When designing programs, we all have certain “rules” we abide to, whether they're drenched in personal bias by us as coaches (including exercises in our programs that we're comfortable with/have had past success with), someone told us that a certain exercise all of a sudden has little value or isn’t safe anymore, or the exercise in question has withstood the test of time. Whatever your method of exercise selection, programming, or coaching may be, it has become apparent that while “flavor of the week” training programs, novelty exercises, and guru coaches currently run aplenty in the world of strength and conditioning, no nonsense training is slowly becoming a relic of the past.
Let me begin by stating for you “literal Larrys” out there that I'm not saying that when it comes to programming it isn't important to look at “risk versus reward” when choosing appropriate exercises for our clientele or that mastering technique isn't important. They both certainly are. However, lately it seems that much of the training community has lost its mind and has become obsessed with corrective exercises, gadgets, and gimmicky “speed and agility” programs aimed at just about every level of athlete from high school to the elite level. Additionally, the more articles, forums, and blog posts I read seem to depict that just about every exercise has some sort of governor placed on it and is only appropriate if you have done about ten progressions in order to get there. Believe me—I'm all too familiar with the Uncle Rico-esque athletic abilities of the average American as well as the “shiny object” attention span of most high level athletes, but can we give people some credit here? This isn't rocket science. Any coach worth his salt should be able to teach someone a challenging or difficult exercise in a few training sessions (depending on the frequency in which the exercise is programmed).
Now, did you notice what I just said? I said they should be able to “teach” them, not that the athlete would “perfect” the movement right off the bat. Good teaching is the progression. It's what we do. Nowhere in the quote “it’s the road, not the inn” (often associated with coaching or learning through experience) does anyone mention getting off the road to take an easier path. Yet we as coaches jump right to conclusions that if an athlete has trouble performing an exercise and fails to master it in a training session or two we must regress them, mini-band them up, or start scouring our databases for mobility progressions. How about instead we let the process of motor learning play out, let them work on it, and continue to coach them up and get our hands dirty? (By the way, can we as coaches abolish the word “regress” as well as its derivations from our lexicon? A word that simply alludes to “going backward” in progress shouldn't be acceptable speak among coaches. Let’s cut the crap and call it what it is, which is “to make easier.”) And yes, I'm aware that there are techniques out there such as RNT that claim to aid in motor learning by accentuating their dysfunction and helping them become more aware of the inefficiency of their patterns. This isn't an article attacking methods as a whole. I'm simply saying that perhaps sometimes these methods can be used a little too often and shouldn't be leaned upon for all athletes. After all, at some point, whether the mini-bands or tubing helped or not, the athlete is going to have to perform the movement without them. So let’s give them a chance to begin with, shall we? The tools are nice folks, but we still need to get some work done at some point in order to improve. I think just about everyone can agree upon that statement.
This sometimes radical control and back and forth argument over “good” exercises and “bad” exercises hurts us all. All of a sudden our exercise selection is diminished along with our creativity. “Deep parallel back squats are bad, but rear foot elevated split squats are universally good.” “Keiser chops out of a half-kneeling stance are good, but a straight-arm cable woodchopper in the standing position is somehow 'bad' or doesn’t have much of a place as the half-kneeling version.” What? Are we all so well-versed at every other facet of being a strength and conditioning coach that bickering and making a “naughty and nice” list of exercises or conditioning routines is deemed the best use of our time? It seems to me that there has to be more to this coaching thing. Wouldn’t it be more beneficial if our time was spent finding ways to better challenge and push our athletes forward rather than find or create reasons to hold them back? That hair on their leg is never going to be situated perfectly, coach. Quality is important, but for God’s sake make sure there aren't any major deficiencies (valgus sign, instability, pain) and let them pick up the weight and continue to learn, lift, and improve.
This article is a call to arms of sorts and one that I’m sure will be met with its fair share of detractors and criticism. I can handle that. For those of you whom this article has resonated with, can we get back to good old-fashioned sweat equity and simply doing the basics savagely well? Do you remember how this field began gaining notoriety on a more wide scale and helped give birth to having full-time strength and conditioning coaches in the collegiate setting? Athletes picked up some weights, lifted them, and some good things happened. (Need a reference? Research Boyd Epley and the story of how the “Husker power” program at the University of Nebraska was created.) After this, there was little debate in regards to whether or not lifting improved athletic performance. Somehow I doubt that back then they all knew what they were doing to perfection and argued over how many progressions they needed to go through before they could pick up the bar and press it over their heads.
The message I'm trying to convey here is simple. As someone who is passionate about the field of strength and conditioning, performance coaching, movement coaching, physical preparation coaching, or whatever you want to call it, I don't want to see it slide backward to where we take a paralysis by analysis approach and become apprehensive to do what got us passionate about this field in the first place—lifting weights, getting stronger and moving better. We spend so much time arguing about minutiae and trying to come up with new (rarely effective) toys, terms, and training approaches that we generally do nothing but end up creating more confusion for one another. This negatively impacts us as well as our athletes. The coaches who are busy getting real results are the ones who are doing things, not arguing about them. We need to do what we do best—program effectively, get our hands dirty, and coach our athletes. Don't shy away from movements that may be tough or time consuming to coach. We wouldn’t ask our athletes to take it easy during their workouts, so why would we do the same by looking for excuses in terms of why we don’t teach a certain exercise? Let’s continue to progress this field and forge athletes and future coaches who aren't afraid to think outside the box and shoulder the load of the box.