Spencer Irvin, 4 Years and 40 Pounds


When I left the hockey business at the end of 2010 and decided to open Kurisko Fitness Training in my first 600 square foot retail space location on Waverly Road on the westside of Lansing I am sure there were many people who thought I was crazy. To be honest I do not think I am completely convinced that I wasn't.

I had a power rack in my basement, a bar, a few stall mats, and a decent set of plates. Why not?

Early on I was trying to figure out how to build a business. Also, I needed to learn a little more about training people. I was laid up for a few days with a back issue and unable to go into the gym to work. Around this time I discovered a magazine article in Men's Journal about getting strong by a guy named Dan Duane. It got my attention. I liked the idea. Train to get strong.

The article mentioned that if you could only have one book about strength training it would be Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training by Mark Rippetoe. I had never heard about it, so naturally I wanted to find it. I looked at the local chain book stores and they didn't have it. I went on to the interwebs and did a search. This website for the Aasgaard Company came up. I wasn't sure what to make of it, but the book was available on the website. I ordered it. It changed how I looked at using my power rack quite a bit. I read the book many, many times.

Around that time I was back at the pro shop I used to manage getting my skates sharpened and a young kid that I knew from Flint was now working there. His name was Spencer. I knew he was a pretty good little hockey player. He start asking me about what I had been doing. I told him I opened a small training studio. He said he would be interested in coming in to give it a try.

That was good because I needed more people to test my new found training knowledge on. People needed to try this barbell training thing I was doing. Spencer was perfect.

He was a little guy. He told me the other day that he weighed about 140-143 pounds in those days. I told him the first day that he needed to gain some weight. He did not object to this idea. Every other day he came in to squat, press, and pull. Looking back I really didn't know much about training him how to properly do the lifts, but I had him motivated to train and even doing some the lifts wrong was better than just doing shrugs.

I was just learning the Starting Strength model. I was doing the lifts myself and trying to figure out how the heck to do them correctly. Fortunately, I did not have that many clients in those days, so I could spend a lot of time reading the book and working on applying the methods. Whenever I made a new discovery Spencer and I, and our buddy Jared would try to figure it out.

Looking back I was doing a lot of things wrong when training Spencer. For starters, he was definitely high bar squatting. I really didn't know how to teach the power clean, so we just kind of avoided doing that. Deadlifts aren't too hard to figure out, but I was definitely messing them up. There was a lot that could have been improved.

We did make progress though. Spencer started off only squatting 85 pounds and over a period of linear progression, while squatting high bar and not really being coached very well, he went up somewhere into the upper 200's. Not bad for a kid who started out at 140 pounds body weight.

Spencer learned as I did. Within our first year of training I decided to head down to Wichita Falls, TX to try to become a Starting Strength Coach. That made sense. I had read the book a bunch of times and trained as many people as I could in the the model. Never mind the fact I really didn't know that much about the model.

I failed the platform miserably at my first Starting Strength Seminar. It was a tremendous learning experience. Basically, I really didn't know anything about actually doing the lifts correctly and certainly couldn't coach them. I came home armed with a bunch of knowledge and immediately started sharing it with Spencer. He was kind of confused. We literally had to start everything over again because we had been doing it all wrong.

Luckily Spencer was patient. This is uncommon for a kid who was 22 years old at the time, but Spencer is smart. He always believed in what was going on and trusted that I was not completely crazy.

We spent the next year working on getting stronger. It was amazing how much better training went once we were doing the lifts correctly. Spencer put on weight. He was eating everything that he could get his hands on. In the first year of training he put on 20 pounds of solid weight. Considering during the second half of it Spencer was playing club hockey with Michigan State University that is not too bad. And none of it was pudge.

Early on in our training quest I tried talking Spencer into trying out for Michigan State's varsity hockey team as a walk on. Honestly, this was my way of trying to live vicariously through Spencer's talent. MSU was in the midst of challenging times. They hadn't had much success since their 2007 National Championship and they were struggling to recruit top talent. I knew Spencer was as good as most players on the team. Especially, if he could put on some size and strength. I don't think he was ever as serious about this proposition as I was, but he certainly entertained the idea and it provided some motivation for our training.

He never really got a shot to tryout with the varsity team. So he played on the division 2 club hockey team instead for a year. He had some fun, but it wasn't really worth it for him to play more than a year. As time went on he became more serious in his studies and decided to pursue a more challenging major of human biology. It didn't really make sense to be practicing at 10 o'clock at night and traveling every weekend to play hockey while trying to get the most out of the education he would be paying for.

Most good hockey players eventually end up in the beer leagues and Spencer fell into a great spot playing with the best team in our area. They win our top league every year and regularly win the top division in most tournaments. The team is comprised of former NHL players, guys with European pro experience, and almost all of them played Division 1 college hockey. Spencer hangs with them just fine. When he first started playing the guys asked him where he played college and were surprised to learn that he didn't. Everyone is always suprised to learn that he only played high school, but no one is surprised that he was All-State.

Over time Spencer continued training. Slowly, but surely he put on size and he steadily has increased his strength. A big thing that helped him along in his training is becoming part of the Black Iron Training internship program. Through this program he has been able to spend time learning a great deal about the process of training people professionally. The more you coach the Starting Strength model the more you learn about it. Working with different people, who have different backgrounds and levels of training experience teaches a coach a great deal about how to apply the method in various situations. Spencer's lifting improved more and more as he became a coach. He is not a competitive lifter, just a strong kid interested in getting stronger.

Spencer lost his father a few years back. His father suffered from Huntington's Disease. Huntington's disease is an inherited disease where nerve cells in the brain break down over time. Spencer's dad started getting sick when Spencer was still a boy. His disease was tough on the family. Spencer, his older brother, and his mother worked hard to help take care of him around the clock. The last few years got very tough on them all. Spencer grew up a lot through that period. The days of missing training sessions and goofing off were done. As tough as it must have been on him, he really grew up while losing his father. Getting under a barbell has an amazing way of helping people get through tough times.

Spencer has been a huge asset to the gym. He has helped me learn a great deal as a coach. He was there right from the get go learning and paying attention to what I was trying to teach him. Over time as he started interning and coaching, he could be counted on to train clients and manage operations when I had to pursue other opportunities. He has been very patient as Black Iron has slowly grown and with the process of what it means to become a professional coach in the training business.

I have people all of the time come in interested in becoming coaches. They want to learn more about Starting Strength, they want to become huge and powerful, they want to someday open a gym of their own, and on and on. I tell every single one of them that if they are serious and they meet me half way, I will help them. The problem is they never last. The ones that are the most excited early on always seem to fade away pretty quickly. Success in anything is a long and windy road, coaching is no different. It takes a great deal of time, and most people are in too much of a hurry. So they all quit.

Spencer hasn't quit yet. He has remained patient. He has hung around through many of the ups and downs. As a lifter he has struggled to put on size and to increase strength. Nowadays he is weighing in around 180. There is still room to grow, but 40 pounds of natural size in 4 years is pretty good. He is certainly twice as strong. That is all fine and dandy, but what I am most proud of is the fact that he hasn't quit. He is still going.

Spencer is turning into a real good coach. He has struggled a lot with training and that is always a trademark of a good coach. None of it has come terribly easy for him. While he is certainly a gifted athlete in regards to playing hockey, he has never been a phenom under the bar and he has had to force feed himself to put on size. He understands what it takes to fight through setbacks, fatigue, frustration, and slow progress. Most of the type of clientele we have at Black Iron struggle with the same challenges. Having a coach who understands helps a great deal.

Spencer texted me last night and told me he passed his Starting Strength Coach written examination and was now an SSC. I certainly was happy to hear and couldn't help but feeling a little pride. He has worked very hard to earn the credential and someday he will tell that story. For now I am happy just to share this part of the experience.

Becoming a Starting Strength Coach is a big deal, but like anything else it is only worth as much as you put into it. So now he has the task of sharing his experience with others and helping them overcome obstacles just like he has had to do.

I have no doubt he will do fine. He has proven that to me over the last several years. You don't put on 40 pounds, double your strength, earn a hard science degree from Michigan State University, intern at Black Iron Training, and become an SSC in 4 years unless you know how to work. And have a little bit of fun while doing it. Way to go Spencer!!

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