About a year ago, I called up this guy I know, a Master's Athlete, very strong and knowledgeable about lifting, to discuss a few business matters. "Just a moment, Sully," he said. "I'm all wrapped, and I need to go do my set."
So he put down the phone, and I could hear plates rattling in the other room, with a big explosive grunt at the end of every rep. The bar racked, and my friend came back to the phone, huffing and puffing.
"How'd it go?"
"Goddammit, I don't know. They all felt different. They shouldn't all feel different, Sully."
Now, this guy is very strong for his age, well more than two standard deviations above the mean for his gen-pop demographic. He is the most experienced and effective coach I know, with an almost preternatural ability to spot and correct movement errors. I've personally seen this guy correct somebody's form while reading a muscle magazine....without looking at the lifter. It's spooky. He's forgotten more about lifting and coaching than I will ever know. He trains well and productively, and knows exactly what a squat should feel like.
But on that night, for that set, this guy, whose name I won't mention except to say that it was Mark Rippetoe, could have used a coach. Or at least a training partner.
Many of us don't have access to professional coaching, for one reason or another, and it is certainly possible to learn to lift and train without one. But this is never ideal. Training with the barbell is a skill, and like all skills it requires constant care and feeding. Form errors creep in for even the most experienced lifters, and need to be nipped in the bud.
This phenomenon is on full display every year at the Starting Strength Coaches Association Conference. Every year we get together to talk coaching, sports science, the fitness biz, and whiskey. But one of the highlights of conference is the group workout, when a bunch of coaches who've spent the last year helping others get strong with good form get to lift under the watchful eyes of their peers.
"You're flexing your neck in the hole, Sully."
"I am not."
(All nod.) "Yeah, you are."
Every year, lifting in front of our colleagues, we find that we've developed this or that form error, lifting on our own or even with a partner.
The more I think about this, the more I think it's because the lifter working in isolation is an incomplete system. The complete system is a lifter and a coach and the unique two-way communication that takes place between them. This system has been described elaborately and beautifully by Dr. Stef Bradford in lectures you can find here and here.
Of course it's possible and often necessary to train well and productively on our own, and I do not mean to suggest otherwise in any way. But when we train under the watchful eye of a coach, we close the loop and complete a very powerful system of training practice.
This two-part system (athlete and coach) is especially critical for novices and special populations. Novices benefit tremendously from having a skilled coach from the very beginning, and special populations (the elderly, very deconditioned, disabled, etc) will train more safely and productively in these circumstances.
But everybody benefits from coaching.
Now, to be clear: I think the ideal is a certified Starting Strength Coach. But these highly qualified individuals are not always available. A fitness professional who understands and follows the SS model of barbell training is an acceptable alternative, but they are not always available either. So sometimes coach means lifting partner.
But that lifting partner must also have qualifications. Your lifting partner, like you, must be committed to working within the model and Doing The Program. He, like you, must read the the foundational texts, watch the videos, and be willing not only to coach but to be coached. You'll both make mistakes, but you'll make far fewer than you would by working in isolation, and if you're not careful one or both of you may find, after a while, that you've developed what Dr. Bradford calls The Coaching Eye.
Who knows? Maybe you'll decide that the SSC credential is in your future. And that would be good, because making more SSCs available means that more people can realize the health and performance benefits of training under the watchful eye of a skilled coach.
Update: Just exactly as I was finishing this blog post, I heard from Rip. The Aasgaard company has just announced a new initiative to provide online coaching services by carefully selected SSCs. If you don't have access to a Starting Strength Coach, this is an alternative you seriously need to consider.