Knowledge is Power

by Steven Villarreal | January 18, 2023

lifter finishes his deadlift in wichita falls texas

In many ways, Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd edition and Practical Programming for Strength Training 3rd edition are a dense undertaking to read. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture a brand-new lifter, excited at the prospect of getting bigger and stronger but unsure as to where to begin, getting the Blue Book, opening it, and being hit with the feeling that he is in over his head.

Why is the squat chapter 64 pages? Why so in-depth about anatomy? Why am I looking at a picture of a wrench? All these questions may spring into the novice’s mind at first. It is easy to dismiss such a person, especially if they are a kid, but some empathy is understandable. A quick examination of how information is delivered today will paint a clear picture as to why our novice feels the way he does.

Today’s novice has been led to believe that all information, and certainly information regarding diet and training, can be accumulated through short, highly edited, highly stylized videos. Instagram, YouTube Shorts, and TikTok provide seemingly no end to the amount of 10-30 second videos that promise to make learning the barbell lifts “easy.” While it’s true that a more experienced lifter likely doesn’t need lengthy explanations to correct some form issues that have crept into already quality movement patterns, for the rank beginner, this learning method is often a recipe for disaster.

The reasons are obvious, but the most important is that this bite-sized way of learning fails to address the most important question all beginner lifters need to answer: Why?

All lifters, but especially novices need to understand why they are lifting and programming the way they are, otherwise, they rarely progress past the novice stage, instead spending their entire lifting career jumping from program to program, squat style to squat style, all the while not learning but merely trying to copy what the latest “expert” is doing. In contrast, the Starting Strength method is built on the foundation of answering “why?” at every turn. This is clear from the very first sentence in the book: “Physical strength is the most important thing in life.”

The reader may or may not agree with that statement at first, but unlike most internet gurus, Starting Strength has no interest in having this be simply an attention-grabbing opening that creates initial interest but quickly fades. Rather, it spends hundreds of pages backing up that initial claim. You may still disagree when finished reading, but it won’t be due to ignorance. For those that make the commitment to read the book (more than once), there are two primary benefits.

The Self-Sufficient Lifter

When we began the novice linear progression (NLP), many of us were forced to do so by ourselves. This is less than ideal, the simple fact being that a novice who is being coached by a more experienced lifter, especially a Starting Strength Coach at a Starting Strength Gym, is going to make better, and more long-term progress than one who is coaching themselves. However, a novice may not have the time, money, or access to be coached directly. This sucks, but such is life, and you need to train, so you must deal with it.

The key to having quality training sessions by yourself is to fully understand what you’re supposed to be doing. This involves more than just knowing what three lifts you need to do today. Anyone who has spent time under the bar has had the following experience: your first set of squats feels amazing, you excitedly write your new PR set in your notebook, rest an appropriate amount of time, get back under the bar, and the next set of 5 feels horrendous, your once sky-high confidence has cratered, and you need to regroup.

This is where being able to answer “why?” is vital. It will enable you to watch the videos of your first and second sets and make informed logical corrections. Where was your eye gaze? Did you lean forward enough? What was your knee and foot position? Did you drive up with your hips or with your chest? How is your depth and bar speed?

Having a deep well of knowledge to draw from will give you the ability to correct errors, and do so quickly, between sets, meaning your training isn’t derailed by your needing to waste time asking others what’s wrong with your lifts. You will also be able to make appropriate program and nutrition adjustments on your own as well. If your NLP is slowing down, is it due to you reaching the end of your workout-to-workout recovery ability or are you shortchanging yourself with a lack of food or sleep? If you are drawing to the end, what programming adjustments can you make to the sets and reps to push through and continue adding weight on the bar? When your NLP ends, what is the best intermediate program for you to begin next? The better equipped you are to answer those questions, the smoother your training will be and the more progress you will make.

As an aside, it will also help you to not sound like an idiot. Nothing – and I mean nothing – is more irritating than someone complaining about the program while in fact not doing the program. Don’t be the guy who pretends to be knowledgeable in the SS Method while at the same time telling others that you should never change the 3 sets of 5 format, or that everyone needs a gallon of milk a day. Read the book and save yourself the embarrassment.

The Potential Coach

You cannot teach others what you yourself do not know well. This seems obvious to many of us, yet it is amazing how often this seems to be a foreign concept to the rest of the fitness industry. Many big box gyms that employ trainers want their customers to think that the person training them has a firm grasp on the methodologies needed to help them reach their fitness goals. This is almost never the case, rather the customer finds themselves in a position of paying large sums of money in order to have a kid stand next to them counting their reps and shouting meaningless motivation. That is not what being a coach is.

Now to be very clear, I am not a Starting Strength Coach, nor do I train people as my career. I have helped a handful of people to do the basic lifts correctly, and helped them avoid stupid programs that don’t take advantage of the novice effect. Having said that, I can tell you without hesitation that coaching someone is difficult. If you’ve ever undertaken the task of helping a friend or family member correctly low bar squat, you have likely been met with frustration, not only in the person you’re training but also in your own ability to communicate what you want them to do.

From the moment someone puts their hands on the bar to start the lift, there is a myriad of things that can go wrong. If that person is letting you coach them, whether you are paid or not, they are trusting that you can guide them through the process of doing each lift safely, and in a way that gets results. That is an exciting and humbling position to be in, and one you can easily screw up if you have not taken the time to educate yourself first.

Your education should be twofold. On the one hand, you should have gone through the process of getting yourself strong first. You don’t need to be Ed Coan, but going through your own NLP will add credence to your coaching and will help you guide your trainee more effectively. The second aspect is your having read the books (again, multiple times) and understanding why the way you are instructing them is superior to the other methods they have been taught.

This can at times be an uphill battle. Your trainee may be willing to follow your instructions until their doctor says that squats will ruin their knees. Or the jacked guy wearing half a shirt tells them that sets of 10 are much more effective than sets of 5. Or their best friend will flood them with horror stories she read on the internet about how lifting weights made women “huge and bulky.” Can you explain why all of that is nonsense, and why they should listen to you instead?

If you don’t have a clear logical answer, you will lose that person as a trainee or client. And that answer cannot be simply “because this is the way we do it.” That is not an effective argument – that's the line you use to explain why you like Batman over Superman or Coke over Pepsi. While you don’t need to overwhelm the client with everything you know, the ability to simply and directly explain the “whys” will help you cut through the outside noise and keep your client on track.

It will also help you get better at coaching on the platform. A hallmark of bad coaching is talking too much. Too many cues, and cues that are overly long and complex, will frustrate the person you are coaching. When someone is squatting, pressing, or deadlifting a new PR set of 5, they won’t have the ability to focus on what they are doing and listen to someone talk endlessly at them. They need short bursts of guidance during the set, and if needed, slightly more explanation in between sets. Coaching “hips!” during the ascent of the squat, or touching their back to help them squeeze their chest up before pulling, are quick effective methods of coaching that can be the difference between a failed rep or a successful set.

It’s Worth the Effort

If you watch any of Rip’s Q&As you will likely hear him respond to at least one question with the statement “read the book.” The reason is not simply to dismiss a silly question, but it’s because all the information you need to guide yourself and others down the path of getting bigger and stronger, and having a more satisfying life has already been given to you. Will coaching and seminars aid in your journey? Without question, and if you have the ability to take advantage of those resources you should. But those should enhance the education that you’ve already taken upon yourself to get.

Knowledge is power. It’s a cliché, sure, but true nonetheless. If you want to be a better lifter and a better coaching prospect, you owe it to yourself to buy the books and dig into them. If you already have the books and read through them, take some time to review them again. Will it take effort? Yes. But like all things worth doing, the rewards you get far outweigh the work put in.  

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