Strength coach Mark Rippetoe is nothing if not boldly opinionated. That’s part of what makes him so interesting to read and listen to. In this piece, he outlines the crucial differences between the machine-based training common in popular fitness centers and the barbell-centric approach that he advocates.

In my own experience, I’d say he is correct overall in advocating for barbell-based training. When I started lifting (body building) in 1975/76, it was barbell-based in the dank, dirty, windowless weight room in the basement of the downtown Buffalo, NY YMCA. After I graduated from college in 1979, I bought an Olympic weight set and bench that followed me from my parents’ home Schenectady, NY to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Ellicott City, MD, covering nearly 30 years as well as about half the East Coast.

Over that period, I stuck with all the basic barbell movements: bench, squat, bent-over row, shoulder press, etc. In 2009, after a couple of injuries, I made the mistake of switching a plate-loaded leverage system…essentially a large machine, on the false premise that it would make it safer for me to train injury free.

Fast forward to 2014. After starting to train in traditional karate at a St. Louis area dojo with my son, I realized that while I was still quite strong for my age and size (56 at the time), I was not nearly as mobile as I had hoped I’d be, and I wasn’t powerful in my movement. Then, the magic happened. I get introduced to hardstyle kettlebell training by a guy who read one of my previous blogs, and I fall so in love with it that I go on to get my certification as a StrongFirst SFG Level 1 Kettlebell coach.

Switching from machine-based training to hardstyle kettlebell training has been an amazing elixir. I move better, look better, and feel better than I have in years. And, I credit the StrongFirst hardstyle system, but also acknowledge what Coach Rip says…it’s better to do whole body movements that require extensive range of motion at multiple joints. Kettlebells have the additional advantage of allowing you to train ballistically. In retrospect, however, I should have stuck with barbells and gotten some expert coaching to work through technical issues that were leading to injuries.

So, how common is it to find bad coaches in gyms, dojos, and other training centers? Many more bad ones out there than good ones. Anyone considering joining any kind of fitness or training center should take the time to go, watch, and listen to the coaches, teaches, and trainers. A surprisingly large number of them are strikingly illiterate about biomechanics and physiology.

After watching and listening to a few classes, go home and verify things that you heard or saw. For example, over the roughly four years that my son and I trained together in a purportedly top-notch martial arts dojo, we heard the following from the teachers and coaches there:

  • Stretching is the best way to build mobility (ability to move a joint through its range of motion with force and control). Not true. Stretching is mostly a mythological and traditional tool for flexibility (range of motion of a joint). The most important tool for maintaining lifelong mobility is a balanced approach to strength training. Movement and strength beget mobility, for the simple reason that all movement, from the baby’s first pull up to standing, requires strength first and foremost.
  • Ladder drills are plyometrics. This is just laughably stupid. Ladder drills improve agility and footwork, but they are not plyometrics. (Almost as dumb is the claim that P90X is plyometrics; it’s choreographed aerobic exercise.)
  • Plyometrics are conditioning. Even more laughably stupid than the item above. Plyometrics are a very specific tool for training the neuromuscular system to improve power output by activating the stretch-shortening cycle of a muscle. They are not a metabolic conditioning tool. They should be done in an unfatigued state with long rest periods between efforts and great attention to form. Children, in particular, should not be doing box jumps, drop jumps or depth jumps unless the coach knows what he is doing. Otherwise, it’s just a recipe for a knee injury.
  • Strength training won’t make you more powerful. Nothing speaks so loud as ignorance of basic exercise science. Study after study of athletes across the athletic spectrum shows that the most powerful athletes are also the strongest.
  • Muscles push as well as pull. Even worse, that the muscles in the back push and the muscle in the front of the body pull. No one should be teaching any form of physical training without understanding basic biomechanics; my favorite is consistently getting adduction and abduction wrong. All muscles pull. They create actions that we perceive all pushing or pulling, the body musculoskeletal system is a lever system in which muscles pull two points into closer alignment.
  • Athletes do conditioning work “all the time.” No, not really. Smart, well-coached athletes spend most of their time on their skill. Their strength and conditioning work should be calibrated to just enough work volume to provoke a specific response (i.e., more strength, mobility, power, or endurance), but no more, so as to avoid overtraining that will, in turn, diminish skill development because of fatigue. The only people who intentionally do conditioning “all the time” are athletes and coaches who think quality and quantity are interchangeable concepts.
  • Everyone should be able to…[fill in the blank]. This assertion is often made in reference to a specific, difficult move such as a pistol squat. But rarely is the claim accompanied by a progression of steps to learn how to do the move. I guess it’s just supposed to be magic. In a related vein…
  • To build complex neuromuscular patterning, you should move fast. The opposite is true. To build complex neuromuscular patterning, especially in people who are not elite athletes, you move slowly. And, you practice lots of visualization. You build speed as skill progresses. You can almost never improve skill at high speed in non-elite subjects.
  • Fitness wearables make a difference to either health or athletic performance. Absolutely zero evidence for either claim.

When you decide to join a training center, keep in mind that their favorite customer is the one who signs up and pays monthly (for at least a year, hopefully), but never shows up. Clients who pay but don’t show are every training center’s dream: less wear and tear on equipment and facility and fewer staff people required. Having some cockamamie personal trainer credential or wearing a black belt does not make you a credible and qualified instructor. Follow Coach Rip’s advice. The devil is in the details. Take your time deciding who you or your kids will train with.

As you embark on this journey, keep this in mind as well. While hardstyle kettlebell training is very technical and complex, it is also probably the most effective, economical, and transportable form of strength and conditioning training there is. I promise you…in almost any health or fitness venture you can engage in, get ups and swings (along with a few other things) will make you stronger, more mobile, and expand your aerobic capacity. And, with a few kettlebells in your basement and a subscription to my newsletter and the StrongFirst newsletter, you’ll never have to deal with an unqualified coach again.

And for prospective clients: This year, when you finally decide to get serious and get some help with your strength training, do not fail to make the important distinction between qualified and unqualified coaching.