Proof That Good Coaching Matters

There are very few absolutes in the world of performance and nutrition. The most universally hated phrase (“well, it depends…”) is also almost always the most truthful answer, much to the frustration of the person asking the question!

There is one study however, that shows without doubt exactly how much having a good coach changes an athlete or soldier’s ability to perform and resist injury.  I want to cover it today because it’s so crucial.

It was written by a fantastic research team, including possibly the world’s foremost spine and back pain researcher Dr. Stuart McGill, who I count as a mentor. Given the high incidence of back pain in the military, this is especially important. Stu is an amazing person, and I’ve learned more from him than I could possibly put into words. He is also an extremely rigorous scientist, and I love this study because it shows.

Designing The Study

The researchers measured the effects of 3 months fitness training with or without direct coaching on the preparation of firefighters. They ran a battery of tests both before and after, including laboratory analysis, and also tested grip strength, endurance, power, and real world application of strength in “surprise” tasks.

Sure you’re probably not a firefighter, but they’re a great group to study because they need a lot of things both athletes and soldiers need. They also don’t get organized team strength training like many college or pro teams. This makes firefighters a group well suited to study the effects of coaching. Most general fitness enthusiasts don’t have coaches either, so the study can also shed some insight into the weekend warrior crowd.

Here’s why the study matters

First, firefighters have very similar demands to those faced by many in the military and in sports. These include:

  • The need for cardiovascular conditioning and muscular endurance.
  • “Real world” strength that applies outside a weight room, including carrying heavy loads and casualties.
  • The ability to be ready to go in an instant, without an extensive warm-up. This is especially true for soldiers and emergency medical personnel.

The researchers broke the subjects into 3 groups.

  • One group (Control or CON) did no exercise.
  • One group (Fitness only or FIT) received a list of exercises and reps, but no coaching. They did the exercises themselves with only the constant encouragement to push harder and faster. This is a very common occurrence in many classes, gyms, and platoons across the country.
  • One group (Movement coaching, MOV) received direct, focused movement coaching to emphasize efficiency and safety

Most importantly, they also tested the subjects on 5 whole body lifts that were NOT trained or discussed. The authors did this to see whether firefighters improved their quality of movement in a new and unfamiliar way….without being able to take a “practice exam” first. A sort of real world surprise if you will. This is the whole essence of “transferring” fitness to performance in the field.

Results: Coaches Make a Difference

So, what were the results?

“The firefighters participating in both exercise interventions displayed significant changes in every aspect of physical fitness tested. However, only the MOV group members exhibited less spine and frontal plane knee motion while performing the 5 transfer tasks post-training” (emphasis mine).

The authors go on to say

“the general tendency of those who completed the FIT program was to use movement strategies comprising MORE spine and frontal plane knee motion AFTER the exercise intervention” (again, emphasis and caps are mine).

Translation: Everyone got “more fit”. However, many in the fitness group actually moved WORSE and were MORE injury prone after 3 months of training! Only the group coached on movement skills improved both their injury resistance and their performance.

Translation of the translation: One-size-fits-all training can make people significantly worse and more prone to injury. When you have good, expert coaching you get transfer of skill from the gym to the field or deployment theater. It can make the difference between being injured and being an ass kicker.

A final note to those in the military

The researchers point out that one of their findings is that simply focusing on improving fitness test scores (e.g. PT tests) will not be enough to improve the physical preparedness of high risk groups, because it does not improve injury resistance and in fact increases injury risk in many.

This is important because emphasizing test results alone is EXACTLY what is done in the armed forces. Incidentally, the Army also has a well-documented, ongoing epidemic of back and knee pain among combat MOS groups. Athleticism is a skill, not just a test result.

Something that frustrates every performance coach at one point or other is the question “why do we need to work with a coach? We already have (fill in X, Y, or Z)”. It’s bound to drive many people crazy – nobody really questions the need for baseball coaches, football coaches, or basketball coaches to get great performances. Everybody understands why we need them.

When the subject turns to strength and conditioning though many organizations like the Army, club teams, and even parents tend to feel very differently. They’ll say or think things like “I used to lift weights in high school, I can do that.” Or “I can just go to the Gold’s Gym down the street and work them out.” Or even “all personal trainers are pretty much the same, it doesn’t matter anyway”.

Well, here’s proof that quality matters!



Frost DM, Beach TA, Callaghan JP, McGill SM. Exercise-Based Performance Enhancement and Injury Prevention for Firefighters: Contrasting the Fitness- and Movement-Related Adaptations to Two Training Methodologies. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Sep;29(9):2441-59.

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