The Art & Science of Strength Training

Nowadays misinformation is rampant

And while this is true in all fields, it is especially true in the field of strength and conditioning

You see hardcore science guys duking it out with broscience lovers, and both of them ganging up on old-timers who just lift like their life depends on it. As much as I like to lay blame on social media, the truth is that it is people who are behind the keyboards.

None of those debates are really helpful either, as they usually fail abysmally to change the opinion of one side or the other and only serve to entrench people in their own positions. In my four decades of experience, there definitely is a place for both the art and the science of strength training. This is what I call reaching an efficient and harmonious balance between both.

What do I mean by that? It means reaching a point where you make the best of both science and on-field experience without one getting in the way of the other. A big part of the issue arises when there is a seeming conflict between either what the science says and what experience tells you. If a training methodology works well, the science crowd will want studies to show them how it works before they put it to good use on the field. On the other hand, in their haste to try just about anything, the broscience crowd has often tried methods and techniques that were very sub-par in the results they provided. Science is also great because when you understand the underlying lying mechanisms of a methodology, you can better exploit it, and extrapolate its use. It also provides better comprehension on how to apply a technique or methodology to different population or individual and how to tailor it to different goals.

The best results are always achieved when a coach understands the place of each of them in his or her practice and takes full advantage of them. This is why I encourage my students to also take college/university coursework as well as attend workshops. I also have an extensive library of suggested reading just for that reason. One of my saying is: you have to learn more to earn more.

That being said, there are both pros and cons on each side. Here are a few, adapted to the field of strength training:

Science Pros

– Allows a particular topic/research question to be explored in a cogent fashion and grow based on well-constructed and logical hypothesis that build on each other

– Provides clear-cut evidence of what works, how much and in what conditions in specific situation and for specific population (the “know-how”)

– Allows one to understand the underlying causes and mechanisms of action of a phenomenon so there is the possibility to use and adapt different applications of a said phenomenon (the why of the know-how)

– Improves critical thinking and fact-checking

– Gives a broader perspective of the benefits and limitations of a methodology or techniques and project future use of a methodology or one of its variation


Science Cons

– Each study must be carefully analysed for relevance and validity

– Multiple studies must be pieced together from many different sources to have a more complete picture

– Each study often focus of a very narrow segment of the relevant information for a coach

– Research often provides information that may be conflicting

– Takes time to get all the data necessary to make a decision and to reach consensus in the community

A great example of how science has impacted my career is how I taught myself German to be able to get access to the best-quality scientific material as an up and coming twenty-something coach. This lead me to meet and work with top coaches and scientists such as Lothar Spitz, Rolf Feser and Dietmar Schmidtblecher. Learning from them made my coaching progress by leaps and bounds

Experience Pros

– Success leaves clues – did Pyrros Dimas and Ed Coan get to their herculean levels of strength by waiting for peer reviewed research or by studying under knowledgeable mentors?

– Is essential to be able to be effective on the field

– Is necessary to help take advantage of the science

– Shortens the decision-making process (on-field judgement call and snap decision)

– Shortens the time-span to judge of the effectiveness of a training methodology for an individual or team

– Provides guidance for the future training


Experience Cons

– Limits perspective, as it restricts one this his/her own experience or to previously encountered situations

– Grows organically in function of work/training experience and not in a systematic fashion

– Limits adaptation/individualisation as personal experience is often considered valid in all cases despite evidence of the contrary

– Tied with ego consideration that prevents debating or questioning a methodology or technique (this can be true for both sides though)

– Can lead to the wrong decisions because of limited exposure to new elements

– Takes time to build in someone

One of the most useful on-field skill I advise my students to develop is being able to predict correct RM loads for an athlete in a given lift by watching him lift sub-maximal loads. This will make planning progression during the workout very efficient and quick. It eliminates wasted sets of being too light or too heavy. One who has develop this capacity to a great degree is Ben Prentiss of Prentiss Hockey. No wonder his client list shows as a who’s who of the NHL. It takes a while to get there, but after seeing enough athletes lift, you’ll get to pick up on the subtle cues that will make you capable to correctly predict their best load for a given number of reps. One great book to explain this phenomenon is Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink 

The Enlightened Coach

The list could go on for both art and science, but the main point I would like to make here is that the best practitioners have both on-field, hands-on experience in strength coaching and are also student of both other successful coaches and the current science in the field. In this regards, the magic often happen when the art is leading the science, much in the way a rider is directing his horse.

The reason is simple; investigating what works is what makes them work better, not the other way around. Case in point: the classic cluster technique has been in use in North America since at least 1968, and for at least another twenty years earlier in the Eastern Block where is originates from. Yet, it was researched and shown effective in published studies only in 2008. If we had waited for the research to validate this method, fifteen Olympic cycles that would gone by without this effective technique for strength gains being used.

This is the gift that experience can bring to science. But science is the torch that brings light to a phenomenon to explain it, or dispel any misconception that might exist on it.

One thing that made a difference very early in my career was studying the papers from varying strength scientists, from America, but also from Finland, Germany and Russia. But the learning of the facts is only part of what can be gained by studying the science of strength training. Information-gathering in a systematic way made a big differences in how I coached my athletes and it helped shape my views in different strength methodologies as well as how to individualize the programs and workout to the person. This is the gift that science can bring to the art of coaching.

Putting the two together to coach athletes is what I call the enlightened state. It requires open-mindedness, the will to always push back the limits of your knowledge and experience and the humility to admit when you are wrong. This still happens to me, nearly 4 decades into my coaching career; I read every day, talk shop with colleagues and coach top athletes on a regular basis. I also made plenty of mistakes, but I have learned that each mistake is a source of knowledge and progression. Progression, not perfection. Looking for perfection is the best way to never progress, be it with science or experience.

So there you have it. You need to gather information from both worlds to achieve excellence, combined with passion and dedication

Study the science and experiment with the art

Written By Charles Poliquin