The Growing Gap Between Coaching and Online Training

The fitness industry has transformed with the boom of CrossFit® and social media. The participation and value in fitness has exploded and with that there’s been boosts in sports like weightlifting and powerlifting. This growing interest in fitness combined with the ever expanding presence of social media has created endless opportunities for athletes and fitness enthusiasts to follow the journey of top CrossFitters, weightlifters, and powerlifters.

This in return, has created an opportunity for many coaches and athletes, to not only be known around the world for their athletic presence, but to also monetize their “fame” through the development of online programming and remote coaching.

What Makes Online Programming and Coaching Different?

Online programming typically involves selling auto-formatted lifting templates online. They’re usually nonspecific in nature with no particular individual in mind. Instead, the focus is on broad training principles aimed at wide audiences. This extends to programs like the Smolov squatting program, and more broad programs like the CrossFit team programming, which focuses on an array of fitness modalities.  

In contrast, remote coaching is coaching through online platforms. Athletes can send videos and communicate through texting, calls, or other forms of social media. This type of coaching can range from a general program that’s given to a group of athletes with technical feedback via Facebook groups, to fully customizable programs, which are generally tailored to the individual and involve regular communication. For the purpose of this article I will use the term “Online Training” to denote both online programming and remote training.  

Online Training

Online Training has allowed individuals to have access to coaches that otherwise would be unavailable to them. This provides athletes the opportunity to follow their favorite coach’s and sometimes athlete’s programs. Remote training has created positive effects for both coaches and athletes, but especially for athletes living in areas where coaches are unavailable.  

There’s been many positive effects of this boom. However, there’s come a shift in how people look at the training process, specifically in the role coaches play.

Context and Online Training

One of the main concepts that will be addressed throughout this article is context. Context by definition is loosely: “The circumstances that form the conditions for an event, statement, or idea, in terms which it can be fully understood and assessed.”

Put simply, it’s the factors involved in the process.

Individual Context

When looking at atlhetes context includes information such as: age, height, sex, weight, past experiences, job conditions, relationships, mental health, stress, physical strengths, physical weaknesses, living conditions, sleep conditions, nutritional habits, etc. Some of these factors are broader than others, and expand into their own rightful subjects.  

Identifying and understanding these factors is only part of the process. Understanding how these factors relate to one another, and how they rank in value is crucially important. And that’s only addressing the context of “the individual”, but what about “training principles context”?

Training Principles Context

The addition of training principles adds another layer of complexity to the coaching process. A coach must understand the concepts of the human body, and the training principles as they apply. There include things like: the principle of progressive overload, recovery, biomechanics, sport technique, muscle recruitment, fiber types, energy systems, neural systems, specificity of exercise, and many more.

Given all the factors involved and how they relate to one another, then you can imagine how important a coach is in an athlete’s progress. In many ways, it’s a coach’s role to be the thinker, or the person that ensures the athlete’s time, effort, and energy is being focused in the right direction in the most effective way possible, while maximizing results and minimizing set backs. This is not to say that the athlete has no input, but instead highlights the specific role of a coach in relation to the athlete, who in contrast has multiple responsibilities both cognitive and physical.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Online Training

In other sports the value of hands on coaching is unquestioned and properly valued in the process of athletic development. However, in the arena of fitness and strength there seems to be a disconnect in the coach’s role and value, and specifically as it relates to hands-on training. A dichotomy is occurring where coaching and programming are being valued separately, as if one is independent from the other.

On the hierarchy of importance programming seems to be taking the top spot, while hands-on coaching has fallen down the list. Perhaps it’s the easy access to information, or the increase of certifications and seminars, or simply the, “I want to do what the cool kids do” mantra. Regardless, athletes on the quest of finding an experience coach to train with has been trumped by wanting to follow programming from someone across the country who doesn’t see, and seldom talks with them.

Obviously, this is not always the case, and some coaches are great at staying in contact with their remote athletes. However, many of the programs out there are cookie cutter, and do not fit the athlete’s individual needs. They’re not adjusted to an athlete’s schedules and life factors. And this is NOT to say these programs are ineffective and don’t produce results. Yet, in many cases these online training options are not as efficient at addressing what’s best for the individual, especially for things like avoiding holes in development (technique, mobility, etc.).  

In my years of training and coaching I’ve seen hundreds of individuals, myself being one of them, that have required different plans at different times to address a multitude of problems. I’ve worked with athletes who’ve made tremendous progress with very little training volume. On the flip side, I’ve also worked with athletes that required high training volume (ex: 6+ sessions a week) to experience that same level of progress. I’ve spent years in the sport of weightlifting, and coaching athletes in both weightlifting and CrossFit, and there’s one thing that I can say for sure: There is no such thing as the perfect program that works for everyone.

Often, the problem with online training comes down to a lack of context. How you feel day to day, the condition your body is in, and how you’re moving technically are crucially important factors for coaches to know. Technology has given us the ability to send videos and stay connected with remote coaches, but workouts are generally shown in out of context clips presenting limited information, and with feedback generally coming after the fact.  This leaves the athlete with information only applicable to the next training session, and leaves them with a workout that could’ve been improved immediately with an on-site coach.

I’ve seen athletes cry, frustrated and angry with their programming and progress, and not know how to handle bad workouts technically or emotionally. Having someone there to talk you through physical errors, and through emotional setbacks poses a tremendous benefit that is unfortunately overlooked.

Hands On Coaching: The Gold Standard

Hands-on coaching allows athletes to communicate directly with their coach. The information that’s collected during training sessions is invaluable for the coach and the athlete. Real time assessments, adjustments, cuing, as well as the ability to discuss outside factors (sleep, stress, relationships, etc) provide an improved training experience and learning opportunity. This is particularly important when it comes to skill acquisition and technical improvements.

Most sporting movements require a focus on technical mastery for improved performance and overall health. CrossFit, weightlifting, and powerlifting are no exception. Training without proper technical feedback can create many problems. Timing, balance, muscle activation, and positioning are elements of technique that need to be taught correctly, and without proper feedback can become increasingly difficult to improve. Without a coach present, the likelihood of creating faulty movement patterns increases, which means the muscles don’t get strong in the right positions, which can lead to imbalances, injuries, and potential set backs and plateaus.   

Online programming misses this element almost completely, while remote coaching has to deal with the problem of getting limited information. Technique is a very difficult factor to coach from a distance and it’s a vital part of performance. One’s ability to move properly can vary day to day. Being able to see those changes and adjust a workout will improve the quality of a training session, and over time will compound into greater performance.  

I’ve seen far too many workouts where individuals are moving improperly and grind though the program regardless, and I cannot think of a person that has been successful or lasted with that mentality. I’ve seen some improve for a period, but only to get hurt or burn out at some point. Ultimately, this is where a coach can have a strong influence and help their athletes maximize the quality of their training time.  

Closing Remarks

The fitness revolution that’s come in a large part from the CrossFit and social media boom has brought so many positives to the fitness culture and society. However, somewhere in the process, coaching and programming have been pushed apart. Programming has gotten shot up the ladder on the hierarchy of values, while hands on coaching has been pushed down the list. Online Training has its place and value, especially for those who lack the resources around them, but the value of hands on coaching shouldn’t be overlooked.  

The information that’s available in-person and the ability to react to that information is far greater than the alternative of online training. Many athletes waste so much time, not because they aren’t working hard, but because they are working inefficiently and in the wrong directions. Why has this shift occurred? Partly because the training process isn’t properly understood, and largely because of the limited and out of context information that’s steadily presented through social media.

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

Feature image from @nextlevelweightlifting Instagram page.