Science vs. Practicality in Strength Training: Who Can You Trust?
“I’m 260 pounds, all muscle!” This is the claim I saw someone make on Facebook a year or so ago in a discussion over training protocol (fortunately I did not involve myself). “ALL” MUSCLE! I thought, NO BONES, NO FAT, THAT’S PRETTY IMPRESSIVE! Impressive that you’re alive!
For many years, practicality in strength training was the main source of knowledge. The access to the educational resources that we have today was practically nonexistent for a great deal of time. But, with excessive resources comes the misuse of those with access to such resources.
With years of under the bar experience, years of working in the strength/conditioning/performance (whatever you want to call it) industry, and a degree in the field, people always ask me who should they take advice from (especially on the internet). This is a loaded question, and one that has become especially difficult to answer considering all of the hype marketing done in the fitness industry. The important thing to consider here is that you can’t take all your advice from one place.
If one coach or trainer claims to be the end-all answer, you are likely in the wrong place. There are so many things to consider when writing a program, giving nutrition advice, technique instruction, advising recovery protocol, etc, etc. It would be unwise to assume someone were the expert in all of these areas.
There are practical points and there are scientific points to training, both of which should be included. This leaves a lot more to consider than whether or not someone is big, strong, has a degree, or whatever the case may be.
In either case, a good place to start is to look at what the person has done. Here are some questions worth addressing in your analysis:
Have they coached great athletes?
This can say a lot about a coach. Not always because they have coached a great athlete(s), but because to get into that position, often there is a lot of knowledge acquired. Working with someone who has won the genetics lottery is not the sign of a great coach, it is what is done with that responsibility, or what was done to receive that responsibility in the first place.
Have they been great athletes/lifters?
This is another tricky one. The reason for this is that some people give great athletes credit for being very knowledgeable in a sport, even though they might have just been incredibly gifted genetically. However, there is some value in achievement, and knowledge acquired through that achievement.
Sometimes it is the decent athlete/lifter who was a student of the game who becomes the great coach.
“Mediocre athletes that tried like hell to get good are the best coaches”. – Mark Rippetoe
However, if they have been great, there are always things they know (cues, techniques, etc.) that they might have picked up from their coaches over their career.
Who have they learned from?
Not everyone will have access to well-known mentors, but all of us have learned from someone. This could include books, videos, seminars, etc. but there is nothing quite like spending time working with someone in person. I have had the good fortune of working for and with many great minds. I have learned, debated, and discussed training with many of the most well-respected in the industry, in my opinion. This is the value of knowing who someone has learned from, or at least knowing their eagerness to learn and grow.
Many coaches sacrifice time, money, and energy to learn from those they respect in the industry. I know I have. Have the people you are looking to for advice paid their dues?
What is their background?
This point relates to the one above. Background can include who they have learned from, who they have trained with, where they have trained, what is their area of expertise, what kind of training styles have they/do they use, what events have they attended to get better, their educational background, years of experience…the list goes on and on.
Learn what you can about someone before you take their advice too seriously.
How many years of experience do they have?
In terms of experience, you can look at the years someone has been training (under the bar experience) and you can look at the years someone has trained others (coaching experience). You can look at other areas of experience that could be useful as well, such as competition experience, leadership experience, programming experience, etc.
All of the above experiences can make someone a more knowledgeable coach. It’s not always the years, but the hours put in. Some coaches study and work a lot more in 1 year than others do in 5 years.
What is their education background (formal or practical education)?
Another point to consider is education. How much emphasis do they put on learning and honing their craft? Do they have advanced degrees and/or years of experience? Do they spend time getting results with clients, athletes, etc.?
This does not mean that one way is more important than the other. Many of my college classmates did not understand training beyond the books, and did just enough to get through the courses. To the contrary, many huge strong lifters or bodybuilders do not understand programming, functional anatomy, or exercise technique. They just have great genetics and work hard. This is confusing to many beginners or people looking for advice. The “muscle magazines” can compound this issue.
There are many more questions that could be asked in this scenario, but this is a good place to start.
There are things to be learned from everyone. You might not accept everything they have to say, but most people with education or practical knowledge will have something to offer. One thing an education provides is the base of knowledge and the ability to decipher quality information from hyped fluff. This can go a long way.
Most coaches know that a program that looks great in theory might not always look so great in practice. So herein lies the value of practical knowledge. A pencil-neck guru will argue all day with you about the validity of a training protocol while never using it himself! Those with the practical knowledge know that there is a major difference in an effective program and the latest research fad.
All in all, what you have to remember is that there is value in both formal education and practical training knowledge. You must be sure to have both if you want to be the best coach. So who should you take advice from? Everyone and no one. Carefully.