5 Steps to Becoming a Great Powerlifting Coach

The world of coaching is changing rapidly, here's how to become a powerlifting coach in the new-age of strength sports.

When I was young and thought about my career, like many, I dreamt of being a police officer, doctor, lawyer, or pilot. Coaching was not something that came to mind. In fact, when I was younger, I was not very athletic at all. However, life ended up doing what it does best, and it threw curveballs at me, and I adapted, overcame, and found myself in a better position. I found solace in embarking on a career as a Powerlifting coach, and eventually a gym owner too.

With the rise of barbell sports in popularity, we are also starting to observe a rise in barbell “careers”. Unlike other sports, there are not really clear defined steps on how to become a powerlifting coach. In well established sports, the route is usually pretty clear. I’ll use football as an example.

If you want to become a head high school football coach you typically start out by playing the game at some level. You’re passionate about it, so you’d like to pursue coaching. You earn a Bachelors degree, then teaching credentials. You find a school that is looking for assistant coaches and you apply. If all goes well you get hired, and start teaching in the classroom and fulfill a coaching position. If you do well, you may get promoted to a better coaching role, like an offensive or defensive coordinator. Then if you do well in that role, you may eventually get hired at a school that needs a new head coach, and now you are living your dream.

squat barbell
sportpoint/Shutterstock

Now obviously, you are not reading this article because you want to coach football. You get the point though, with most sports the path is relatively clear with some sort of standard protocol. In powerlifting however, there is no standard, or real barrier to entry. There is no certification or degree necessary, technically. And there are no markers that are required to start coaching powerlifting.

So with no path, what steps should you take to start coaching powerlifting?

Step 1: Be a Powerlifter

Just like any sport, if you want to be a coach, you should do the sport. You should be a powerlifter, and hopefully a relatively good one. You should do a handful of meets, and feel pretty confident in your abilities as a lifter.

You should even compete at the National or International level at some point, which will give you perspective later on. These things will strengthen the attractiveness to your coaching ability one day, and it can really go a long way.

Step 2: Get Educated

This does not necessarily mean a formal education, however one may be desired. Having a college degree usually demands some sort of respect, but in this industry it is definitely not the end all be all. In fact, I have met many incredible coaches that have not obtained their degree, or did but it was not in a sports science capacity. If you have or are pursuing a bachelors degree, then more power to you. However, education should extend much further than the classroom.

With technology at our fingertips, this means reading articles, books, and watching YouTube videos from other well established coaches that you may look up to is easier than ever. In addition, attend seminars and learn from others who have already made it, and people you want to emulate. You may even want to look into different certification courses where you feel you may want to learn, but again this is not required.

I recommend the following books,

  • Scientific Principles of Strength Training (Dr. Mike Israetel, Dr. James Hoffman, Chad Wesley Smith)
  • The Powerlifting Program Design Manual (Chad Wesley Smith)

I recommend the following coaches to learn from,

  • Chad Wesley Smith
  • Max Aita
  • Greg Nuckols
  • Alberto Nunez
  • Dr. Mike Israetel
  • Dr. Eric Helms

Step 3: Get Mentored

The best coaches that I have met in my career have worked with and for some really great coaches. If you want to coach powerlifting, you should probably also have a coach. This will allow you to learn from someone who has more experience, and is probably smarter. As a client you gain perspective, and should have ample opportunity to ask questions and learn. When you are coached by different coaches overtime you are able to develop your own coaching style and philosophies based on your personal knowledge, preferences, and dislikes.

On top of being coached, you should reach out to other coaches that you respect for internship opportunities. There are a lot of coaches or coaching companies out there that would love to assist you in becoming a coach. This allows you to learn first hand what it takes to be a successful powerlifting coach.

There is no clear period of time that is required to be mentored for you to become a great powerlifting coach. I would argue that you should learn under someone until you feel a strong sense of confidence, so that with the knowledge and experience you have gained, you can then help someone achieve their powerlifting goals. In a growing field like ours backed by science and research, you can really never know too much. So don’t be afraid to ride this one out.

Step 4: Coach for Free

Before ever coaching for pay, you should coach for free. Building a small client base without charging for coaching allows you to “test” your programming philosophies, and get a first-hand coaching experience. This will also allow you to generate more expertise, and fine tune your process in which you do things before you start charging for your services.

Before ever coaching for pay, you should coach for free.

Lifters won’t want to hire you for pay if you have no clients or actual coaching experience. They will though, if it is free and you communicate with them that you are pursuing coaching as a career and want to work with them to get better. Once you start delivering results to your “free” clients, you will have an argument for charging new clients, and eventually can start charging your current clients.

Before I ever charged for programming I did the following for free,

  • Wrote lifting programs in high school for people that asked me to.
  • Coached one of my roommates to his first powerlifting meet in college.
  • Starting giving coaching tips when asked to people at my gym, and writing programs for some of them.

Step 5: Charge for your Coaching

This is a hard step, and you may still struggle with feeling as though you are “worth” being paid to coach. I know that is how I felt when I first started charging. Don’t be afraid to start small and grow. Pick a rate that is competitive, yet enticing enough for potential clients to eagerly hire you. Build your client base and continue to deliver results.

Be confident in your abilities, and continue to take time to learn and grow.

I am still great friends with my first ever client that paid me. I reflect often on the conversion, and think about how things may have been different if I never mustered up the confidence to ask. I don’t recommend trying to “sell” your services to people that don’t ask, but I had befriended this lifter and been helping him with his technique in the gym. One day, he was asking me a programming question, and I decided to go for it. I said that I wanted to coach him, and write his programming. He asked me how much, and I said it would be $50 a month.

Known for my bench press, he replied saying he would do $30 for bench press coaching and programming. I responded that I’ll take $30 for programming and coaching all three of his lifts. That’s how it all started. After a month, he paid me the full $50 because he felt I was doing too good of a job to just be paid $30. Him paying me gave me the confidence that I needed to start marketing my services to other gym-goers.

Eventually I started building a small group, who one of my mentors at the time, Chad Wesley Smith, deemed “Bartell’s Barbarians”. I would show up to the gym five days a week, and would coach everyone in person every day for $50 a month in a group setting. If you do the math, I was making less than minimum wage for a good amount of time. Eventually, after building up to 10 clients, I decided it was time to raise my rates to $75. People continued to sign up, and ultimately I raised my rates to $100.

There was no structure to my decision to raise my rates, I would urge you to follow your gut, and find the point where you can really start charging what your worth. I was definitely worth more than $100, but had not gained the confidence yet to ask for it. Now, in person coaching is one thing, but online coaching is definitely where things are headed.

My first online client was somebody I messaged directly on instagram asking if he had a coach. He was an up and coming young lifter and he responded that he did not. I offered my coaching services for $50 a month again, and he took me up on it. From there, I started online coaching and advertising a bit more on social media and things started to take off. Again, O found the confidence to raise my rates to $75, then $100 and I left it at $100 for about two years.

If you want to become a successful powerlifting coach, I recommend that you first coach in person.

If you want to become a successful powerlifting coach, I recommend that you first coach in person. This allowed me to really become a technician, and build lifter’s technique from the ground up. It also allowed me to interact and communicate on the fly as needed. When an online client asks you a question, you can take your time to gather a well informed response. When somebody in person asks you a question, you have to be able to gather your thoughts and respond in the moment. This taught me the ability to defend my knowledge, and become very confident in being able to argue the “why” behind my philosophies.

It Takes Time

Know that it will take a good amount of time before coaching becomes your full-time job. It will depend on your lifestyle, but coaching will most likely be a side gig for quite some time. It took me three years before coaching my own clients became my only source of income. Up until that point, I was working the gym front desk, packing and shipping for a powerlifting clothing company, doing administrative work for another coach, and going to school full-time.

If you love this sport though, you will make it happen.

Just like being a head high school football coach, your path to becoming a powerlifting coach may vary. You may skip some of these steps, or not do them at all whatsoever. What I will tell you though, is that if you follow these steps you have a much better chance at being successful. If powerlifting coaching is a side hustle for you, so be it. If you want to make powerlifting coaching your career, and be good at it, then you now know what to do.

Following these five steps will allow you to gain the knowledge, perspective, and experience required to be a great powerlifting coach. Even with no standards, or procedures, it is important for all of us coaches to uphold a high standard. We all need to take our job seriously, and do our very best to provide tangible results to our clients while also leaving a positive impact on their lives in one way or another.

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image from @bartellbarbell Instagram page. 

Zack Bartell

Zack Bartell

Zack is a powerlifting coach in Southern California and founded SoCal Powerlifting, a facility located in Newport Beach, CA. Zack's background includes working for and training under Juggernaut Training Systems' Chad Wesley Smith and Max Aita. He currently works with lifters of all backgrounds and experience levels. He prides himself on developing his lifter's technique and programming for a long term progression. At Raw Nationals 2018 he had five lifters finish on the podium, including two silver medalists. Zack works with lifters both online and in person at his facility. You can reach Zack at [email protected] or through his gym's website at www.socalpowerlifting.net, which is linked below.

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