Do You Need to Be Strong to Be a Strength Coach?

cscs coachTouchy subject, huh?

I recently posed this question to my Facebook and was inundated with countless – some pretty heated – responses.

While opinions varied widely among respondents, there appeared to be two overarching viewpoints.

On one side, we have coaches – generally powerlifters and associated strength athletes – who believe a good strength coach needs to be strong, otherwise they’re a fraud.

On the other, we’ve got coaches – generally those who’ve spent less time developing maximal strength – who believe a good strength coach can benefit from being strong but it’s definitely not essential.

So who’s right?

Does a good strength coach need to be strong or can our clients get extraordinary results either way?

It’s an interesting question and one that I’ve gone back and forth with for some time.

In my opinion?

It depends.

But that’s a cop-out.

Granted, it’s the truth and the answer does depend on a variety of factors but…

I want to dig deeper.

I want to examine all of the possibilities and discuss both viewpoints from a variety of perspectives.

In this article I’m going to dissect this age-old question and, in the most un-biased and open-minded way possible, present you with my personal opinions as a coach, athlete, and fitness enthusiast.

Defining the Term: “Strength Coach”

It’s fairly ambiguous, isn’t it?

Strength coach.

What the hell does it even mean?

It sounds cool and at least somewhat professional but when we really break it down it doesn’t make much sense.

Sure, a good coach is going to help her/his clients focus on building the strength to stay healthy and perform at the highest possible level, but a good coach doesn’t only build strength.

A good coach focuses on improving all aspects of performance, including:

  • Strength
  • Mobility
  • Body Composition
  • Injury Prevention
  • Kinesthetic Awareness
  • Balance
  • Work Capacity
  • Recovery
  • Sport/Activity-Specific Skill Sets
  • Aerobic Conditioning
  • Etc, etc, etc

And this list doesn’t even consider other aspects of performance such as the psychological, emotional, and environmental components.

Side Note: As I’ve grown as a coach, I’ve realized these often overlooked components (i.e. psychological, emotional, environmental, etc) are equally, if not more, important as the actual physical side of the equation.

What I’m saying is this…

The term strength coach is a misnomer.

Unless your sole focus as a coach is to improve strength and nothing else, you are not a strength coach – you are a performance coach.

And while this may seem arbitrary and insignificant, it changes the conversation.

No longer are we solely discussing the role of strength in a coach’s ability to deliver results…rather, through using the term performance coach we are encompassing all performance-related components that equally contribute to the success of our clients and athletes.

Taking the above into consideration, the question has now become…

Do You Need to be Strong to be a Performance Coach?

The answer?

Well, it still depends.

So let’s keep digging.

What is Strong?

Another ambiguous term.

Strong.

What is it?

Is it a 3.6x body weight deadlift?

Is it complete and utter mastery of your own body weight?

Is it making 418lbs your bitch?

Is it…well…whatever the hell you call this insanity?

See what I’m getting at?

Strong is a vague term and encompasses a vast range of skill-sets.

Because, contrary to what most fail to recognize…

Strength is a skill!

Having the strength to Deadlift 3x body weight is just as much a skill as it is an adaptation.

The same goes for mastering your body weight, making 418lbs your bitch, and doing that crazy shit those naked guys do in cirque du soleil.

What’s this got to do with anything?

Well…everything.

Strength is both a relative and skill-related term.

It’s impossible to say whether or not an individual needs to be strong in order to be a good performance coach because:

  1. Strength is skill-specific.
  2. There isn’t a uniform way to measure strength across all disciplines.
  3. Whatever constitutes the “best” or “right” type of strength is entirely dependent on the needs, goals, and preferences of the coach’s clientele.

Take me, for example.

I’ve Deadlifted 3.6x my bodyweight (485lbs at a bodyweight of 132lbs) and, by most people’s standards, that’s pretty strong.

In addition, my clients have an extraordinarily high success rate and I like to think I’m somewhat of a decent coach.

But what would happen if I was asked to perform an entirely different strength-based skill set? Like say…the stuff those two naked dudes from Cirque du Soleil did?

I’ll tell you what would happen…

I’d look like an uncoordinated rhino. Simultaneously starting and finishing the routine with a magnificent, turrets-like, swan dive…I’d inveitably smash my two front teeth directly into the floor.

Here's a baby pic of me. Cause why not.

Here’s a baby pic of me. Cause why not.

In this skill-set, I’m not strong.

Not in the least.

My point is this…

Give me a powerlifter, athlete, or general fitness enthusiast who wants to get stronger, leaner, and healthier and I will unquestionably be one of the best performance coaches they’ve ever had.

But ask me to coach one of those cirque du soleil guys to improve their specific strength skill-set and you might as well hire a blind-folded, mentally retarded penguin to design their routines.

Keep in mind, I could absolutely coach them to be overall stronger and healthier…but when it comes their specific strength skillset I’m useless. 

See what I’m getting at?

In one instance, having personal experience will improve my coaching ability while, in the other, my lack of experience and overall knowledge will negatively affect my ability to design a well-rounded program.

But this begs the question…

Does Personal Experience Make You a Good Coach?

Absolutely not.

Just because you’re strong or proficient in a certain sport or activity doesn’t mean you understand how to program, modify exercises, alter volume and intensity, or…[gasp]…simply how to coach.

This is actually a very serious problem, notably among retired professional athletes.

It’s not uncommon to see retired pro football players become the S&C coach for their kids’ high school team despite having zero background in strength and conditioning. 

Sure, they might’ve been exceptionally strong and even lifted with “perfect” technique (whatever that is)…but that doesn’t mean they know how to coach.

Being strong ONLY means you’re strong

Period.

Of course, personal experience is tremendously beneficial. 

So much so that I’d argue the best performance coaches are also highly proficient in the movements they teach. 

Not to say they’re remarkably strong or world record caliber…but they practice what they preach and, in the process, understand intricacies of training that you can only learn from personal experience. 

Take, for example, the Single-Leg RDL

By no means a typical “strength exercise” like the Squat, Deadlift, or Bench Press…the RDL is a staple in nearly all of my client programs and provides countless strength, health, injury prevention, and performance related benefits.

Of particular importance, I don’t have a remarkably strong Single-Leg RDL.

That being said…I am very good at grooving that particular movement pattern.

Having practiced it literally thousands upon thousands of times, I understand how to progress and regress the movement better than most. Furthermore, through my own practice (as both a coach and fitness enthusiast) I’ve learned which cues work best to help people perform the Single-Leg RDL in the safest and most efficient manner.

It it weren’t for my personal experience, I would be no where near as good of a coach.

Imagine It Were Fat Loss

Does being ripped make you a good nutrition coach?

Of course not.

I know plenty of extraordinarily lean men and women who don’t know the first thing about nutrition, never mind behavioral health and psychology. 

So…does a good nutrition coach need be to be extremely lean?

Nope.

I know plenty of phenomenal nutrition coaches who are actually pretty chubby.

This doesn’t mean they were never lean; they usually were, at one point or another, very lean for an extended period of time. But, interestingly, many nutrition coaches just don’t care as much about being shredded to bits and are more than happy with a slightly higher (but perfectly healthy) body fat percentage. 

All that being said…

Personal Experience Will Make You a Better Nutrition Coach

As anyone who has ever maintained an extremely low body fat will attest to…it can suck.

A lot.

And the reality is that most people fail to maintain their weight loss in the long-term, not because of bad nutrition-specific coaching, but because they were never taught how to deal with the accompanying psychological obstacles.

While you can learn about these obstacles through various texts and forums…unless you go through the process yourself (likely several times) you will never fully understand what your clients are going through.

You won’t appreciate the difficulties they face day in and day out, week after week, month after month, year after year.

You just can’t.

Which is why personal experience is so important.

It’s not essential.

But it is beneficial.

And it has the ability to take you from being a good coach to a truly exceptional coach.

This Applies to Strength As Well

Can a coach who has never squatted exceptionally heavy weight teach an individual how to squat and help them become stronger and more athletic?

Absolutely.

Can that same coach help a Powerlifter improve their squat technique and programming?

Of course.

But can that same coach understand what it feels like to put extremely heavy weight on their back? Can they truly grasp the psychological obstacles associated with going for a true 1RM if they’ve never done it themselves? Can they relate to the fears, pains, and countless other limiting factors if they have not personally gone through the experience?

No.

Absolutely not.

And this is an important distinction to make.

A performance coach doesn’t need to be exceptionally strong to be a good, effective coach for 99.99% of the population.

But if a performance coach wants to be the best at the specific strength skill-set of improving maximal strength in competition lifts…then they better be (or have been) strong and understand what it feels like to lift heavy weight.

“Yea But…Verkhoshansky Wasn’t Strong.”

verkhoshansky

Co-author of what is possibly the single-best book about strength training ever written, many coaches argue that a performance coach doesn’t need to be strong simply because Yuri Verkhoshanski wasn’t strong and still managed to produce astounding results.

What these coaches fail to realize, however, is:

1. Yuri Verkhoshansky didn’t need to be exceptionally strong. 

He didn’t work with Powerlifters or maximal strength based athletes.

Working predominantly with track and field athletes, Verkhoshansky’s coaching position didn’t require him to personally experience and understand the psychological obstacles associated with Powerlifting. Instead, a basic knowledge of strength training coupled with his truly revolutionary ideas regarding the management of training variables allowed his athletes to experience incredible results. 

2. Verkhoshansky had personal experience in his sport. 

Verkhoshansky 1Prior to becoming a coach and sports scientist, Verkhoshansky had personal experience as a track and field athlete. As discussed previously, this experience gave him unique insight into the sports’ physical, emotional, and psychological barriers that can only be understood by other competitors. This personal experience, in no uncertain terms, largely contributed to his extraordinary success as a coach and sports scientist. 

3. Verkhoshasnky’s athletes weren’t exceptionally strong to begin with. 

As noted by his daughter, Natalia Verkhoshansky, up until Yuri’s intervention, track and field athlete’s didn’t utilize [heavy] barbell strength training as they thought it would make them slow, big, and bulky or, in her words, “like buffalo.”

Through utilizing pre-existing weight training methods – yes, you read that correctly, his weight training methods were used by others long before him – Verkhoshansky was able to improve the strength and force production of his athletes which led to drastically improved performance.

In other words, the strength-based success Verkhoshansky saw with his athletes is the standard success we’d expect to see through incorporating any type of basic strength training with beginner lifters. 

The Final Word

gavelThe term strength coach is a misnomer.

Unless your sole focus is to improve strength at the expense of all other athletic qualities, you are not a strength coach. 

You are a performance coach.

And as a performance coach, you need to practice what you preach.

You need to understand what your clients feel and think throughout the training cycle.

You need to relate to the physical, emotional, and psychological barriers that confront them each and every day.

You need to realize that a great coach encompasses far more than the knowledge of training theories, programming strategies, and technique cues. 

A great coach has unique insight into the intricacies of that specific skill set because they have done it themselves.

They have personal experiencing learning to confront and overcome those specific challenges and, as a result, can offer their clients far more than a training program and coaching cues.

Anyone can be a good coach.

It isn’t very hard.

But it is hard to become a great coach.

And only a select few will become great coaches because only a select few are willing to dedicate the requisite time and effort to gain the practical experience that is necessary to truly master their craft.

Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.

-J






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