The Truth Shall Set You Free…in the Fitness Industry

Yesterday, I received a link to yet another article written by a physical training “guru,” touting what training is effective, and what is not. How do you, the reader — the consumer of fitness and performance information — evaluate the credibility of an author and his recommendations? Without decades of personal trial and error, how do you discern the information from the misinformation?

As our organization is not one to critically deconstruct and trash-talk competing ideas and authors, this piece will remain professional and speak general in nature. “We’re not saying that they are wrong, we’re saying that we are right.

Pay Attention to the Messenger

The truly frustrating aspect of reading articles like these is the authors tend to use claims of a particular expertise in order to give weight and credibility to their opinions — which they try to pass off as some sort of natural law. I humbly submit to you now, I don’t claim “guru” status. All I truly know about physical training is:

I “think” I recognize those patterns that seem to work for many different people.

My frustration with expert advice began when I was sent a training manual designed to prepare a soldier (or civilian prospective) for the U.S. Army’s Special Forces Assessment and Selection course (SFAS). I cannot recall, but I believe it was sent to me by a man who may not have even been selected his first time out. 

This manual was written and endorsed by a top organization in the field. The material on the pages within caused a bit of bile to reach the back of my throat. This nonsense — truly this was nonsense — was endorsed by a top organization in the strength and conditioning field. Worse yet, there is literature available (for sale, of course) that was authored by individuals who have successfully navigated these training evolutions, and it is not much better.

How does this happen? How do prominent organizations, coaches, trainers, and athletes recommend programs that would most obviously not lead to significant results?

The Fallacy of Training Elite Athletes

Many authors and trainers list the evidence of their experiences training: “elite military units” or “professional athletes” or “top collegiate athletes” or “Olympic athletes and hopefuls” or “competitively-ranked fighters.” Read the many bios of coaches and trainers permeating the Internet for an example. Presumably, this experience is supposed to be indicative of a great knowledge that they will eagerly pass on to you, for a modest fee. This is not to suggest professionals should provide their services without compensation — they absolutely should be paid for what they do. But, let me give you some food for thought…

Top athletes are at the top because they are genetically gifted and supremely motivated. The weed-out process in elite sport is so great that only the true cream rises to the top. Strength and conditioning coaches working with these athletes do not require any skills of a strength coach. Any program will work for these individuals, and most of these individuals show up with what has worked for them in the past. Most strength coaches at this level are truly there to check the box and to keep the athletes safe. Lawrence Taylor never lifted a weight.

This is not to say there are no quality coaches in these ranks — there are, for certain — it is to say that exposure to high-end competition alone does not qualify a knowledge base. This same theme can be found across top end athletes — professional, D1 collegiate, Olympians, MMA fighters. The competition of sport is such that only the genetically gifted — those who naturally start out at a high level of performance and can increase that performance on essentially any sound training program — are out on the track, court, or field of play. The “knowledge” of the respective strength and conditioning coach makes little, if any, difference in that athlete. Moreover, a program that produces results in the elite has little applicability to common folk.

The Truth About Military Training

Let’s return to the military application. Admittedly, I have a biased opinion with respect to this population due to the many years of working with and within these ranks. If training suggestions lead to a Service-member successfully navigating a rigorous selection course, meeting fitness standards, or, to a lesser extent, being successful in combat operations, this should provide strong evidence of efficacy than those of high-level sports. Why? And, why the “lesser extent” clause on operational fitness?

Training suggestions that lead to success in assessment courses have more significance, especially if many individuals experience similar results. Most assessment courses, physically, consist of an individual “competing” against a set of standards and not against others for position. Yes, each assessment also has a teamwork aspect to them, but overall, if you’re physically prepared, you will succeed (though there are the few who get “peered-out” of some assessments due to a self-before-others attitude).

This construct means that the cream — the genetic freaks — doesn’t necessarily rise to the top. The difference between competing against standards, and competing against others is that less than naturally gifted individuals can make the team. The standards of performance, here, are set in stone. The individual meets them, or not. The standards of performance in competition sport are dynamic — the better the competition, the higher the standards, which make the competition even better, and so forth.

Average men can join the elite level in a military environment. For the average man to accomplish this, the physical training program is more than likely an effective one. The results of these programs, tested time and again, begin to describe a pattern. Average men, doing the hard, but intelligent work, achieve superior results. Cause >> effect?

The efficacy of a physical training program has a weaker association on the operational readiness of a group of individuals. Dan John describes his notion of “the impact of the strength coach.” There are just too many variables in a team-based, operational environment to say with any certainty that it is the physical training program which led to success. To paraphrase Dan, if I can get this guy to pull 500, or snatch a 32kg for 100+ reps in five minutes, and he loses half a leg to an IED, did the training program help his team to their later successes? Although the association between a physical training program and the outcome of combat operations is loose due to complexity, I feel we inherently understand that physical preparation makes a significant contribution to operational success.

Applying This All to Regular People

So, experience in military applications might be more telling of the efficacy of an author’s, or coach’s recommendations than those in high-end sports applications. Where else might we see this phenomenon? What about the “regular” folk? Those fourteen-year-old, obese, X-box babies who might like to make the junior varsity team. Those run-of-the-mill desk jockeys whose lifestyles have left their health behind. Those soccer moms who want to regain some of the vitality of their youth. This application — these cases of changing the direction of the lives of regular people — quite possibly indicates the coach or trainer is doing something correct. But, the fact that beginners tend to improve on any training program also makes this application suspect.

I have trained many people in the past 25 years or so, from all walks of life. I’ve trained myself to diverse high-level achievements. I currently work with diverse individuals, at distance and locally, both free of charge and for compensation. My current and limited spectrum of students spans a gap from the disabled to the prospective operator. I try to give back by contributing to this community via forums and other personal communications.

Even with this experience, however cognizant and critical I try to remain with respect to the cause and effect of my suggestions on outcomes, I can’t say I know all that much. I have a bio like many other instructors and coaches, describing the various communities that I have guided. I have letters after my name.  But still, I only…

“…think I recognize those patterns that seem to work for many different people.”

My Recommendations to You

My recommendation for the reader is this: be alert for misinformation. Getting stronger will always be an asset, but past a certain level of strength, for most general applications, there is likely minimal return for your efforts. You need to learn for yourself what works for you by trial and error — this takes time.

You have to consider your application, your specific needs, and your specific goals.Lots of (if not all) programs may work, at some point, for you. Safety should be a first priority. Realize that collective “knowledge” (as in our forum) may only be marginally better that an individual’s knowledge. Agreement doesn’t make it correct. However, the more we add to this body of ideas, and the more positive results we see, the more confident we may become in our collective suggestions.

Yours in strength.

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Al Ciampa
SFG I
Al Ciampa has been a barbell athlete for 25+ years. A former powerlifter and bench press specialist, he has a raw bench press of 605lbs in training and 585lbs in competition, at the time, setting an IPA record. He served in the US Army first as a LRS-D team member, then as director of the Army’s hand-to-hand combat program in the South Korea: Modern Army Combatives Program.

After his service, Al co-opened and led training for a fitness and health and wellness center that served military units and the local public, where he specialized in strength and conditioning and nutrition. Feeling a desire to support the military again, he now works as an exercise physiologist and health educator for the US Air Force, specializing in rehabilitation, strength and conditioning, nutrition, and instructor development.

Al has an MS in sports and health science, is an SFG Level I, and is certified through the FMS, ACSM, and USAW. He has been recognized for excellence by the Secretary of Defense, Mr. Chuck Hagel.

22 thoughts on “The Truth Shall Set You Free…in the Fitness Industry

  • I’m interested in more detailed rucking programming. I like weighted walks most because they’re simple and enjoyable. In programming, would you fix a distance, shoot for a time, then start increasing weight? Or would you alternate and vary distances and weights, etc.? Perhaps, you could offer some protocols. Please.

    • Charlie/Phil,

      The article is on the way …

      Phil … what are you using it for? Generally, start with a light load for short distance. Improve your walking speed and posture. Then, gradually increase only one variable (load or distance) at a time until you have reached whatever your goal dictates.

  • Awesome rant Al! I live in Jackson Hole and StrongFirst is my favorite resource, instead of local options.

  • Excellent article, Al and so very true. My recent experiences with StrongFirst have sharpened my ability to cut through so much of the junk and learn to listen to my own instincts. Being a Student of Strength is invaluable, being a student of your own strength is equally important. Well done!

  • Spot on Al and timely! Really enjoyed getting to meet you at the TSC and our post-comp conversations…hopefully those that need to read this, will.
    ~ Jason

  • The good news is the internet provides a lot of information. The bad news is all the incorrect information.

    Great article Al, keep up the good work!

  • When I was on Jr high football team,coach said’ less than 1% of you well go to collage football ,less than 1% of those well play pro’. Many good points in article, thanks.

    • Eric, I’ve heard that myself … of course, those “inflated” stats could be from schools in the states with better football programs.

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