10 Things To Look For in A Strength Coach or Trainer

Look for a coach or trainer who does his/her own programming. I’ve been doing this for 10 years, and still make programming mistakes – which I find by doing the program first, myself!

By Rob Shaul


1. Simple, Progressive, Not Random Program Design.

Programming is everything. Solid programming is more important than exercise choice, equipment, coaching technique, background music, etc. I don’t consider someone in the fitness industry a “coach” until he or she personally designs the programming being implemented. The programming should be simple, and progressive – built upon itself.

If your coach/trainer is “making it up” every day, and/or doing “random” training sessions, find someone else to work with. Don’t fall for questionable theories like “muscle confusion” or a coach/trainer who justifies random programming because “it keeps the body guessing.” There is nothing random about effective program design – Olympic Weightlifting, Endurance, team sport, tactical, mountain – all effective fitness programming is planned and progressed. When CrossFit first came on the scene in the mid-90s, random training sessions, especially for work capacity, were often promoted. But believe me, now, none of the CrossFit Coaches designed the programming for high-level CrossFit competitors are deploying random design. Their programming has a focused method and is progressed.

Method and progression = knowing the programming goal and how the programming is going to get you there.

At any time, your coach or trainer should be able to go through your training session part by part, explain clearly what the goal of each part is down to the set/rep scheme, exercise choice, and how each part fits into the overall aim of the current training cycle.

Often I’ll gather my athletes around the whiteboard and do this with them without being asked. Even my veteran athletes are naturally curious and invested in what we’re trying to do at MTI and how today’s training session part of that.


2. A Coach/Trainer Who Does His/Her Own Programming.

Few strength and conditioning coaches have the design experience, across multiple sports, missions, and activities, that I do. However, even though I invented the programming myself, and have more programming experience than 95% of other coaches, I still make mistakes. How do I find them? I do my own programming and experience first hand what I messed up so I can fix it before I prescribe it for my athletes.

One of the most obvious “tells” which will indicate a coach doesn’t do his or her own programming is a wide discrepancy between how long he/she believes the training session will take to complete, and how long it actually takes.

A few years ago I visited a THOR3 coach/facility at Fort Bragg along with a Green Beret who had me in for a visit. My host had shown me before the visit the training session the THOR3 coaches had designed for him. It included 8-10 “pre-hab” exercises/drills as a warm up even before he began training. It was obvious to me completing all these pre-hab exercises would alone take 30-40 minutes. When we visited THOR3, I asked the head coach there how long my host’s training session should take. “Sixty minutes,” he answered. On the way out, my host told me “no way” … these sessions were taking him 90-120 minutes to complete. It was obvious the coach wasn’t doing his own programming – because he would immediately discover too much pre-hab was prescribed.


3. He/She Is Not Your Friend

An effective coach or trainer will push you past your comfort level, won’t tolerate whining, and will hold you accountable. This can’t be done if the relationship is overly casual. Not surprising to people familiar with me and MTI, I’m personally pretty stern and all business in the gym. It’s clear who’s in charge and what is expected. I’ve found this clarity works best.


4. No Gimmicky Exercises

It follows that simple, direct and effective program design will be supported by simple, direct and effective exercises. The longer I coach, the smaller my exercise menu becomes. Early on I used to be concerned about keeping my athletes “entertained” with a wide variety of exercises – many of which, in hindsight – were silly. Overall, my exercise menu has gone from a mile wide and a foot deep to a foot wide and a mile deep. Over the years I’ve identified which exercises are effective, easy for me to teach and coach, and easy for my athletes to learn. I’ve done this long enough to finally learn that what matters to athletes is not how fancy and exotic and “fun” the training session is, but how well the training transfers to outside performance. This is all they care about.


5. No Gimmicky Gadgets

Same for gimmicky exercise equipment and gadgets. Our storage area at MTI is littered with gimmicky exercise gadgets I’ve tried and discarded over the years – slosh bags, water balls, fancy grip strength gizmos, etc. Ninety-five percent of my training sessions deploy a mixture of these proven 10 types of exercise equipment:

1. Barbells + Bumper/Iron plates (iron 5s, 10s and 2.5s)

2. Simple, moveable, racks

3. Dumbbells/Kettlebells

4. Sandbags

5. Plyo Boxes

6. Step Up Benches

7. Weight Vests

8. Pull Up Bar

9. Climbing Ropes

10. Backpacks/Rucks


6. Safety Focus

Not only in terms of loading but also basic common sense stuff like tripping, getting hit with a moving barbell, training session “flow,” spotting, etc. A good coach and trainer will be constantly aware of safety hazards and address them immediately when they arise. A good coach will quickly be able to spot poor movement, labored, unusual breathing, and other signs out of the ordinary for regular athletes. Often I’ll shut down athletes after spotting some type of problem. Often I’ll stop an entire training session to re-emphasize proper movement or highlight a safety concern.  A good coach/trainer will be like your mother …. always aware of what you’re going wrong. 


7. Starts on Time. No Matter What.

Nothing will set the “we’re here to work,” professional tone for a training session like always starting on time. All my athletes know the penalty for being late is 10 burpees … I don’t even have to tell them – they’ll do them on their own right away if late. No one is immune – World Champions and Olympic Skiers have all done burpees at MTI for being late.

Demand your athletes respect the gym by being on time. Show your athletes respect by starting on time.


8. He/She Makes you Clean Up.

My athletes get out their own equipment and put it away when completed. They mop the gym after the session and take out the garbage. This demonstrates respect for the mission we have here at MTI, and reinforces the idea that all athletes are treated the same – no prima donnas.

9. Doesn’t Tolerate Whining.

Nothing will kill a gym’s mission and atmosphere like whining athletes. No good coach or trainer will tolerate it … even if it means firing the athlete (I’ve done this). Everyone is there to do what the coach prescribes and work hard. Whining needs to be called out and punished immediately – usually with more work.

This includes seemingly innocuous stuff like gym music. At MTI, the music is for the entertainment of the coach, not the athletes. When I have an athlete complain about the music playing (either Tool or country), I calmly walk over and turn it up, then ask them, “better now?” That stops it.

This doesn’t mean you can’t learn something from your athletes and should always be open. Often veteran athletes have questioned my prescribed loading, exercise, or brought to my attention concerns. Often they are right, I’ll reconsider the issue, change it accordingly, and thank them for bringing it up.

There is a difference between “whining” and constructive criticism. Be open to suggestions.


10. Isn’t Righteous.

Every single time I’ve been righteous about an exercise, method, or piece of equipment, I’ve always been proven wrong and had to eat my words. In general, the more experience I got, the less righteous I became. As a new coach there were all kinds of exercises, pieces of equipment, training progressions, and other stuff I either righteously embraced by or said I would never do. As I learned and matured as a coach, I’ve let results, and not my uninformed biases, dictate how I program. Along the way, I’ve learned everything works, but nothing works forever, and there are many ways to skin a cat. 


Questions, Comments, Feedback? Email coach@mtntactical.com



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