Science is sexy, but it’s not coaching…


The modern era of fitness has become heavily influenced by science, which is good. Coaches and fitness folk are now reading primary research or exposed to the interpretations of science from well informed practitioners. This is a huge step in the right direction in my opinion, however it has led to the presupposition that scientific knowledge is the gold standard of coaching. For many, their assessment of good coaching is now heavily predicated on how informed a coach or trainer is with the latest research.


If you cannot reference your claims, demonstrate your knowledge via direct evidence or provide proven theories for your rational as a coach, then you clearly have no idea what you are doing, right?


This is all but the trend I see in the fitness industry in 2019. Partly due to being heavily entrenched within the evidence based community, and largely due to the fact that with my own bias towards research driven practice, I too often condemn those less informed or scientifically inclined.


However, if science were the only thing that mattered in coaching, road scholars would be at the top of the fitness industry, collecting thousands upon thousands of dollars from the desperately eager folk looking to improve their health, strength and physique. But that’s simply not the case, and I dare say it’s a good thing that the intellectually elite aren’t bogged down with clients who struggle to stick to their diet or skipped a session because their kids got sick – these are the problems for coaches to solve.


Although science has now become a means by which coaches and practitioners promote their services and at times pontificate and ridicule those less scientifically inclined, science is not itself a perfect system, nor is it the be-all end-all when it comes to coaching.


I hope this article sheds light on why that is the case and details why science alone will not make for a great coach.


Science – what is it and how can it help


The word science brings about a different picture to many folks. For some, it’s a chunky text book with weird looking, unsolvable equations and a heap of graphs and charts. Perhaps for you, the word science brings about imagery of beakers concocting some crazy experiment that ends in flames or an abundance of vivid colours. To some, it may bring thoughts of nerdy looking men and women in white lab coats chopping up the carcasses of rodents and placing unusual objects under a microscope. For many however, science is the stamp of approval for that which has been trialed and tested and proven to be true.


At times, science can be an elusive doctrine, one which aims to constitute itself around painting a clearer picture and advancing our understanding of the objective world. This is certainly how I viewed science a few years back. In part, this is probably more correct than the aforementioned aspects related to science. Yet this is not a complete assessment of science and is a rather rudimentary and unimaginative understanding of what science actually is and aims to achieve.


Science in its purest form is twofold:


  1. The acquisition of knowledge– Science is a process of discovery (through observations and experiments – tests and hypothesis) that allows us to link isolated facts and data into coherent and comprehensive understandings ofthe world through relationships, correlations and cause and effect.
  2. A body of knowledge – Science is the accumulation of discovered facts which when combined, can help paint a clearer picture of how things work.


But that isn’t all.


Science is the process of uncovering the truth and answering questions. Scientific discovery allows us to discern what is more likely or less likely to be true and a means of solving problems. The rigour (or intended rigour) of the scientific method and peer review process are the bedrock of how knowledge comes to be. These in-built systems within science provide a framework for testing and observation and hold such inquiries to the highest standard.


Yet despite the best attempts of science to garner the truth, nothing is ever proven, only provisionally true, and the truth, in many cases, is a highly contentious topic. Science can support theories and illuminate certain facts, however, findings are constantly being refined and reassessed.  Thus, science can never provide a definitive answer or truth about a matter. Even matters such as gravity are never definitive, as for as every question that science may seem to answer, further questions arise that require future investigation.


There are a number of ‘bodies’ of science: natural sciences, social sciences, formal sciences and applied sciences. Each focusing on various matters in the world, attempting to understand the problems they inherently face at any given time and answer the questions in order to develop and strengthen our knowledge and understanding of such matters. All of which can harness knowledge that improves our lives and enhances our ability to solve problems in the natural world.


As it relates to fitness, all domains of science bear importance. From physics, biology, mathematics, psychology, anthropology, medicine and exercise and nutritional science, the inquiry of all bodies of science assumes relevance, to varying degrees.


This is how science can help and why it is extremely useful to those seeking to improve their health, fitness, strength or physique. Given the nature of what science intends to achieve (acquire knowledge and a body of knowledge), the findings within research can guide our practice and provide a framework for recommendations in practice. It can inform us as to what is more likely to be true about a certain matter, whether it is protein intake for fat loss, training volume for hypertrophy or the pharmacological profile of certain chemicals. Science can help illuminate what is most likely to be safe, what will be more effective aka ‘optimal’ and provide a starting point for the application of science in practice.

However, I implore you to think for a moment as to whether or not the problems science aims to solve are that of which face coaches…


The gaps that science attempts to bridge


Sports and nutritional sciences can be traced back all the way to ancient Greece, and since as early as the 15thcentury, researchers had begun investigating the workings of the human body in order to develop a greater understanding of how the body reacts to exercise, training, nutrition, different environments and many other stimuli.


Although many laws, theories and facts have been elucidated in the field of exercise and nutritional sciences, many questions still remain – such as optimal set volumes for muscle hypertrophy. As discussed previously, for every fact that science uncovers, there are subsequently a myriad of questions that follow each revelation, and the objective of science, is to move the needle of understanding closer to the truth, subsequently filling in the gaps within the current body of knowledge.


What shouldn’t come as a surprise is that in order to interpret and apply science, a significant amount of scientific literacy and understanding of science and the findings it harvests is required if one wishes to use science as the backbone of their practice. This necessitates a marked degree of time investment into pursuing an education, one which often requires many, many years of reading, interest and intellect. Many science proponents seldom partake in such a quest, which inherently leads to a disconnect between those who get and ‘do’ science and those seeking to use science as a means to improve outcomes in fitness.


The exchange of scientific findings to practitioners such as personal trainers, nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches and the lay is rather diluted. It’s pretty much a game of Chinese whispers, with the message getting twisted and convoluted as it passes down the line from research to the field and then onto the lay.


This is the gap that must be bridged if we are to move towards a truly evidence based model of practice in fitness. In an ideal world, an efficient and effective system would allow for the research to transcends from the laboratory to the practitioner in an instant. This is the issue we currently face and at present, I’m yet to conceptualise or conceive an appropriate anti-dote to remedy this issue.  Recognition of science miscommunication is on thing, but implementation of structures and systems to achieve this objective is another.



The pitfalls of science


Although surprising to many, most will be familiar with the limitations of science. Firstly, science cannot make value judgments, such as whether global warming is good or bad or whether eating meat is a sin. Science cannot make aesthetic judgements either, nor can it inform us how to use scientific knowledge. Additionally, not all science is created equal. The quality of research can vary significantly depending on study design, researcher bias and the skill/experience of those involved in the research and a host of other factors.


The level of confidence we have in research should largely depend on the quality of the information it harvests and how well established the body of knowledge in that domain is and how much relevance the findings have for a given population. For a more in depth analysis of how much stock you should put into research, I recommend you read this article by Eric Helms.


These are just a few of the pitfalls of science and the primary inadequacy of science. As it relates to those seeking to apply the knowledge, one must remind themselves that science is not designed to instruct a coaches practice. Science is not coaching, and the questions it seeks to answer are not the same as those which a coach must answer in practice. Rather the findings in research are designed to inform or provide guidelines for practitioners. No more, no less.


Research can inform coaches with general recommendations in most cases and at times some more specific, depending on the subgroup and populations being studied. Science cannot give exact recommendations for every single context a coach may face, but can provide overviews of what should be a reference point, one which should be adapted, applied and varied according to the situation at hand and exact nature of an individuals circumstances.


For example, setting protein intake for individuals engaging in high intensity resistance training, research suggests a protein intake of 1.6-2.2g per kg of bodyweight. The exact amount determined for an individual will be influenced by a number of factors, such as age, gender, body composition, goals, lifestyle and preference. All of which science cannot account for. This demonstrates how science can paint the broad strokes for practitioners and provide a ball park recommendation for which they should seek to stay within, but the finer details required in the decision making process necessitate an assessment of a myriad of other factors related to the individual at hand, not just the literature.


This is a large limitation of science which coaches often forget. Science cannot, should not, and does not need too, account for every potential context that a coach may face in the field when working with a client. Although the evidence based practice model (see below) has been a large step forward for the implantation of science in the practice of fitness professionals, there still remains a large disconnect between a practitioner’s ability to understand the role of science, it’s intended use and the ability to employ the recommendations research has to offer in conjunction with their experience and the needs, goals, lifestyle and preferences of the client.


Moreover, in many cases, science cannot explain or inform a coach in how to make decisions. That in itself is a skill that coaches must possess or acquire through time in the trenches and working with clients. Using the pillars of the evidence based practice model is a first necessary step in the decision making process for coaches and affords and overarching compass that serves as a reference to the facets in which require consideration.

A model I have come up with to help coaches better conceptualise the decision making process can be seen below. It is far from a perfect model, but I hope that it demonstrates how


Given the large amount of inter-individual variance, wildly dynamic neurobiological foundations of an individual and the often forever changing circumstances of a client, science, in my experience, plays a very minor role in a coaches in the decision making process.


If a client has poor sleep, irregular work schedules or a number of psychological issues that impact the application of sports science theories, laws and findings, then what is a coach to do?


More research?


Wait for further research to explain a given situation?


Sure, the aforementioned questions should be answered affirmatively – coaches must always do their homework and further their understanding of various topics via science. However, that doesn’t help them make the necessary decisions in the heat of the moment when working in person or online with their clients. Being able to guide a client towards their goals or navigate the issues they face requires much more than scientific literacy. Not to mention, science is forever evolving and with thousands of research publications landing in journals every day, it can be hard to keep up with the latest findings, especially whilst juggling a manic client roster, running a business and tending to the needs of clients.


Patience is required in the pursuit of knowledge, and I dare say knowledge of a client, self and the coaching process trump science.



Science literacy does not = great coaching


A great coach makes use of science, but science alone does not make for great coaching. A great coach understands what science is, how it can help and the role it plays in the coaching process. Being able to read, interpret and cite research off the top of one’s head is indeed a skill, but of limited use to a coach and their ability to actively help their clients and athletes. I’m not saying that this isn’t a worthy skill or a facet of coaching that shouldn’t be pursued. What I am suggesting is that perhaps, scientific literacy won’t make for a great coach.


In my opinion, excellence in coaching is the recognition of the importance of the innumerable of skills, qualities and characteristics that are unique to the fitness profession – many of which are cannot be taught in a text book, research review or pubmed article. Interpersonal, communication and motivational skills, industry knowledge, self-drive, self-promotion and the ability to synthesise client history, the current context and predict future outcomes with available decisions are all but a few of the fundamentals of excellent coaching. Additional to having an immense love and desire for helping others.


Couple the aforementioned with the need to have foundational understandings of anatomy, physiology, human movement, biomechanics, program design, nutrition and how to run a business and provide a second-to-none service makes reaching elite levels of coaching a lifelong endeavour – one which I am still seeking to master.


Most noteworthy of all the characteristics a coach must possess is a ruthless desire to improve and succeed. Thick skin and a can-do attitude aren’t trainable qualities, but if you want to thrive in this industry, then you better turn your gaze inwards (not towards research gate) and develop some mental and personal fortitude.


With such issues as adherence, motivation and solving the complexities of behaviour modification, it’s no surprise that a personal trainer’s tenure is rarely beyond 12 months. Take it from me, promoting a career that is centered around trouble shooting the pathological and often times destructive behaviour of a client who is trying to haggle me down on session prices is a tough sell. If science has suggestions, I’m all ears.


In closing, science is the surest path to the truth – of the questions it seeks to answer. The questions and problems a coach will face are often not the same as those in research, and this is why hanging your hat on science and putting all of your stock into academia as a coach is a fool’s errand.


Pay attention to the client, develop your knowledge (using science of course) and remember, that all knowledge stems from experience, and as a coach, experience in the trenches and working with real humans is your bread and butter. Not understanding P-values, statistical significance or memorising changes in arm circumference between high and low volume groups from the latest Schoenfeld paper.


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