Learning the Art of Self-Coaching

Dial-in on the coaching cues that work for you in order to be your own best trainer.

“What advice do you have for a lifter who trains on his or her own, and isn’t lucky enough to receive good, regular coaching?”

I get asked this question all the time. The first answer I give is that I don’t think there’s any replacement for quality coaching on a consistent basis. But I understand this is not possible for some people at some stages of their lives. Yes, it’s true – sometimes life does get in the way of training.

In this case, one option is to take a seminar or certification. But choose carefully. A seminar is only as good as the knowledge you can apply from it. Actually, let me add to that. A seminar is only as good as the knowledge you can apply from it independently.

If you walk out of the door and instantly feel like you can’t perform the drills you just learned without direct guidance from the coach, then you’ve wasted your money (not to mention your time). It is critical you are able to apply learned material by yourself.

The following self-coaching hacks are rooted in the above train of thought. These are strategies you can learn, apply, and improve on by yourself. Start today.

Pattern Your Own Movement and Find Drills That Fix You

When you are not being coached, there is no one to correct you. So from the start of the session, you need to make sure you are moving correctly. My squat therapy drills are the perfect example. These are four self-correcting drills that provide immediate feedback if you are not hitting the mark.

“I could put money on whether a lift will be successful or not purely from looking at the set up.”

Take the wall squat, for example. You’re facing the wall and squatting inches away from it. If you don’t send your hips back, keep upright, keep your weight on your heels, and push your knees out, then you’re going to head-butt the wall. I call that immediate feedback! (And I’m pretty sure you’ll fix the next rep or two.) Vary these squat therapy drills in your warm up and you’ll pattern good movement on a daily basis without having to think of a million cues.

Simple drills that provide immediate self-feedback can be used for even more fundamental patterning. Take a look at this drill to learn correct breathing patterns and sequencing. The shoe on the belly should rise while the shoe on the chest must remain still. Performing the drill on the floor provides instantaneous feedback about whether you have successfully managed to breathe into your back (yes, that’s actually a thing).

Have a toolbox of drills that correct these gross (coarse, not disgusting) mistakes, without you having to think about making continual conscious corrections, is invaluable. Seek these drills out.

Collect Your Own Coaching Cues and Learn Your Learning Style

When your opportunities to be coached are few and far between, it’s even more important that you make the most of them. This is where a Book of Cues comes in. If you don’t have one of these, start one. A book of cues is a list of points you have seen, heard, or done that resonated with you – cues that made a discernible difference to your lifting at the time.

“A seminar is only as good as the knowledge you can apply from it independently.”

Your training diary/journal is a good place to begin this list – as that’s where you’re recording everything anyway, right? Continue to write these down, and over time, you’ll build a collection of Cues That Work For You, which will provide you with a number of benefits:

  • A reinforcement of your personal take-homes from any coaching you have received.
  • An actionable list of ways you can coach yourself and correct your own lifting, particularly when things aren’t quite going to plan.
  • The ability to spot patterns. Are most of the cues that have an impact things you have observed? For example, a cue you learned from a live demo? Or are they things you heard? For example, when a coach was explaining a lift? Or things you felt when trying the lift out for yourself and being moved into position?

If your list is predominately littered with one or two particular types of cues, this can help you decipher whether you are a visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic learner. Using this information, you will be able to direct your self-learning, as well as make the best use of any coaching time by (politely) prompting a coach who may not be giving you the input you need, i.e. “Can you show me that?”

This list of cues will constantly evolve. As I’m sure you’ve experienced, when you adjust one part of your lift, another part of your lift changes, as well – for better or worse. It’s just the Circle of Lifting. So keep your book updated and refer back to it when you encounter problems.

Learn the Science and Understand Your Best Set Up for Any Lift

I could put money on whether a lift will be successful or not purely from looking at the set up. But while training on your own, there is no one there to tweak your position. You need to set yourself up in the best possible position for every lift.

However, what is truly best is not necessarily what your body thinks is best. Left to its own devices, your body will find the easiest way of accomplishing any task – the path of least resistance. This may include compensations for weaknesses or incorrect set-up positions.

“When you are not being coached, there is no one to correct you. So from the start of the session, you need to make sure you are moving correctly.”

In contrast, “best” is facilitated by biomechanically sound positions. These start positions are grounded in principles of physics. These positions allow us to lift the most weight and to continue to lift and build on this weight for a long time.

So it’s easy right? If we know the best positions, we can all just get into the same, universal set up. Almost. There’s one more layer – the fact we are all built differently. Check out YouTube videos of top deadlifters, and you will see different back and joint angles due to individual differences in body shape and measurements.

But don’t worry. The cool thing about the principles of physics is they are irrefutable, and through this science we can prioritize what we need from our start position. For example, a major priority on the deadlift is being able oppose gravity by acting directly against it in the vertical plane. This means we need to create a bar path that is as vertical as possible. The question for your set up then becomes, “What position do I need to be in to create a vertical bar path off the ground?”

By asking this, we can then decide what is important (e.g. shoulders in front of the bar) and which individual differences we are less concerned about (e.g. back angle). By analyzing the mechanical priorities, we can create universal positional priorities. Learn enough about mechanics and you will be able to ascertain these priorities for yourself – for any lift.

The Takehome

These days I spend a lot of my time coaching coaches, through my Strength Education L1 and L2 courses. I explain to them that the mark of a great coach is to make themselves dispensable. To this end, I teach coaches the principles they need to discern good movement for themselves. Principles they can then pass on to their athletes for them to do the same.

These are the same principles I am teaching you today. Take advantage and put yourself way ahead of the pack.

Photos courtesy of Strength Education.