My Strength and Conditioning Philosophy (as of 2014 – subject to change!)
Produce quantifiable improvements in an athlete’s bio-motor abilities as required in their sport
Optimal training environment and culture
As my first blog post in OVER a year (kept pretty busy with my degree) I figure it’s appropriate to produce introduce my philosophy on strength and conditioning. So this post is basically about what I think my role as an S&C coach is, my beliefs about the profession, and how I go about doing my job.
My Role as a Strength and Conditioning Coach
I believe my role as a strength and conditioning coach is more complex than just coaching athletes in the gym to get stronger and fitter, I see my role as a combination of a teacher and a scientist as well. Obviously my job is to produce quantifiable improvements in an athlete’s bio-motor abilities as required in their sport, but I feel it is also important to teach them how to train in order to create a self sufficient athlete, whilst using evidence-based training methods.
One of my main principles is that of simplicity. In my opinion many coaches make strength and conditioning too complicated, it seems obvious to me that there are a multitude of different ways to get an athlete into peak condition, all of which work if the coach and athlete pursue them with the correct attitude. Keeping things simple, especially from the foundational stages of an athlete’s development, allows me to keep my athletes interested by drip-feeding them new information and introducing new exercises and methods when it is necessary. This also prevents ‘paralysis by analysis’, which has affected me in the past, struggling to write the ‘perfect’ programme for example, when in reality it is a case of sticking to basic principles and following the programme with the correct attitude.
Having this correct attitude relates to my other main principle of consistency. You can, for example, give an athlete the perfect programme, but if they don’t adhere to it then it is effectively worthless, however even a sub-standard programme followed consistently will improve performance. I also ensure consistency in all other aspects of strength and conditioning, such as adopting a consistent coaching style (which style I use will depend on the characteristics of the athletes I am coaching), as I believe this builds trust between myself and the athletes.
Volume vs. Intensity
As a coach I am highly intensity driven within my programming. The majority of the programmes I write involve the athlete or athletes working at an intensity of 85% of one repetition maximum or more in multiple sets for low repetition ranges (five or less) in a narrow range of major compound exercises (core lifts). This drives strength based adaptations, but I feel that it also ensures the athlete maintains correct, safe form and remains mentally ‘switched on’ throughout the set. Additionally it minimises the chances of missing repetitions in the gym, which is a very important aspect of training because if it occurs too regularly I believe it has a significant psychological impact on the athlete. This could potentially lead to choking, freezing and missing repetitions/lifts in a competitive environment and thus loss of the competition (this being especially true for those in sports such as weightlifting and powerlifting).
Programming and Exercise Selection
When planning a programme for an athlete I utilise my own interpretation of ‘Pareto’s Law’, which (when adapted to a training context) states that 80% of your results come from 20% of what you do. In order to determine the most important core lifts for an athlete I imagine I have only 20 minutes a session to train that person. This clears my mind and forces me to eliminate the less important exercises and focus on the things that will get maximum results whilst keeping other exercises and training techniques in my hypothetical toolbox. Having completed this process, I may build in other exercises if I feel there is a good rationale; however I will always endeavor to use the minimal effective dose required to elicit adaptation, saving new elements as stimuli for when a plateau is reached in training.
This microcycle-centric principle also applies to my longer-term periodisation where I use a narrow range of exercises overall. I believe that athletes should have a clear progression system through a hierarchy of exercises that address key qualities required for their phase of training. This will allow the athlete to become highly technically proficient at these exercises, laying the foundation for later training phases as, after all, all exercises are variations of a few ‘root’ movements.
The ability to create an optimal training environment and culture is essential to being a successful strength and conditioning coach; whenever I am training athletes I envisage creating an atmosphere akin to that of DeFrancos gym, West Side Barbell and Lehigh University. These places share an intense culture and demand a powerful work ethic from the athletes that train there. I take as many elements as possible from these facilities into my coaching; I expect a ‘business time’ attitude from my athletes when in the gym, they must arrive on time and ready to train, and be focussed on the task at hand.
Another way I build an effective training environment is to encourage all athletes to become ‘assistant coaches’ themselves during sessions. I often use this technique with the youth players at London Irish, telling them to reinforce my coaching cues to each other and try to pick up on obvious errors (for example heels coming off the ground in a back squat). This introduces an element of guided discovery into the sessions, builds a team atmosphere and allows me as a coach to spend extra time with players who need more dedicated attention.
The coaching style I adopt is very important to creating a constructive gym culture, I often (but not always) utilise varying degrees of an autocratic style depending on the group of athletes. Whilst coaching youth (U-16s) athletes I am highly autocratic due to safety and to maintain order within the gym. I expect the young athletes to follow their programme and do exactly as they are told, this is not to say that I do not want their input on the programme, but I believe there is a time and a place for that and it is not during their session.
These are the principles that underlie my philosophy, much of this has stemmed from my experiences in internships and studying abroad in the United States, as well as from my time as a personal trainer and from other coaches I have interacted with. I am certain elements of my philosophy will eventually change and I believe that it is important to remember that the general answer to most questions in strength and conditioning is ‘it depends’.