Rule Number 1: Don’t do what I did
With the ever growing popularity of powerlifting through social media, there is an ever-expanding market for coaches. While there are some absolutely great coaches, there are also some subpar coaches as well. So how do you choose the right coach for you? When is the right time to get a coach? When is time to think about switching coaches? All of these questions are things that have gone through every serious lifter's mind at some point in their career.
I’ll give you guys a little insight on how I came to the conclusion that I needed a coach after my third meet at the tender age of 18 and how you can avoid some of the mistakes I made.
At first, I tried coaching myself.
Picture this: you are a freshman in college who specifically chose UCI because it had a powerlifting team. That was me. I was so obsessed with the sport that it influenced most aspects of my life. I’d watched every youtube video, read every article and talked to every serious powerlifter I knew at the time (which admittedly was not that many).
Since powerlifting basically was my entire life, I figured I was qualified to coach myself. After all, I didn’t think anyone else knew or would care as much about my training as me.
Besides, I’d already “coached” myself for the better part of 3 years with the limited access to equipment I had back home. I had made some solid progress, too, or so I thought. I thought of myself as pretty strong, having totaled in the low 1200’s (remember, this was back in 2016-2017. The standards were different).
Then, I got a coach who had no clue what he was doing.
After getting some local recognition, one of the refs at my second meet offered me to join his powerlifting team back home and coach me.
Now, this “coaching” was basically a spreadsheet with a cookie cutter program that he gave to everyone on the team. I figured that was normal and didn’t question it, since I was getting this for the low low price of free (and at 18, you take anything that’s free). I wouldn’t realize how poor that coaching was until after my 3rd meet..
I had signed up for a meet 250 miles away in the middle of the semester which my coach approved of and decided that I would cut weight for the very first time to make the 198 weight class. My coach at the time advised me on it, which led me to eating swapping to a diet of nothing but broccoli and chicken at only a week out from the meet. As you can guess, that meet did not go well.
I bombed out on bench (failing 275lbs three times). I was devastated and embarrassed at my performance, but more importantly, it opened my eyes on what I didn’t know. I had no fucking clue how to cut weight, and neither did my “coach”! My attempt selection was garbage, too. After that day, I knew I never wanted to bomb out again.
Finally, I found a real coach.
After having a talk with my dad a few days after the meet, he suggested I get a coach. A real one. I was still hesitant, but the thought stayed in the back of my mind for a while. Then a few weeks later when Zack Bartell, who'd just started this gym called SoCal Powerlifting, came over to give the UCI powerlifting team a presentation about his coaching services, I knew that was my chance at furthering my lifting career.
I lucked out that Zack was a great coach and truly was dedicated to his clients, but I would’ve been doomed If he wasn’t. I saved up money throughout the week to pay him and followed his programming religiously. I bought in and saw my total break into the 1400s after a few months working with Zack.
While this story might not be the same as yours, it embodies some of the core aspects needed from lifters to successfully work with a coach and some of the mistakes made when choosing a coach.
Before you get a coach, are you willing to listen?
...no, seriously. Are you? I’m not saying to never ask a question or have doubts about your training but if you are constantly second guessing your coach and unwilling to make the adjustments they ask of you, coaching will not work for you.
If you can’t honestly answer yes to this, then I’d suggest waiting until you are ready. It’s like going to therapy, if you are not willing to change you won’t benefit from it.
If you’re truly ready for a coach, here are the 3 things you MUST do before committing to one.
1. Ask yourself: how much is proper coaching worth to you? What are you willing to invest? What are you ready to give up?
What are you willing to sacrifice for your lifting goals? You get what you pay for, and a good coach will work with you to understand what your goals are and what limitations we need to take in mind when designing your program.
For example, if you work a manual labor job 40 hours a week, a good coach knows that you are already beat up coming to the gym and will tailor your training with that in mind. A bad coach will not change a thing and expect you to just tough it out and work harder. To no one’s surprise, this will likely lead to being overly fatigued and spinning your wheels.
But what if you don’t necessarily work a manual job, but you love to do other physical activities? A good coach will ask about those activities and see if you are willing to scale them down to prioritize lifting (no wrong answer here). If you are unwilling to do so, a good coach will explain to you why that affects your training and how you two can work around it. A bad coach might disregard these other activities and be unwilling to take them into account when designing your program.
In short, a good coach cares about you and everything that might affect your lifting as long as you let them know about it.
2. When you find someone who seems like a good choice, ask them about their process and their clients’ lifting progress.
If the coach you are seeking seems like a good fit at first, now it’s time for you to pry a little more about their experience and their other clients’ progress.
Let’s say you are tired of having constant back pain deadlifting. Ask your coach if he/she has encountered these issues before and how they approach the problem with their clients. If the answer seems overly broad and doesn’t leave you with an approach to the problem, then that coach might not be the right fit for you. If the coach can answer the question and leave you satisfied that together you can work through the issues, then you might have found a good coach.
Well, wait. What if you’re healthy and only care about getting stronger (you know, the purpose of the sport)? Then, you should ask about that coach’s clients’ lifting progress. If the coach only points out one or two freaks in their repertoire, then maybe ask about their less genetically-gifted clients (since, chances are, you aren’t genetically-gifted either. Ask what their progress looks like.
A good coach should not be judged in the accomplishments of a few gifted clients but in the overall trend of those clients who are willing to work. How do his middle of the pack clients do? Are they getting stronger? Are they staying injury free?
These are the things most of you should be asking.
3. Finally, try to gauge whether they’re willing to adapt to change as you progress.
A good coach embraces change when presented with new information that he/she adapts to your training. The same reps and sets that go you to a certain strength point will not be the same that get you to the next.
This is highly individualized, but asking questions like “Do your strongest clients do the same amount of reps and sets as your weakest clients?” may give some insight on how likely the coach is to individualize training.
What about when you already have a coach, and you’re looking to switch? How do you know when it’s time to switch coaches?
When is it time to switch coaches? If you did your homework the coach you selected should be pretty solid but if having doubts you can run through a checklist to ensure both of you are doing the most possible to optimize your training.
- How well does your coach respond to your questions? If your coach often skips your questions or takes excessively long to answer half assed then maybe you should look somewhere else.
- How good is their feedback? If your coach is awesome at breaking down technique, explaining your program and making adjustments to your lifts then maybe they’re at least decent at their job.
- Are you, as a lifter, communicating with your coach? We as coaches can only work with the information given and if left in the dark you may not make as much progress as possible.
You dropping your calories to lose weight without telling your coach will affect how well you are able to perform the program written out for you as that program did not take into account the caloric deficit and the lowered recovery that comes from it.
In short, don’t rely on the luck of the draw..
Don’t be like I was at 18. If I had known to ask questions, if I’d known to find out about their other clients’ progress, and if I’d known to see if they’d be willing to adapt my training as I progressed, I wouldn’t have had to bomb out benching 275 in front of a crowd full of people. But, I had no idea what to look for in a coach. In the end, I just wound up being lucky when I found Zack and SoCal Powerlifting.
So to summarize, don’t rely on luck to find a great coach. Now that you know what you’re looking for, you should gauge the quality of the coach before making a commitment using the questions we’ve gone over in this blog post. All that remains is getting out there and finding one, and it just so happens I know the perfect place to start…