Black Iron Intern

This is guest post from Josh Kent. He is an intern we had with us earlier this year from Robert Gordan University in Scotland.

As part of the third year of my Exercise Science degree I had to find a workplace that would take me on for a 6 week work placement. We were given a list of providers but essentially had free reign to choose anywhere we wanted. I didn’t look twice at the list because I already knew what I wanted to do. I’d been reading the Starting Strength forums almost daily for 3 years; I’d read Mark Rippetoe’s books multiple times and I even went to a Starting Strength training camp in London. Now I wanted to go to the US and intern at a Starting Strength gym, and this was my excuse to do so.

I contacted Mark Rippetoe and asked if there was an opportunity somewhere. He responded to the four paragraph email I sent him with two sentences, one of which was “When do you plan to attend a full SS Seminar?”. So I bought a seat at a seminar, booked flights and let my lecturers know that I’d be missing a few classes. But the clock was ticking. The seminar finished on the 13th of November and the deadline to have my placement organised was the 11th of December. Accommodation, travel and course documents (which had to by physically signed) all had to be finalised by that date.

Chris Kurisko was my first platform coach at the seminar, which was for the squat. His name wasn’t on the seminar advertisement and so I didn’t have a chance to look him up and essentially had no idea who he was. Regardless of this fact, I really enjoyed the platform with Chris and I remember it quite vividly (the other 4 coaches were fantastic too). In-between sets he’d gather us up to offer some wisdom or throw out a little story about lifting. He came across as very approachable and very genuine.

I had an amazing weekend at the seminar, especially thanks to Amy & Danielle at Crossfit Excursion who couldn’t have been more helpful. But the end had arrived and everybody was saying their goodbyes and packing up to go home. I was standing around waiting for my ride, still none the wiser about what was happening with regards to the internship. Rip never actually told me which coach had the opening for the internship, and only one of the advertised coaches had a gym, so I wrongly assumed it was that guy. But no, it was Chris. He approached me at the eleventh hour, gave me his email and told me that we might be able to work something out.

If 5 years ago somebody told me that I’d be interning at a gym in the United States for 6 weeks as part of an Exercise Science degree, I’d have given them a strange look. At the time I’d just left home to go study English Literature, a subject I really have little interest in. However, the move to a city had put me much closer to a gym, which I joined with the desire to ‘get in shape’. Unlike analysing metaphors and reading poetry, I actually did enjoy watching the little numbers in my gym log go up, even if it was just on leg presses and curls.

So it wasn’t long before I dropped out and moved back home, which was the right decision, but one that left me with no gym. I desperately wanted to continue lifting, so my only option in the meantime was to build my own gym. I wanted the best bang for my buck, as I had neither the space nor money to get a whole bunch of equipment. It didn’t take long on google to find out that barbell training was the answer. Luckily, I had a small shed outside my house that had ceilings just high enough to accommodate a power rack. After a few hours on Amazon I’d loaded up my shopping cart and, the next day, my orders had shipped.

Naturally I bought the cheapest barbell, iron plates and rack I could find. It’s all just metal right, what difference does it make how much it costs? Well, the phrase ‘buy cheap, buy twice’ could not be truer for gym equipment. At some point you’ll want a bar that doesn’t leave chrome splinters in your skin and plates that actually weigh what they say they do. The only original piece of equipment I still use is the rack, and even that will probably be replaced someday.

In the days leading up to the arrival of my equipment I watched a bunch of squat tutorials on YouTube, which meant that I definitely knew how to squat. I could rep 245lbs on the leg press back in the commercial gym, so I confidently loaded 135lbs on the bar. I unracked it, did a half squat and… I failed. I briefly considered the possibility that maybe I had done something catastrophically wrong (did I load the bar wrong or not warm up enough?) but I was at least smart enough to quickly accept the truth. I was weak.

I had pictured myself squatting 225lbs for 5 reps on my first day; not because of ego, but because leg pressing had made me overestimate my own strength and underestimate how much weight 245lbs really was. In retrospect, my awful first attempt was a good thing, because it made me realise that I knew essentially nothing about barbell training. I dearly wanted to rectify this situation and so I retreated back to the internet and started looking for answers.

After googling things like ‘how to squat’ I started to notice some recurring terms. ‘Starting Strength’ and ‘Mark Rippetoe’ came up frequently. So I bought Starting Strength and read it. Then I read it again. Over the following months, things slowly started to fall into place. I swapped my Chuck Taylors for Adidas weightlifting shoes, got my hands on a 4 inch belt, did my power cleans and added 5lbs a week to my lifts.

I actually didn’t get very strong at first because I wasn’t doing the grocery shopping and was repeatedly being told ‘Josh, stop drinking all the milk, there’s never any left to make tea with’. This wouldn’t be a problem for long though, as the time of year for Universities and Colleges to accept applications had rolled around once more. This time however, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: Exercise Science. Surprisingly, this is a choice I would again come to regret, but the problems with Exercise Science are another discussion entirely.

The reason I wanted to pursue barbell training as a career was that I saw the amazing things it could accomplish. I watched a video where an elderly woman said she put her cane and walker in the closet because she no longer needed them anymore thanks to barbell training. I read Brian Jones’ story, a guy who deadlifted until his bones got so dense that they started to push the metal hardware out of his legs, after he was told he would never walk again. It just made me think “why the hell aren’t more people getting on board with this?”.

I packed my bags and moved away for a second time. The dread and loathing of my first journey away from home had been replaced with genuine anticipation. My new gym had fantastic equipment, despite the fact that the other members had mastered the art of permanently bending Eleiko barbells. With the freedom to buy and eat whatever I wanted, I managed to get my bodyweight up to 242lbs. I was squatting 420 for singles, pressing 160 for triples and could deadlift 405 for 5. Nothing spectacular, but it was a far cry from the 147lbs guy who couldn’t half squat 135.

But let’s get back to the internship. I touched down in Detroit on New Year’s Day and made my way through to Michigan. Chris owns ‘Black Iron Training’, a Starting Strength gym in Lansing. It was exactly the kind of place I wanted to spend my 6 weeks at. Black Iron mostly deals with the general public, which was great for me. Although athletes are generally easier to coach, smooth seas do not make good sailors.

I was surprised how quickly Chris allowed me to jump in and start coaching. Maybe it’s because I turned up with good knowledge of the Starting Strength model. In any case it meant that I got right into what I wanted, which was more practical coaching experience. Under Chris’ watchful eye I coached people on their squats, presses and pulls. Chris helped me pick up on little things I would miss, and would help me out with an alternate cue when the one I was using wasn’t working.

Perhaps the most useful part of the internship was getting to watch Chris and Spencer (the other coach at the gym) coach people on the lifts. It has been my experience that every single coach has their own unique way of solving problems. Chris, Spencer and I might have three completely different ways to solve the same problem, so getting to watch them solve problems was extremely useful for me. I have countless more cues and tricks up my sleeves now than I did before the internship.

At the seminar I went to, I failed to become a Starting Strength Coach, and rightly so. Somebody with as little coaching experience as I had at the time has no business passing. Even now, I still have a ways to go before I’ll consider flying back across to take another stab at it. However, the experience and confidence I gained by interning at Black Iron has made a world of difference and it will certainly pay off when I try to get certified again.

My primary interest is in applying barbell training to older populations, because I believe they need it more than anybody. Jonathan Sullivan (or Sully) is essentially ‘the guy’ when it comes to barbell training for older people. Prior to the internship I’d read his articles, watched his presentations and was eagerly awaiting his book on the subject. So imagine my surprise when I found out that I’d get to tag along to a couple of Starting Strength training camps that he was running with Chris.

Not only that, but Spencer took me through to Farmington to visit Sully’s gym “GreySteel” the day before I left. It was a great experience, and one that I had no idea I would be getting. Sully has a concise, powerful way of coaching the lifts and it left quite an impression on me. I learned a lot of cool things from him and I couldn’t have asked for a better way to round off my internship.

The people at Black Iron were really an amazing bunch. It was inspiring to watch Michigan’s senior powerlifting champion pulling some seriously heavy deadlifts in the run up to her next meet. It was cool to see the other interns at the gym coaching, learning and adding weight to their own lifts. But the best part was seeing the same people coming in day after day, week after week, grinding out heavy lifts and putting the work in. There was never a dull moment, and the atmosphere was always friendly.

I also have to talk about my flatmate and friend Spencer Irvin. He had a spare room that I got rent out for the duration of my internship, so I got to spend a lot of time with him over the 6 weeks. Not only is Spencer a really good coach, he’s also a really good person. He made my time outside the gym just as enjoyable as my time inside the gym, and my trip wouldn’t have been the same without him. He and Chris both have a place to stay if they ever decide to come to Scotland, as long as I don’t have to take them golfing.

The takeaway message from all of this is that, in my opinion, if you want to be an exercise professional then you need to know about barbell training. There really is no substitute for squats, presses and pulls, and if you can’t perform and coach them correctly then you’re not getting the most out of yourself or your clients. If that’s important to you then an internship at a place like Black Iron Training is the logical next step, and it might just be an experience that you’ll never forget.

I’d like to say a large thank you to Chris, Spencer, Sully and all the lifters at Black Iron Training. You were all very kind in affording me this opportunity and I wish you all the best for the future!

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