Have I hired an S&C Coach? Or a Personal Trainer in disguise?

Hi everyone,

Over the last few years, there seems to have been quite an uptick in the number of people calling themselves a ‘strength and conditioning coach’, or claiming that they are able to provide ‘strength and conditioning’ for athletes and consequently being paid to do just that. Now this is a trendy, hip term that certainly gets people’s attention, especially at this time of year as preseason hits full swing, or people sign up to 10K runs and half marathons after the summer holiday splurge!

But, what actually is an S&C coach, and who should and should not be using the title? Let’s have a look………

(Nb. this post is discussing the training of sports people with the expressed aim of improving as a competitive athlete, not people looking to improve general fitness)

Defining the term

Here in the UK, there are things called ‘protected titles’, which exist to ensure that the person using them is actually qualified in the service they intend to provide.  This is to make sure people are, firstly, safe, and secondly, not getting ripped off. For someone to be able to use these titles, or advertise that they are able to provide the service the titles are related to, they must prove (through various means) that they are capable of doing so.

Now, this does not mean that what they do is effective or safe (see the arguments against chiropractic, which carries the protected title ‘Doctor of Chiropractic’ despite the practice essentially being nonsense, and potentially dangerous), but it does mean that the person using the title has gone through some kind of vetting process before being allowed to ask for your money.

The title ‘S&C Coach’ or similar is not currently a protected title in the UK, nor is there any protection of the claim to be able to provide S&C. This means that literally anyone can give themselves this title or charge you for being ‘coached’ by them regardless of their education, experience or competencies.

This terrifies me.

Why? Because the nature of S&C training and the loads placed on the person’s physical structures and systems mean that a fine balance between getting stronger and being badly injured is always being struck. In order to fully appreciate and mitigate the inherent dangers of such training requires several years of study and practice, and even if the uneducated coach is not causing injury, they still might not be providing a suitable stimulus to make you stronger or faster.  So at best, you may have wasted your time and money, at worst, you may become chronically injured.

So, in order to define the ‘S&C Coach’, we need to be able to give usable thresholds on their education and experience.  This is tricky, but not impossible. For a start, there is no single qualification that demonstrates a coach’s effectiveness, but there are a few that you’re likely to see in Britain and Ireland that show that they have demonstrated the required knowledge to at least keep you safe. These are:

Whilst each of these have their own pros and cons, each does at least ensure the holder has the required knowledge and skills to coach someone in strength and power training, plyometrics and aerobic conditioning as well understanding the theory of long term planning for athletic performance. Equally, if the trainer in question doesn’t have any of these but has an MSc. in strength and conditioning, then you should still be safe hands.

So at first glance when choosing to pay someone as an S&C coach, look for any of these qualifications/certificates.  If they don’t have any, then it comes down to their experience.  If you do not feel qualified to judge their abilities based on their experiences (especially their own opinions of them), then it may be safest to walk away.

What absolutely DOES NOT qualify someone as an S&C coach?

Here’s where some people will get a little mad, because there is not a single personal trainer (PT) qualification that means someone is capable of designing and delivering a safe and effective S&C program or session. Not one.

Personal trainer qualifications teach someone:

  1. How to use the equipment found in commercial gyms (mostly fixed resistance machines and treadmills)
  2. Basic GCSE/AS level biology
  3. How to keep their clients entertained

Most personal trainers will have a Level 3 qualification, which means they are able to work in commercial gyms providing general fitness advice.  The understanding of the how the human physiology reacts to training stimuli is provided in the most basic terms, in keeping with the qualification’s standing alongside an AS level. Equally, the Level 3 qualification does not cover plyometrics or speed training at all. ‘Strength’ training is restricted to basic squatting (the quality of which entirely depends on the person teaching the course) and fixed resistance machines (essentially worthless for sports performance, and oftentimes dangerous). What this means is that the vast majority of PTs have no knowledge of S&C, or how to safely and effectively provide S&C coaching. (Don’t get me started on many PT’s claims of being able to provide nutritional advice!)

None of this, however, prevents any Level 3 PT from calling themselves an S&C coach or advertising that they can provide S&C for their clients, and a glance at PT’s Facebook pages or websites will reveal that many are doing this. When it comes to level 4 and level 5 PT qualifications, there are so many different companies who sell these hugely varied qualifications that there is simply no way to tell what knowledge or abilities your trainer actually has, or whether or not they are competent at all.

This means that people are paying unqualified, uneducated trainers to cause changes to their bodies that may bring about injury without any discernible benefits. This would not be tolerated in any other profession or industry, and should not be in the sports/fitness industry.

At this point, I must make it absolutely clear that I have nothing against PT’s per se, and I know several who I would strongly recommend to people looking for general fitness, fat loss, fun sessions, etc. However, these are all trainers who have engaged in continuous learning, research and practice to fully understand WHY they are prescribing movements and how to ensure their clients are safe. And this continuing education does not mean paying for a handful of 1 day REPs courses each year. For each of the PTs who I would recommend, there are probably 20 I would actively tell people to steer well clear of, especially if they’re training for sport.

In conclusion, if your potential trainer does not hold one of the discussed S&C certifications/qualifications, then you can be fairly sure they are not suitably qualified to train you for sports performance. If they hold a PT qual, then they will be able to train you in general fitness (they MAY or MAY NOT be able to do this safely), but it is highly unlikely they will make you better at your sport.

Over the coming weeks I’m going to be producing some videos about how to spot the difference between a genuine S&C coach and a PT based on the movements they prescribe to their clients, so you have another tool for spotting the coach you need, and the one you need to avoid.

These will be up on the blog as soon as they are ready!

Speak soon!




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