All Strength Coaches are a Little Biased

By August 12, 2010 Training Philosophy

In the past year I’ve had the privilege of meeting many different strength coaches. When I meet strength coaches, I try to do a little investigating as to what their background is, what other subjects they specialize in, who their mentors are/were, what sports they played, and what population of clients and athletes they train.

The sad thing is, we’re all a little biased by our background. For example, before I became a strength coach I read a ton of information on bodybuilding and powerlifting. I also taught high school math and science for six years. While I’m very proud of my background as it helps shape who I am as a trainer and coach, it leaves me with biases. I’ll be completely honest. I’ve always been biased toward strength. I have videos of powerlifters and bodybuilders lifting really heavy weights. Right after college all of my friends got together for a bachelor party and had a big softball game. We put all the “Stoners” on one team (guys who smoked weed) and the “All-Americans” on the other team (guys who didn’t smoke weed). I hadn’t swung a bat in years, but what I had done in the past several years was lift weights and gain a ton of strength. Although many of my friends were on the baseball team in high school, none of them hit a homerun that day. The only guy who hit any homeruns was me…and I actually went 5-for-5 with 5 out of the park homeruns (with one of them clearing the fence by around a hundred feet). Prior to that day, I didn’t realize how important strength was in certain sports. On a side note, the Stoners kicked our ass (the All-Americans) by a score of around 18-11. So much for just saying no!

So when I started learning more about sport-specific and functional training and I see guys wobbling around on inflatable discs and bouncy balls, I thought it was completely idiotic. I said to myself, “You keep wobbling around and I’ll keep deadlifting and when we go head to head I’ll put your head through the wall!” I read Dave Tate and Louie Simmons articles and watched their videos over and over ad nauseum. I learned how to get people really, really strong. I watched Ronnie Coleman yelling “Yeah Buddy,” “Ain’t Nuttin’ but a Peanut,” “Light Weight,” and my favorite, “Everybody Wannabe a Bodybuilder, but Nobody Wanna Lift No Heavy Ass Weight” over and over and over. I bought an Olympic Weightlifting VHS tape by Jim Schmitz and reviewed it monthly. Strength and power were all you needed in my world.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PO45iY7hilI

Fast-forward to present-day. I still have to remind myself that there’s more to athleticism than just strength. When I see someone tossing around a kettlebell, I’m naturally inclined to think, “Why not use a barbell and move heavier loads?” I have many friends and colleagues in the profession who I speak to regularly and I listen to their advice. If they advocate something, then I trust them enough to at least give it a fair shot. Single leg RDL’s, pistols, kettlebell swings, and Turkish get ups would have been something I wouldn’t have tried in the past because I was so focused on bilateral strength, heavy loads, and maximum stability. Luckily I have great friends who entice me to get out of my comfort zone and learn new things.

Moving along, the topic often comes up in strength training circles….”how strong is strong enough?” It depends on the sport!!! A football player pretty much can’t be too strong, whereas a golfer doesn’t need as much strength. Finesse sports require less strength than strength and power sports.

I often hear Olympic coaches talking about how “there’s no such thing as overtraining.” Well, there is such thing as overtraining syndrome, and it’s a terrible thing. It’s just that the nature of Olympic lifting allows more training frequency and volume due to:

1. anthropometry of typical lifters which allows for balanced joint stress throughout the body rather than concentrated stress on a particular joint

2. typical trunk angles being more upright in the full squat, front squat, and clean which equates to less back stress

3. lower rep ranges with a focus on ramping up

4. longer rest periods and less metabolic fatigue

5. speed strength, RFD, and reactive strength emphasis and avoidance of “grinding reps”

6. concentric emphasis over eccentric

7. auto-regulation/biofeedback and daily “training maxes” not “competition maxes”

8. good warm-up and restoration protocols

9. a preference of clean and snatch variations over max effort deadlifting and good morning variations

10. proper form and good mobility which equals good joint centration and less concentrated stress in a particular area

11. not much specific upper body work, and sometimes not much core work

12. usually it’s just lifting; plyos and sprints are rare, agility work and energy system work are even more rare

So the average Olympic lifter can lift with much more frequency and volume than the typical powerlifter. There are some Oly lifters who find much success lifting 7 days per week. Some bodybuilders are known to lift two weeks in a row without a day off if they’re taking in a lot of calories and feeling good. Should a football player attempt to pull this off? What about a sprinter? Should a powerlifter try to deadlift seven days per week? Hell no! When you engage in “combined training” or even “heavy grinders,” it complicates matters.

To provide another example, coaches like to talk about the role of certain muscles and “what they were designed for.” For example, you often hear that the rectus abdominis was designed for transmitting hoop stress or transferring power rather than creating power. Doesn’t it depend on the sport? In gymnastics, what does the rectus abdominis do when hanging from a bar? In MMA, what does the rectus abdominis do when on your back on the ground?

I’ve come to conclusion that the Track & Field coaches are biased toward max speed development (but they’re experts in periodization, very skilled in program design, and quite knowledgeable about biomechanics and transfer of training). The football coaches are biased toward limit strength and ground-based lifting (but they know how to get athletes strong!). The golf coaches don’t give a damn about strength, but know a ton about corrective exercise as it pertains to hip, t-spine, and ankle mobility. The dual strength coach/physical therapist types (not all but some of them) err too much on the side of caution to the point where they can’t get their athletes strong because they’re actually too strict and too cautious. I’m sure that many people think I’m biased about the glutes (but they don’t see my overall program in order to make an accurate judgement regarding my methods).

When all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.

When “talking shop” with fellow strength coaches, it’s important to understand these biases so you can better understand their frame of reference and make better decisions as to whether you’ll “take-home” what they advise. It’s also very important to have discussions from time to time with those who disagree with you or oppose your position on a various topic, and to speak from time to time to experts in other sports, fields, or subjects. Often this is the key to innovation! Most important, as a strength coach it’s critical that you possess an arsenal filled with all kinds of tools.

23 Comments

  • Mark Young says:

    Yeah Buddyyyyyy!

    Good post Bret. I think that as long as we recognize our own biases as well as those of the coaches who influence us we can do our best to limit their influence. Of course, some biases serve us well (such as track coaches focusing on speed), but identifying our weaknesses will only help us to get better.

  • David Ratcliffe says:

    Fantastic points! Very informative. You remind me of Mel Siff.

  • Good thoughts Bret, and probably true for most of us to at least a certain extent. But remember that you “don’t see everyone [their] overall program to make an accurate judgement regarding [their] methods”

  • Nick Horton says:

    Nice. After our conversation on your other post, I was (and am) planning on writing a post on the topic at my blog, too – though from the perspective of one of those Olympic guys 🙂

    You know, your 12 points sound like things I specifically tell my people a lot. Basically, if you want to train often, you have to follow rules similar to those. Otherwise, you’ll burn out.

    Keeping deadlifts down to a bare minimum is one of the keys, as not grinding a deadlift with heavy weight is hard to do. It’s just a naturally brutal exercise. We do them, of course (not doing them would be dumb), but in moderation.

    Like you, I had to learn to add in things like 1 leg RDL’s (or any single leg work, for that matter). But, I have all my athletes doing that stuff now, because it’s less taxing on the nervous system, and it attacks the body in a totally different way.

    I think you’re right that it isn’t just us Oly coaches who have baises, it’s a natural human trait that strength coaches are no exception to.

    But, I’d like to make that point that (if kept in check!) that it can sometimes be good.

    For instance, Dave Tate is “Dave Tate” in large part because he sticks to what he does well. I think I remember him saying that if someone wants to know how to be a marathon runner, they shouldn’t hire him. But, if they want to get a massive squat, he’s their guy.

    I do something similar. Everyone in my “house” learns to do the FULL snatch and clean and jerk. While a good 1/3 of the people I train compete in the sport of Olympic weightlifting, the rest are athletes doing other sports, and even just some “regular” folk who want to train seriously.

    I would agree with anyone who told me that it isn’t appropriate to have everyone doing the Oly lifts. But, I don’t train everyone. I only train people who WANT to learn how to do the full olympic weightlifting movements.

    I think, like so many things, it’s up to the consumer to make sure they look at what a strength coaches baises might be, where their inclinations are, before they hire them.

    You’re “The Glute Guy”. Clearly, you are not going to ignore glute training. You are just too “biased” in that direction. Your clients know this, and it’s likely a major reason they hire you.

    My clients come to me specifically asking to learn how to properly do the Oly lifts. They know I’m biased toward them and will use them like a big hammer to slam down anything that looks remotely like a nail! 🙂

  • James Cardwin says:

    “Good thoughts Bret, and probably true for most of us to at least a certain extent. But remember that you “don’t see everyone [their] overall program to make an accurate judgement regarding [their] methods”

    This is a crock! These clowns on the webz talk about functional this and fixing that and can’t coach a big ol’ squat or dead to save their life. All of them are buddy buddy with Mikey Boyle and Al Cosgrove. Big bark small bite.

  • Yeah buddy!!! ha! Love it.

    I think knowing someone’s background is a glimpse into their bias.

    Powerlifters should take a note from Oly lifters and can work more volume if they stay away from many heavy, grinding lifts. This will happen at times, but the goal is to teach the body is it EASY, not hard. Note, this is not an excuse to lift light weights all the time.

    Oly lifters have instant feedback–they made the lift or not. If they keep missing, they pack it up for the day or do something different. Speed is always high. Ever seen a slow snatch? I think I saw one the other day with a 35 lb DB on BOSU ball (not kidding), but very rare.

    By keeping bar speed high most of the time and movement quality high, it allows for more freq and volume. More overload done day in and out = faster progress plus cool side benefits like increased tissue turnover.

    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)
    http://www.ExtremeHumanPerformance.com

    • Definitely good to think about…

      What would produce better strength gains; staying within 70-90% most of the time and keeping bar speed up; or approaching 100% most of the time and grinding it out?

      I could make a case for both. Obviously I know your stance.

      Thanks Mike!

  • I it love Bret – You are right on with this post!
    My two cents is this: Respect everyone’s approach and opinion – Just don’t copy it!

  • Biased? I’m not biased! speed is king and sprinting is the top of the food chain. Everything else is secondary!

    Just kiding! Yes, I agree Brett, we are all biased as we all assume that the lens in which we see the world through is accurate.

    That is why getting together with other experts in their specific fields is key…and you made a great point of that!

    Bravo Mr. Contreras!

    Hablas Espnaol?

    • I don’t speak Spanish and I’m pissed about it. My grandfather didn’t want to teach my dad Spanish because he was ashamed of it or something and wanted my dad speaking English. Since my dad never learned it, we never learned it. I did take two years in high school and a semester in college, but never got close to being fluent. I’m envious that you speak it.

  • Ronald Berkamp says:

    Bret,

    The only time bias scares me is when it is the product of blind devotion, but quality coaches like you and many of the ones who frequent your site go into things with eyes wide open (or in some cases where a previous bias may have been [particularly strong, an eventual willingness to open yourself up to other perspectives). Nothing but great stuff can result from such folks, as you will inevitably put your heads to gather, foster excellent discussion, and eventually make all those who participate or listen in better in the process.

    Perhaps the secret benefit to modest bias is that it stimulates the types of conversations that may otherwise never have taken place, eventually producing ideas that are far greater than the sum of their constituent parts.

  • Giuseppe Meazza says:

    Bret,

    Speaking of biases, would you agree that certain people with a genuine interest in legitimate bodybuilding can easily be led astray by listening to and taking to heart too much of what certain more sports/performance-based coaches have to say?

    While I absolutely acknowledge a large body of common ground exists and that many things can be learned from those coaches (particularly with regard to extending a lifter’s shelf life), I often wonder if sometimes these coaches overestimate their ability to pack on size to a trainee based strictly upon the facts that they’ve gotten athletes strong and can put mass on athletes primed for off-season “re-bound gains” and beginners from the general population.

    While I don’t discount that a Cressey or a Boyle (or fill in the blank with any other highly-regarded coach whose focus is in any realm outside of bodybuilding) could likely successfully work with a bodybuilder if they ever felt like doing so and be successful, I still wonder if some level of bias (and rightly so, given that their attention is not directed toward churning out the biggest and leanest SOB’s possible but on developing great athletes and keeping them healthy), would (at least to a degree) possibly limit the utility of their advice for someone aspiring to put on maximum size with minimal fat gain (as opposed to adding whatever muscle would be a by-product of performance-oriented training and simply getting much stronger.

    • Of course! I think there’s a balance; Cressey and Boyle methods will increase the likelihood of you training injury-free which is vital, but you also have to listen to bodybuilders (both AAS users and natural) as well as powerlifters to figure out how to get big, lean, and strong. Of course, there are many ways to get there, but we’re all in search for the most efficient route possible.

  • Deep says:

    Hey Brett,

    I love your blog. I am a rookie fitness trainer from India.

    Regards.
    Deep

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