Part 2: Comparing Thought Processes

Ok…so you’re shopping around for a thought process, a set of principles, to guide your training strategies. Let’s start with something that all strength and performance coaches agree on: Specificity–you get better at what your train.

The principle of Specificity and SAID (specific adaptions to imposed demands) works. You get better at the specific things you consistently train and you adapt to the demands that you consistently impose.

So how do we design and structure the demands of our training to get the adaptations we want for performance? In my evaluation of the industry, there seems to be three main categories of coaches that reflect three generalized thought processes: the Traditional Strength Coach, the Functional Strength Coach, and the Performance Coach.

The Traditional Strength Coach:

Traditional Strength Coaches automatically assume that improved strength and power measured by the performance of standard lifts in the weight room will improve competitive performance on the field. Need to get faster so you can chase down that guy on the turn? Power clean! Need to get stronger so you can hold your position against the opposition? Squat and bench! Need to get quicker so you can get the first step on your defender? Depth jumps!…Having a hard time understanding calculus? Coming down with a cold? Same solution; power clean, squat and bench and then follow up with some plyometrics. Regardless of the sport and the unique demands of that sport (or the unique demands of each athlete’s position), the Traditional Strength Coach will prescribe the same fundamental periodized strength and power program to all teams and athletes. Their priority is absolute force development, and the more the better. The Strength Coach measures their results by gains in absolute strength reflected in max efforts on the lifts that allow them to load the bejesus out of their athletes.

The Functional Strength Coach:

The Functional Strength Coaches are just like their traditional counterparts and believe that absolute strength and force development are king. However, their thought process is different in one critical way: they see the discrepancy between the multidimensional motor patterns their athletes perform in competition and the mostly sagital plane movement training the traditionalists use in the weight room. Furthermore, they believe that more effective performance development requires a more functional application of traditional strength and power programs. In the context of SAID, they believe they’re creating more functional adaptations in their training, therefore having a greater impact on performance. They do this in several ways. Some simply make their training look more like the movements their athletes perform in competition. For example, they believe that every athlete needs to clean but offensive lineman may do Olympic style clean and jerks while sprinters do split stance hang cleans and basketball athletes do bi-lateral hang cleans. Their tweaks are intended to make the lifts look more like their athletes’ performance patterns. Another Functional Strength Coach giveaway is an obsession with multi planar training. They claim that athletic performance occurs in 3 planes of motion and therefore declare that training should occur in three planes. They may still do the traditional lifts, but just do them in 3D. Their priority is still overall force development, however the force needs to be applied in patterns that more closely resemble the ones the athletes use in performance. The Functional Strength Coach measures their results by gains in absolute strength in their functionally adapted lifts.

The Performance Coach:

Performance Coaches are easy to identify if you look for the right markers, namely WHAT they choose to train (other than max forces) and HOW they train (often outside of the weight room). Firstly, they are not tempted by the allure of training force development. Rather, they choose their exercises based on their functional performance value for that given athlete. They identify the physical competencies and prerequisites for performance in the athlete’s given sport (and even position) and strive to teach them the fundamental movement vocabulary they need in order to be fluent in their performance environment (Giles, An Introduction to Athlete Development). Although different Performance Coaches will call them different things, there seems to be five common capacities/skills that Performance Coaches actively train with their athletes:

Active Rages/Postural efficiency–can they get into the positions of performance?

Control/Speed–can they get into and out of the performance positions at pace?

Motor Patterning/Sequence–do they sequence their movements efficiently?

Stability/Strength–can they absorb, stabilize and produce the relevant forces?

Resilience/Endurance–do they have the ability to do all of the above in the correct energy system and under fatigue?

What most distinguishes Performance Coaches from Strength Coaches is HOW they train their athletes, namely their respect for the principles of motor learning and their belief that you must provide the right input to get the desired output. This is where the transfer from training to performance will be found. Performance Coaches go to great lengths to create authentic learning environments with the intention of optimizing the motor demands (and adaptations) in ways that ideally transfer to competitive performance. As you can imagine, the weight room is usually not the place where this happens.


The Traditional Strength Coach believes that competitive performance for all sports and all athletes requires high levels of absolute strength and force development which is best trained using the standardized compound lifts. The Functional Strength Coach shares the Traditional Strength Coach’s commitment to force development (the stronger the better), however they attempt to mimic their athletes’ performance patterns in their pursuit of maximum force development. The Performance Coach believes that training strategies that focus on max force production are misguided, and instead focus primarily on movement skills trained authentically in a performance relevant environment.

Simply stated, both Traditional and Functional Strength Coaches train the meat. Performance coaches train the motor. There’s my 2 cents…happy shopping!