Why Good Powerlifters Get Bad Coaches

There are nearly 37,000 gyms in the U.S. as of 2016, and over 66 million Americans made over 5.5 billion visits to those gyms in that year alone. Why, then, is it so hard to find a good coach?

Regrettably, a lot of people embarking on a journey toward fitness in general and powerlifting in particular are duped by high price tags, thinking that a trainer’s exorbitant hourly rate necessarily translates into quality services. Then there are athletes who seem to think that paying a lot of money to someone with a polo shirt saying “coach” on the back will at the very least keep them from quitting, making the investment worth it.

Truly good quality services are difficult to find, not only because of a dearth of talented or at least adequately qualified providers, but also because a consumer who inadvertently seeks wrong solutions will, well, find wrong solutions.

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.

Novice powerlifters, particularly ones who are new to the gym, generally hunger for progress. They face barriers, however, that often include a lack of knowledge and difficulty sustaining motivation. The solution that many appear to seek is hiring a so-called “coach” (who often turns out to be, in actuality, a generic personal trainer) who will zealously show them the ropes while motivating them to keep returning to the gym.

The problem is that the vast majority of these high-priced trainers are hardly the sherpas that people expect. Rather than set people on a path toward excellence or even real improvement, many “coaches” ultimately act as weight room tour guides, escorting people from Nautilus to Nautilus while bastardizing the meager instructions glued to each machine, and shouting painfully hollow clichés like, “one more rep!”

Remarkably, total novices are not the only ones who err in their approaches to finding good guidance. I have encountered numerous competitive powerlifters who have underperformed in contests because their “do-it-yourself” approach, though admirable in many respects, has led to reliance on poor general advice about programming, technique, and attempt selections at meets because supposed internet experts broadcast them on social media.

Finding a good coach or trainer is often difficult for people, not because skilled coaches do not exist, but rather because trainees frequently do not know what to look for in a coach.

Several prominent powerlifters and strength coaches have made efforts to address the problem. Last year, legendary strength coach Mark Rippetoe wrote a piece, “Good vs. Bad Trainers”, in which he ultimately concluded that, “A good trainer will be found in a good gym” — one that is owned by a knowledgeable individual and which has quality barbells, squat racks, bench presses, and other key equipment.

Likewise, two-time IPF junior world champion John Paul Cauchi chimed in on the issue of whether it is important for a coach to be strong. Cauchi touched on the philosophical issue of whether a coach needs to have the personal experience, or qualia, of being a high-level athlete in order to be able to hold and impart wisdom to his trainees. The jury is still out on that question, but it is an important one to think about.

Both Rippetoe and Cauchi raised excellent points that everyone, from people new to the gym to competitive athletes, should consider. Their points though, appeared to come primarily from the perspective of a coach, which is understandable given that they are both highly experienced and renowned coaches. Naturally, their insights were not merely for the benefit of legitimate coaches who seek to distinguish themselves, but also for trainees.

A complementary perspective however, one in which the focus is primarily on a trainee’s approach to finding a coach, is important. To be sure, finding a good coach is arguably contingent upon the way in which one approaches the challenge. In other words, to find a good coach, a trainee needs to know what qualities to look for in a coach. Here, distinguishing between a teacher versus a trainer is critical to effectively approaching the task of finding a good coach.

In this video from Izzy Narvaez of Powerlifting To Win, he acknowledges that self-help books might assist certain people with being able to envision broader possibilities and draw inspiration from others’ success stories. But he cautions that these self-help books are of limited use and possibly counterproductive, because this genre of literature generally offers people no action plans, and people tend to spend time reading these books for a dose of fleeting happiness instead of using their time actually being productive.

Narvaez’s general proposition, in my view, can be applied perfectly to the specific goal of finding a coach. That is, don’t look for a personal trainer who in actuality functions like a personal cheerleader. Instead, look for a teacher. In the realm of strength training in general, and powerlifting in particular, search for a person who will be able to:

  • teach the mechanics of the squat, bench press, deadlift, and various assistance and accessory movements;
  • teach, by example and/or by instruction, how to write an effective training program with sound principles such as periodization; and,
  • teach about nutrition, how macronutrients function and how to manipulate them in order to positively affect body composition and performance.

Questions to Ask About a Potential Coach

Likewise, it is important to be able to scrutinize a teacher, to determine not only if he is able to teach the above key lessons, but able to do so effectively. Here, a trainee should endeavor to learn if:

  • the teacher has taken an average, untrained individual, and turned him into a knowledgeable and competent athlete;
  • the teacher can give good answers when asked how or why to perform a given aspect of training; and, if
  • the teacher has written about training and performance while relying upon credible sources and/or is himself recognized as an authority.

How to Search for a Good Powerlifting Coach

The theme here, evidently, is that, searching for a good teacher is key to the approach to finding a legitimate and effective coach.

With this approach in mind, then, what are some methods that one can use to actually find a good coach?

  • Read books on powerlifting. Not books about powerlifting, and certainly not magazines that one can impulse buy in a supermarket checkout line – but books on powerlifting, with instructions about how to move, program, and eat. Such books (which usually cost far less than a standard tub of protein powder) are typically written by high-level coaches who cite to other high-level coaches, some of whom might even have a gym nearby. Moreover, educating oneself helps make for a more discerning client and trainee.
  • Many legitimate strength athletes — ones who compete in USAPL nationals and in the IPF — have social media channels. Many of these athletes also have coaches, and many of those coaches are themselves great athletes and/or have their own YouTube channels. Reach out to those coaches and ask if they are taking on new clients, and if not, whether they could suggest a quality coach who is available.
  • USAPL’s website has a long list of powerlifter friendly gyms. Search for a coach at these gyms. Also, do not be overly discouraged if none of these gyms are local, because at least some coaches are able to offer excellent programming services remotely, though it is more likely that a coach will need to work with a client in person to offer guidance on technique.

Wrapping Up

The next time that big box gym X offers a free training session, consider that that hour may be better spent on researching where to find a knowledgeable coach who can offer lessons that lead to sustained progress.

This proposition holds true with respect to all individuals seeking self-improvement – to aspiring strength athletes and to the general public alike. Having a personal trainer who is ultimately no more than a personal cheerleader might feel good at first, but they ultimately put people on a fast track to nowhere.

Featured image via Michael Street and @integralbarbell on Instagram.

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Daniel Braun, J.D., LL.M., is an attorney and adjunct professor in New York City, as well as a bronze medal-winning competitive powerlifter in the USAPL.Prior to powerlifting, Daniel obtained his Black Belt in Okinawan Shito-Ryu Karate and trained in the U.S., Canada, and Belgium.Daniel played years of competitive ice hockey growing up, and earned a tennis instructor certification from the Coaches Association of Ontario. Over the years, he has written numerous legal and non-legal articles, publishing them in scholarly (peer reviewed) and non-scholarly outlets alike. Daniel is coached in powerlifting by Jason Manenkoff of Iron Arena, and trains with his wife, Lauren. The views that Daniel expresses in his articles are solely his own personal opinions.