

      I think I did not have clarity about it until after I got the chance to work with a guy here in Central Missouri who is also prepping for his SFG I weekend. In helping him make some corrections to his own snatch technique, I realized (in one of those “Ahaa!” moments) just how much I had learned in pushing myself through my own snatch test.

      Yes, the mechanics during the test do break down; that’s inevitable because of the fatigue. But, for me, the process of studying and practicing in preparing for my video submission forced me to break down the movement into excruciating detail. I made myself into a student of the movement and of the mental strategy I would need to complete the test successfully.

      I realized the value of all this work only in retrospect. But it was worth it, and I do believe it makes me a better coach. Good luck!

  • Clear, concise, accurate and to the point. Seldom have I read a better piece on the honesty, integrity and commitment to values regarding the fitness industry. Very well done

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