The Cheerleader, the Consultant, and the Coach

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | April 15, 2020

cheerleader is not a coach

All sorts of people in the fitness industry are quick to call themselves a coach. It’s a great way to make themselves seem more legit without going to the trouble of obtaining the qualifications. But have they really earned that title? Do they really live that lifestyle? What is a “coach,” anyway? Maybe they’re really a cheerleader, or a consultant? Do they even lift, bro?! 

Let’s start with something light and fun. The cheerleader. Yes, I mean you, dude wearing spandex and yelling, “Let’s go, two more, it’s ALL you, no pain no gain, you gotta burn it to earn it!” This is the person who’s always bouncing off the walls, the one with the gleaming smile and the impeccable gymwear. The one loudly cheering people on, posing for “da gram”, and screaming motivational slogans into their client’s ear for the whole hour-long session. All the gear and still no idea. Sound familiar? 

A consultant, on the other hand, is someone who has had genuine experience in the industry but is now based 100% online – a person who spends most of the work week behind a laptop, who could spend the entire time butt-naked and eating Cheerios, for all you know, while typing instructions to random clients. Giving form checks, programming, and nutrition are all elements of coaching, of course, but they’re not the meat of what a coach does. This person is a consultant. 

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with online coaching. It serves an important purpose. Maybe you can’t afford in-person sessions. Maybe there isn’t a coach in your area. Maybe there’s a global pandemic and we’ve all been told to stay at home. There are all sorts of valid reasons why people need online coaching and hence online coaches – what I’m saying is that you should be aware of who’s doing your programming and your form checks. 

When was the last time your consultant was in the gym? Does he practice what he preaches? Does he even lift, bro?! If you want to call yourself a coach, you need to spend time under the barbell, increasing your sweat equity and making some personal progress. If you have all the textbook knowledge but you’ve never ripped off a callus, felt your ears pop after squats or pulled a deadlift rep that lasted eight seconds, then maybe you’ve not really put in your time. 

I know, I know. I can already hear the complaints flooding in. If I know the theory inside out, then does it really matter how I train? Yes, it does. As a coach, the way you approach your own training ends up having a knock-on effect on your clients. If you’re not working to improve yourself, if you’re not constantly problem-solving when it comes to your own issues, then gradually you’ll stagnate. After a while, you won’t be in a position to impart wisdom and knowledge to the people handing over their hard-earned cash. You’ll essentially be giving them templates, not specific, personalized advice about their lifts and their progress, which is what a coach is paid to do. 

Remember, when a client comes to you for help, they won’t have a 40-inch standing vertical and be squatting 600 lbs for reps. You’re going to be dealing with Joe Average, and you should know how it feels to be in their shoes – and how it feels to have progressed beyond that point. You should be able to look at your own training and your own journey, and use that to help your client improve. Part of being a coach is leading by example. If you’re telling your client to stop talking and get under the barbell, then you should be doing the same thing yourself. As Kirk Karwoski once said, “What the hell’s wrong with squatting? What, are you afraid?” So let me ask you again, do you even lift, bro? 

So – what exactly is a coach? 

A professional barbell coach is someone who spends the majority of the week in the weight room, coaching, lifting and teaching others in that specific field. It may sound obvious, but if you don’t coach strength with the majority or all of your clients, then in my opinion you’re not really a strength coach. A coach’s main weapon is the ability to cue a lifter between reps in a way that will actually improve the next one. This means we have four opportunities in a standard set of five to correct the lifter mid-set. This is the power of the coach’s eye. It is invaluable, and cannot be fully utilized without seeing a coach in the flesh, in real time on the platform. So, if you want to know whether someone is a coach, ask them how many in-person cues they give per week. Because that’s their main task. That’s the tool that needs to remain razor sharp, and it must be constantly fine-tuned by anyone who wants to keep walking the long and winding road of mastery as a coach. 

Don’t lift for strength? Sorry, you’re not a strength coach. Train fat-loss clients only? Sorry, you’re not a strength coach. Spend all your time going for jogs in the park with your clients? Sorry, you’re not a strength coach. Title yourself a “coach” on social media solely because you think it makes you sound more qualified than a personal trainer? Sorry, you’re not. 

I can confidently say that I’m a full-time Starting Strength Coach. Starting Strength has clear requirements about what it takes to call yourself that: you’ve got to do at least 300 hours of in-person coaching every two years, excluding online work. I usually do at least double this amount. And that’s not even all that much – I’m certainly not the hardest worker in the room, but my life is oriented around training and coaching. The rest of my world revolves around those two things. 

Dedicating 300 hours to your craft over two years is really not that much of an investment, when you put it in perspective. There are 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. So that’s 17,520 hours in two years, which means 300 hours is 1.7% of two years. Not really a huge chunk of your time. If coaching is important to you, you can afford to spend 300 hours on it. 

I would be wary about boarding a plane whose pilot hasn’t logged the number of hours required to maintain a license. I would be wary of getting cut open by a surgeon who hasn’t practiced in five years. So why apply a lower standard to your strength coach? Many self-appointed coaches in the fitness industry seem to think that they can short-change the public, but thankfully clients are becoming increasingly savvy. The world is a smaller and more information-rich place these days. If someone smells bullshit they are one click away from YouPorn – um, I mean Google! – where they can figure out whether your claims are actually true. So be careful what you put out there, because this industry will chew you up and spit you out if you’re not the real deal. 

Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being a consultant. Frankly, I’m not knocking cheerleaders, either – if you want to pay someone to motivate you while you glute-bridge, that's fine. Go for it. But if you’re someone who works in the fitness industry, then be honest. Be authentic. Don’t call yourself a coach if you’re not. Don’t make claims to expertise and experience you don’t have. If a client comes to you for help but what they want isn’t really in your wheelhouse, refer them to someone who is able to help them. If you can’t answer their question, refer them to someone who can. But don’t talk the talk if you haven’t walked the walk. It doesn’t do the industry or your client any favors. And it pisses the rest of us off.

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