My SFG-1 Weekend Experience

I attended the StrongFirst Girya level 1 certification between September 14th and 16th in Tacoma, WA. During the three day event I learned a lot about myself, the StrongFirst organization, and what I need to work on both physically and mentally within myself moving forward. I did not achieve the instructor certification, but I did get the training manual and coaching cues that will allow me to tell others how to safely and efficiently use kettlebells using their system.

I came into the weekend thinking that a B would be acceptable to pass. It’s not. This was an incredibly arrogant position I had taken on, thinking that I could do most of it without doing all of it. I was working with an SFG-1 trainer, Evan Supanich of Vive Fitness (between June and September), who would tell me while I was doing my turkish get up that they would “dock me” during the certification for not corkscrewing my shoulder at a full lockout position going up or going down. I figured hey I have the majority of the movement patterns down, no big deal if it’s not 100%. 90% is close enough right? No. It has to be to the standard.

[addition] Evan is an incredibly excellent coach. I want that to be 100% clear. He had about 11 weeks to work with me and had to decide between fixing every little micro deficiency in my form, while ignoring the fact I could only press my required weight bell 3 times, or he could work on getting me strong really quick and we would hope for the best on getting through the skills portion. Perfect form without being able to push the correct sized weight would be a fail regardless, getting strong enough to do the exercises at the required weight at least would give me a fighting chance.[end addition]

The standard

The standard can be funny. The one skill I did demonstrate 100% was the squat. That actually makes me happy that I passed this one as I had trouble with squatting correctly 2 years ago. I was a knee forward sitter / squatter, meaning I would shoot my knees forward instead of shooting my butt back to initiate the movement. I still do that if I try a straight arm overhead squat. But my regular squat is solid.

Anyways, there is a part of the standard where you must “grunt” to start moving up in your squat. Technically its to tighten everything between your neck and your pelvis so you protect your spine. I never grunted during practice, I just exhaled hard and brought myself back up to standing. So during the assessment I had to remember to “grunt” to pass. Did it do anything for me? No. Did it pass their standard? It sure did.

If you’re interested in pursuing your SFG-1 I would highly, highly suggest you find out what the current standards are and make sure you meet everything to a T. Do not go in thinking that you can get away with a thing here or a thing there not being perfect. That was a bad presumption on my part that cost me.

[addition] Please don’t think I’m making fun of, or don’t understand the importance of the standards. The standards are created by scientists who are constantly making micro adjustments (which is why people need to recertify every 2 years to learn what the scientists learned) to train people in the safest and most efficient manner. If you perform the exercises to the standard you reduce the risk of injury while also targeting the correct muscle groups to get the most bang for your buck from the exercise.

My number one issue to work on

From my test alone, my number one issue was with my shoulder not being corkscrewed in. That means I’m not getting the lat engagement I need, or the upper back muscles working correctly. This can lead to issues where other muscles that shouldn’t be doing the heavy work end up doing it creating compensations or worse, injury. The “core tight” statement is to protect your lower back from injury. If you repeat too many exercises with a weak, unprotected low back you’ll hurt yourself.

If you try to do a turkish get up with an un-corkscrewed shoulder with a weight you can’t control you can blow out your shoulder or collapse to the ground and blow out your wrist and/or elbow. Safety is important.

The flip side being the efficiency of the movements. If you do the move correctly then you get the total body workout that was designed by science to be the most beneficial. This means you don’t have to go do a bunch of bicep curls afterwords. You’re working your whole body which is good.

I go into a rant further down about how 80% in my book is close enough as long as someone isn’t doing something super dangerous. They cover cueing during the certification. If someone is doing 5 things wrong, don’t try to correct 5 things at once. Correct 1, maybe 2 things at one time. If you ask them to change 5 things they’ll change nothing. If you ask for 2 you’ll probably get 1. Their methodology around cueing falls in nicely with my methodology of not stopping someone for doing 80% of the movement. The trick is to try and get them from 80% to 100% eventually.

I think combat athletes will have the hardest time with always doing the moves 100% correctly. From some the combat athletes I’ve interacted with (myself included), if something is hurt you work around it. If I have blisters on my hands I technically shouldn’t be trying to clean or snatch. Yet I did. And my clean doesn’t drop down as far back into my hips as is should as I’m dragging across my blisters. So that creates a bad movement pattern in my head. But I’m stubborn from wanting to train through it.

I can’t remember if this is on the blog anywhere but I got my first stripe on my white belt in BJJ on a busted ankle. I literally couldn’t stand on my left leg so I popped a bunch of asprin, put on an ankle brace and went to testing. Thankfully all the movements I was expected to do didn’t really involve placing much weight on that ankle and I passed.

This is the kind of mentality that exists in the combat sports world that translates poorly into the standards world of StrongFirst Kettlebells. For a combat athlete if the abs hurt you work around it. That reinforces bad movement patterns. The big lesson I learned (and that’s why I say further down I’ll give myself 18 months to pass even though one of my assistant instructors says I could do it in 3) is that I need to take the time to heal so I don’t train bad movement patterns. Training hurt is bad. If you can’t do the movement correctly for whatever reason you probably shouldn’t be doing it (that training session.[end addition]

The other thing is be ready for a lot of critiquing on your techniques, even if you have everything dialed in to a T. I walked in thinking that I knew what I was doing. I didn’t. My “pretty close” didn’t work. I would get comments like “your movement patterns are there but you’re slightly bending your wrist,” which also is a fail. If you come in thinking you have the general concepts down but aren’t 100% it’ll be a very long weekend of correction after correction with not enough time to make them all to pass.

I essentially put my life on hold in June to train for the certification as I wasn’t quite strong enough yet. So I trained for strength, and stopped doing BJJ and Muay Thai while I did it. I started to resent kettlebell training towards the end for it robbing me of my hobbies. I didn’t have my snatch down solid so I would train with blisters on my hands to try and get it down pat. I would swing heavy 32 kg bells to get more hip drive. The irony on this one is that my right arm snatch passed standard, my left arm snatch most likely would have passed standard had I not stopped at 3, due to a blister on my hand and me not feeling as strong as I should have to continue (more on that in a minute.)

So swinging a heavier bell helped me develop the hip power feeling to snatch nicely. Good. However, somewhere along the way I lost my lat connection on the swing and started using my upper shoulder muscles to pull the bell up on the heavier swings, which created a fail scenario on the swing. I gave myself too short of a runway to strength up.

I believe the proper way to take on the SFG-1 trainer cert if you’re interested in pursuing it is as follows:

Make sure you are stronger than the standards before you even think about signing up to go after it. I signed up and then went after strength.

Make sure that you don’t sacrifice form for strength. If something you do doesn’t meet standards you will not pass.

Don’t train yourself into the ground. That goes against the principles of the group. I think this is hardest for people who like things like martial arts as we have a tendency to train while sore, train while hurt, and continue going, going, going until you can’t. That mentality with the SFG teaches the body improper movement patterns when you’re trying to work around something which takes away your ability to pass.

For me at least I lost strength on test day. Anxiety, stress, travel (I’m a terrible traveler and don’t sleep well in hotels), and the general tempo of the testing left me feeling weaker than I normally am. This is why I suggest being stronger than your test bell before you even think about signing up. If you can do a bell or two higher for standards then a strength loss on the day of testing won’t matter in the slightest.

Additional worthwhile notes you should know

I had been conditioning myself for what I thought would be an exhausting physical weekend. I bought a billion snacks before I went that were full of electrolytes, protein, and carbs thinking I would need them. It’s not really that kind of weekend. You do do the movements throughout the weekend so the staff on hand can watch you and correct you where you need to be corrected, but they do it in a way that doesn’t break down the body. I was less sore training with them for 2 and a half days than I normally am doing my own training for a few hours a day.

It’s a mental exercise. It’s 2 and a half days of input on how to correct whatever it is you’re doing that isn’t standard. Evan had warned me before I showed up that if I wasn’t mentally tough that they would chew me up and spit me out. That was very true.

I felt like I walked in thinking I knew what I was doing. I had worked with Brian, going hard on training from January to June and Evan from June to September. I had worked the movements, I had done many of the drills that I saw throughout the weekend. My strength, body awareness, and posture had improved significantly during that time. But I was starting from a massive deficit of being an office dweller who didn’t ever exercise, to a muay thai guy who hung out in a forward hunched position, to a BJJ guy who hung out in a forward hunched position, to starting to work with Brian on strength training to build my body up. My posture is still improving but its not great. A lot of the MMA focused people at the certification seemed to have troubles.

Fix your posture before pursuing this cert if you have bad posture.

Or at least know how to correct it during the movements at bare minimum. Upper cross syndrome does not meet standards. I’m currently pursuing the NASM Corrective Exercise Specialization on the subject to further correct myself and will be working with Evan on this as well.

Anyways, be prepared for people to come over and correct things that need to be corrected. I wasn’t ready for that. I thought I knew what I was doing. Within the first hour or so I was being corrected on my swing. I thought my swing was solid. Evan had picked up on a shoulder shrug I had developed the week before I went. He had also picked up on some rotation I had going on. My assumption is that came from trying to power up too quickly with the larger bells. Again, mind state of get the job done as opposed to do what you can correctly.

My weekend started to fall apart as soon as I heard my swing wasn’t correct. I knew what Evan had said but didn’t fully absorb that. Mental exercise, remember? Then it further fell apart when I couldn’t find a spot on the floor to follow along with the bodyweight get up drill. Remember I was under the assumption I could walk in, do things about 80% correct and pass.

For me in my general practice that’s my standard. If I’m teaching someone something and they do it 80% correct I’m happy, as long as the other 20% isn’t some super terrifying that could cause them harm. I want them moving and winning and being successful.

This cert isn’t that. They want you 100% dialed in. It’s a brand standard. This isn’t your local fitness professional that you go visit for an hour a few times a week who cheers you on while you work out. These are people who have to hold you to the highest of standards to maintain the quality of their brand. Somehow my brain didn’t make that connection until I literally just wrote that sentence.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” – Socrates.

Try to go in with that mentality. I did not. I went in thinking I knew what was up and quickly learned I didn’t. And my brain didn’t like hearing that. It’s a mentally taxing weekend. I wanted to bail the first day during the lunch break because my ego couldn’t handle the amount of corrections I had coming my way. These corrections include the way you sit while you listen, so that’s where my fix your posture point really comes into play. I wound up with rug burn on my hands by the end of the weekend from sitting the way they corrected me into sitting, which did indeed effect my get up come test day.

Do ask questions when they come over to correct you. I realize now that I paid for a service for them to fix what was wrong with me. That’s literally what I (and future you whose reading this) are paying for. It’s not paying for a long workout, like I partially expected and conditioned for. It’s paying for them to tell you what you’re doing that isn’t 100% and them telling you what you can do to fix that. Things started to smooth out for me when I started asking questions, which was during day 2. I had comments on my squat not being as deep as it could go.

Personal rant – Being that the squat is something I worked on from July ’16 to present day I’m very very touchy about this subject. I used to round like crazy around the shoulders and go knees forward. Thankfully, I don’t do that anymore. I have slight rounding at the top which I’m continuing to work on. Also, I know how deep I can go before I round out of control. So I go to there. I actually avoid a workout class now that has moving squats as my form starts to go and I don’t enjoy it. I’m happy with my kettlebell front squats for now. The point is I’m very sensitive towards my squat.

So they came over to give me pointers on my squat. They said my spine wasn’t completely straight. So I asked “Am I completely rounding out of control?” This was the sensitive me asking. The answer was no so I continued doing what I was doing. And I passed that skill.

If you’re sensitive to critiquing like I am, asking questions is a good way to internalize and humanize it. Hearing that you’re doing something wrong can be hurtful. Asking for clarification in exactly what it is that you’re doing wrong so you can internalize it correctly and figure out what to do from there with the information can soften the blow and help you grow as a human being.

Will I pursue the certification later in the future? Maybe. I’m definitely doing the corrective exercises first to fix my posture. [addition] Talked with one of my assistant instructors, my posture isn’t as bad as I internalize it to be. This is one of those issues where I myself have a negative body image and need to work on it. Evan suggested meditation. I heard twice in a week that I need to get out of my own head. I’ll try meditation. [end addition] I’m not going to set myself up with such a short runway again. If I go after it it’ll be 18 months or so down the road where I’m not beating myself up. I don’t want to skip out on my BJJ training or Muay Thai training again. It’s a cool certification with a very high bar. But nothing in this world is worth sacrificing everything else for.

My team leader (who I’ll be bugging to read this entire thing) told me at the end not to think of my not getting the cert this go around as a fail. He told me I made a lot of gains in a short period of time and to keep training. And for the record my walking up and saying “I know I failed miserably” was a defense mechanism to try and soften the blow for myself. I had built up wanting the cert to the point I sacrificed more than I should have – sleep, hobbies, etc. I learned during the weekend I wasn’t quite ready. Going from couch potato to SFG-1 in two years is a very steep hill. If I pushed I could probably do it in three. But I’ll let it come organically instead of forcing it.

  • I can instruct others to their standards now, I just don’t have the brand behind me.
  • I know what I need to fix in myself to meet their standards.
  • I know not to rush my training.
  • I realize their principles are completely different from the beat yourself into the ground style of training I think of from being in the MMA world.

Their system is designed to not be done to fatigue. You shouldn’t be tearing up your body needing long periods of recovery to continue. You shouldn’t be doing their exercises when your hands are torn up or your abs are so sore it hurts to cough. This was my misunderstanding going into the weekend. Like I said above, I’m less beat up from their 20+ hour 3 day seminar than I was doing 4 days of my own “prep” in a 6 day period. My back was so tight during my own 4 day training that my massage therapist had to work double time to loosen me up.

I’m going to take what I learned from them and apply it to a much smoother training protocol that helps my BJJ and Muay Thai as opposed to being in direct conflict with it. I’ll write a separate article about the crazy prep I invented for myself. Brian had sent me an actual SFG prep, that looking back I should have followed, as opposed to doing my own crazy thing.

Here’s the funny thing. I thought having those letters after my name meant the world to me. By the end of day one they mattered less to me. My interpretation of what one of the instructors said to me is that I was less standoff-ish, more comfortable, and more open to suggestions come day two and day three. I had let go of the need to have the letters. Day one was a harsh realization to me. I thought I had it in the bag. I accepted that wasn’t true by day two and on day three I had accepted my fate that this wasn’t the time for me to get those letters.

Added Unadvertised bonuses

The cert is good at teaching you a few things – you get more comfortable with having eyes on you, especially while demonstrating a skill. I used to hate having eyes on me but I had to start getting used to it for BJJ and Muay Thai so I did ballroom dancing shows to get eyes on me. The SFG-1 definitely gets more eyes on you to ease you into that comfort zone.

It also gets you more comfortable with being critiqued. I don’t think anyone truly likes being corrected all the time. But after three days of it it becomes easier.

You make friends there. I wound up hanging around with all the BJJ guys. Shocking right? Like the Muay Thai Costa Rica train-cation and the BJJ cruise I met like minded people from other places. And now I have new friends I can go train with when I travel. That’s a cool benefit.

My final advice for anyone seeking the SFG-1 instructor certification

Make sure you’re stronger physically than you need to be before you sign up. I would highly suggest going to a one day seminar before hand that has people walking around to correct anything you may be doing that doesn’t meet standard before you sign up for the three day. Setting up a cadence with a certified instructor on a monthly or quarterly basis while you’re training up to the cert would be good. And realize when they say “you’ll get docked” that means correct that immediately. Know that you have to be 100% on point. There is no B or C. This is a pass / fail system.

Condition yourself without beating yourself into the ground. Learn how to take care of your hands. Be ready for a mentally exhausting three day experience. Have excellent body awareness. And understand that you can’t force it. If you don’t pass during that three day period you can pass later. The “not everyone passes” warning on their site is legit. And try to have fun with it.

3 thoughts on “My SFG-1 Weekend Experience

  • For all the readers out there, I am Brian, Jason’s first SFG trainer. This will be a long comment, so the summary is that although you didn’t come home with initials after your name, I am still immensely proud of your accomplishment.

    Every word you said about Strong First and the kettlebell cert is dead on true. The folks at Strong First are hard asses and pride themselves on it. B+ and a nice smile won’t cut it, they want perfection, and this is why it’s one of the only certs that I respect. This is not just a brand issue, but it stems from the vast background of training Russian Special Forces, US military, first responders, and law enforcement. They train those who don’t have failure as an option (and Strong First never trains to failure!!), I’m sure they told the firearms instructor story. You also called it on the struggle for MMA fighters, there was a Muy Thai guy on my team who was ripped and scary looking but had a hell of a time with the bells because he was so tight from years of kick, punch, knee. This is another benefit of training with the SFG system, it teaches you to balance maximum tension and relaxation, this will serve any fighter well.

    You mentioned being strong enough to move the weight before attempting the cert, hence being “strong first”. While this helps, it’s not everything. A guy on my team had pecs and pipes a’plenty, lord know how much he could bench press, but he relied on his strength only, lacked the finesse for the ballistic movements, and didn’t pass the cert. The training, as you wrote about, is to work smarter not harder, and many who try to outwork bad form get spit out. Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect (I gave you that plan for a reason man!!), this thing takes TIME.

    Lastly, and most importantly, is what the initials mean to you. For me, I fell in love with kettlebells 10 years ago. I was self taught, and kettlebells have been a fixture when I train others. That being said, I wear my SFG instructor shirt all the time, no one has asked me what it means. It was a matter of pride as well as personal and professional obligation to get the initials. For you, the kettlebells were tools to help your posture and improve your fitness for your passion, MMA. I supported your quest for the cert, but see that for you the initials are not necessary. Your posture has noticeably improved, as has your strength, endurance, and work capacity. Passing on the squat is no easy feat, having two weights with a mind of their own hanging in front of you and then squatting below parallel for reps is beastly. The skills you acquired will serve you for a long time, but the pursuit of mastering those skills indeed robbed you of your passion.

    I am proud of you for the work you put in and the progress you made. SFG is probably one of the most demanding certs to attempt, and you fought that beast head on. Way to go Jason.

  • I am so proud of you Jason. This experience was grueling and extremely difficult, both mentally and physically. It is heartwarming for me to read that you are able to take criticism thoughtfully and as a way to better yourself. Your experience will surely help others.

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