Learning About Strength and Conditioning

I’ve been asked several times, “What books do you recommend for coaching and lifting?” A coach has a duty to continuously learn and improve. In all likelihood, that means a coach will amend or modify recommendations over time. I know that I can look back two, four, or six years and wish I could go back and re-program trainees differently. Clint Darden does an excellent job explaining this concept in this video.

To maximize your learning and growth, engaging with numerous coaches is key. Don’t hesitate to meet and converse with as many coaches as possible, including those who may not be considered as skilled as you. Even from them, you can gather valuable ideas and methods. Additionally, seek out coaches who excel and have achieved more significant success. While you don’t need to blindly accept everything they say, there’s always something to learn, even if their approaches differ from your own. Embracing a diverse range of perspectives can be as beneficial as using a hospital learning management system to enhance your knowledge and skills in the field.

Unfortunately it’s not possible to badger various people with questions. They don’t have that kind of availability and their time is valuable. The next best way to learn and get better is to read and study. This isn’t confined to training related resources; I’ve pulled coaching lessons out of communications, leadership, and history books. Read as much as you can from as many training methodologies as you can. If possible, read different sources about the same topic.

Keep an open mind about everything and be wary to fully commit to one person’s ideals. Unfortunately for me, that applies to me as well. My “style” or “methodology” is to adapt to what the individual needs. I could use a “CrossFitty approach” that has a lot of conditioning, a standard strength linear progression approach, an Olympic weightlifting focused approach, or a combination of all of them. Despite the fact that I don’t pump one method or program over another for the majority of situations and don’t subscribe exclusively to a single methodology, I am still not the gospel. I try to have a level view of everything and pick and choose based on what a person or group wants or needs, but you should still look to others for knowledge. Most of you do anyway, but I hope it helps everyone become a student of ‘strength and conditioning’ as a whole instead one coach’s disciple.

That being said, the best way to solidify a foundation in strength and conditioning knowledge is by starting with anatomy and physiology. The continuum of knowledge would look like this:

– Anatomy
– Physiology
– Biomechanics
– Classic Strength Training
– Endurance Training
– Mobility Training
– Sport/Exercise Psychology
– Advanced Classic Strength Training
– Advanced Endurance Training (specifically with a high intensity focus)
– Advanced Mobility Training (prehab/rehab, corrective maintenance, soft tissue work, etc.)
– Modern Advanced Strength Training

This starts with the fundamental properties of the body and gradually increases the knowledge base. It also prevents an unnecessary focus on the more advanced stuff before the basics are understood. For example, a trainee should understand how a beginner strength training protocol works — on the programmatic and phsyiological level — before worrying about comprehending the Westside Method. Furthermore, it would be beneficial to read and understand the Conjugate Method from Russian translations too. If a trainee, lifter, or coach doesn’t understand the concept of stress, recovery, and adaptation within the context of physiology, then he has no model to base programming on.

As a side note, I would love to teach classes on each one of these topics. Nerd boners galore.

The core of strength and conditioning lies with anatomy. The way to start learning anatomy is to hold a bone in your hand, feel it, and start learning its landmarks. Bones are always taught first, because if you know the attachment sites of the muscles, then the concept of how muscles work makes learning about muscles easier. It’s daunting at first, though. I can pick up an ulna and orient it to how it would fit into a forearm, but when I first touched an ulna I didn’t even know what it is. And it’s even harder if you’re not in a university class, because you won’t have a model to hold.

That’s why it’s important for you to use very good anatomy books to assist your coaching or training ability. Here are three anatomy books that I deem mandatory:

1. Trail Guide to the Body, 3rd Ed. (or 4th) by Andrew Biel

I carry this book everywhere. It’s with me at every seminar, and I even had it at the USAPL Raw National meet. There is no other book that has as clear, distinct, and well drawn pictures of musculoskeletal anatomy. Some people say Netter’s or Gray’s work is the best, but they pale in comparison to this book.

It’s made for physical and massage therapists, so the reader is taught how to palpate every structure in the book. This is immensely important because you can learn where these structures lie underneath your skin. It helps in diagnosing injury, learning how to rehab a muscle, seeing the action of muscles, and even what muscles are included in a given movement. Combine this with some basic understanding of musculoskeletal biomechanics, and you can analyze movement.

There’s really no excuse not to have this book. The 3rd Edition is available online for as low as $15 (the newer 4th Edition is a standard textbook price).

2. Anatomy Without A Scalpel, by Lon Kilgore

Yes, Dr. Kilgore is a friend. Yes, this book is partially full of pictures of me (this picture is the best). No, these two facts do not have any bearing on my recommendation. Kilgore isn’t a pretender. He has augmented the careers of countless people and consistently works towards a life-long goal of improving knowledge in the world of fitness. This book is the culmination of years of thought and teaching lessons that Kilgore synthesized for the purpose of teaching fitness professionals applied anatomy.

I am actually re-reading this book right for my daily “anatomy study” block; it’s a refresher, reminds me of forgotten lessons, and even is teaching me some new ones. The best part about the book is that Kilgore always brings the lesson into an applied format and avoids the conventional fitness trash that we usually see. Squatting, pressing, benching, and deadlifting are the examples instead of isolation movements and bosu balls. This is functional anatomy the way it should have always been. If I were a professor, this would be one of my text books (along with The Trail Guide to the Body).

3. The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, 2nd Edition by Clair and Amber Davies

This book has direct and indirect utility. Directly, it teaches you about muscular anatomy and how tightness in muscles or muscle systems can revert pain at another location. This can help you learn how muscle is integrated throughout the body instead of thinking about them working in isolation. Indirectly it is providing more repetition with (primarily) muscular anatomy. This will only help the S&C student learn about the body, but it will also teach them how to work on soft tissue.

Just keep in mind that the authors are obsessed with the “trigger point concept” that muscles have triggers that make them feel better. Instead, think in terms of tension. If there is a lot of tension on the quadriceps (due to their shortening from prolonged sitting, for example), then that would provide tension at the hip and cause pain in the hip or lower back. By using basic massage techniques, it’s possible to alleviate that tension and either reduce the pain immediately or over time. If we combine these soft tissue techniques with positional stretching and joint distraction, we can reduce a lot of pain, prevent injury, and improve mechanics in training.

This book will help with the basic anatomy stuff, but it provides very good information on what actions injure particular muscles and how to treat them.

More About Strength and Conditioning

In future posts I’ll point out books that can help coaches or curious trainees improve their knowledge. In the mean time, get to reading and studying 

32 thoughts on “Learning About Strength and Conditioning

  1. +1 for Trail Guide.

    I’ll kick off the inevitable list of books that people will throw out:
    Ever read “The Complete Keys to Progress” by John McCallum? How about “Where There is No Doctor” by David Werner?

  2. Great content of late,
    After reading this post I couldn’t help but notice your example in the last book
    “If there is a lot of tension on the quadriceps (due to their shortening from prolonged sitting, for example), then that would provide tension at the hip and cause pain in the hip or lower back. My using basic massage techniques, it’s possible to alleviate that tension and either reduce the pain immediately or over time”

    This is something I’m having issues with, I have been doing the “couch stretch daily” still in early stages of this, been doing quick lifts twice a week along with two strength sessions.
    Anymore advice on dealing with this – correcting would be F.*$ing awesome!

    Thanks, keep it up

    • I have the same issue so I’ll give my two cents worth. I’ve found that ‘the stick’ is really helpful in alleviating some tension. It’s somewhat expensive so I’ve been using a metal rod to get the job done. Having a friend to help out is good too. The couch stretch works well. Doing both a couple times a day with some other stretching has helped decrease the stiffness in my quads along with popping/grinding just above the knee.

    • I’ll ditto to this. I do the couch stretch and also hitting my hamstrings like crazy has also helped alleviate my lower back pain tremendously. I can tell when I go a few days and don’t really hit the hip flexors/hamstrings.

      • Note that soft tissue work should come before stretching. So massaging, using the stick, rolling on a ball — that would all augment the stretching when done first.

  3. Just want to say thanks a lot Justin. Your posts are incredibly helpful and detailed. I would say reading your articles are just as important as keeping up with the news.

  4. I am currently reading essentials of strength training and conditioning (3rd edition). Also “the complete keys to progress” I like to read a chapter every now and then. Got a back log of Greg Everetts new book, Martone’s kb book (need to finish), waiting on Cordain’s new paleo diet for the athlete and also Kstars book.

    Also would recommend Joe Kenn’s book about the tier system he employs in “the coach’s strength training playbook”.

    Plus you just made me want to start re-reading Kilgore’s anatomy book.

  5. Damn I never realized one of these was so cheap. Probably going to order Trail Guide pretty soon then. I was expecting 60+ for all of these style books.

    Justin, I figure you won’t check the other post again for my answer, so I’ll post it here. Basically if I were to rotate my hip to sit cross legged (it happens very slightly when shoving my knees out in a squat, but not painfully) I can feel some discomfort in what feels like the hip socket (right hip). If I do the same stretch/flexes on the left hip, it just feels like muscles are tightening (in a good way), but the right just feels like they aren’t firing maybe?

    And no, I have never had any problems with my hip past or present, and there was never a sudden moment that it hurt, so I assume it happened over time. Unless perhaps I didn’t notice it when it was slight and then I woke up to pain. Should I take time off squatting and work my way back up from lighter weights?

      • Also. After getting back from the gym, I think the problem arose from doing heavy zerchers recently. I have to do a wider than usual stance so that my elbows don’t hit my knees and prevent me from hitting parallel, and I think that my body isn’t used to pushing my knees out that far with heavy weights. I’m going to dial back on those (if not altogether) and see how I feel.

        Thoughts on that? I’ve only been doing them for like 3-4 weeks, and that’s about when the pain seemed to start.

        • Yes, this would explain it. If you impart stress on the hips, you’ll mess with the ligaments, tendon attachments, and maybe the labrum. I’ve felt what you are referring to in the past.

          Avoid the zerchers until you feel better. Train whatever else you can in the mean time. After a couple weeks, do the zerchers light. You’ll feel like a puss, but just treat it like progressing any other movement.

          Wide stance lifting, like sumo DL, potentially zerchers — stuff like that — is not something that everybody has the mobility to do.

  6. I second Netters being meh for learning. It’s great for conceptual pictures, but you hit the nail on the head with the point that you need to learn to feel the structures. I’m currently getting a crash course in this at a osteopathic school and after just three weeks of cadaver anatomy and OMM classes I now have names for things, understand how they attach, and know some basic palpations. It’s been great for my understanding, in that I’m now able to understand how my body is reacting to stresses on it way better.

    BTW to Justin, just getting in the gym is going great. I need to remember that my stabilizers need time to adapt to using DBs though (kind of jumped in too heavy after a day or two). Schedule is still crazy, but stress level is down a lot and sleep is better.

  7. For the trail guide, do you mean the student edition or the one in the picture? The student guide is $15 or less, but I can only find the 3rd edition for around $40. Or my kung-fu is weak and I missed it being cheap somewhere else.

  8. + 1 for the Trigger Point Therapy Workbook, it’s a great tool and gives very precise descriptions of the anatomy and how to target very specific points and structures

    Will have to check out the Trail Guide,looks interesting

  9. I logged on to the site specifically to search for your recommendation on which books I should buy for research and knowledge. Pretty damn timely of you to post this now. Awesome. Thanks.

  10. Great post. Really interested to see the follow-ups, particularly what comes in the “Advanced” sections.

    I sometimes wonder if there is any progress in the field of strength training. What worked back in the day still works now (the human body isn’t changing much) and there is an incentive in the fitness industry to make up crap just to create new products.

    My workouts have improved dramatically in the time I’ve been training, but I think most of that is due to my increased knowledge. The Internet certainly helps with dissemination of information. I don’t think my workouts themselves would contain any elements unfamiliar to, say, the guys at Muscle Beach in the 70s (well, maybe the lack of ‘roids ;-)

    On the other hand I’m certainly not an advanced trainee, so perhaps all the new work is in Westside etc. for the people at the top end?

    On the third hand I’m influenced by Rip, who has a deliberately old school take, so perhaps I’m just not seeing the new stuff?

    Just throwing it out there as food for thought.

  11. Good post Justin, I always wonder what people are reading in S&C. I second the Dr. Kilgore’s book and the Trail Guide, but I just recently got the Trigger Point Manual and haven’t had the time to read it so no endorsement yet.

    I recently finally cataloged most of my books to keep better track of them on Librarything.com. Probably half of them were obtained in the course of obtaining my BS/MS, with the other half coming into my possession one way or another since. The collection isn’t strictly S&C by definition but all books in there are related to S&C. You can take a looksie here if anyone is interested: http://tinyurl.com/tnumrychlibrary

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