I think Mike Boyle first popularized the phrase, "the evolution of a strength coach," and my good friend Ana Tocco has been bringing it up a lot lately. It has been making me reflect on my own evolution as a strength coach. I've spoken a lot before about my personal evolution as it pertains to my own fitness journey, but not as much as it pertains to my journey as a coach and fitness professional.
When I began coaching, I was a 20 year old journalism student at Northeastern University, who was looking for a fun job that would help me pay my rent and student loans! Jason (my then best friend, now husband) had just gotten a job at Boston Sports Club and mentioned they were looking for some female trainers. I jumped on the opportunity because I loved the gym, and I loved working out, and I figured training people couldn't be that hard - I would just give them the workouts that I did myself!
Well, it turns out that most personal training clients aren't 20 year old former gymnasts who have spent at least an hour a day in the gym every day since as far back as they can remember! I quickly realized that the workouts I was doing myself were not appropriate for the people I was training, and I needed to learn more about training the general population if I wanted to be half way decent at this job.
So I delved head first into all the training materials I could find. And to be honest, I didn't really know where to look. So, it started off a little scattered. My first training book was a Women's Health 101 Best Exercises book. It broke exercises down into body parts (biceps, triceps, chest, shoulders, back, legs, abs) and so I started putting together workouts in this manner. I would pair body parts together and do an entire workout as "back and biceps" or "chest and triceps." And of course "abs" were in every workout because who doesn't want 6-pack abs... My first certification was in kick boxing and my second was in spinning.
Around this time, online blogs were becoming a thing. Jason started reading T-Nation.com, so I started reading it's "female" counterpart, which I believe was called figure athlete or something like that. I don't think the site exists anymore. Articles on these sites also often broke down training into body parts, but offered about a million more exercises to my repertoire! I continued to put together workouts for my clients with these body part break downs. At this point I was also writing workouts, not programs. Each time someone came in, I gave them a new workout that they hadn't done before. I thought this was a sign that I was a good trainer, because I knew so many exercises. I had no concept of program design or exercise progressions - it was all about keeping my clients entertained with new workouts!
Not too long after this, probably mid to late 2007, Jason came across Tony Gentilcore's blog and we started following it. Tony was explaining things differently. He was using terms like "compound exercises" and "movement patterns" and it was totally blowing my mind. Tony talked about creating workouts where the focus was on a movement pattern rather than a body part (pushing, pulling, squatting, hinging, lunging, instead of biceps, triceps, shoulders, etc.) Tony also provided links to all of the people who he recommended learning from: Eric Cressey, Mike Boyle, Mark Verstegen, etc. and so I started following all of their blogs and reading their books, too.
All of a sudden my world was simultaneously opening up and crashing down. With the realization that there was so much information out there, part of me wanted to study everything that was ever written about exercise, and part of me wanted to crawl back into my comfortable hole of only knowing 101 exercises from that women's health book. It was absolutely overwhelming to know that there was so much well-researched, science-based information out there about how to train people. It was no longer good enough to know some cool exercises. I needed to deepen my understanding of the human body, learn functional anatomy, understand program design…the list went on and on.
Side note: When Jason was reading this he said, "were you really feeling that way?" It's funny because for him I know that learning that all of this information was out there was extremely invigorating and exciting, so I definitely played along like I felt the same way, but I was actually overwhelmed and scared to death about how much I didn't know. At this time I unknowingly had a pretty fixed mindset and was really uncomfortable with things that I wasn't already naturally good at. Apparently I hid these feelings inside - no surprise there - but we'll save that for another blog!
Luckily, I decided not to crawl into a hole and I continued to push forward in learning as much as I possibly could. Here is the general breakdown of the next several years as far as my education and experience went. This is a VERY quick overview and I've certainly left things out because I don't want to bore you with every detail, but if you have any questions about any of it, feel free to ask in the comments or reach out to me directly!
2008: The Year of Books and Blogs
Once I learned about all the people to follow from Tony's blog, Jason and I began collecting all of their books. Here are a few of the books that had a huge impact at the time:
New Rules of Lifting by Alwyn Cosgrove
Athletic Body in Balance by Gray Cook
Enter the Kettlebell by Pavel Tsatsouline
Core Performance by Mark Versetegen
Blogs that I was reading at the time included:
2009: The Year of Australia
I studied abroad this year, but before I left, Jason and I attended the FMS certification in Boston with Gray Cook and Lee Burton. This was another massive paradigm shift as far as training and movement was concerned. Also before I left for Australia, Jason bought the book The Female Body Breakthrough by Rachel Cosgrove which had a massive impact on the way I viewed training females and training myself!
While I was abroad, Jason attended his first Perform Better summit and visited Cressey Performance for the first time. In Australia, I worked out at the Sydney University gym and befriended the trainers there. We would lift together and talk about different articles and books we had read.
Workouts always ended with a beautiful beach run!
When I got home, Precision Nutrition opened up their very first certification and I jumped on the opportunity to become a nutrition coach, while going into my senior year of college.
2010 - 2012: The Years of Hands-On Education
By this point I graduated from Northeastern with my Journalism degree, with absolutely no intention of getting a job in Journalism. I knew for sure that I wanted to remain in the fitness industry as a strength coach. Now that school was over, I had nothing but time to commit to learning the ins and outs of coaching, and hands-on learning has always been best for me. Jason and I attended as many certifications and seminars as possible, including:
RKC - this is where we met Pavel Tsatsouline for the first time as well as Joe Sansalone who have both become some of our greatest mentors.
Perform Better summits and one-day seminars
Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning Mentorship
CKFMS and FMS level 2
Workshops at Cressey Performance, MBSC, Peak Performance, etc. Literally every single workshop or seminar that was offered in the strength and conditioning realm that we could physically get to, we went to.
2012: The Year of Business
In 2012 Jason and I started to realize that we wanted to take all of our training knowledge that we gained over the past 5 or 6 years and put it in an environment where not only was high quality training important, but also social support, positivity, and inclusivity as well. We were becoming more aware of the fact that good training wasn't enough, and we needed to create an environment that was welcoming and supportive in order to really optimize our clients' results. This was the year we focused on business development and joined The Results Fitness Business mastermind group and read as many business books as possible.
With Alwyn and Rachel Cosgrove after winning Biz Owners of the Year
2013 - Now: The Years of Achieve Fitness
In January of 2013 we officially opened the doors to Achieve. Even though we needed to spend every waking moment dedicated to running the business, we still didn't let go of our passion for continuing education. In this time period Jason and I still snuck in the following:
Attended every Perform Better summit (I haven't missed one since I began attending)
Attained the remaining StrongFirst certifications (SFG2, SFL, SFB)
Assisted multiple StrongFirst level 1 and level 2 certifications
Attended Pavel's Plan Strong Programming Workshop
Became StrongFirst team leaders
Hosted and attended the OPTI Movement Systems workshop and were mentored by Joe Sansalone
Hosted and attended Daniel Camargo's Oly Concepts workshop on Olympic Weightlifting
This educational path obviously had a huge impact on the way I train people. I went from a naïve college student who thought it was enough to just give her clients the workouts she was doing, to a scared but motivated student of all things strength, performance, and movement, to a confident, but still not satisfied, coach. I still feel that there is always more to learn and there are always more areas of growth that continue to present themselves. When I really looked at each of these areas of my evolution, I realized I could break it down into three significant mindsets.
Mindset #1: The Entertainer
In my first couple years as a trainer, I thought I needed to be creative and entertain my clients. I wanted to give them new workouts every session that were always changing because I thought that made me look smarter and like I knew more about training. I thought that knowing more about training just meant knowing more exercises.
Mindset #2: The "Expert"
After really delving into a lot of the continuing education materials and certifications I listed above, I began to treat training like I was an expert. There was a "right" way and a "wrong" way for everything. While this was the time that I was learning the most technical information, I also didn't have the ability to think outside of what was being presented to me. I took everything as fact and presented everything as fact. This is the mindset I look back on and cringe at the most.
Mindset #3: The Embracer
I would say these days my mindset is much more open. I embrace the possibility of change, and acknowledge that everything is open to interpretation. What's best for one person may not be best for another. There is no "right or wrong," "good or bad." When coaching people now, I appreciate and reference the knowledge I've gained from books and seminars and certifications in the past, but I also use the experiences I've gained from being in the trenches coaching for 10 years, which is very different than anything you can read in a book. While I still feel that the technical side of training is important, I also know that the emotional side of training is equally important, if not more so.
I look forward to five years from now, when I look back on this article and have a new perspective and new understandings. For now, I appreciate where I'm at, and look forward to the next phases of my evolution.