The Art of Coaching vs. The Science of Programming: Which is More Important?

A few years ago I traveled up to New Jersey to attend a fitness+business seminar. At one point, the speaker of the main event got on the topic of program design vs. coaching. In other words, the act of sitting down and writing a program specific to an individual signing up at the gym, versus the act of running the person through said program on the gym floor. The speaker paused in the middle of his power point, and commanded everyone in the room to perform a quick scenario:

“Everyone turn and look at the person seated next to you. Now, say to them, ‘Put your left hand in the air. Good. Hold it there for a count of one one thousand. Put your hand back down now.’ 

Congratulations, you just ran a training session! Yes, it may have been only one rep of one exercise, but see how easy that was to tell them what to do and have it perform it? The reality is, the most valuable part of the whole training process is the program design, not the actual training. It takes much more expertise to be able to construct a program rather than watch over someone as they perform sets and reps.”

He then went on to say that the highest-level, expert trainers in his gym are the ones writing the programs, and the “lower-level” trainers are the ones who actually run the clients through the programs.

Fast forward a bit, I was having a conversation with Chris, one of the old SAPT coaches, about this very occurrence/speech that took place at the seminar. He and I came to the simple conclusion that the aforementioned speaker’s thought process (program design being vastly more important/valuable than coaching) is egregiously wrong*.

Sure, it’s one thing to tell someone to lift their hand up in the air and put it back down. But are we joking ourselves by using that as an example of the average motor skill a new client has to learn?

What good is it if you write a “perfect” program, with a flawless progression of  intensities, volume, loading, and exercise selection if the trainer responsible for administering the program can’t properly teach the movement patterns? You can do a “pushup,” sure. But then you can do a pushup, and receive infinitely more value from the exercise by actually doing it correctly. This goes for everything ranging from squats and deadlifts to chinups, spidermans, and planks.

Is the trainer’s job really that “easy,” to simply count reps for someone as they do an exercise, providing no other feedback other than when to start and stop?

Yeah, it is that easy I suppose……If you don’t care at all about the safety of the client, and could care less whether he or she receives the most out of the time, effort and money they are investing.

Coaching and guiding a person through correct technique takes time, patience, discernment, and tact on the part of the coach. Some people respond best to touch. Others are audible learners. Others visual. And others are kinesthetic learners.

And unless you live in some sort of magical Wonderland, the technique of someone learning a new exercise is going to be far from pretty. Heck it will probably take days for them to get it right. And of course it will. They are learning something new. It’s up to the coach to guide them through this process.

Not to mention, I can’t tell you how many times an athlete or an adult client walks in the door (right after I wrote them their next month of programming, of course), only to say any of the following:

-I sprained my MCL two days ago, so I can’t do anything on that leg today. 
-I just found out from the doctor I have spondylolisthesis, can you modify my program for me so I can still train today?

-My shoulder has been bothering me from pitching too much, what can I do to help it today?
-I just had an AWFUL day at the office, I was stuck in traffic for over two hours, my back hurts, and am having a family crisis at home, can we modify things a bit?

In each of the scenarios above, the coach can and should be able to modify the program on the fly, providing the person with a solid training effect but yet remaining prudent with regards to the red flag(s) at hand.

Is the ability to write a good resistance training program a unique skillset, requiring due diligence and an astute mind on the part of the program writer, and thousands of hours to master? Absolutely. But so does coaching. The two go hand in hand. They must.

I guess I get pretty fired up about this because there are so many coaches and trainers out there who can practically recite an exercise physiology textbook, or Vladimir Issurin’s Block Periodization, and yet cannot teach someone how to do a proper lunge, deadlift, or row. Or maybe it’s just that they get too impatient when someone doesn’t pick up on a new motor pattern right away, or they’re lazy, or simply don’t even care. I’m not really sure.

Heck, just last week I was lifting at the local commercial gym (sometimes I go for a change of scenery), and I’m not kidding you when I say that a trainer was having her client do over a hundred sit-ups, all the while while slouching against the back extension machine, typing on her phone!

AAARRRGGGGHHHH!

But yeah, I guess all that matters is program writing…..

In fact, just the other day I was speaking with one of our interns and I asked him what he felt were a few things (good or bad) he had received from his experience at SAPT so far. He quickly responded with,

“Definitely one of the most valuable things has been seeing how you all coach people. The cues you utilize, and how you prod them into correct positioning. That’s just not something I’ve learned from all the textbooks I’ve studied.”

To conclude, I’m certainly not saying that program design should be thrown by the wayside. On the contrary, there are many people out there with training certifications that, as my wife recently put it, “Couldn’t program their way out of a wet paper bag.” But try not to get so obsessed with the “science” side of the equation that you completely miss the reason you wrote the program in the first place.

*In case some of you reading know who this anonymous speaker is – after all, he is quite popular – know that my intent is not to bash him. I actually have the highest respect for him and he has influenced (for the better) many of the things I do today at SAPT. I was simply using this story as a segue into the post. And hey, it’s O.K. to disagree with others in the industry**

**Unless it’s me.