By Eric Trexler, CSCS, CISSN
Former Director of Research and Education, INOV8 Elite Performance
Everyone begins their journey into serious training and/or dieting from a different starting point. But nobody starts as an expert.
Inevitably, beginners start to seek out more information to guide them along an optimal— or at least somewhat informed— path. This may mean shopping around for a coach, or determining which blog, gym rat, or YouTube channel is providing valid information. The big question is, who do you seek out for guidance: The huge guy who has clearly walked the walk, or the guy with better education/credentials? If I have a question about Mount Everest, do I ask the geologist who wrote a book about it, or the climber who stood on its peak?
Personal experience isn’t enough.
As an individual athlete, your experiences are inherently limited by the “n=1” sample size. Put simply, people are different; what works for one person may not work for another. This is why research can be so valuable: We can observe how large groups of “average” people respond, then fine-tune training and nutrition to address individual responses from there.
It can be hard to identify exactly what has “worked” for you, for two reasons. First, it is hard to detect changes and distinguish reality from perception. This is never more evident than during contest prep. You’ll look in the mirror and see huge, tiny, flat, full, shredded, fat, and everything in between. And that’s all in the span of a few days.
Secondly, even when changes are real, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what led to the observed effect. When you make a deliberate change to your training or diet, it is extremely difficult to control everything else. Despite your best efforts to isolate that particular variable, it is difficult to say that it is solely responsible for any changes you observe. Other variables, either consciously or subconsciously, can be affected by that change.
This also applies to coaches who have worked with a number of clients. The sample size is greater, but the environment is not controlled. So even when things “work,” we still have to wonder: Did that particular strategy directly and independently cause the favorable outcomes you have observed? Along with using larger samples, research allows us to exert a level of control that isn’t feasible in everyday life, increasing our confidence in the causative role of the variable(s) in question.
I should also mention that education does not necessarily mean formal education. I’m currently 5 years into what will likely be a decade-long stint in college; needless to say, I value formal education. But even for those engaged in a nutrition or exercise-related program, coursework alone won’t cut it— it doesn’t address the challenges faced by strength and physique competitors with great enough specificity. In this context, education refers to staying on top of your field and constantly seeking out information. Some of that information will be anecdotal, some will be your own direct observations, but it is critical to keep up with current research and the information distributed from well-respected organizations in exercise and nutrition. Failure to keep up will ultimately limit the effectiveness of an individual’s advice and hurt their credibility down the road.
Formal education isn’t enough.
I can read every textbook, manual, and study under the sun, but there are certain “finer points” of training that can only be learned from spending time under the bar— and plenty of it. After spending years as a highly motivated lifter, you’ll experience the wide range of challenges that will be faced by any athletes you may coach in the future. And hopefully you’ll find successful strategies to push through those speed bumps. The same goes for nutrition as well. I can’t imagine how someone could guide a client through a contest prep without experiencing the trials and tribulations (and hopefully triumphs) firsthand.
I got hooked on lifting at a young age, and trained like a complete idiot for longer than I’d like to admit. I always tell my athletes that they’re in luck; I’ve made every training mistake in the book, so I should (theoretically) be able to steer them away from those mistakes. I’ve also fallen into most of the common nutrition traps, including (but not limited to) unnecessary fat avoidance, believing that low carb dieting was magic, and dreamer-bulking myself to the brink of obesity. Regardless of your textbook knowledge of exercise and nutrition, personal experience is incredibly valuable.
It is also prudent to clarify: Experience and success are not one and the same. It’d be foolish to ignore the role of genetics in strength and physique sports— some people are genetic freaks that can make great progress despite suboptimal training and nutrition practices. Ironically, sometimes the best advice comes from the competitors who have passion for the sport, but average (or below average) genetics. They may not be a world-class competitor, but their enthusiasm for the sport, combined with lackluster genetics, can really drive them to optimize their approach as they try to squeeze out every last bit of progress from a limited amount of potential. If I’m a baseball player looking for a pitching coach, I don’t want the guy that was born with a rocket for an arm and simply threw the ball past hitters his whole career. Give me the guy with an average arm, who had to master his off-speed pitches, paint the corners of the plate, and keep batters guessing to be successful.
So who should you seek out for advice?
As I’ve mentioned, education and experience are both critically important. If you’re looking for advice you can have confidence in, or looking to hire a coach, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to demand a little bit of both. If I’m going under the knife for surgery, I’m hoping my surgeon has a firm grasp on “textbook” medical knowledge and a steady hand- excelling in one component isn’t sufficient if the other component is ignored.
There’s a lot of fitness and nutrition information out there. Whether you’re evaluating the credibility of a website or searching for a prep coach, it’s your job to figure out who is providing quality information. Ultimately, practical experience and background education are essential prerequisites; neither alone will do the trick. In this sense, it is helpful to draw information from a number of sources; some will be more anecdotal and experience-based, others more objective and scientific. And when looking for a prep coach, remember that you are hiring someone. There is nothing wrong with having high standards and demanding a varied skill set from your new “employee.” Seek out someone who has walked the walk, and can talk the most current, factually sound, and research-supported talk.
Please Note: I take a long time to write articles- way too long. I wrote about 98% of this article, then put it away for a few weeks. Before I could finish up the article, I saw a tweet about a similar article by Dean Somerset (http://deansomerset.com/important-trainers-education-experience/). I kept my article the way it is, as I felt the content was “different enough,” and viewed the same topic from a slightly different perspective. However, make no mistake: Dean’s article hit the internet first!