Reflections After a Horrible “Strength Training” Workshop: Women, Weightlifting, and The Coach as Scientist

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A few months back, my friend Beth asked if I’d like to go to a continuing education conference/workshop on Strength Training with her.  Beth is a PhD, a researcher in Physical Therapy, and has a background as a clinician.  She and I often have great discussions about all kinds of things, strength training among them.  Of course, I said yes.  Any chance to hang out with a close friend, talk shop, and learn new things is something I am always down with!

The program was aimed at Physical Therapists (as far as I could tell), and I was excited that I might learn something from a perspective that I wouldn’t normally get in a room full of nothing but strength coaches.

Two days ago, Wednesday, was the day.  We met for coffee outside the place at 7:30am, and Beth said in a positive tone, “I’m feeling optimistic about this.”  I felt the same way …

Holy Hell were we wrong!

It turned out to be one of the absolute worst Strength Training related conferences or workshops that either of us has ever seen. 

It did start out promising for the first 45 minutes.  The speaker went over some interesting data concerning muscle loss as we age and how masters athletes are able to mitigate this substantially.  She talked about the importance of keeping your training programs “functional”.  For example, if your client is very old and has a hard time getting in and out of a chair, you should actually practice getting in and out of chairs.  And, just as importantly, this should be done daily.  Great!

Unfortunately, at about the 45 minute mark, things started to go downhill something fast.  Among the erroneous things being spouted off by the speaker were the admonition of squatting below 90 degrees, the standard placating of women who don’t want to “lift heavy” and “bulk up”, a totally incoherent point of view (saying things like, “women are more likely to get knee injuries than men, so they need more work on their lower bodies,” and following that with, “women should focus on upper body training.”), and then about 4 hours of slides that were nothing but images of her demonstrating exercises (an amazing amount of which were of the curl variety). 

Needless to say, Beth and I were disgusted.  We broke for lunch, commiserated, went back in for about 30 minutes and said, “Potato” (our code-word for, “let’s blow this joint!”).

Below are two things that came up in our conversations that day, and that I kept reflecting on afterward.  The first part is about how I believe coaches should think of themselves as being a part of the scientific process, not antagonistic to it. 

The second part is about women in weightlifting and the cultural barriers that are still in place keeping them out.

Part I – The Coach as Researcher

Scientist

I’ve spent nearly my entire adult life attached to Universities.  The culture of them feels like “my” culture.   Most of my friends have advanced degrees.  Many work in Universities or are finishing PhD’s so that they can in the future.  And, I’ve been studying mathematics now for so long I can’t even remember why I started in the first place.

So, I suppose it’s little wonder that I approach the career of a strength coach as though I am a professor at a University. As I see it, any coach who truly believes in what they are doing should think of themselves this way. 

Part of the job of a coach is the practical act of teaching in the classroom/gym.  That’s the part that is most obvious.  Another part of the job is educational outreach (like this blog).  Another is research and experimentation (which for a coach, while done informally, is often done on a large scale – I’ll get into this in a bit). 

However, huge part of the job is hidden from public view:  It’s time spent continuing to educate yourself so that you can better serve your students/athletes in the future and can stay on top of, and be a driver of the most cutting edge changes in your field. 

While going to a conference/workshop like the one Beth and I were subjected to may have turned out badly this time, it isn’t always that way.  And going to these things is part of my job. 

Reading, researching, and going around to educational events takes time and money.  And it is time and money that does NOT easily translate back into my business.  When you work for a University, this time spent making you better at your job is considered a part of what they are paying you for.  They will often reimburse your expenses (not always).   But, for me … I’m my own boss.  I either make money and keep the doors open, or I don’t make money and we shut down.  Improving my skills as a coach will have long term benefits, but the short term ones are pretty meager.

Sadly, the cost-benefit analysis among many coaches (most!) leads them to not spend the time (and money) required to really keep up.  That is too bad, especially for their athletes.  And, it has led to a field full of trainers who are totally clueless. 

The Science of Coaching

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Beth, being from both the clinical and the research side of Physical Therapy, has a unique perspective most researchers in her field just don’t have (she is also an avid CrossFitter and the current State Champion in her weight class in weightlifting).  Unfortunately, in both Physical Therapy and exercise science, people like Beth are rare.   That would be OK if there was more interaction between researchers and practitioners.  As it stands now, there isn’t.  And it is even worse in Exercise Science than in Physical Therapy.

Generally, coaches feel like the scientists are off in left field studying things are are either totally unimportant, or only tangentially related to what matters in the gym.  Scientists feel, rightly, that most coaches are undereducated idiots who couldn’t understand good science even if they wanted to.

This is a sad state of affairs.  And, it is part of the reason that Exercise Science, as a field of study, is so far behind other sciences.  It should be that researchers have real-world practical connections to the things they study (seems so obvious, doesn’t it!), and it should be that coaches are able to think more scientifically and take their education more seriously.

Hypothesis Generation

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Coaches are not scientists.  But, the better ones do something that is an informal kind of research that leads to what might be called “Hypothesis Generation”.  They end up collecting huge storehouses of data over time, and are able to see trends and correlations that lead them to hypotheses about what may or may not be the causes of such trends.  They make decisions based upon those hypotheses and then end up with a new set of data.  This process is a bit like evolution in that the better ideas tend to stay around and the worse ones don’t.

That said, this isn’t done strictly scientifically.  And sometimes good ideas get swept aside wrongly and vice versa.  There is no control group, no isolating of variables.  Trends and correlations are often highly misleading!  (Read Karl Popper if you want a primer on what is and is not good science.)

But, coaches are ahead of the curve most of the time.  They are, and should be, the drivers of future research in the field.  Some of the best research that is done by exercise scientists is trying to test these hypotheses that were generated in the “real world” lab of the gym with the coach.  That is, they try to formally understand the details of why something seems to be working. 

Some coaches like to use the idea of the Black Box.  They say, “we don’t know why our system works for so many people, we just know it works.”  The Black Box is like a function, you put something in one end, and out pops something else on the other.  But, you have no idea what happened inside.

A scientists job is to take that and try and figure out what is going on in the box.

I’ve always Hated that Black Box mentality.  I want to know why!

The presenter at the workshop did not have the mindset of a scientist.  I think good coaches should.  We are not actually scientists, but we should be trying to find ways to partner with them as much as possible, and think as critically as possible.   There is no place for an “I don’t know why it works, it just works” mentality.  The modern coach needs to get beyond that.

 

Part II – Women and Weightlifting

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Most of my best friends all of my life have been female.  So, if I get a bit “peved” and defensive here, that may be why.

I’ve had the sad experience about 6 times where I was training a female client for some time and then had her leave because her boyfriend was getting worried that she was getting “too bulky”.  Sometimes the guy trained with me too, sometimes not.  But, in every case, the claim was idiotic.  The women were never bulky.  In fact, they were often unusually small, and quite a bit smaller than some of the other women in the gym, including my own fiancé! 

This kind of crap really pisses me off! 

Here I was seeing great progress in a woman who was feeling great about her ability to accomplish something and improve at something she never would have originally believed she could do, and it all gets ripped away because of some moronic idea of what “sexy” is.  One of the reasons I love my job is because I get to help facilitate a change in someone that really does make their lives better.  For these women, they lost out on that.

In contrast to these weirdo dudes, and as an illustration, here are a few of the qualities I find desirable in a woman. 

  1. Strong.  I hate when women whine and cry about something being “too heavy”, or say things like, “you’re a guy, can you lift that for me?”  No.  I will not lift that for you.  If you are too lazy to put in the work that it takes to be able to move something that only weighs 50 pounds, that is your problem.  Imagine how a guy would sound if he asked me the same question.
  2. Goal orientated.  My favorite women are those that are working hard at pursuing something for themselves in life.  This doesn’t make them “cold” or “unfeminine”.  It makes them like me!  And it means we’ll have a lot to talk about.
  3. Intellectually curious.  Similar to #2, I want a woman who likes to learn.  In my experience, the more intelligent a woman is, the more level headed she is, and the better her sense of humor.  I’m a mellow guy who likes to constantly blab about fun and interesting topics, joke around, and talk long into the night about anything and everything.  I want women around who do too.

Now, I’m rather lucky.  My fiancé, Leslie, is all of those things and much more.  In fact, I’m surrounded by a lot of women who have these qualities.  It’s one of the great things about women who do weightlifting and similar things like CrossFit.  They tend to be just as hard working in the mental department as they are in the physical.  I like well rounded people.  Crazy, I know.

The men out there who dislike what they perceive as “bulky” muscles on a woman are really just projecting their fear that these women are exhibiting too much of #2 and #3 above.  They worry that if they have a woman that is both physically and mentally strong and powerful, that will somehow negatively reflect on their own “masculinity”.  They are afraid they won’t measure up.  And they blame the women for it.

Well … if you are really that concerned, dude, you probably don’t measure up!

It goes deeper, however.  The women who allow their men to decide these kinds of things for them are to be taken to task, also.  They are free to tell the guy to F-off.  But, they don’t.  They tacitly condone his point of view that their accomplishments in the gym make them less “feminine”.  And that’s some bullshit!

My Point

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We should not placate women who say they don’t want to lift weights, who say they are afraid of looking bulky, who say they don’t “like the feeling” of lifting, etc.  We are doing them a disservice.  Sadly, in the fitness profession, there is still quite a lot of this type of placating going on.  Beth and I had to hear some of it during the workshop. 

The Speaker should have said, “I know that you have some fears regarding lifting weights, but those fears are unfounded.  You need to do resistance training for your long term health.  Period.”  And then she could have gone over the reasons why the fears are unfounded.

Instead, she just let it go and encouraged the woman to do interval training on the elliptical, instead!  Think about it, here we were in the middle of a workshop on strength training and she’s telling the women in the audience that they don’t need to strength train!! 

Our culture is clearly messed up.  We’ve got young men who are so insecure in their manhood that they force their girlfriends to stop lifting weights and we’ve got female strength trainers telling women that they don’t need to lift weights at all.  While I know that we’ve come far, relative to where we were 30 years ago, we obviously have a long way still to go.

Are Females Ideal Olympic Weightlifters?

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I’ve had a theory rattling around in my head for a number of years that I think has at least some merit:  I think women may be better suited to the sport of Olympic Weightlifting than men are.  I’m not saying that some men won’t make fantastic weightlifters.  I’m just saying that statistically, women are more likely to be good at it than men are.

My friend Mighty Kat asked me to write a “proper” article about it a while ago, and I plan to, but I want to quickly lay out my reasons for believe this here.

Women are often far more patient than men when it comes to learning proper technique.  This is especially true of young people.  As we age, we all start to mellow out a bit.  But, young men are a pain in ass.  Not all of them!  I’m blessed to have two great young dudes at my club: Brandon Tovey and Riley Charlish.  But, these guys are the exception that prove the rule.

Weightlifting requires years of hard work on minutia to be truly great at.  Most young men are just too hot headed and impatient for that.  In a 3rd world country where the boys have no other way out of poverty, the incentive keeps them in.   But, here in the states, you have to rely on the inner dedication of the athlete to keep them going. 

In my opinion, you are more likely to be able to take a high school age female and keep her in the game for the required 7 to 10 years to reach the world level than you will a high school age male.  This may be evidenced by the fact that most of the best lifters in the country right now are women.  There are some great guys, but I think the talent is weighted on the female side.

They also have a physical advantage.

Females are more likely to be wide hipped, for instance.  Wide hips suck for running (for most sports, actually), but they are GREAT for weightlifting.   If you did measurements, you’d notice that the best male weightlifters have a wider than average hip-to-height ratio.  That is, men who have this body type are not the average.  It IS the average for females.

Putting this together, then, means that if we took 20 random young women and 20 random young men, more of the women would end up good at the sport than the men. 

The sad thing is that because of the aforementioned cultural bias against females lifting weights we have artificially favored a male domination of weightlifting at the local high school and college level.  Young girls, some of whom have a lot of potential, are avoiding the weight room because of a stupid fear of “bulking up” and not looking pretty to their idiot boyfriends.

Increasing the number of female lifters who become national and world champions is a good goal.  But, more importantly, we need to make sure females in general can feel confident in the gym, and know that they are beautiful in part because of the weightlifting, not in spite of it.  

It is incumbent upon fitness professionals to take the lead on this issue.  The Presenter at the workshop, a female, was stuck in the past. It’s time to look toward the future:  A future full of strong bad-ass ladies!

By the way, Beth and I ditched out early on that stupid workshop and went straight to the gym to do squats … well below parallel!