What is a "Coach"?

by Dan Flanick and Mark Rippetoe | January 11, 2017

direct coaching on the squat

Today, everyone wants to call themselves a coach. This is both good and bad. The good lies in the fact that if there are more coaches, the sheer numbers indicate that more good coaches will work hard at their craft and rise to the top in a field starving for quality coaching. Conversely, it also means there are a greater number of “coaches” who will remain ignorant throughout their careers, and thus grow the number of ignorant trainees and future unprepared coaches who learn from their tutelage. If you’re not a part of the solution, you’re a part of the problem, so in order for us to mitigate the current and future damage done by unqualified coaches, we need to understand what exactly a coach is and does.

First, What a Coach Isn’t

Contrary to what you see on social media, television, and in fitness magazines, a coach is not a swimsuit model, and a coach is not someone who screams out motivational quotes while moving you from random exercise to random exercise with no plan and no reasoning. A coach isn’t the gal you see on TV – the celebrity trainer who sells you their e-book on “Butt Busting Moves for the Summer.” A coach is not someone who misses the forest for the trees and wastes your time by programming a combination of the “Pallof Press” and Pilates, when what you need is to squat and deadlift correctly. 

A coach doesn’t stand there with his arms folded and scream “Push!” or “Get it!” while you perform dozens of shitty reps that reinforce horrible exercise technique and habits. A coach doesn’t cripple you because you have been taught that soreness equals a “good workout.” A coach does not throw you into a group setting where you have to find your 3RM for a complex barbell movement you learned 5 minutes ago. A coach doesn’t pull a new exercise out of his ass when designing today's workout because he wants it to be hard and you to be sore. Coaching is a science and an art, and you need to be able to tell the difference between these types of personal trainers and a real Coach.

rip breaks down coaching

Physical Coaching

A true physical coach is a teacher who uses a model as the basis for instruction of a movement. A model is developed by establishing a set of criteria that serve to create the most efficient and effective movement patterns for the purpose of that movement. For example, the purpose of a front squat and a squat are different – one gets you out of the bottom of a clean, and the other is merely a way to get stronger. Understanding the differences between the two means understanding the differences in the mechanics and the effects these differences have on the kinetic chain components of the exercise. The mechanical and musculoskeletal differences define the criteria that need to be met in order for the two exercises to be performed properly, i.e. there’s an efficient and effective  way to do each, and hence a model for their performance. However, a coach also understands that although every person needs to satisfy all criteria of the model for an exercise, there will be individual differences in anthropometry that create variation in how each person looks when executing the movement correctly.

A general example of this is the basic model for walking. As bipedal creatures, we put one foot in front of the other while shifting our weight forward from back leg to front leg each time we take a step. Everyone performs the movement in this general manner, but no one will execute it identically – the details of femoral external rotation, knee extension, and plantar flexion/dorsiflexion vary with the individual, to the extent that gait identification is a useful tool for surveillance. Nevertheless, the general criteria are still fulfilled. The same is true with loaded barbell movements. We understand the robust argument for performing the low-bar back squat as prescribed in Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd edition, but that variations in anthropometry will result in each person looking different while fulfilling the squat model.

The lack of a movement model based on an understanding of physics and human anatomy is a problem. How do you expect to detect errors in movement if you have no objective criteria against which to compare the performance you’re observing? The simple answer is that you can’t. Therefore, those who do not coach based on an objective model aren’t really coaching. They’re basing their instruction on such subjective nonsense as, “That’s the way I was taught,” “That’s the way we do it here,” “Everyone is different, so they all have to find what works for them,” or other poorly-reasoned opinion based on very little factual analysis.

Qualities of a Coach

The word “coach” is synonymous with the word “teacher.” The qualities that make an effective teacher are the same that make an effective coach. A broad variety of personality types are found within the ranks of effective coaches. Some are calm with a comforting demeanor, while others may be aggressive loudmouths. However, there are several qualities that are always possessed by effective coaches.

First and foremost, a coach must have a strong background in the basic science behind the movements they are teaching. For a barbell coach, that includes anatomy & physiology, physics, biology, chemistry, and nutrition fundamentals. Lacking the basic science background places you closer to the “unqualified” end of the coaching spectrum. Mark Rippetoe’s article, “Academic Preparation” describes the fundamental preparatory material necessary to be an effective coach.

If you’re going to be a barbell coach, experience under the bar is required. You cannot effectively understand and coach barbell training for other human beings if you do not personally have thousands of hours under the bar. You need to experience the same stresses, recovery, and adaptations you will be guiding other people through. You need to endure the process of correcting your own form errors, solving your own programming problems, and performing thousands of repetitions so the movement model becomes eternally engrained in your brain.

You certainly do not have to be an elite lifter – and in fact the athletic ability necessary to excel in any sport almost always precludes the ability to coach that sport, since natural athletes get to skip so many of the steps that the rest of humanity must go through to develop expertise. If you skip the steps, you usually don’t know what they are, which makes it hard to coach them. The best coaches are below-average athletes who tried really hard for a really long time to get better, and along the way learned how to apply their experiences to other athletes. This is one of the reasons a coach cannot be created in a weekend certification course.

experience under the bar

Perhaps it’s self-evident, but given the current state of the fitness industry it should be stated that a good coach actually has lots of experience coaching lots of people. Not a few hours of experience, not a book or two under your belt, not a few clients using the Hammer Strength machines, but thousands of hours spent actively coaching, reading, learning, being mentored and becoming committed to developing the skills, knowledge, and expertise necessary to make people physically stronger over time.

In order to be an effective teacher, strong communication skills are also essential. The ability to get another person to understand and correctly perform a loaded barbell movement is dependent on your ability to communicate. Typically, communication about barbell training is performed with the use of instruction, when the coach teaches the movement pattern to the trainee for the first time, and through the use of cues, as the instructed movement pattern is perfected while the trainee performs it.

The teaching progression is the method developed and perfected by the coach for introducing the trainee to the movement pattern under the barbell. It will be simple, incorporating the fewest steps possible even as it includes everything the trainee needs to know, it will be quick to learn as a result, and it will apply to the large majority of people a coach will encounter in the course of professional practice. The teaching steps will be distilled from the model, and will describe a concise method for performing the movement pattern correctly.

After the movement pattern has been taught, cues are employed to perfect the execution of the movement as it is performed. Cues can be visual, auditory, tactile, or any combination of the three. Simply put, cues are brief reminders of the parts of the teaching progression that need correction. 

One more thing: experienced coaches find ways to make things simpler rather than more complex for the trainee, and this talent is the hallmark of a great coach’s professional development. Human movement under load is in fact very complicated, to analyze and to instruct. An effective coach develops the ability to spare the novice the complexity while coaching him, even as he develops an appreciation for all the subtle components that must be understood to continue developing as a coach.

The Coach-Athlete Relationship Continuum

Perpetuated by the everyday corporate run-of-the-mill Personal Trainer is the understandable perception that a trainer is someone who stands over you counting reps and cheering you on – essentially, a glorified babysitter. At no point does a coach stand over you, counting reps while repeating clichéd nonsense. A truly competent coach understands that a relationship grows between the coach and client, and that this development progresses as the both the athlete and the coach learn. A coach is always comparing what he sees you do to what he knows you should be doing, and trying to help you better perform the movement. This process improves in effectiveness throughout the lifespan of the coach/client relationship.  

At the beginning of a training career, the coach is heavily involved in all aspects of the athlete’s training program, technique, and schedule. A rank novice is in the “infancy” stage of his training career, and needs a more direction and instruction than he will after a few months. Like a parent-child relationship – in the sense that a parent is much more involved in the child’s earlier life when it comes to teaching basic manners, how to conduct oneself appropriately, and all the necessary basics of how to navigate the world – the coach directs the rank novice rep by rep, set by set. As the child grows and moves into young adulthood, the good parent backs off, letting the child make his own decisions, and the role of the parent becomes that of adviser and mentor.

The same is true in an honest coach-client relationship. As the client moves from novice to intermediate to advanced lifter, the client becomes less dependent on the coach, and the coach’s role becomes that of Consultant to the athlete. This directly contradicts the fitness industry norm, in which the trainer feels constant pressure to keep clients for as long as possible rather than progressing people into self-sufficient trainees. After all, it flies in the face of the Intelligent Business Model.

Our approach is different: as a client progresses through the levels of training advancement, the lifter grows in the direction of being his own coach, making his own programming decisions, and setting his own goals. The coach becomes someone to advise and consult – the same skilled technique advisor for the lifts when necessary, but making decisions of a more strategic nature while leaving the tactics to the maturing athlete. This may not provide the maximum financial benefit for the coach, but it’s the right thing to do, and when you do right by people, things tend to work out best.

Always a Student

The best coaches are students forever. Always questioning, always seeking answers – constantly questioning “the way it’s always been done,” trying to find and implement new and better ways of doing things. A good coach finds ways to learn from better coaches, trades ideas with his peers, and mentors the up-and-coming. Good coaches understand that when they begin to think they know everything, they have closed their minds to learning something new. They are not dogmatic in their thinking, and they use their knowledge and experience in both coaching and training as a filter for new information.

Anyone can call themselves a “Coach,” but how many of those people have earned the right to use the title? Experienced coaches you can trust and respect are constantly learning, and at the same time getting better at communicating with trainees, clients, and athletes. The rapid growth of the fitness industry makes it important that we continue to help to create more excellent coaches to feed a field starving for better practitioners.

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