Skol Sessions – Episode 15: Education in Fitness

In this episode Coach Erik dives into what kind of education is necessary to be a coach. Do degrees matter? What about certifications? And how much does practical experience count for? All this and more. Enjoy!


00:00 Introduction
01:39 The Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS)
03:12 Why We Care About Fitness Education
04:28 Arguing on Social Media
07:36 The Problem With Credentials
08:41 Practical Experience is What Matters
12:00 Coaches Need to Be Problem Solvers
14:53 What CrossFit Gets Right
19:40 Supertraining and Other Great Resources
24:31 The Impact of Outsourcing Programming
29:17 Learning to Program
31:56 A Caveat About Training Studies
35:47 Conclusion


Welcome to Skol Sessions, the Viking Athletics Podcast, where strength meets smarts. I am your host, Erik Castiglione, owner and head coach of Viking Athletics. I’m flying solo this month. It is July of 2023. It has been unbearably hot, so I am drinking a Porch Rocker by Sam Adams.

It’s a shandy, which is combination of lemonade and beer. It’s very refreshing, and not very alcoholic. And before we dive into this month’s topic, just a fun fact about shandy’s, they were actually created by a German cycling team as a recovery drink after long hot rides. So even my beverage of choice this month has a history in the fitness world. Just one little tidbit there.

This month’s topic is the education of a coach and coaching education in general. If you want a broader topic, we could call it education in the fitness world. And there’s a number of factors that led into my talking about this this month.

Number one has been social media, actually. A couple of weeks ago, might’ve been the last week, we had a post in West Hartford neighbors and friends where somebody was looking for someone to strength train their 13 year old daughter.  And one of the commenters chimed in and said, whoever you choose, make sure they have a CSCS. That is the gold standard in the fitness world.

So, the CSCS credential is a certified strength and conditioning specialist. It is run through the NSCA, National Strength and Conditioning Association. And the reason that it’s considered the gold standard is because you have a very thick textbook to work through. You take a written exam, it is part A, theory, part B, practice, which is essentially writing programs. And it requires a fair amount of work to get through that book. So, you know, you can’t just go in and wing it, you have to actually study. And then the other reason that it’s the gold standard is it is a professional degree. It requires continuing education credits. So, it takes time, energy, and effort to maintain it.

One other requirement is that you must have a college degree in order to even qualify to take the test. It doesn’t have to be in exercise science or biomechanics or kinesiology. You could have an English degree but as long as you have a college degree you can go take that test.

And then shortly thereafter I posted on Facebook about an Instagram conversation I had last week. I try to use our gyms, social media to, you know, number one, celebrate our members, number two, showcase what we actually do in the gym, and number three is to educate our followers. I’m very, very passionate about education when it comes to fitness. There’s a lot of people out there spinning the wheels, putting their work in, and they get stuck. They don’t see progress. I was one of them for a very long time. And while nothing, no effort is really truly wasted, it’s just frustrating when you realize, you know, you learn something and you’re like, well crap – I just wasted three years doing something when I could have been a lot more productive.

So, I take it upon us, since our staff is incredibly well educated in this field, to share some tips, share some, you know, nuggets of knowledge when it comes to training: why we use certain movements, and what we’re trying to accomplish.  And I’m always telling our members and pretty much anyone in general, you should always ask questions and you should, you know, ask why, and your coach should always be able to answer the question, why? And if they give you a cop-out answer like, “oh well that’s just the stimulus to the workout,” it means they really don’t understand it and I don’t tolerate that on my staff. Our staff will be able to explain it to you. They’ll know exactly what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

So, keeping that in mind, with the post in question, we are working with some different squat stances, for the strength cycle in our CrossFit program.1 We are doing wide stance back squats, to a box and we’re doing narrow stance front squats to a low box. Pretty much, you know, when this person engaged me through direct messages, I thought they were actually curious and asking questions and I’m always happy to educate people as to why we’re doing something or how to use a particular tool, and in this case I thought that’s where the conversation was headed. And it became abundantly clear early on that they didn’t like the method that we were using. They were trying to basically call us another dangerous CrossFit gym that doesn’t know what they’re doing.

And I started talking about joint angles and lever arms and why a wide stance is challenging and how it actually helps people focus on their posterior chain, et cetera, yada, yada, yada. If you really want to get into the nitty-gritty shoot me an email, happy to have that conversation with you. And he engaged in the logical fallacy of appealing to experts, I guess, is what you would call it. He tried to come over the top and shut me down by saying that I didn’t hold a particular credential. I didn’t have my CSCS. Therefore, I had no business talking about physics and biomechanics because I lack this particular credential.

So, I came over the top and basically threw my formal education and his face. I have a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from Yale and a master’s in engineering from Villanova. So yes, I have a pretty solid grasp on foundational mechanics. And he blocked me after that. You know, it probably wasn’t the best strategy to come over the top and throw that in his face, but the fact is if you’re gonna try to credential shame somebody, you better know who you’re talking to.

I myself have accumulated somewhere around 30 credentials over the years and the reason for that is because I do love learning about the stuff and I want to know as much as I can. And I encourage everybody to read. The problem is the fitness industry is rife with fitness influencers and people pushing products and quick fixes and hacks and all this other stuff that just doesn’t work. There’s so much noise out there. It is very, very difficult to know where to look and who to trust. So that is our goal, is to become one of those trusted sources.

So as far as credentials go, you know, they really don’t tell you anything besides the fact that someone has a foundational bit of knowledge in a particular field. They are necessary in the fitness world because in order to be a professional in any field, you need to have insurance. And insurance companies will not cover you as a trainer unless you hold a credential that is recognized by them. So, the NSCA is pretty well respected.

Then you have USA Weightlifting, you have USA Track and Field basically any of the associations that feed into the United States Olympic team. You can get certified through that. And then CrossFit got recognized a little over a decade ago. So, I have a ton of credentials through CrossFit, and I can get into which ones I enjoyed and all that. But at the end of the day, the reason I say they don’t matter is because it’s practical experience that’s the key.

And what I advocate for is if you really want to know whether or not a coach is good and qualified, talk to his clients. Word of mouth is still king in this industry when you’re looking for referrals because you can’t hide poor results. If people had a bad time training with somebody, they’re going to let you know to avoid that person. If they absolutely love what they’re doing, the opposite is true. And a running a joke in the CrossFit world is “how do you know that someone does CrossFit? They won’t shut up about it.” You’re going to see that too. And that’s not just in CrossFit, that’s in the general strength and conditioning world. So again, I say that credentials don’t matter because results are king and the only way that you’re going to get better and better results for your members, your clients, is through practical experience. You have to walk the walk.

And you know, I have had a lot of experience with this on both ends of the spectrum. One of my first individual coaches maintained his ISSA (I don’t remember the name of the organization) personal training certification. That was it. That was the only credential that he maintained because it allowed him to carry insurance. Everything else was self-taught. Lots of time in the trenches as a coach. Lots of time in the trenches as an athlete himself. He was a former semi-pro rugby player, a competitive strongman and powerlifter.

And I shouldn’t say that was the only one he maintained. He also got his CrossFit level one. And for those CrossFitters listening, this guy at the time was, 6’1”, 275 lbs. You know, a very, very big human being, very strong.  And he finished his Fran in sub 4 minutes.  And if anyone in the CrossFit World remembers Lisbeth Darsh, she was an early CrossFit advocate, did a lot of work with inclusivity. She was at his level one cert and flat out, told him, “I’ve never seen anyone your size move that way.” So, he kind of broke the mold, but again, he’s trained thousands of humans without any real formal education in the subject.

Contrast that with I had another coach at another gym. At one point I think he had accumulated five certifications in a very short amount of time – maybe a year and a half. He had a ton of cash to burn and just kept going to them, but he didn’t really understand what was being taught and he misconstrued a lot of the key points. He also had a very problem, a very big problem with communication. He couldn’t effectively communicate what he was trying to get people to do. So, it didn’t matter that he had accumulated that many credentials. He couldn’t actually coach people. So that’s the reason that I say they really don’t matter.

The most important thing as a coach is being able to problem solve. You know, somebody’s moving incorrectly. Okay, we got to recognize the problem, diagnose it and figure out how to correct it. Whether it’s a little bit of a form correction that you can handle right then, or you know, what is the ultimate goal when it comes to strength training? You’re trying to get people stronger, and you do that by recognizing which muscle groups are weak and targeting those. It’s very, very simple in essence, but the practice is a little bit more complicated.

There are numerous methods that you can use to get there. There’s a lot of right ways. Really the only wrong way is overloading people with volume in a way that is going to hurt them, or avoiding the problem altogether. So, there’s a lot that can work and you learn what works best for your clients through trial and error. Everybody’s different. There’s a case of n equals 1 for everything. You’ve got your general rules and then you’re going to have 10 exceptions to every rule because no two humans are the same. So, if you can’t think on your feet and figure out what’s going on and how to solve their problems in the gym, you’re going to run into trouble.

Furthermore, if we’re looking at what’s happening outside the gym, because you know, for most people that are non-competitive athletes, most people have a job outside of the gym, most people have families. You know, whether or not they have kids, they have family of some form, and they have a life outside the gym. There’s 23 hours in a day that are spent outside of the gym, and if people are not seeing the results they want then we have to dig into those 23 hours and figure out what’s going wrong.  Is their nutrition on-point? Are they not sleeping? Are they overly stressed with work and stuff that’s going on in life?

Again, diagnosing the problem, coming up with solutions to help solve the problem – and that only happens with critical thinking. You only learn critical thinking through practice. If you don’t even know the right questions to ask, you’re not going to get really good results. So, for this very reason, when I hire a new coach and I train a new coach, if it’s a coach that has previous experience, they’re going to be putting in a certain number of hours with me before I even bring them on staff. If it’s somebody that I am training from scratch, they’re coming through a six-month internship with me. And the big reason for that is, I will assign you reading materials. You’ll learn that level of knowledge that I want you to have. But most importantly, we need you to get those hours on the floor actually training people.

1And I will give it to CrossFit – that is one thing that they got right from the get-go is, in the CrossFit level one they teach you how to teach somebody to do their nine foundational movements. They give you very clear concise directions on how to instruct it, and you can leave that cert, (so it’s a weekend long cert, which was part of the initial criticism of CrossFit – “oh, it’s only a weekend long cert). You can leave there with a pretty decent foundation in how to teach movement. Again, you have to put in the hours to work on your training eyes, what they call it, your coaching eye.  To build your cue toolbox takes time and practice and there’s no substitute for that. So, I like the level one because you get a practical level of knowledge right off the bat.

You do delve into some of the nuts and bolts behind the CrossFit methodology. It is pretty well based in science, and it is one of the only certifications out there that actually touches on energy systems development and conditioning. So, the level one does a lot of things right. But at the end of the day, there is no practical exam, it is a 50 multiple choice written exam. You have an hour to complete it. And all it really shows is can you listen and regurgitate information? There’s no practical, so you’re literally just filling in an answer.

And test taking is a separate skill in and of itself. I mentioned in the blog post I wrote about this, one of my good friends who was a phenomenal coach has dyslexia and failed the CrossFit level one exam five times. She knew the stuff like the back of her hand but struggled with test taking. So again, no real indication of ability there, it’s just a multiple choice test.

When I took my CrossFit level two, there was no test. You showed up for a weekend and you got it. And I’m one of the few who really did not like their level two. I felt that I didn’t learn anything from it. The idea of the level two is it’s supposed to help you prep a little bit more to coach classes. So, you start out just coaching someone one on one and then you work with a small group. My problems with it were that I didn’t get a whole lot of feedback on ways that I could improve and I’m like, please, nobody’s perfect, give me something. I didn’t like that I kept having to teach the Med Ball Clean, so that may have colored my recollection a little bit, but I think the biggest issue that I had was with programming discussion.

They’re sitting there telling us that we should be programming for CrossFit Games athletes and scaling for the members of our gym, which is an absolutely ridiculous program for your clients. You’re the one that knows their needs. Our gym is for people that are searching for general health and wellness. A couple of people that like to compete on the side, but nobody is a CrossFit Games caliber athlete, nor does anybody there really want to be. So, to program for that would be a total mismatch for what our clients want. And I did not like that message.

The CrossFit Level 3, I would put it up there kind of with the CSCS exam. It is a professional degree. It requires continuing education units to maintain.  And there’s no actual course. They give you reading material. They tell you what you need to study. And then you go take it – it’s a four-hour test, and I loved my level three. Part of that is because there was a lot in there that was practical. You had to watch video and essentially make corrections for people. You had to watch video of people moving, diagnose what the most common flaw was. They gave you somebody’s sample programming and you had to assess what they were training for. Again, it wasn’t just regurgitation. You had to actually understand the principles behind it, which is really what I’m all about.

If you understand the principles of strength and conditioning, you can train anybody. And when it comes to strength training, that information has been around for a very, very long time. Supertraining is probably the best textbook on the subject. Gotta love the Soviets and their secrets. Louis Simmons is the one that really brought that into the US back in the 80s. Anything written by him, and Westside Barbell delves into slightly different methods based on Supertraining.

You know if you’re into building muscle mass we call that hypertrophy. Arnold’s encyclopedia of body building is still the gold standard. And again, he didn’t have any formal education. He just went into the gym and found what worked and what didn’t. There are so many resources out there but the problem that we see a lot today is everybody has that need for instant gratification. You’ve got these fitness influencers out there that push quick fixes, and nobody wants to read an actual textbook on the subject. Nobody wants to read a 3-4,000-word article. T-Nation used to be a great resource. If you dig through the archives, you can still find some great articles by very well-respected coaches. You’ve got Mike Robertson, you’ve got Eric Cressey. You’ve got Jason Brown, Dr. John Russin, Joe DeFranco – there’s a lot of big names in the strength world.

What is a little less well established has been the conditioning side of things. Joel Jameson is phenomenal. I’m finishing his BioForce certified conditioning coach. He does a great job of breaking down the different methods of conditioning and really what they do. CrossFit takes a lot; well, I shouldn’t say it takes a lot. Joel came out with his certification after CrossFit was around, but it kind of explains why a lot of why what CrossFit does actually works.

CrossFit is concerned a lot with particular movements that they’re executing, whether they’re lighter, heavy, how many total repetitions you’re doing, etc. And they define low, medium, or high volume based on that, but they don’t actually distinguish between the movements so like anything over 200 repetitions is considered a high volume workout. But let’s say I’m sitting there jumping rope. You can get through 200 single rope jumps in two minutes and suddenly that’s now a high volume workout. think the movements matter a little bit more and that arbitrary delineation doesn’t really work, but I like the thought behind it and that they’re trying to define all this stuff.

So, you know, why is it that certain workouts leave you incredibly winded, sucking air like you’re coughing up a lung? The conditioning certifications go into that, and I give CrossFit a lot of credit because they’re one of the first to talk energy systems. But they don’t really, and they briefly mention rest intervals as well, but they don’t really show you how to use that from a practical side. That’s kind of where CrossFit has always lacked is on the programming side of things.

So, another course that was really great was the CrossFit aerobic capacity run by Chris Hinshaw. He does a great job of kind of cleaning up the basic CrossFit level one. So, he ties in muscle fiber types to energy systems and what fuels what. And he just delves into that in a way that you kind of wish the level one would do, and he gives you practical ways to train each energy system as well. So, we’ve certainly seen in the last decade or so, a lot more about what conditioning is has come out and there’s a little bit more of a formal education on that.

Strength has been well established for a long time, and the different types of strength as well, you’re talking explosive strength, max effort, speed strength, strength speed, there’s a whole continuum. And ultimately, like I said, if you understand the principles, you can train anybody for any goal. It’s a matter of problem solving, and you need that base level of knowledge. And most of that can be very well self-taught. If you have an expert and you can spend time with them it is great, even better. But ultimately a lot of this, if you know where to look, you can find it, you can learn it and you can go from there.

One of the things that I think is going to lead to a further degradation in coaching education, unfortunately, we see it now already, is the outsourcing of programming. And if you’re a business owner, the arguments against writing your own programming are “people don’t know how to do it” and “it’s time consuming.” So, business owners like to outsource it. It frees up their time to focus on sales and other things. I still do it because I enjoy it. .And I’m not ready to give it up yet.

But for people that outsource the problem that they run into is that if you’re going outside of your own gym, you’ve got somebody who has no concept of who your athletes are, and once again, you risk the potential mismatch between goals and what the programming is actually accomplishing. And the argument is always “oh well you tailor to the individual.” Okay that works to an extent, but if I have an endurance athlete and they are only working explosive power because that’s what this programming is geared towards, then we have a mismatch. And that’s not gonna help them. And endurance athlete should absolutely work on explosive power, but again, only in so far as it’s going to help them push up hills and support their chosen sport.2 We don’t need them to turn into a track and field athlete that’s gonna to be jumping.

I have no problem with business owners giving the programming over to somebody else in their gym. Somebody that’s another one of their coaches that knows the clientele. And I really encourage every gym owner to find somebody or train somebody to do that because nobody is going to know your clientele better than the people already in your gym. But again, that’s just me.

What we see now with CrossFit is, CrossFit is trying to add value to their affiliate fee, and so they’re now providing CrossFit affiliate programming to affiliates for free. There are software platforms out there like Wodify and Mindbody that are now serving as the middlemen, and you have to pay them access that programming. The cynic in me is amused, but these programs are done for you and there’s a lesson plan that is given to you and you’re literally just reading a script. And they claim that it’s, you know adding value and doing a service. I would argue the opposite.

It removes any need for the coach to be able to look at the program, try to dissect what’s going on and understand it. You’re literally reading off a script. You don’t need to understand it. It’s done for you. And so, it limits their development of critical thinking. And again, with problem solving, you know, the only problem solving then left is, how do I set this up? And if somebody’s form is off, can I fix that. But there’s no bigger picture thinking. So, I would actually argue that outsourcing can do a disservice to the coaches, especially if they’re following a lesson plan.

And where we’re headed in the future is AI can now write programs, and I’ve heard they’re halfway decent. But once again, if you don’t already have that foundational understanding, you’re just having someone else do the work for you and you’re mimicking it. And you can get some decent results with that to a point. But again, if you’re not building those critical thinking skills, you’re not going to be able to help people beyond a certain point, and they’re going to end up leaving. They’re going to go somewhere else because they stop seeing results with you. So, it’s certainly a tool that can be leveraged, but there is no substitute for that base level of knowledge.

And that’s why I’m a huge component of education in this field is you’ve got to be able to think, you’ve got to be able to problem solve. And it comes down to having that foundation. So, we’ll see what happens in the future. You know, if you have that foundation and you have an AI generated program and then you tweak it, because it’s not quite right for we’re writing it for, great, you’ve leveraged a tool for time saving. But that’s not the same as having somebody else do it for you. And that’s not to say that I’m against mimicry in general.

Honestly, I think mimicking is a great way to start learning to write programs. You look at what someone else did, you try to dissect it and reverse engineer it, and then you go from there. But again, you have to take that step to actually reverse engineer it and not just pick and choose stuff because you like it. And where I ran into this, most recently was with a former coach in my gym . When we were starting out our competitors CrossFit program years ago, the thought was, well, why don’t we just take the strength training that we’re doing from our gym and combine it with this program?

And it was literally picking different components from different programs and trying to slap them together, which is, I would say, Cardinal Sin number two of programming. Cardinal Sin number one of programming is programming for people the way you would program for yourself. But number two is taking bits and pieces from different programs and just slapping it together. You can certainly take inspiration from other programs or elements of other programs, but once again you have to understand the impact that it’s going to have on your clientele. And if I’m trying to take a squat cycle from program A and combine it with an Olympic lifting cycle from program B and I just stack it on the same day, I’m going to overload people with volume and it’s going to hurt people. You know, you need to be able to structure it and put it together in such a way that’s going to help people progress without overdoing it. And the only way you have any idea on how to do that is by understanding what each program is trying to accomplish and what kind of training effects and fatigue it’s going to induce in the people following it. And that only comes once again with that foundational knowledge. So, I’m all for time saving. I am all for mimicking to learn, but that it can’t stop there. You have to build that foundation of knowledge.

And again, the only way that you’ll ever know that somebody has that is by asking them questions, hey, this is my goal. How do I get there? Question everything and talk to their clients. Are they getting the results they want? Are they self-aware to know that well, I would be but I’m not following the program. That’s really the only way. If you want to gauge somebody and screen them based on credentials, take it with a grain of salt.

3Lastly, the flip side of this is. You’ll get people that kind of quote studies a lot, and I love that people are delving into studies a little bit more in this field, but the studies are very limited. So, I’m a big proponent of reading the source itself rather than taking somebody else’s word for it. And the reason for that is if you look at most studies that are conducted in the strength and conditioning world, it’s on untrained individuals. So, somebody that has never done any strength training did this program for six to eight weeks and this is what happened. It’s incredibly limited. Especially if you’ve been training for a long time, that is basically a waste of your time. You are not an untrained individual. Why would I even care about what this study says? It doesn’t affect me in any way shape or form. So, studies are very limited in scope as they continue to do more.

You may find one that is potentially relevant, but this is definitely one field where anecdotal evidence plays a huge role as you tinker, you figure out what works for you. It might fly in the face of a study. You might have a study to back it up. I guarantee you could probably find a study to back it up and one to refute it. There are so many studies that have been done. That’s why I just say, you know, take these studies with a grain of salt at the very least.

Try to take a look into them and see who’s pushing what agenda. I give Bret Contreras a lot of credit. I read his, he’s the guy that popularized hip thrusts and glute bridges. He’s known as the glute guy. His gym is called the glute lab and that’s what he specializes in is helping people build their booties. But he patented a piece of equipment called hip thruster and disclosed that in his actual doctoral dissertation. It was on glute activation through various movements, and he disclosed it up front that, you know, this is a potential conflict of interest – I do have a monetary interest in people continuing the to glute train. I have a product that helps serve that. That’s the kind of integrity that you want to see upfront.

Then there are other studies. I don’t really want to get into the whole trans athlete debate, but in the one study that has basically been used to determine the IOC’s current trans policy, the author of the study is one of the participants of the study and did not disclose that upfront. That is a MASSIVE conflict of interest that was not disclosed. So, again, you know, like does it negate the whole study? No, but it makes you question things. So, if you’re going to delve into the studies, you also have to know what to look for. The bottom line there is Let’s take the studies with a grain of salt.

What I enjoy looking back on is called the Golden Age of Bodybuilding- Arnold’s era. A lot of the bodybuilders explained why things worked in a way that made sense to them when they’re telling the newbies, hey, do this for this reason. They were using their own understanding of the movement. A lot of the times they were right, and the researchers come to bear that out. But what’s more interesting is when they were wrong, they weren’t that far off. But ultimately they did what they did because it worked, and it got them results.

So, to conclude, the main point here would be never stop learning in the fitness industry. Develop your baseline knowledge and practice because there’s no substitute for that practical application. That’s the only way you’re going to build your critical thinking skills and your problem solving skills. And ultimately it comes down to, are you getting your target demographic the results they want?

So that is my long rant on the subject. And since it’s just me flying solo, I haven’t really had a chance to enjoy this Porch Rocker. So, until next month, skol!

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