Last week the popular strength training website T-Nation posted an article by the infamous Mark Rippetoe, co-author of the highly respected strength training manuals Starting Strength and Practical Programming. The article was titled The Current State of S&C Coaching and it called out collegiate strength coaches for using dubious methods and producing lackluster results. The general response was less than positive. 

Rippetoe Has a Point

I get it. Rippetoe is rough around the edges and a bit of a curmudgeon. The article he wrote wasn’t just critical, it was scathing. As far as I can tell by the social media response, he pissed off a lot of people. Well, guess what? Like it or not, Rippetoe has a point.

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It seemed to me the primary complaint with Rip’s article was the fact that, by his own admission, he’d never served as a strength and conditioning coach for a collegiate team. To some this immediately disqualified him from being able to have an opinion on the subject. After all, he’s never worked specifically in that function, so what could he possibly know?

Apparent Authority

I’ve never worked specifically as a physical therapist (PT), but I can conclusively tell you that a lot of them, while well meaning and highly educated, don’t really understand proper strength training. It’s not due to a lack of capability. The primary focus of most physical therapy practices is to get people back to baseline. PTs are more concerned with helping people re-learn how to walk and treating neurodegenerative conditions than they are with helping otherwise functional individuals squat six hundred pounds.

The PTs who can speak to athletic training intelligently do so from experience, either from working extensively with athletes or from their own personal backgrounds. They use what they’ve learned in school to augment their understanding.

Unfortunately, the fact that having a PT license doesn’t qualify you to give strength-training advice doesn’t stop some of them. Rather than withholding their opinions, they utilize their educations and facility with the relevant terminology to maintain that they are the final word on movement. It’s a great sales pitch if nothing else. It’s what I call apparent authority. Credentials alone don’t always make you qualified.

Words Don't Matter

The problem extends far beyond the field of physical therapy. Every time I go to the gym, I hear a new trainer spouting off terms like functional and stability, naming seemingly relevant anatomy and stringing together verbiage-laden sentences that convey little beyond the trainer’s need to assert his or her value to the clients.

But your words don’t matter. Nobody is impressed by your ability to recognize the rotator cuff as a site of frequent injury in the shoulder. People are impressed by you actually understanding what the rotator cuff is, how it works, and how to optimally train it and bulletproof it from said injury. Here’s a hint: it’s not by using bands and tubing.

People love to throw around scientific terms, but when pressed, most of them simply become emotional or defensive and lack any real understanding. They try to use science-based jargon to demonstrate their knowledge, but unfortunately the body of exercise science is way behind what most good coaches know through experience.

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The Similarities Between Great Coaches

Take Dan John, for example. Here you have one of the most highly respected strength coaches in the industry. What’s his scientific background? Well, none, actually. He is rather well educated, possessing master’s degrees in both history and religious education. But neither of those things qualifies you as a strength coach. What does qualify him is the enormous wealth of knowledge and experience he’s gained through his own athletic pursuits and by working as a strength professional.

Interestingly enough, Dan John and Rip may differ in methods of communication, but their ultimate ideologies of lifting have some striking similarities. For example, Dan John said, “If you can’t pull twice your bodyweight from the floor, press bodyweight overhead and carry bodyweight for a hundred yards, let’s focus on that, shall we?” While Rippetoe probably would have thrown in something like a power clean instead of a farmer’s walk, there are multiple parallels between the ways these two think we should be lifting.

Rip’s more aggressive; Dan John’s a bit more corrective. Great coaches tend to vary the details, but the core remains the same. Lift heavy weights. Do it with proper technique through full ranges of motion. Keep your programs simple. Squat often. Deadlift often. Press often.

Even when looking beyond these two juggernauts of American training philosophy, similar themes emerge. Smolov? Squat heavy. Squat a lot. Effective in its simplicity. Bulgarian method? Do the main lifts. Do them a lot. Do them some more. The methods of the strongest athletes aren’t complicated - but they work.

The Goal is the Same

Obviously it’s worth noting that training a field athlete is a different beast than training a strength athlete. There’s a lot more to consider. Sure. That doesn’t justify using overly complex programming coupled with conditioning that makes your athletes nauseous. If anything, the increased demands of practices, scrimmages, and live play should call for simplification of programs, not increased complexity.

Strength athletes train to be strong as hell, pound for pound. While the ultimate goals of field athletes are more varied, in terms of their strength program, the goal is exactly the same: get stronger and therefore more durable. We know what the best ways to do that are. So why aren’t they the main methods used?

Some of it is that it’s difficult to determine exactly how strength and conditioning programs will translate into on-the-field performance. It seems obvious that making your athletes stronger and faster should make them perform better on the field. And sometimes it is that simple. But often it isn’t. Simply being a physical specimen doesn’t make you an athlete. How many times has an NFL prospect put up impressive combine numbers and then gone on to a completely lackluster career?

Simplify Your Understanding

I’m sure there are plenty of colleges with great strength coaches and athletes that benefit from their training. They are the exceptions.

Sometimes our industry is too sensitive. We get angry and defensive about our methods, rather than turning our focus inward to see if there’s any basis to the criticisms. I do think the state of collegiate coaching is improving, but if the injuries and motion I see are any indicator, there is still a long way to go.

To me, the mark of real understanding is the ability to translate complex ideas into simple language. Stop throwing around big words. Start simplifying your understanding. Arguments and terminology won’t make your athletes better. Sometimes you need to just shut up and lift.