Strength and Conditioning: Times Have Changed

by Jim Steel | April 03, 2019

jim steel coaches an athlete

Times have changed in the strength and conditioning world over the years. I reckon that in a word, you could describe the source of the changes as “access.” In the 80s there was not access to as much information as there is now. Of course there was no internet, with the social media superstars and the keyboard warriors hiding behind the computer typing their uninformed opinions about strength training. Or YouTube, that's a big one, lots of information on there. Some good, some bad. Everyone has a platform. More power to them. I can discern good from bad or right from wrong, but not everyone can.

I grew up dying for information about lifting weights. If you are 40 or older, and you had been bitten by the iron bug at a young age, you know what I am talking about. I started training with weights in 1979, when I was in  the seventh grade. I got pissed off because we were in Mr. McClung’s Physical Education class and we all went in to use the Universal Station and I wasn't as strong as my friend Davrill, even though I outweighed him by thirty pounds. After he out-bench pressed me on that creaky old machine, I was on a mission to learn everything about weight training.

So where did the information come from? Muscle magazines, first and foremost. And to be honest, there was some good information in there. Most of the bodybuilders in those magazines came from a powerlifting or weightlifting background, so being strong was important to them, not just pumping and pumping. You had to read between the lines of the silly supplement ads to glean the information, but after a while, you could tell the difference between hyperbole and the real shit.

I remember reading a muscle magazine in Spanish class (Spanish class was not my thing) in eighth grade, and on the cover was Tom Platz. The article spoke of his 650-pound squats and his 500x20 squat. It was clear to me at a young age: lift heavy with the basics to get stronger and bigger. I also found a booklet about Bill Kazmaier. Kaz espoused lots of heavy sets of five reps for strength, and he was a big son of a bitch, too. So I figured that he knew what he was talking about. I experimented with it all, but stayed in the 3-8-rep range and mostly in the 5-rep range.

When I entered high school, the head football coach doubled as our strength coach, and he had no idea what he was doing. But he did have a copy of the Nebraska football weightlifting program, so we followed it. We got stronger. Bunch of squats and deadlifts and benches.

Then I went to junior college. No weight room, no strength coach. But it didn't matter. Most if us lifted weights anyway. Some trained at the local Golds Gym, and some, like myself, trained in basement or garage gyms. On that football team, there were some legit 600 pound squats and 450-485 pound benches. I don't know if it was just that area in Maryland or what, but lifting was a huge deal back then, and the norm was that you lifted heavy weights.

I received a scholarship to play football at Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina after junior college and played there for two years and then began coaching. At Gardner-Webb, my buddy Jimmy and I became graduate assistants, and Jimmy was appointed strength coach and I as his assistant. There was not much info out there on how to train athletes. But being hungry to learn, we visited other schools. We called other strength coaches on the phone, and went to clinics and read books by Dr. Fred Hatfield (Dr. Squat) and Bill Starr. And we put all of that together and added some personal experiences and designed a program.

Silly Shit Takes Over

Upper body was king back then, but Jimmy was a powerlifter and he loved the squat and deadlift. And Fred Hatfield was one of our heroes (we had a picture of him taped on the wall behind the squat rack). He said that strong legs were the key to performance for football players, and we agreed. Our athletes didn’t know what the hell was going on – all they knew was that they'd heard squats were bad for the knees and if you lifted too young that you would stunt your growth. (Both are obviously false, but killing those myths over the years has been a challenge.) So we squatted, deadlifted, bench pressed, pressed, rowed, chinned, dipped and curled. Did some heavy shrugs and neck also. We didn't know anything about the clean and how to teach it, so we left it out until we were sure that we could do it right. We got strong. And bigger. Our athletes got strong and they were happy. And nobody questioned our methods, because it was obvious that they worked.

After Gardner-Webb, I ended up in Florida, coaching high school football and teaching weight training classes. And that's about the time the internet started to get real big. What's funny is that as the years went on and I coached all kinds of places (North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania), I knew what worked. But all these new ideas were coming out – squatting on a ball, hanging from shit, one leg in the air doing stuff, and abdominal training.

Sorry, “Core” training. We need to address the core!  My core, your core, his core, her core, everybody's goddamn core. That right there – that word, the dreaded “C” word – was The Beginning Of The End. For about 10 years, core training was king. Give me a break; try to isolate your abs while you are driving into somebody and knocking the teetotal snot out of them. The body all works together, driving from ground up. It doesn't begin and end with washboard abs. 

Never mind that pulling a set of 5 in the deadlift at a gut-busting weight stimulates your abs much more than some isolated 6-inch crunch, precisely because your gut didn't bust. That's common sense, right? Apparently not.

Besides the over emphasis on the core, other dangerous, useless fads came into vogue. Suddenly, performing high-rep snatches and cleans and hundreds of kettlebell snatches were safe and good for you. Standing on a ball and squatting, standing on a ball and pressing, standing on a ball on one leg with a 5-pound dumbbell, and lots of equally silly shit. Everyone was an expert, despite never having trained either themselves or anyone else. The uninformed were now informed with way too much stuff to make sense of. I used to picture myself in a wind tunnel and fighting against the headwind of the uneducated.

Sports Coaches: Victims of Too Much Information

When I was coaching high school, sport coaches with absolutely no strength training experience began espousing their beliefs about what is right and wrong with weight training for their teams. My first conversation with the softball coach was an interesting one.

I remember it like it was yesterday. I was coaching track at the time, and I hated every second of it. So boring – nobody hit anybody. But I had to coach a spring sport, so track was it for me. The track was right next to the softball field. The coach called me over to the fence in center field. “Can I have a minute?” he asked. “Sure,” I said, dreading every word that was gonna come next. That “have a minute” stuff always means that major bullshit follows immediately.

The softball coach had the standard mullet with the perm, the hat on to hide the bald spot, and the swagger that indicated he was trying to show he was tough but in reality was scared to death of me.

“Hello, Coach, how's it going?” I asked.

He came right to the point. “I wanted to talk to you about Jill. I want her to stop lifting so much. She's a great pitcher, but its a finesse sport, and I don't want her to get too... well, you know, too strong.” 

I looked at him, speechless. She was pitching faster than ever, was squatting over 200 pounds, and she loved her newfound strength. “Actually, it's a power sport,” I said, “but okay, no problem.” I didn't change a thing, and she got a scholarship to a SEC school.

When this type of thing occurred with coaches, I would have a conversation with the athlete. I’d say, “Look, I don't want to do something against your coach's instructions. He came to me and said that he was worried about you getting too strong.” The athlete would invariably look at me, wondering if I was joking. “I'm not joking,” I would say. And then the athlete would tell me that she didn't want to stop, that she was better than ever because of lifting weights. So we’d continue to train, and the coach would think that he was the reason for the success. And the athlete and I would know. It would be our little secret, just between us. What else was there to do? Anything else is a disservice to the athlete.

I left high school after a few years and I went back to college strength coaching. College was great in some respects, but the strength program came under fire from not just football but every other sport – whenever the team had a bad season. I guess it’s easy to blame what you don’t understand. Never look inwardly as a coach – just point some fingers and spread the blame.

I had coaches come into my office and throw somebody else's program on my desk, telling me that this was the program that they wanted the team to do. Usually this happened after a coach had been to a clinic or had spoken to another coach from a different school about their training program. One program had no weight training in it whatsoever. Some would have only dumbbell work, and some had medicine ball training only. And getting coaches to understand that none of those programs were best for their athletes was a constant uphill battle.

What I began to realize was that now that I was dealing with all types of sports, the coaches were very sensitive about everything. When this kind of thing was said to me, when irrational craziness came out of coaches mouths, I would mentally check out. I would start to look around the office or wherever I was and just say to myself, “Its okay, just relax, its okay, just relax.” It was either that or punch somebody in the throat. So I would start writing my blog or I would start writing programs. I wrote a whole book in useless meetings over a few months.

I had a coach come in and meet with my assistant coaches one time. He said, “My girls have gained 15 pounds of fat!” My assistant coach asked,” How do you know this?” He answered, “Well, I can just tell.”

Oh, so that's how we're doing it now: blaming the weight room for the things that the athletes eat, and lifting weights makes you fat too.  And of course, the science of  “I can just tell!” was a problem. No measuring involved, not a BodPod or a skinfold caliper in sight. And still, no understanding of what weight training does for you. It's impossible for physical activity to increase your bodyfat. You thought that everyone knew this, didn’t you?

I had a baseball coach come in one time, a certifiable whackjob. He actually told me that we didn't need to do any overhead lifts, any squats or cleans. He actually suggested attaching a bat to the cable machine and having the players go through their swing. When I explained to him that the athlete would be changing their fundamental swing by adding weight, he nodded his head. Then he asked, “So, what about putting that bat on the cable machine?”

I have to hand it to this one coach. A track coach came into the weight room with some cross country kids, and I asked, “ What's going on, Coach?” “Oh, I'm filming a weight training/medicine ball video.” I said, “In my weight room? No, you're not. You haven't even talked to me about it.” We argued some, and then he actually started to cry. Yes, tears. I said, “Are you crying?” A few weeks later, he came into my office and said, “I wanted you to know that I just attended a track and field seminar with our governing body, and you were totally right about everything – the squats, the cleans, all of it.” I quickly looked to make sure the sky was not falling, and then thanked him profusely for the apology.

Once during football season, we played a team that was clearly better than us. I mean, they had a ton of pro prospects, scholarships, monsters. We fought valiantly, but lost. The head coach called me into his office a few days later. “How heavy were the squats on Sunday?” he asked. Understand: Sunday was six days out from the game. “Oh, we went 70% with chains for 5 sets of 3,” I said.

“Hmmm.” he said. I asked, “What is it coach?” He goes on to tell me that the head coach from the other team said we  looked slow the other day. I wanted to say, “Well, we are slow, so recruit some fast kids and I'll get them ridiculously strong.” But instead I blurted out in disbelief, “Slow?

He continued. “Can we go lighter on Sundays?” he asks. I said, “Well coach, if we do that, we won't get much out of it. It's plenty of time till game day, and they can recover.” Then my supervisor went into the reasoning behind squatting and how if you go lighter the stimulation just won't be there, and then I explained the physiological reasoning behind all of the programming. And you know what the head coach said? “I know all that. Can we go lighter anyway?” “Sure coach,” I answered.

At smaller schools, where you don't have the athletes there year round, football programs get all fired up for the winter training. I just love this. We need to do what Alabama does! We need to do what huge Division I schools do! Because what happens is that you grind them into the ground for two months, getting them up at the crack of dawn and run the piss out of them. Some football coaches I have been around loved seeing players puke with this type of training.

I'm not sure that's the best way to go about this. What you could do is get the football players insanely strong, and keep them that way and work on their position skills, and have them box and run some hills and some short sprints. Maybe play pickup basketball. But get them crazy strong and monstrous. Especially in this day and age, you have so many TV timeouts that players get tons of rest and conditioning is not as critical. So it behooves them to crush the weights, and to get ready for the season, have them perform short sprints with little rest starting about a month from camp.

So after the season is over, you get them crazy strong, they do positional skill work, some sprints, and some fun stuff like basketball. Because if they don't, when will they have time to get strong? If you are always beating them down, how can they gain size and strength? Coaches run the crap out of them in January. The first game is in September. Why run their balls off now? Because puking is cool? The first Lacrosse game is in February – why crush them in August? Conditioning comes on fast, strength does not. Exhausting them so much that they are too weak to get their work set weights for the day keeps them from improving.

What coaches must understand is that talent always comes first. It's not the lack of togetherness or love for each other, it’s that there is no talent on the team. Talent cannot be trained – it must be recruited. I have been part of football teams where the players hated each other, but they had talent, and then we added heavy-ass weights to it all and we killed people. That's the factor that people don't add in. Getting strong and huge as hell benefits the talented the most, but it benefits everybody else too – if the coach gets it. And if the other team is more talented but doesn't lift like you do, they will start out strong but you will wear them out in the end.

And for other sports where bodyweight is a factor? Keep an eye on their diet but get them insanely strong. They will win if they have talent, they will have fewer injuries, and they will walk right past their sport coaches at the awards banquet to thank you for kicking their asses under the bar.

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