I am a college strength coach, and I am struggling. I am struggling with the state of strength training today. Whether it is training athletes or training the general population, there are a few basic tenets – commandments if you will – that have been thrown out the door and been replaced by soft workouts. I have gone back and forth with myself about either honestly expressing my opinions about the whole damn thing or holding it all in and risking a stroke. I believe that I have held this in long enough. So here goes: the truth as I see it.
I have at times in my 30 years of training and 20 year career of being a strength coach, seen all the weight room fads come and go. With the proliferation of “training centers,” personal trainers, and internet gurus, the whole industry has gone crazy. Gimmicks are in vogue. I am not talking about bands and chains; I am talking about the tendency of the industry to get away from hard work to focus instead on wimpy exercises that are supposed to work your “core” and your “balance,” when in reality they just make you weak as hell. The great debate in the ’70s and ’80s was the multi-set crowd versus the one-set-to-failure crowd. That debate is nothing when compared with today. It has gone beyond worrying about someone performing one set to failure on their squats because Mike Mentzer said to do it. At least he was squatting! Arthur Jones may have had some crazy ideas about just how great Nautilus was, but he had his early trainees squat until they passed out! All of the new training “ideas” today are basically – how do I put this? – WRONG. What about the perfect push up? What about the Navy Seal Workout? The Biggest Loser? The Ultra-Light Fit for Life No Holds Barred Workout? Kettlebells? Medicine balls and tug of war? Tire flips and keg tosses? Nope, none of them can replace the barbell. All can be considered adjuncts to barbell work. Everyone skirts the issue of getting stronger and what it really takes. What comes first in athletics, and, for that matter, in life? Strength comes first. The next question should be: what method should one use to get strongest the fastest?
What I struggle with is the unwillingness of people to work hard on the basics. My former boss and former powerlifting champion Dr. Rob Wagner wrote this email to me the other day:
I was going to mention this to you on Friday, but now is a good opportunity. By getting strong all things are possible. I know this is a play on Biblical verse but there is a truth in this statement. “Coach, I want to get faster!” Answer: are you as strong as you can be in your lower body? “I want to improve my clean.” Answer: Are you strong on your pulls? It also applies to all areas of life not just lifting. Need to gain more knowledge? Strengthen your study skills. Need to improve your diet? Get strong on your nutrition. I am using this as the slogan for the year. It sounds hokey, but the more I use it the more I see it applies to a lot of things. Sorry for the long answer but when I see “new” stuff I look at it and ask, will it strengthen my ability to coach? If it doesn’t I drop the thought.
Damn, that is perfect, and it gets to the heart of the matter: GET STRONG. Why wouldn’t you want to do it in the most efficient way possible? The ideas bandied about today in the strength training world don’t make much sense, but they are understandably appealing because they avoid the issue of hard work. All the coaches may think that they are right, and think such “unique” training methods are helping their athletes, but they aren’t. Ready for this? You are actually hurting your athletes by not telling them the truth. The truth about training and what gets them strong. Of course, maybe some coaches may not know the truth; it seems like a long time ago when the basics were in vogue, past the ability of some to remember. I am tired of it, actually weary of fighting the battles. I have met many strong folks who have one thing in common, and that is that they got strong through the basics: basic lifts and basic foods. Why, why, WHY is everyone afraid of the basics? Now, I have to admit that I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, a pretty decent time when it came to weight training. Kazmaier was king, NFL players squatted and benched, and Dr. Squat was pushing 1000 pounds in the squat. The basics were still in fashion, and giants still ruled the earth in the sport and strength world. Can you picture the York crew in an LA Fitness? Suggs, Starr, and Bednarski not using chalk and drinking a smoothie from the juice bar? Kaz on the Smith machine? Picture Mike Webster of the Steelers doing hammer rows while a coach changes the weight for him and reads his workout to him off of a card. Hell, Webster and the Steelers trained in the basement of a bar! There weren’t machines there; there were squat racks and benches. PERIOD.
It seriously depresses me and makes me question my choice of profession. When a coach says that the Bosu ball is the way to go, that the kids are going to train off campus with a personal trainer who is doing something, new, different, and – this is my favorite – “sports specific”, I nod in polite agreement, shake my head in private disgust, and struggle with it all. I sigh and wonder, Why? Why do they all try to do the easy thing? As my friends in Maryland say, “Listen to me!”There is no easy way to get there. Here is a great axiom: “If it is easy, it ain’t worth it.” Your ears are supposed to ring after a heavy set of squats and you are going to feel lightheaded at times. Sometimes after a heavy set of deadlifts, you may have to put your hands on your knees until your eyes refocus. Again, it’s supposed to be hard.
It’s frustrating because I am wondering where we are headed. In my opinion, it is a microcosm of where our society is headed as a whole. Soft and weak. Football practices are now easy compared to 30 years ago, and still kids are passing out because of “dehydration.” I swear to you – and this was in 1982 – we chewed on ice chips instead of having water, and this was in the 90 degree heat and humidity of Maryland. Of course in my father’s day, in the 1950s, water wasn’t allowed at practice. Why have things changed so much today? The human body hasn’t changed that much. I know that I am starting to sound like an “uphill both ways to school” guy, but damn,what is going on here? In my mind it has something to do with the work ethic, or lack thereof. My father loaded railroad cars to pay his way through college; I pumped gas and so did all my friends. We all worked at the Adelphi Mobil station and had steak and cheeses for lunch with red hots spread, lettuce and mayo. Everyone had lawns to cut for a few bucks. Now it’s light beer and cognitive therapy for everyone. Light beer? When you go to the doctor’s office these days, it’s about which drug will take away your anxiety and what will help you sleep. Man, life is tough, but now you don’t have to deal with it, what with all the alternatives these days. I’m afraid it’s gone – the day of the stoic, badass man is gone. Everyone is so concerned with overtraining, overworking, and overloading. How many times have I heard, “But coach, I just want to work on my form!” This usually translates as, “I don’t want to train heavy.” The point here is that somehow it became accepted to take the easy way out in training, and in life. When I train folks that are 50 and up, I teach them about exercises that transfer over into life skills, like pressing stuff over their heads, shoveling snow, and picking up their grandkids. I have them deadlift, press, squat, and clean, to make them stronger. It doesn’t matter what you are getting ready for in life – sports, weightlifting, bodybuilding, powerlifting, health, tennis, swimming, basketball, baseball, skiing – all of it requires strength. What is so wrong with putting a bar on your back, picking a bar up off of the ground, or pressing a bar over your head? I mean, herein lies the answer to what this multibillion dollar strength “industry” claims to be searching for in a nutshell: get strong with a barbell and hard work. Earth shattering, I know. But all you need is a barbell and some plates. Maybe a bench and a squat rack too. Nothing else. With the barbell you can do anything – get stronger, get bigger, get more explosive.
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