Motivate, warn, advise, teach and educate: very different things

Sunday, the 25th of May, was a glorious day for some of my friends but it also provided frustration. It was the over 220lbs men’s day at the IPL Nationals. We are a close bunch, some of us even work together on an educational project (MAD Powerlifting) and most of us have a background in physical education or other biological sciences. I watched as Hugo approached Andre and said something on the line of “don’t be upset: I video-taped your deadlifts. It’s easy to fix that”.

Andre was obviously upset. He is and has always been a great deadlifter. In fact deadlift was “his” lift: he started on powerlifting struggling with his squat, working on optimizing the bench press with his long, ectomorph arms but the deadlift was his baby. Sunday, god knows why, he got all his three squats neat and even got a fourth record attempt good. His bench press was also pretty nice. But he failed both his second and third deadlift attempts. We all felt bad as our eyes followed a low head Andre out of the platform.

I hugged him and said: “bro, don’t worry, powerlifting is just like that: sometimes things just don’t come the way you expect them to.”

As Andre did his second and third attempts everyone who was not a referee screamed things like “c’mon, man, that’s light weight” (lie: it was very heavy), “easy, man, easy!” (another lie: it was damn hard) or “you can do it, you know you can!” (third lie: obviously he didn’t know whether he could or not, that’s why it’s called a game).

What everybody screamed is called “psyching up” or “motivation”. They are an important collective talk because they express emotional involvement, cheering and group dynamics. The objective is to raise the lifter’s self-confidence and stamina.

What I did is called “support”. That’s what friends do when they got little else to say at a certain point. It is not a lie but it doesn’t contain any useful knowledge.

What Hugo did is called “advice”: it is a technical comment with the objective of solving a specific problem.

When all this is over, we may use Andre’s videos when we teach our classes about the deadlift since we have an even better illustration of the points we make every time. This is called “teaching”.

Finally, we may find a way to help a very large number of lifters if we deduce universal models from this experience and connect them to the existing body of knowledge on strength training or even the execution of the deadlift. Writing or speaking about it and succeeding in reaching the audience is called “education”.

The strength training blogosphere is cluttered with motivational material. Even the attacks on supposedly despicable behaviors out there (a favorite in digital strength coaches writing) are actually motivational content: the objective is to give the reader a sense of pride over his own righteous behavior and, of course, promote allegiance.

What is usually presented as “training advice” is actually not advice at all: they are universal guidelines based on nothing except personal experience coupled with dangerously unsound technical claims. Let’s take a look at some I found randomly on the internet:

“You should drink at least a gallon of milk every two days” – not only wrong, but dangerous. I am a milk drinker. Not only I like it, but I belong to the tiny percentage of the human population that inherited the most “cow-dependent” genes. A genetic sub-set of the human population has actually co-evolved with cow cattle and its bowel function health may (or may not) be dependent on dairy products. But how about the other 80% of the human population who shows varying degrees of milk intolerance? Do the self-proclaimed digital strength coaches ever think they are writing publically and that generalizing milk prescription is wrong and potentially dangerous? Who cares about evolutionary biology or biochemistry, right? As a biologist with a M.Sc., in biochemistry (and a Ph.D. in sociology of science), I happen to care, so I wrote something about it respecting both (evolutionary biology and biochemistry).

“Accessory work is unnecessary for powerlifting” – Here we have the funniest of the situations. We have coaches publishing one extra accessory exercise to “boost your deadlift” per day and we have those that proclaim that the only way to become a real powerlifter is to restrict your training to the lifts, full movement, and that’s all. They may add a measure of intensity, but they’re not keen on periodization, either. Both are obviously bullshit: accessory exercises were and are designed to address one specific item of each lift’s execution. A coach may make good use of it when it is the appropriate moment to correct a deficiency or to improve the lift through an emphasis on that specific phase of the lift. Let’s say your lifter has a problem on the raw bench liftoff from the chest. Deads should be a good choice of accessory exercise. But let’s say your lifter is just great, one of those rare guys it is very hard to improve. Anyway, you two figure it’s been a long time since he hasn’t practiced the liftoff through deads and that may give that tiny extra edge to guarantee a historical record. Then you go for it.

“Do military press if you want to improve your benching” – Right. And the next article will be: do rows to improve your benching. And the next one will be: do snatch deadlifts to improve your deadlift. It is all right, and all wrong. An almost infinite variety of exercises can and should be used to improve a lift. To promote one as the key to improvement is bullshit.

“You can’t be lean and strong at the same time” – Yes you can. There is ample evidence of extremely high level powerlifters who managed to lose fat and gain strength at the same time. This is not bodybuilding: this is powerlifting and the neural aspects count much more than in any other sport. It may be hard to explain the physiological basis of losing fat and gaining maximum strength at the same time, but it is not absurd (you don’t need any supernatural concept for that) and the facts are out there.

Bottom line is: it is perfectly ok to motivate; it is great to share training experience. It is not ok at all to prescribe things one is not trained for. To become a strength coach, I had to come all the way from a Ph.D. in sociology of science back to basics and get myself a certification in Physical Education. The immense majority of digital coaches have no idea what they are talking about.

The internet was one of the greatest things that happened to knowledge socialization: millions of people previously excluded from the body of technical knowledge in any field are now one click away from it. The flip side of that is that anyone can post anything and the average user is lost in a sea of disorganized information, with no hierarchy or credibility seal.

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