Strength and Conditioning: History and Overview of the Field
By: Dr. Clay Peterson, Lecturer
Department of Health & Human Physiology, University of Iowa
The field of Strength & Conditioning in this country has evolved greatly over the last 30 years. The prescription of resistance exercise to improve strength and power has been commonplace in some countries for most of the past century, but it did not begin to rise to prominence in the US until the late 1970’s. This movement was led primarily by a handful of college football programs.
What started as a few coaches around the country (usually ex-football players) working in small weight-rooms has grown to thousands of professionals working in multi-million dollar training facilities at a wide variety of sites. At the collegiate level, Strength & Conditioning coaches now work with athletes from all sports. In addition to the collegiate setting, Strength & Conditioning coaches also work with professional teams, high school teams, private companies, and sometimes private individuals.
Strength & Conditioning coaches were initially “strength” experts, focusing primarily on the attainment of absolute strength. This has also evolved as research on areas such as metabolic power production and transference of training have improved. The ultimate goal of the Strength & Conditioning professional is to enhance the performance of their athletes within their given sports. This involves:
· Developing physically resilient athletes who are resistant to injury
· Improving the expression of maximal, sport-specific speed and power
· Improving the ability to sustain sport-specific speed and power
To accomplish these goals, the Strength & Conditioning coach will improve the general areas of absolute strength, absolute power, body composition, flexibility, speed, metabolic power, and sport technique, all while following the principles of specificity, overload, and progression.
Strength & Conditioning differs from Personal Training in several very important ways. First, Strength & Conditioning coaches have support from medical staff (athletic trainers, team physicians, etc.) and they typically deal with highly conditioned athletes; thus, compared to Personal Trainers, less emphasis is placed on evaluating health conditions, and more emphasis is placed on elite performance.
Second, the Personal Trainer also plays the role of health coach, encouraging the client to show up and engage in exercise. The Strength & Conditioning coach typically works with athletes who have to show up and who want to improve.
Lastly, while Personal Training is challenging from a behavior-modifying standpoint, the exercise prescription is fairly straight forward. The exercise prescription to take someone from unfit to fit is understood and uncomplicated. Alternately, the exercise prescription to take an elite athlete and make them slightly more elite is more complex. For this reason, Strength & Conditioning professionals need to understand the science of training at a deeper level than Personal Trainers, and they need to be more active in reading and conducting research.
How to Become a Strength & Conditioning Coach
Strength & Conditioning coaches work long hours, and unless they make it to the very top of the profession, they work for relatively little pay (on an hourly basis). However, the opportunity to help elite athletes accomplish their athletic goals is extremely rewarding, and hence the field is very competitive. You need to do everything possible to stand out above the crowd.
There are some great resources to help you prepare to become a Strength & Conditioning coach. I have included a handful of links below:
· The following is a 3-part series:
In addition to these in-depth sources above, I will highlight some of the important steps to gaining a position within this field.
The Strength & Conditioning coach usually majors in Exercise Science, and academic achievement is very important. You must develop a proactive approach to learning: sit in the front of your classes, ask questions, and seek out information that is above-and-beyond what you need to know for the test. This will set the table for future success in this field.
Academic success is also important because completing a Master’s degree is incredibly important for advancing within this field. In order to get accepted into a Master’s program, you will typically need a MINIMUM GPA of 3.0.
Within our department I would strongly recommend the following courses:
· Scientific Basis of Training for Elite Performance
· Motor Learning
· Practicum in Strength & Conditioning
· Sport and Exercise Nutrition
· Advanced Sport and Exercise Psychology
The following is very rigorous, but also a nice course from a content-perspective.
· Skeletal Muscle Physiology
Having the necessary scientific background is important, but you must combine this with the ability to program exercise, coach exercise, and interact with fellow professionals. You can only get this through practical experience.
The first step is to get your foot in the door. Within the Exercise Science track, you can do so through our Practicum in Strength & Conditioning course (practicum application). This semester-long course allows you to spend 80 hours on-site at one of a number of different Strength & Conditioning settings, including University of Iowa Olympic Sports Strength & Conditioning. This setting allows you to interact with many different sports (everything but Football and Wrestling), and many different coaches. In addition to being phenomenal coaches, they are also doing exciting things with the use of sport science to enhance performance.
If you cannot secure one of the Exercise Science practicum positions, you can look elsewhere for experience. Performance Fitness offers sport and speed training for high school athletes, and they contract Strength & Conditioning services to local high schools. You can also contact high schools directly and see if there are opportunities for you to volunteer your time with their teams.
That initial experience will help you learn, develop skills, and begin creating your professional network. From this point, you might be able to secure a Graduate Assistant position (more on this later), but more than likely you will have to work an unpaid (or lowly paid) internship. These positions can be found at pretty much every college or university. They usually involve extensive time (400+ hours) immersed within the Strength & Conditioning profession. You can look for these at a site such as College Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association or you can simply do a google search.
Following the internship, most Strength & Conditioning coaches will serve as Graduate Assistants while earning their Master’s degree. These positions are hard to obtain; you need an exemplary academic record to get accepted to a Master’s program, and you need practical experience to earn a GA at the same school. And of course, you are competing for these positions with dozens of other aspiring Strength & Conditioning coaches. This is where your professional network really comes into play. If you have developed good connections and impressed people within the field, they will be able to connect you with people that can help you take the next step.
The vast majority of Strength & Conditioning coaches possess the NCSA Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification. The exam for this certification is scientifically rigorous; certification requires a bachelor’s degree, but it can be taken during the last semester of your senior year. It also requires CPR/AED certification.
In addition to this certification, many professionals will also seek out the Certified Strength & Conditioning Coaches Association SCCC (Strength and Conditioning Coach, Certified).
Beyond these two, the most common certification within this field is USA Weightlifting Sport Performance Coach. Although Olympic movements (clean, jerk, and snatch) are never a mandatory part of a training program, they are commonly prescribed, and you are a more versatile coach if you are proficient in their instruction.
Some professionals may possess the NASM Performance Enhancement Specialist certification in addition to or in place of the CSCS. While this would not hurt as a supplement, I would not recommend it as a replacement to the CSCS if you want to work in a collegiate setting. If you want to work at a high school or private setting, this may work okay.
Another certification that could increase your marketability is the Certified Sports Nutritionist from The International Society of Sports Nutrition (CISSN).
In addition to acquiring the requisite scientific knowledge and practical experience, there are certain characteristics that must be possessed in order to succeed in this field. Most of these traits are common to success in any field, but they are worth highlighting nonetheless. You should begin development of these traits immediately.
Attention to Detail: A great coach must pay attention to the smallest of details when preparing the athlete. Everything matters: resistance training, speed training, metabolic training, technical training, tactical training, nutrition, sleep, recovery modalities, etc.. In programming training, one must pay attention to volume, which means juggling the inter-related variables of frequency, intensity, and duration. The sloppy coach changes multiple things at once, based upon whim or the most recent article he/she has read. The exceptional coach notices how each variable affects a given athlete, develops a conceptual model of that athlete’s response to training, and carefully fine-tunes that model and the corresponding prescription as more observations are made.
Attention to detail can be developed in every facet of your life. Its development begins by getting organized: keep a regular schedule (consistent sleep/wake times, meals, studying, etc.), make lists, and eliminate multitasking. Beyond that, you must make a committed effort to understand your classes, work, and hobbies at the deepest level possible.
When it comes to judging the attention to detail of potential interns/GAs who they do not know, Strength & Conditioning professionals use the most readily available information about an applicant: their resume, their e-mail correspondence, their appearance, and their didactic communication skills. If you are sloppy and unfocused in any of these realms, you will not get hired.
Punctuality: This is a profession where the work day commonly begins before 6:00 am, and where rolling into work 1 minute late is not an option. If a team is set to train at 6:00am, and the facility is not prepared, or worse yet you are not present, you will be out of a job. For this reason Strength & Conditioning professionals value punctuality highly. Being punctual comes down to being organized and changing your mindset. You need to believe that “on-time” means 10 minutes early, and you need to organize your life to the degree that showing up on-time is second-nature and does not take a huge effort.
Appearance: To command the respect of your athletes, you must appear professional at all times. This includes your apparent fitness level (discussed below), your grooming, your attire, and your mannerisms. For practical and hygienic purposes, this usually means short hair (for men and women), well-trimmed facial hair, and well-kept and professional attire. This also means working on your body language: make eye contact, stand up straight (don’t lean on things, don’t slouch), and move with purpose from one task to another.
Fitness: It is possible to train athletes at a high level without having competed at a high level yourself; and conversely, competing at a high level does not ensure that you can train athletes. However, there is a general expectation that if you are going to train athletes, you should have first-hand experience in high-level training. Most Strength & Conditioning coaches competed in high school athletics, and many competed in college. More importantly, almost all of them are in pursuit of their own training goals. At some point this should involve training for strength goals: either competing in strength sports (powerlifting or Olympic lifting), or simply training towards your own personal strength goals. This first-hand experience will be crucial for relating to your athletes. Once you become a Strength & Conditioning coach, your training time will be limited, but you still need to make fitness a priority in your life.
There is still debate about how important it is to be large and muscular in this field. While it certainly does not hurt, I think most coaches will tell you that it is more important to be generally fit, to not be obviously overweight, and to be strong enough to be able to demonstrate important techniques and exercises.