How often have you heard the idea that “great coaches just do the basics better”?
Raise your hand if you have ever heard a fitness expert say that “great coaches just do the basics better” before.
I guess I should not be surprised.
You see, it is great marketing.
In my opinion, whoever originally thought it up missed their true calling if they were working full-time as a strength and conditioning coach. They could have changed the world if they had turned their hand to marketing.
Let me explain.
Why is it great marketing?
Over the years, marketing professionals have figured out that if you write copy offering a solution that sounds plausible and simple to understand (just doing the basics), to a complex problem (writing a training program for an athlete), people will often buy what you are selling. This works even when you are selling an idea and not a product (called a “training philosophy” in our industry).
Many good copywriters use a fixed framework for writing enticing copy, which starts with getting the attention of their audience, then following that up by arousing interest and desire. Great copywriters insert an additional step, which involves helping people grasp the benefits of the solution. Saying “great coaches just do the basics” accomplishes every step in that process in a single catchphrase. Let me show you.
- Attention — As you might expect, an easy solution to a complex problem will always get our attention. You only have to look at some of the most successful adverts being run on the internet today to see that we all just *love* easy solutions, even if they sound far too good to be true. I think that one advert telling people how they can burn belly fat has been running for the best part of a decade now.
- Interest and desire — As with attention, an easy solution to a complex problem will always arouse our interest and desire. I don’t know about you, but when I see some of those successful adverts on the internet, part of me really wants to see what they are talking about, even when I objectively know that the offer is incapable of being true. Just in case my skepticism was unfounded, or something like that.
- Grasp the benefits — Persuading people to grasp the benefits of a solution usually means painting a vivid picture of how it works. This is hard unless you are selling a product that you can show being used. Consequently, many marketeers who sell ideas instead of products use vague but positive catchphrases (just doing the basics), because it side-steps this problem. When reading the catchphrase, we automatically assume that it means whatever *we* think it means, and not what someone else might think it means. For some reason, we usually don’t take the time to check. It must be some kind of bug in our operating system.
This means that when we hear someone say a catchphrase like this, we are persuaded to believe that what they are saying has merit, because we perceive that they are offering a simple solution to a complex problem, and because we mentally overlay our own preferences onto the solution.
Essentially, the purpose of such catchphrases is to get us to believe that the expert is knowledgable about our subject, and says things that we agree with. This means that when they later say other things, we are more likely to agree with them, and eventually buy what they are selling. We should therefore be very careful about what we use this marketing trick for, because it can be used to achieve substantial influence.
With that in mind, what are some things that we can promote under the banner of “the basics” that will have a positive effect on the practice of strength and conditioning in our industry, and what are some things we should avoid?
What are “the basics” of strength and conditioning?
Strength and conditioning does actually have a list of its own “basics” or fundamentals, which are normally referred to as “principles”. There are four key principles, which are (1) progressive overload, (2) specificity, (3) individuality, and (4) variation.
(1) Progressive overload is perhaps the most important principle in any strength training program. Improvement of any kind during strength training requires increasing the challenge over time, and programs without progressive overload of some kind will quickly stall. We sometimes think that using a heavier load is the only form of progressive overload. Yet, using a faster bar speed, a longer duration in a lowering (eccentric-only) exercise, and doing more repetitions with the same weight are other examples, and are all valuable for developing different types of strength.
(2) Specificity is the most poorly understood strength and conditioning principle, which is why most of my writing is devoted to explaining how it works. Essentially, while most strength training programs can produce beneficial effects in beginners in the majority of strength qualities, in more advanced individuals, strength gains are extremely specific to the type of training performed. Understanding the different ways in which strength is specific is therefore essential for preparing athletes for sport.
(3) Individuality is a very easy principle to understand, insofar as it refers to how every person has different strengths and weaknesses, genetic factors that affect training responses, and starts from a different place. However, it can be forgotten when time is short and strength coaches allocate the same training program to all of their athletes, without considering their respective background, abilities, strengths, and weaknesses.
(4) Variation is the least important principle, and is best used sparingly in a training program. Variety is helpful to avoid staleness, fatigue, and ensure long-term success, but does not contribute directly to improvements in performance. Indeed, in the short-term, variety reduces the specificity of a training program, which leads to smaller gains in the types of strength we are most interested in developing. Periodization is one method of managing variety. Unfortunately, many popular periodization models vary the wrong variables (like load, instead of exercise), and are too prescriptive, because they ignore the need to vary workouts at short notice.
Being able to write a good strength training program to prepare an athlete for sport requires having a solid understanding of each of those principles, and how they interact. So referring to the four key strength and conditioning principles as the real “basics” of strength training will surely have a positive impact on our industry.
How is the term “the basics” wrongly used?
Unfortunately, some experts who use the catchphrase (great coaches just do the basics better) do not do this with the aim of directing our attention towards the key principles of strength and conditioning.
Rather, they try to promote the idea that strength training should only include a small number of what they consider to be “fundamental” exercises, like squats, deadlifts, and lunges. The idea is that by training with these common movement patterns, performance in other common movement patterns (like jumping, changing direction, and sprinting) will be improved.
This will *not* work as well as you might hope, for two reasons.
Firstly, athletes need to develop different strength qualities for their sports, which differ depending on the sport, and these strength qualities are *nearly* impossible to achieve by exclusively using the classic heavy barbell exercises.
For example, sprinting involves force production by some muscles while they are lengthening, some while they are contracting very quickly, and some while they are producing peak force at short muscle lengths. Yet, classic barbell exercises involve producing peak force while muscles are contracting (not lengthening), while they are contracting slowly (not quickly), and while they are producing peak force at long muscle lengths. Additionally, classic barbell exercises cannot be used to train all of the key muscles used in sprinting, such as the hip flexors.
Secondly, athletes are not regular people, and do not require practice with basic movement patterns in order to get better at their sport. Team sports athletes sprint around a field at insane speeds. High-level soccer athletes are only fractionally slower than elite track sprinters at short, linear sprints, and are likely better if you test them on a zig zag course, and can change direction at a moment’s notice. Their physical literacy is off the charts.
Athletes who are training at a high enough level to have a strength coach likely need little movement practice, and they can often gain all they need from playing their sport. Strength coaches just need to identify the specific strength characteristics that support those movements. Sometimes that will require the classic barbell exercises, sometimes you will need to use exercises that involve cables, machines, flywheels, or even single joint movements. The idea that there is some list of “basic” exercises that is all that you need is fundamentally flawed.
What is the takeaway?
The catchphrase “great coaches just do the basics better” is a marketing gem that helps experts build rapport with others in the fitness industry, and helps them persuade others that they are knowledgable about strength training.
Used appropriately, it can therefore be used to exert a positive influence over how strength training is programmed for athletes. However, it is essentially a neutral expression, because it contains no fixed information, and is therefore not a training philosophy in itself.
In my view, the most positive and helpful use of the expression “the basics” by fitness experts is to refer to the four key strength and conditioning principles, (progressive overload, specificity, individuality, and variation). In contrast, referring to a short list of key exercises will probably have a negative impact on the industry, because it relies upon a flawed model of strength training.