Strength Coach

I was recently asked what the differences were between personal trainers,certified personal trainers and strength coaches. My verbal answer was fairly short, todays blog is the longer version and in completely my own opinion. (1)

A good strength coach is a teacher.

We teach our athletes how exercises are properly performed.  We understand the difference between exercise TECHNIQUE, FORM and STYLE.  Page 123 of the CPT book (or any exercise book for that matter) shows the technique. Things go far deeper than page 123.

Once the basic technique is grasped, we work with the individual to determine the form and style that works best for them.  Since no two people possess the same physical qualities, no two will share the same form.

Good coaches know this, bad coaches force everybody to lift the same way, which is either how the technique was described on page 123 of the CPT book, as visually memorized on YouTube, how the trainer has always done it or represents the limit of what the trainer presently knows.

Fact: Even the same athlete will not completely replicate the same exercise twice in a row, although they might look highly consistent from an external view. The best ones seem to be the best at compensating for this.

We understand that a good training for one person could be damaging to another.  We further understand that this applies to the softer skills. Even if age,experience and gender were matched, extroverts and introverts benefit from different approaches.

We can understand that there are no contraindicated exercises, just contraindicated individuals, and we can program exercise selections best suited to the individual based on that knowledge.

We look past the external view of the individual, and consider the internal view of things, what is happening inside the body during an exercises execution?

When needed,we can adapt and modify on the fly.

We have critical thinking skills along with an open-mind. Both are requirements to determine what works best for a given individual.

We put aside time and money for our own education, and we never graduate. We know our scope of practice, and the depths and limits of our skills and abilities.

(1) Unlike Physical Therapists (DPT/PT), Licensed Massage Therapists (LMT) and Registered Dietitians (RD), Personal Training is not a protected title.

I am aware of some internal policing done where individuals claimed particular qualifications/specializations and were outed by others that actually held the credentials.

Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) vs Personal Trainer.  A CPT has passed a certification exam from one of the numerous credentialing bodies, which on average are valid for 1-4 years and require a specified amount of continuing education credits to maintain.

A personal trainer has not taken any type of exam nor is held to maintaining an educational minimum. This difference in and of itself does not mean the trainer is bad nor does being certified mean the trainer is necessarily good. The CPT exams vary widely in terms of difficulty, with some having relatively high failure rates and others meant to be easily passed.

A Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) has met two requirements: (A) The hold a minimum of a bachelors degree (any field of study) and (B) completed the NSCA CSCS examination.  The CSCS is often considered the minimum qualification required to work with professional and collegiate athletes, however there are many well-regarded coaches without the CSCS designation doing the same.

A Strength Coach may, or may not hold a CSCS,CPT or any other credential.  There are individuals that “self-award” themselves this title, while having no experience in the matter.

 

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On Lifting Gear

A personal trainer posted a question on lifting gear.

“What do you all think about wearing a belt and knee wraps when deadlifting?”

My answer: “They serve a purpose. Whether it’s a good idea or a bad one depends on a number of things.”  (I could have simply said “It depends”, but must have felt talkative that night.)

Bottom line upfront: A high percentage of general population clients won’t need either one of these. Although I admit a bias towards the basic barbell lifts, I will state that not everyone will have the tolerance, available ranges of motion or force output capabilities (at least initially) nor do they necessarily need to lift according to Powerlifting standards. Being honest, they don’t even have to Deadlift a barbell.

Is the clients goal to compete in powerlifting?
Yes or No.

If yes, have they competed without any gear?

Does the trainer have personal experience and education in competitive Powerlifting, and familiar with the use of gear?
Yes of No

The third question could be argued by some, but I offer that only a person that has spent time under a loaded bar themselves, especially in competition, will truly know what another person is going through in those moments.

In the case of the Deadlift, it’s both a psychological lift and one that happens to be last in a competition.

Learning to maximize performance in gear is a skill just like initially learning the lift. These are not inactive devices and require practice. Even elite total and specialist lifters practice in their gear from time to time. If the persons form is already good, which for the purpose of todays blog I will define good form as passing Powerlifting judging standards, then gear could improve it.

If the form is crap,gear will make it crappier. It isn’t a band-aid.

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Some of my lifting gear. A pair of Inzer wrist wraps and a single-prong 13mm Inzer belt. Neither has ever been required in competition and both are infrequently worn in training, the belt being more commonly used.  Not shown is a pair of neoprene elbow sleeves (worn most days) and a pair of warming shorts which are worn only on high-volume squat days.

On Belts
Personal Notes: Before a belt is even brought up I have a set of qualification minimums. With the possible exception of Masters Division lifters, and presupposing the lifters form is good…

Does the female client Deadlift at least 1.5x bodyweight?
Does the male client deadlift at least 315lbs?                                                                               Does the client train single lift maximums?

If not, they likely don’t need a belt.

The belt is used to enhance a natural stabilizing abdominal contraction, not to replace it. The correct sizing and type need to be considered, as well as prong vs. double prong vs lever type, and there are pronounced differences in belts named Valeo,Harbinger or Golds and a belts named Best,Titan or Inzer, both in quality, durability and powerlifting federation legality.

On Wraps
Wearing knee wraps during deadlifts presents a few issues. The negatives that I’m aware of are (1) The lifter now has another variable to deal with while pulling, (2) The lifter will have to clear the wrap or else get caught on it. (3) Overly applied tension could cause the lifters legs to lockout too soon. (4) The technical adjustments in the pull and the preferred wrapping method will create an additional  learning curve and cost time that could have been better spent training the lift and it supplemental lifts and (5) It’s something I’ve not seen done with Deadlifts, even during 1000lb efforts

Wraps are strands of heavy elastic material wrapped tightly around the knees. They store energy during knee flexion in order to actively assist knee extension. Wrapping methods and degree of compression are personal to the lifter.

“Sleeves”, which could have been confused for wraps, are neoprene slip-ons and provide a bit of support for the knees and help keep them warm. Some add slightly to lifts while others do not. The knee sleeves that add to lifts are typically difficult to put-on and sometimes require special tricks to get the job done.

 

Exercise Absolutism

ab·so·lut·ism: The acceptance of or belief in absolute principles in political, philosophical, ethical, or theological matters.

A person once told me that barbell training, explosive power training and horizontal bar training were only serving as sure-fire means that I would eventually cripple myself.  The fact that the commenter looked as if they never ran into a weight was not lost on me.

Some Non-lifters will say lifters are using methods that are outdated. Outdated for what exactly is something they rarely address.

Some people who suck at using lifting straps will say that straps are cheating. If a lifting event allows straps in its rules, then I fail to see how it would be considered cheating.

People who don’t know how to use a belt (or are too fat to use one) will say belts are cheating. I own a belt and rarely use it in training.  Does the fact that I own a belt make a potential cheat?

Tall, long-legged people cry about how unfair deadlifts are, especially if they also have short arms.   Short people will complain about Atlas stone platform heights.

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There is also the possibility that someone tried it, found out they weren’t good at it within five minutes and decided NOBODY should do it.

I say “in general” because there is also the group that doesn’t know what they’re looking at. Since it doesn’t look familiar to them, it MUST be wrong.

The Bench Press performed with an arched back, as seen in Powerlifting “looks wrong” to someone unfamiliar with Powerlifting technique. In some cases, the person is also unfamiliar with Bench Pressing.  In the case of Certified Trainers, the lift doesn’t look exactly like the photo/diagram of a bench press on page 123 of the CPT book.

Oddly, it seems only smaller females are at risking “blowing out their back.” The spines of larger males and females must be immune.

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MINI-RANT: Don’t get me started on “the knees can’t go past the toes…ever” or “toes must always point forward” people when it comes to squats.  (Photo Credit: Starting Strength 3rd Ed)

Such absolutism. I wonder if the absolutists ever took the time and effort to read broadly on the subject they speak of, or if they only read things that supported their view. Did they ever make an effort to test things for themselves?

For example…
I like Bench Pressing. It’s in my programming twice per week (1)
I compete in a sport that has rules defining what qualifies as a passable lift.
I think I’m pretty good at teaching it, and I can remedy a number of commons lift errors and weaknesses.
Properly applied,I think it can be a decent post-rehab/prehabilitation exercise for the shoulder. (2)

That said…
The Bench Press (with a Barbell) is not for everyone, nor does it apply to all goals.
The lifts range of motion (outside the sport of Powerlifting) is defined by the individual.
“Down” and “Up” are the only two benching commands some trainers seem to know. If thats all they know then they have no business trying to make others do it.
It’s an exercises that people can easily over-do, often to their detriment.
It’s a lift with attributable deaths.

(1) One day is reserved for maximum effort working to the days heaviest single lift. It may or may not be a record. The second day is reserved for maximum speed,and is set to a load percentage based on the weeks maximum.  The lift variation changes every 1-3 weeks depending on my skill in the lift. This prevents accommodation in the lift and reduces the potential for injury. Some weeks I skip maxing altogether and strictly work on repetition efforts.  This type of programming is designed for an intermediate to advanced lifter, and not something I have beginners do.

(2)  A well coached powerlifting style of bench press requires engagement of the upper-back, shoulders and humeral positioning to stabilize and repetitively move a large load.  This isn’t where I would start someone, but it is a good progression that could fall within a client defined training continuum.

Lessons from Failures

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Friend: “What would you have done different in your career?”

Me: “Other than maybe learning to say “No” earlier, nothing. Everything I’ve done right,wrong or otherwise put me to where I am today.  I’m as much a product of my failures, and observations of the failures of others as I am my successes.”

My job as a strength coach is to educate and to help others reach a level of fitness using client defined exercise selections and progressions while avoiding the mistakes made by myself and others.

That’s a lot of material to draw from, and it extends to my work training other trainers.

Behind the scenes each week I spend a fair amount of time reviewing programs written by other trainers.  Every time a program is sent, I almost always wind up asking 10-20 questions about the client and their specifics.  Hour long phone conversations are nothing out of the ordinary. If this helps produce better trainers, then its time well spent.

Below are my big take aways.

First, Do no harm: Whether an exercise is a “good or bad” option depends on the client and their goal.  Does the client have the available joint ranges of motion, motor control,  tolerance or functional capacity to do what is asked?  Does the exercise fit the clients goal?  Does the program align with the trainers abilities?

Tailor: Beginners need beginner programs. I’ve seen beginner programs that if performed exactly as written, would take over 2 hours to complete.  Remember who the client is.

Balance. I will tell you to resubmit programs if I see 100 reps of push exercises and not at least the same number of pull exercises with similar magnitudes and volume. I also look at the planes of motion and energy systems being used in a microcycle.

Logic: Have a “Why?” behind every exercise in the session.  Imagine you’re on stage under a harsh spotlight explaining the why to a room full of exceptionally smart coaches.   Does the program match the client? Does the program support the goal?

Can YOU go? (Shoutout to Dan John):  Are you prescribing exercises YOU actually know how to do, or at least teach exceptionally well?  The number of times I’ve seen a kettle bell swing or basic barbell technique taught improperly is staggering.

Fact: Not every gym goer watching you is uneducated or inexperienced in lifting things. Fact II: Would you be willing to demonstrate and teach the exercise to a more experienced and knowledgeable fitness professional?

Order:  I take a triage view of things.  What are the most important things the client needs now and how can I best help them? My general order of organizing things.  (1) Client defined warm-up.  This can be tied to the main movement of the session or address issues the client has.  (2) Main movement. Normally this will be the most demanding exercise performed in the session (greatest load, highest technical demands or a skill being developed.) These are things where I don’t want fatigue sabotaging the clients efforts.  (3) Supplemental lifts: 1-2 exercises that build the main lift and address the client defined weaknesses.  (4) Accessory lifts:  1-3 exercises that “build the builders.”  Depending on whom is in front of me, I will push supplemental or accessory lifts and rotate them out as needed.

I see too many cases where exercise order seemed to be overlooked, and training to failure over-used.

Be careful with your sources of information:  Even scientific studies are not without their shortcomings. Be willing to read things that contradict what you have been taught or believe to be real.

Train the hell out of your programs:  A simple well-designed program coached well trumps a complex well-designed program coached poorly.

You never graduate

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Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Functional Range Conditioning Mobility Specialist (FRCms) course taught at the UFC Performance Institute here in Las Vegas taught by the systems creator, Dr. Andreo Spina.

Thanks to Facebook memories, it was this time last year that I attended the USPA Powerlifting Coaches course, and two years ago at StrongFirst’s Kettlebell instructor course.  I’ve also attended a number of other courses, both live and online and read constantly.

I’m not unique.

A common denominator I’ve found among dedicated coaches is that they are always studying, even when not taking official courses. I’ve known more that a few that don’t care if the course adds letters after their name or awards educational credits for recertification. How selective they are varies from coach to coach.  For them, it is more about the education, and less about the actual certification.  The certification is like the cherry on top.

This goes on, and they never graduate. They become better students.

I have also noted trends on the other end of the education continuum.

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Truth Time:  I’ve had several people offer me money to complete educational courses for them. Despite the easy money, I have never accepted any offers. The bad part is I’m sure that someone did.

BEAT THE CLOCKS: People that wait until the last weeks/days/hours to complete minimum educational credits. I put these guys one step ahead of the ones that allow their certification to lapse, but still meet grace period deadlines and several steps ahead of those that simply let the certifications lapse and never renew, or upgrade it.

I understand that sometimes life presents challenges where education demands need to take a backseat to more pressing matters. That said, this is a stress you can do without and solve fairly easily.

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Truth Time: There are certifications available that aren’t worth the paper they are printed on, and any certification is only as good as the person that holds it and what they can, or can’t do with the information.

WALLPAPER LOVERS: People that seem to be in a rush to collect as many suffixes after their name as possible, filling a wall with a huge amount of certifications.

The issue here is when newer trainers, with otherwise great intentions, try to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.  Depending on ones pre-certification background, I believe that over the course of the first one to two years a trainer should focus on learning to apply their craft on live humans.  Having a mentor in this case is especially handy.

Although it doesn’t award official education credits or letters after your name, I believe simply talking to, or observing top trainers can be highly beneficial.

 

 

Sabbatical

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I’ve been on sabbatical for a little while now, but haven’t dropped off the grid.

I parted ways with Iron Addicts Gym Las Vegas due to a disagreement regarding our business relationship.  I worked as an independent contractor for the gym, which meant I paid a monthly fee to rent space in the gym and was responsible for obtaining and retaining my own clientele along with maintaining personal liability insurance.  I was not an employee or paid by the gym in any way.

I believe the gym owners were wrong by insisting that I wear the gyms shirt whenever I trained my clients. I would not be allowed to wear personal branded shirts or any other suitable shirt.  Mind you, I had been renting space in the gym for more than two years, and this rule came out of the blue.  The gym is not a franchise operation and is Iron Addicts in name only.

This unforeseeable situation represented not only a contractual issue, but also a slippery slope. Would I be told to change the branding on my business card? What about any social media platforms that I have? How about having to perform janitorial duties on messes that I, or a athlete of mine didn’t create?

The decision to leave was both difficult and easy, and not without some follow-on pains. It was made easy by the fact that I don’t NEED to work for a living.  Fact is, I never did.

Since then, I have remained unemployed as a private strength coach.  Some of that time I believe was due to feeling down about things, but I fully accept the consequences of my decision to stand up for myself, and have put my time to very good use. I still study daily, and have two live courses already lined up. Daily study has been a habit for so long that I can’t see myself changing.

My sabbatical has allowed me to become nearly a full-time student and opened up greater time to train myself. My training log proves I’ve gotten stronger, having to give away shirts proves I gained size and I would like to think I’ve gained an I.Q. point or two from the studying. I still consult for a number of individuals,including other trainers and administrate a small international online network of health and fitness professionals.

I honestly believe I will come out of this sabbatical a better coach than I am now, and I can’t stand the thought of 2018 me being no better than 2017 me.

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Watching YouTube isn’t the same as Education.  I don’t believe there is any controversy to this opinion.  In fairness, I can say the same applies to blog sites such as this.

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There are trainers out there that consider YouTube a go-to resource.  Why do I have the feeling they view Wikipedia in the same light?

Yes, there are some YouTube sites putting out exceptional material that can either serve as an adjunct, or possibly clarify a topic through visual examples. The trick is managing to land on a page that is putting out quality information.  Overall I find YouTube to be handy and have picked up some gems over the years.

If you did you manage to land on a quality YouTube channel, the material covered can often require a level of understanding beyond what the video covers.  For example, I know that a kettle bell swing video from StrongFirst, RKC or StrengthMatters will demonstrate exceptional technique.

As a person that has attended the StrongFirst Kettlebell three and single day courses, along with working with three different SFG instructors, and having attended Dragon Doors HKC certification, I can assure you that there is a reason why half a day is spent covering the swing.  

Personally, I believe its possible to spend more than an entire day on single technique.  It comes down to how much knowledge the instructor can pass on and the level of the class.

Remember, with the possible exception of the StrongFirst single day course, people TRAINED  to be ready for these courses.  Hiring an SFG/RKC/SMK certified coach in advance is a wise idea and well worth the investment.

How well do you really think you’ll understand something when the sum of your education came from watching some YouTube videos? Well enough to apply it to another human? Well enough to pass a testing criteria under the eyes of a coach that actually does knows what they’re doing?

The world is full of  YouBoob trainers. This is a profession that sincerely needs more professionals, and less amateurs.

Be Real.