Becoming a Barbell Coach: Study, Practice, and ApplicationTo many people, putting a certificate ahead of my college studies and filling up my free time with study was odd. For me, that decision helped guide and focus my efforts. Even if it was odd, it was important for me. Maybe it is for you, too.
Becoming a Barbell Coach: Patience, Study, and Application
By: Sean Thacker, PBC
(Sean is a BLOC Staff Coach based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. He’s available for online and in-person coaching. Get Coaching from Sean)
In May of 2018, I took my first step to becoming a Professional Barbell Coach (PBC). Today, the process is entirely online, but back then, I drove to Denver to attend a seminar that (I would soon learn) I was clearly not ready for. In Denver, I would learn my path to becoming a PBC would take a lot of patience, a lot of study, and a lot of work applying what I’d learned.
I had no background in science or body mechanics. I started with almost zero coaching experience, and I was never the best student. I had managed to get a personal training certification, but the effort I put forth was minimal, and it almost seemed as if the company would pass anyone who paid the fee. The lessons included no details about their model or how my clients would benefit from me having their credential. At the time, I wanted to learn more to help keep my family in shape and fit, but this certification didn’t teach me how to keep anyone healthy and strong for a better life quality. I knew what I wanted—to learn more than just how to help get sweaty or feel like they got a “good workout.”
Eventually, I found what I was looking for, studied, and earned a credential that lets my clients know the value that I bring to their training. Along the way, I practiced patience, failing three platform exams and a written test. Back when the Coaching Academy was a 6-month group-discussion class, I put myself through it twice to get the rigorous study I needed. It was time-consuming, and it affected me mentally, emotionally, and physically. Close friends and family started asking, “Why are you doing this to yourself?” and, “Is this really worth it?” I hope that, in writing this, I can encourage those who may not have an easy path to becoming a coach or who may think that their background will keep them from the necessary knowledge and experience. This article is going to take a deep dive into my experience on what it takes to become a Professional Barbell Coach.
Part I: Patience
Take your time. There is no reason to rush this process. If you decide before you even start that you are only going to commit a certain number of months or that you need to get certified by a certain date, then you are setting yourself up for frustration. In order to get the most out of this process, you need patience, and patience takes time.
One of my fondest memories from that Denver seminar involved me failing miserably. During the first platform test, while I was coaching the squat, one of the staff coaches stared at me and said, “I am going to give you ONE more chance to run them through the progression again. You missed quite a bit.” I failed that second chance, and that stare has haunted me. That is a fond memory because it helped change how I was thinking about the process of learning to coach: had I taken my time to develop a theory of what being a good barbell coach means, I may have avoided that haunting stare.
Everyone needs a theory and a process that helps focus their study and their practice. I had tried to rush through the material; I coached people when I had time; and I would ask bland, general questions instead of ones that applied to my lifters. Had I known when I started that this process would take me three years, I would have worried less about performing well at the beginning and been more open to using the lengthy process to learn as much as possible.
Patience isn’t about waiting for things to happen; it’s about what you do with that time. Are you willing to spend hours patiently getting frustrated because it feels like you still have the same questions you had when you started? I remember listening to Andrew Jackson review my essay, saying, “Nothing you said was incorrect, but you didn’t make a point to me that you could define why it is correct.”
Use your time effectively and learn to ask questions. You have access to coaches from all different backgrounds. I’m proud to tell a lifter, “I learned that cue from Niki Sims” or “I developed my programming habits from Jordan Stanton.” Asking questions is a learned skill. If you ask the questions that help you develop as a coach, then the time you spend in the Academy becomes productive, and you’ll learn from those with the experience and knowledge you’re after.
The knowledge you can gain from more experienced coaches is priceless. I once asked Andrew why I should avoid telling a lifter to not do something (“don’t jerk the bar off the floor” or “don’t lead with your chest”). He said, “Why bring attention to a detail we’re trying to avoid?” I applied this answer into my coaching and quit telling my lifters what not to do, which in turn allowed me to cue more concisely. Do not just ask the question, but question the answer to your question, then apply the answers to other student’s questions, and pick up as much information as you can.
You will also need patience finding clients. Sadly, clients do not just show up at your door asking to be trained by an inexperienced coach. There is no secret to getting clients; you will need to get inexperienced lifters. People who are likely to ask, “what is a barbell?” or say, “I am too old for that” are your target demographic. They are also the clients that will help you practice patience. For some, getting clients is a struggle that develops over months or even years.
Part II: Study
For those who are like me and just absolutely hate studying or find it difficult to stay focused for lengthy periods of time, study will be the hardest part of this process. If I could say only one thing about study, it is this: DON’T BE AFRAID. Failure can be taken two ways. Either you learn how to succeed next time or you accept the failure as the final result.
(“I am going to give you ONE more chance…”)
I began my study by skimming the books and materials from the Academy. I was able to pick up on the general outline of the model and why we would teach it this way. One of the first videos from the Academy challenged us to start thinking globally. I took that and outlined my study the same way. What concepts or principles could I grasp immediately that I could turn into a global understanding?
That global understanding takes time and really is the standard you must reach in order to apply what you learn to many situations. There were times when I picked up some of the material, thought I knew enough, and moved on to another subject. Failing to spend time beyond “knowing enough” was detrimental to my habits. Not only did I have to make time for study, but I made it a priority. I decided that my PBC was going to take priority over college and extra activity time. To many people, putting a certificate ahead of my college studies and filling up my free time with study was odd. For me, that decision helped guide and focus my efforts. Even if it was odd, it was important for me. Maybe it is for you, too.
Take a step back, ask yourself what you are willing to sacrifice for the sake of coaching. How much time are you willing to put in daily? What is your goal to make this worth it? I had to question myself and my intentions before making it to the end of this process. My goal was to make people stronger and educate them about why they should want to be strong. There was only one way to reach that goal: I needed to study enough.
I would prescribe the study the same as I would program strength training for a client. A client needs to learn the lifts, perform the lifts, and increase the load, taking into account that everyone adapts at different rates. This basic process can be applied to study. I chose to start with 15 minutes of reading a night. This enabled me to get the sense of accomplishment for a positive change in my habits, even if it was only 15 minutes. My process grew into multiple sessions of 15 minutes of study throughout the day. I developed a habit.
I improved slowly, but like lava rolling down the mountainside, every part of my study process caught fire as I improved. I was memorizing the muscles, writing flashcards, and making footprint molds in the carpet as I paced, murmuring to myself, “No, no, no, that is the Rhomboid, not the deltoid, dumbass. COME ON!” I spent nights lying in bed, window open, staring at the stars, lip-syncing the cycle of a muscle contraction. My wife would arrive home, and I would attack her with, “So you’re probably wondering how a muscle contracts?” She would snap back immediately, “Oh for fuck’s sake, Sean! I love you, but please let me set my stuff down before this.” I formed expectations for myself and grew a sense of hope that this PBC could be available for me. This would repeat for months, but my study habits all began with 15-minute sessions scattered throughout the week and formed gradually into 3-hour sessions that led into the night. I was willing to sacrifice sleep, free time, and college study because I love helping people get stronger.
Part III: Application
This is where you make the mistakes and where you grow the most. The first thing to know is don’t panic. We have all incorrectly cued a lifter, frozen up, ruined a client’s set. I can guarantee you this—no coach is perfect. Be calm. You will cue incorrectly; you will second guess yourself; and, you will fail. Accept that at the beginning, and you can learn from your mistakes and not get distracted by them.
Actually, being challenged and making mistakes can be a good sign. If you find yourself not making errors, not cueing, or not having to think about what needs to be cued, then you are probably not coaching the population that will help you grow. When you are learning, there should be moments when you stare at the lifter wondering what in the hell is happening. You’ll blurt out a cue that is incorrect then dwell on it for the remainder of the session. Failure is an opportunity to define yourself as you want to see yourself, not how you want everyone to see you as.
There were times when, to try and impress other coaches, I would overcomplicate things. Like Einstein at his blackboard coming up with new theories, I would engineer intricate cues. The platform coaches were not impressed. What impresses them is the confidence to deliver cues and the ability to get the lifter as close to the model as possible.
Confidence really is crucial, and it only comes with practice. As you coach, you develop relationships with your lifters, and the confidence you have in yourself will be reflected in them. As time goes on, you will be asked questions that you have no answer to—which will force you to search or study for the answer. You will serve clients who have disabilities or medical issues that you must work around. It can be scary at first, but when you begin to figure out the program prescription, you will change lives, and there is no greater feeling.
I have clients who are healthy at 75, one who has MS in his 30s, and another who has Chron’s disease in his 30s. Each of them has required different programming prescriptions, and so I have had to learn while helping them. That’s okay because if you really study and apply what you learn, learn from other coaches, and have patience, there is likely no one better than you to help them get stronger. This process will repeat endlessly until you quit seeking knowledge or coaching.
Part IV: Summary
Coaching is a special industry; we get to give the gift of strength, which allows our clients to live healthier and safer in their surroundings. This certification is not easy on you, but neither is this profession. One of the best pieces of advice I received is from Matt Reynolds. He told me to always be reading because “there is always someone out there who has done what you’re doing before.” Everyone has something to teach, and you must be willing to learn every day, or you quit growing. To better serve your clients, you will need to read and to put yourself into situations that make you uncomfortable and to accept that you will never know everything about anything.
The PBC has allowed me greater happiness in my life. The justification for the PBC was easy for me. I love helping people get stronger. I love motivating people, and I wanted to have a job that I enjoy doing every day. The PBC has given me that freedom. Working for BLOC had also allowed me to coach people all around the world, including a world-class sprint cyclist in Australia who wants to get stronger for his sport, a 55-year-old in London who reached his goal of a one-thousand-pound lifting total, and a client with MS in Alabama who was able to squat 315 in his first-ever lifting competition.
I would encourage anyone who has a passion for coaching but does not know where to start to reach out to a coach you admire and start asking questions. It may lead you down a difficult and unexpected path, but if you want to help people through strength, then it is worth it.