I see this question pop up every so often in various debates and forums. Should a strength coach be strong? Very simply put: Yes. Please note the use of the word should in the question. Should you practice what you preach and lead by example? Yes. It is ideal for a strength coach to be strong. I can’t see how anyone would argue with that concept.
Does a strength coach have to be strong? No, he or she doesn’t have to be super strong to be a good strength coach, but…. Not being strong does present some potential problems.
I operate under the following assumptions:
Almost anyone can build a reasonable level of strength with long term, consistent training.
Strength training is awesome. If you don’t think strength training is awesome, why are you strength coach?
If it is awesome, why aren’t you doing it?
If you are know what you are doing and you are doing it, why isn’t it working? Why aren’t you strong?
Many people are familiar with ad hominems, which is where you attack the person instead of the argument. If a cop pulls you over and gives you a speeding ticket, and you think to yourself “that stupid frickin’ cop doesn’t know what he is doing, look at how fat he is” – that is an ad hominem. Even if the cop is a fat slob, that has nothing to do with his knowledge of the traffic laws in that region or his ability to enforce them. But questioning someone’s physical proficiency in an exercise they are coaching IS NOT an ad hominem, because that proficiency is very relevant to the topic. To repeat, pointing out that a strength coach is not strong is not an ad hominem because it is directly related to the topic at hand.
To return to the previous question, does a strength coach have to be strong? No, but if one is not strong they should realize they are starting with one foot in the hole and that coach should not be surprised or offended if the question of their physical fitness comes up, that topic is not out of bounds. The same is true of an overweight person giving nutrition advice; a personal trainer who is not fit giving fitness advice; an inflexible person giving advice on flexibility; a person with minimal muscle giving advice on how to get big; someone with poor cardio giving advice on how to run well; the list could go on and on. Not being able to express the qualities that you are coaching doesn’t immediately disqualify you as a coach, but it is a negative. It is like a person applying for a job with limited experience in the field – they might be good, but they will have to work extra hard to overcome that shortcoming. Failing to display a high level of proficiency in the field you are coaching in is a weakness, no pun intended. If that is the situation one finds themselves in, they should be aware of that, accept it, and then work to overcome it.
It is certainly worth pointing out that being strong doesn’t automatically qualify one to give advice or be a strong coach. Strength is not the only measuring stick, it is just one assessment of many. You still need to have academic knowledge of how the body works, the ability to teach and motivate, and a deep understanding of the key principles in fitness, just to name a few.
But the theme of this article is to emphasize that one’s physical fitness is relevant in a discussion if that person is coaching others in the fitness realm. This is a practical field, there is a tremendous amount of information to be learned in the trenches. You can read as much as you want but it won’t give you complete knowledge of the subject. Just like a mechanic might read many texts on how to repair an engine, at some point he will need to get his hands on the machine and start fixing it. So too will you need to get your hands on the bar and at some point you should put that knowledge in your head into practice.
One reason why personal strength is part of the assessment of the coach is because strength = time under the bar. In other words it can be a reasonable assessment of the time the person has logged in the practical setting. You may have heard of the 10,000 hour rule: that one needs 10,000 hours of perfecting a skill to become an expert. Being strong makes it clear that you have spent a least a good amount of time practicing and perfecting your craft. No one walks around being able to bench over 400 lbs without training or deadlifting 600 lbs, that takes work. Getting strong also shows that you made progress during that time, 10,000 hours with nothing to show for it means nothing. It is practice with a continual drive toward perfection that really develops mastery.
It is true, we all have our starting points, but those starting points can be significantly improved upon (2 anecdotes I mention in the book All About Powerlifting: Vince Anello thought 185 lbs was heavy the first time he deadlifted, he went on to pull over 800 lbs; Jennifer Thompson started out struggling to bench press the bar, she went on to bench press over 300 lbs and is currently considered the best female bench presser, ever). Even super strong people don’t start off with an incredible level of barbell strength right from the start.
Throughout this article I have been suggesting that it is ideal for strength coaches to be strong. A logical question then is: what is strong? How does one know if they are strong enough? There will never be a perfect answer to this question, no matter the standard some will claim it is too high and others that it is not high enough. People naturally want to set standards that they just meet but others may not. Some people may not feel I am strong enough to give advice (the voices in my head sometimes whisper that to me but they also tell me to do other weird stuff like eat those skittles on the ground so I have learned to ignore them). Hell, I wish I was stronger, but I have tried hard for a long time and built up a reasonable level of proficiency, of course some lifts are better than others. I can live with where I am.
As a very broad guideline, I feel the standards I set forth in my T-nation article “Are you strong” serve our purposes well. If a strength coach couldn’t meet at least the Decent level of strength then that coach is weak and that coach should expect to have overwhelming evidence in other areas (whom they have trained, whom they have learned from, the extraordinary results they are getting) to bring up that flaw and they should expect to have their methods questioned especially if those methods are generally unconventional. Preferably a strength coach will far exceed the Decent level of strength and hopefully they will reach the Good level or beyond. Additional strength is never a bad thing in this context. It is worth mentioning that age will catch up to all of us at some point, I am not suggesting that to be able to coach you must continually meet these standards but you should have met them at least some point in your life.
To summarize, it is ideal for strength coaches to be strong, just like it is ideal for personal trainers to be fit, for nutritionists to be lean, and for bodybuilding coaches to be jacked. I don’t see how anyone can argue contrary to that point. You don’t have to be strong (or fit or lean or jacked) to be a good coach, but your inability to express the ability that you are coaching on yourself is a liability. It bothers me when a fitness expert gets up in arms that someone questioned their own fitness in regards to a topic they were dispensing advice on, as if to imply that it is an irrelevant or taboo topic.
You are your first client. How successful were you with your first client? In my mind that has a lot of bearing on how successful you will be with future clients.
If you would like more information on this topic, please refer the article Definition of an Expert.