Q & A: How to Write Resistance Training Programs, Part 2: Coaching

Q. One thing I was wondering, and maybe it’d be a topic to write about … how do you come up with workouts?? Do you make stuff up?? Have a “grab-bag” of moves and pull out of that?? Borrow and modify from other trainers??  I always wonder where trainers come up with new ideas.

A. For those who missed Part 1, I discussed the importance of training yourself on a regular basis. Let’s move on to #2 on the list….

2a. Spend Time Coaching

I don’t care if it’s your mom, your coworker, or your friend who wants some help getting ready for Spring Break. Just start coaching someone. The best coaches (and, thus, those typically good at writing programs), are those that have spent thousands of hours in the trenches, coaching the heck out of people.

Chris Romanow comes to mind. If you’ve never trained at SAPT, you’re probably asking who Chris Romanow is. He hasn’t published any books or articles on training, he doesn’t have a Twitter, he doesn’t a keep a fitness blog, doesn’t send out a newsletter, and he hasn’t produced any fitness products.

Yet he is one of the best coaches in the industry, hands down. He can coach people and design training plans better than anyone I know. Heck, the man could teach a freshly born giraffe how to perform a solid overhead squat.

And you know what Chris received his college degree in? NOT Exercise Science, or even in a related field. He became a great program designer, and an even better coach, not by reading some textbooks, taking a few exams, and receiving a diploma for it, but by coaching his butt off, twelve hours a day, for years on end.

He was forced to learn how to teach kids the squat pattern (including hundreds who aren’t genetically gifted and couldn’t pick it up, even after the hundredth six attempt), how to teach a good pushup to mothers who never weight trained in their lives, show an unmotivated 12-year old softball player how to rotate through her hips instead of her lumbar spine, to teach an arrogant 17-year old that no, he really can’t really squat 400lbs to depth.

And to do this over, and over, and over, and over again with people from all walks of life and varying genetic predispositions.

I, on the other hand, did study Kinesiology/Exercise Science in college. I also had many colleagues right alongside me doing the same thing. Going to lectures, learning about muscle insertions and attachments, the sliding filament theory, force-velocity curves, motor unit force potentiation, glycolysis, yadda yadda yadda.

And you know what I find myself telling people on a weekly basis? I would trust Chris with coaching me, and writing ME a program, a thousand times more than having one of my fellow colleagues (with a B.S. in Exercise Science) coach me or write me a workout plan. No question about it. And no offense to those of you from Virginia Tech who may be reading; it just is how it is.

As strength coach Mike Robertson once put it, “Some of the best coaches in S&C are the ones you’ve never heard of, and never hear from. They’re tucked away in some remote part of the country, just kicking ass and taking names.”

That’s Chris. And any talent I have at writing programs and coaching others, I owe in large part to him.

My point in all that is that learning the “science of training” is completely different from practicing it in real life. And no graduate degree or Ph. D. can replace time invested learning it first-hand (wasn’t it Malcolm Gladwell who articulated it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something?). It’s very difficult to become proficient at program design without putting in your dues coaching others. And you can’t truly appreciate this until you experience it for yourself.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written what I thought to be a “perfect program” only to see it fail miserably upon implementation. And, unless you work with Olympic-level athletes, you’re going to have to help countless people with quite poor movement quality (yes, even “higher level” athletes) learn to hip hinge, squat, pick things up off the ground, press things, and pull things. Correctly. And they aren’t usually going to get it the first time.

Coaching teaches you a lot of things. As long as you pay attention, remain awake, stay astute, and make an effort to truly observe the feedback you’re receiving (both verbal and nonverbal), you’d be surprised at how much your clients can teach you about yourself. And you will then learn to be a better program designer.

I remember, upon first becoming a personal trainer in college, I decided to take one of my clients (a soccer player) through a few sets of front squats. Easy peasy, right? Except that his knees persistently collapsed inward during the bottom half of his squat. So me, being the brilliant trainer I was, continually barked at him to drive his knees out. Yet he couldn’t do it.

Was he deaf? No. Was he stupid? Of course not. Yet me, in all my trainer awesomeness, thought the only way to get him to align his knees over his second toe was to tell him to do it.

Now, don’t get me wrong, on many occasion this can fix the issue. However, what I didn’t realize at the time was that structural restrictions in this guy’s ankle and/or hip could possibly prevent his knees from tracking correctly, despite how hard he tried to. I had no clue what implications closed-chain ankle dorsiflexion had during a front squat, or that poor hip internal rotation combined with flexion could force his knees inward in the bottom, or that sucky gluteals wouldn’t allow him to power the movement correctly.

And, naturally, didn’t know that I might have to program these into his workouts in order to help him squat correctly. This forced me to research and learn.

Should squats be in the program of most people? Yes, duh. However, what good is it if they can’t do it proficiently? (Hint: they probably can’t, at least until they’re coached on it.) You need to be able to write their program so they can receive a training effect in the meantime, while at the same time helping them get from Point A to Point B.

It’s the hundreds of hours you spend teaching a wide variety of people – coordinated and uncoordinated, conditioned and deconditioned, male and female, young and old, hobbit, dwarf, and wizard – to do things correctly that make you a better coach and program designer. Teaching and coaching elite level athletes is easy. Your only job there is basically to ensure they don’t injure themselves under your watch (now, increasing their vertical five inches is another issue, but I’m just discussing the coaching component for the time being).

If you can coach some of the most uncoordinated, deconditioned people in the world through the fundamental human patterns, then chances are high you can write a program that doesn’t suck.

Which leads (kind of) to the next point….

3. Practice Writing Programs. Apply these programs to real people, then write more programs. Repeat x Infinity.

I’ll return with this part on Monday. Hope everyone has a great weekend.