Don’t Train Your Wife

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | April 14, 2021

man training his wife

This isn’t just a catchphrase. It’s the truth. Words of the wise, the former victims of the nuclear fallout that inevitably results from the trouble and strife: don’t train your wife or girlfriend. As seasoned coaches, we all laugh when we see some poor keen bean wandering blithely into the lion’s den. We know something they don’t – or maybe they do, but they think their wife is different. Training my wife will be great, they think. She won’t turn from a normal human woman into Joe Pesci quicker than you can say “Knees out!” Not her!

Okay, I’m exaggerating. Your wife won’t kill you. I just have a hunch that you would be better off referring her to another coach. When and if she wants your opinion, you can be there for her in an advisory role. An important side note here: don’t offer your opinions on training unless specifically asked. This is almost as serious an error as training your wife in the first place.

Here’s why. Whenever you mix business with pleasure, it always gets messy. Hence the saying: don’t mix business with pleasure. I’m particularly well qualified to write this as I’m engaged to marry a woman who was once upon a time my client. So, you see, even though I know the rules, I often break them. She was a great client, too … until we started dating. Turns out we’re great as a couple and great as a coach/client, but definitely not at the same time. Coaching my fiancée is best described as a bumpy road.

Coaching requires an imaginary divide between the coach and the lifter, a divide that involves elements of respect, honesty, gratitude – and more respect. There needs to be a certain distance. A clear line. Your wife simply doesn’t respect you the same way a paying client does. It’s human nature. When you create a bond with someone emotionally and physically, it’s quite difficult – if not impossible – to see them from another perspective. You can’t create the distance required for effective coaching.

You know what it’s like at family get-togethers? No matter how successful or grown-up you think you are, to your family you’re still that twelve-year-old boy who got lost at the museum that one time. Yeah, it’s kinda like that with your wife, but with sex added in. And, by the way, it’s certainly not just a female thing. I don’t have personal experience of this, of course, but I would bet folding money that a woman coaching her husband or boyfriend would have exactly the same issues.

I have been on the other side of the situation, sort of, so I get where it comes from. My fiancée once tried to teach me Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on the piano. She’s a trained musician who has been playing since the age of seven, so she’s more than qualified to teach me. Yet I found I had to constantly bite my tongue (I get easily frustrated). In the end, we figured out that the best formula was for her not to over-coach me. I would ask her to teach me the next 2 – 4 bars then walk off and come back to me after I had practiced. When she was watching over me and giving me too much technical direction, it would cloud my focus. So to avoid this, I would ask her to teach me short sections then come back and revisit once I had practiced. It definitely gave me an insight into why she found it a struggle being coached by me when our roles were reversed!

I’ve tried to apply this understanding to my coaching. And I always make an effort to be more coachable myself. As a kid, I played a few instruments badly – including the piano, but what’s interesting is that as I’ve aged I have become more teachable (if you can believe that, quite the opposite of what you would expect). I think this is partly due to a deliberate effort on my part, after having experienced being a coach and a student. I know how frustrating it can be on both sides of the aisle. Plus I appreciate people who take the time to teach me more than ever, and I want to get as much out of the process as I can. That way we both win. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but I don’t think that’s true.

So what exactly does coaching involve? Why is it so hard to teach people you’re close to? After all, it’s not just specific to strength training. In many ways, being a Starting Strength coach is much like any type of teaching practice. It’s about conveying information and skills: about employing the most efficient and optimal communication techniques. About finding the best way to make your client improve. It’s funny, but my training as a coach has permanently altered my perception of how other people teach. Regardless of their field of expertise, I always try to distill what’s great about them as communicators into something I can use, discarding whatever I don’t find useful. I’ve always been a mediocre athlete – I have to work very hard to improve. So I know that nine times out of ten, if something has worked for me then it will carry over to my clients as well.

Let’s take a look at some of the qualities of a good teacher or coach:

  • They use cues, whether oral, tactile or visual.
  • They use language efficiently.
  • You understand their “why.”
  • They offer historical tidbits and cool facts.
  • They are confident and inspirational.
  • They reward effort correctly.
  • They pick up on how their client learns best.
  • They demonstrate mastery.
  • And some traits of a not-so-good coach:
  • They make excessive use of big words to impress or confuse.
  • They show signs of frustration.
  • They don’t understand the problem.
  • They don’t use multiple avenues if their first method is not working.

Teaching – and embodying many of the qualities above – is a kind of performance. Your significant other will see right through it. She knows you too well. It’s hard to maintain an aura of mastery and confidence once someone has seen you throwing up in the toilet at 3 am.

Okay, you don’t want to listen to my advice? Fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Maybe invest in a better couch, because you’ll be spending a few more nights than usual sleeping on it. I’m joking, of course. But seriously, if you’re still determined to coach your partner, then there are a few things you might want to say before you begin:

  • I love you.
  • I may express disdain for your movement patterns, but never for you as a person.
  • This will be a lot of hard work, but together, as a team, we can achieve your goals.
  • Please respect my honest opinion – it’s not meant to be harsh.
  • I love you, because that’s important and worth repeating.

There is also one important thing your significant other should commit to before your first session: be coachable. Insist upon it. I know this sounds patronizing, but trust me, it’s not. I would say this to anyone in the position of client or trainee, regardless of their history with the coach. If the client can be coachable, that’s half the battle won.

Oh, and yes: before a handful of you come out of the woodwork and tell me you have no idea what I’m on about, I know there are one or two perfect couples who make it work and don’t understand my beef with training the wife. I’m so happy for you all. Unfortunately, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all box for every couple. No matter how well you get along with your partner, don’t automatically assume training will be plain sailing. Before you embark on your first session, please make sure you keep your receipts and that you’ve got a good divorce lawyer on speed dial. (Kidding!)

No, but really. For the sake of your own sanity, don’t train your significant other. A wise man refers his wife to another coach and always keeps his opinions about lifting to himself, unless asked. Be supportive and loving, but for God’s sake spare yourself the bullshit that this fool’s errand can bring. Or do it anyways, and call my bluff; but I’m getting my bet in early. You probably owe me £20. I told you so.

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