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The Discipline of Philosophy in Strength and Conditioning

Gearity, Brian PhD, CSCS

Strength and Conditioning Journal: December 2010 - Volume 32 - Issue 6 - p 110-117
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181f63382


School of Human Performance and Recreation, The University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, Mississippi

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Brian Gearityis an assistant professor in the School of Human Performance and Recreation at the University of Southern Mississippi.

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To become a strength coach or a sport scientist, most in the field of strength and conditioning would recommend a degree in exercise science or a closely related field. Research confirms the importance of strength and conditioning coaches' knowledge in exercise science (25,31). The National Strength Conditioning Association's (NSCA's) professional standards and guidelines and the criteria for obtaining the CSCS certification also demand the candidate be knowledgeable in exercise science (35). In spite of this recognition and the centrality of exercise science in strength and conditioning, Kraemer (21) points out, “The most common question asked of a strength coach over the years has been, ‘What is your philosophy?’” Martens (24) also wrote that developing a sound coaching philosophy is the most important factor in determining the success of a coach. In the case of these 2 authors, the difference of the value of philosophy can be explained by recognizing that the former was referring to a philosophy of training based on unfounded beliefs or unsubstantiated theories about resistance training and the latter was referring to a philosophy of coaching based on proper beliefs and virtues to guide a coach's behavior. It appears that the discipline of philosophy has a place in the field of strength and conditioning, and the role of philosophy should be clarified.

If coaches or scientists were to speak of the principle of overload, there would probably be little confusion as to what we were referring to. It may immediately evoke a mental image of Milo lifting a calf until it becomes a bull. Because of the centrality and importance of understanding physiological adaptations of muscle and tissue in response to training, it makes sense that sport scientists take muscle biopsies, draw blood, and use experimental approaches to determine how the body adapts to and is affected by different stimuli. However, when we speak of philosophy in strength and conditioning, what are we referring to? Although most coaches and sport scientists have extensive education in exercise or sport sciences (e.g., physiology, biology, motor learning, and sport psychology), regrettably, many coaches and sport scientists have little education in philosophy and in developing philosophical arguments. To close this knowledge gap dilemma, it is necessary to understand what philosophy is and how it can be used (9). Although strength coaches and sport scientists have, at times, been performing philosophical functions, as will be seen in this article, the use of the term “philosophy” in the field of strength and conditioning has been less than exact. To understand what philosophy is and is not, we should seek to understand how philosophy currently informs the field of strength and conditioning.

Although there currently exist either none or only indirect sources for strength coaches and practitioners to build a philosophy of training, this article closes the gap in the literature by providing some guidance specifically related to “using philosophy” as it relates to strength and conditioning programs. Sport scientists, coaches, and practitioners are already using philosophy in this sense, and this article will clarify how. Obtaining knowledge in philosophy and learning how philosophical thinking is practical have several implications. Coaches who are mentoring young coaches, and professors who are teaching students, should be able to provide more instruction and resources to their respective pupils to assist them in developing their own training philosophies. Furthermore, coaching education should include lessons on making philosophy practical, less theoretical, and abstract, so coaches are able to use this knowledge to construct a well-reasoned and logical training philosophy.

The purpose of this article is to review how the term philosophy has been used in strength and conditioning, clarify its use, and argue for its inclusion as a discipline in the field. After analyzing the current use of philosophy and by providing more examples of how strength and conditioning professionals use philosophy, its importance to the field will become more apparent. Finally, this article will provide guidance to strength and conditioning professionals in helping them to develop their philosophical thinking skills.

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A thorough and recent search of the research and literature published by the NSCA in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, and position statements for the word “philosophy” returned 20 results (2,4-8,10-12,14-19,21,22,26,33,37). None of these authors defined philosophy or more specifically, philosophy of training. Some of the articles merely mentioned the word philosophy, whereas others used the term in connection with other thoughts and research. This literature was read, analyzed, and has been categorized in roughly 5 ways: system of training, specific method of training, attitude or belief, theory of training, and aim of training (Table).

Presented in the Table are the authors and year the term was used, the corresponding quote, and its semantic meaning. Note that the purpose of these articles was not to discuss the role of philosophy as a discipline in strength and conditioning. Rather, these authors used the term philosophy, sometimes in differing and inconsistent contexts. For the purpose of this article, a brief description of each of the 5 categories is provided to demonstrate how the term was used.





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System of Training

The most common use of “philosophy” in these articles was to connote a system of training in which the authors discuss the training program in its totality (e.g., my philosophy, our training philosophy). If an article had the word “philosophy” in the title, then that was a good indicator that the author discussed the totality of their training program (4,5). These coaches wrote about the steps used to train athletes and the most important areas their system of training focused upon (e.g., strength, power, and agility). A similar and common example, outside of this literature, of coaches using philosophy to connote a system of training occurs at conferences when coaches discuss their respective training philosophy (e.g., training the Tennessee way, philosophy of training for Beachwood High School). At conferences, it is common for coaches to speak about the totality of their training program usually touching on concepts related to the annual plan, the exercise selection, and the type of split routine used.

Several authors use the term philosophy to indicate that the system of training varies according to the coach's beliefs and goals (e.g., “Depending upon the coach's philosophy…”) (18,21,22,37). When philosophy is used in this way, the authors are attempting to explain the differences in the systems of training. For example, Iosia and Bishop (18) wrote how a football coach's offensive philosophy (e.g., game tactics and strategy) varies from coach to coach.

Sport scientists and strength and conditioning professionals also use the term philosophy when writing about how a particular method of training fits into their overall system of training. For example, in discussing the use of strongman exercises in his collegiate strength and conditioning program, Hedrick of Bennett (2) acknowledged the usefulness of these exercises; however, he also believed that he could not build an entire program-or system of training-solely around these exercises.

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Specific Method of Training

Another way philosophy was used in the literature in strength and conditioning was with respect to a specific method of training. The use of philosophy in this way is closely related to the system of training but differs because its use is more focused about a specific method of training. The term, method, is used here to mean any mode of resistance training, agility training, exercises, and so on. Methods are the specific ways practitioners implement their system of training. It is commonplace for coaches to write or talk about how a specific method does or does not fit into their program. For example, Hammer (15) wrote that his philosophy of training does not include weightlifting because he believes that the risk of injury takes precedent over the possible benefits of performing these exercises. A slightly different example comes from Burton (5) who wrote that the Oregon philosophy of training tries to incorporate whole body movements when applicable. In these examples, the coaches are describing a specific method of training (e.g., weightlifting and whole body movements) in relation to their, presumably larger, system of training.

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Another way the term philosophy was used was to connote attitude or belief (8,21,33). In all these cases, the term philosophy can be easily replaced with the word belief or attitude, which is why it was categorized as such. For example, Wallace of Chiu (8) used the term philosophy as synonymous with belief, or in this case, the mistaken belief that simply passing the CSCS exam qualified the athletic trainer to be a performance coach. Similarly, Spaniol (33) used the term philosophy to indicate the mistaken belief that baseball players succeed by accident. Rather, it seems clear that he believes that success on the baseball diamond can be measured and evaluated, which has implications for designing strength and conditioning programs for baseball players.

Kraemer (21) used the term “philosophy” to indicate that strength and conditioning programs should be designed based on facts and monitoring training variables, instead of beliefs: “Rather than having a training philosophy, it might be more productive to have a training approach based on facts and critical monitoring of test variables representative of the physical development possible through strength and conditioning programs.” The intent of the article is clear; strength and conditioning practitioners should base their training programs using scientifically justifiable methods. However, philosophy is not a “mistaken belief.” Philosophy does not disregard evidence-based practice; in fact, a sound philosophical approach would encourage decisions based on scientific evidence.

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Theory of Training

There are some who use the term philosophy to connote a particular theory of training (e.g., single-set philosophy, Superslow philosophy). These “philosophies,” or more aptly put, theories of training, are often purported to be superior to others irrespective of empirical evidence. The following quote demonstrates how one author used the words theory and philosophy to mean the same thing, “Many theories about resistance training have been proposed, yet there has been little if any research on some of these training philosophies,” (21).

Kraemer (21) was the first to use the term philosophy in conjunction to a theory of training in his review of the literature related to the “theory” of single-set with maximum effort training that was advocated by some in the 1970s. He accurately points out that although some advocated that single-set training was more effective than multiple-set training, there was no evidence to support this claim. Indeed, research consistently demonstrates that in trained individuals or athletes, multiple-set training is more effective in producing strength gains than single-set training (21,23). The second example where the term philosophy was used in conjunction to a theory of training was in the thorough review of literature by Greer (14) and research related to the “philosophy” of Superslow training. The mention of the term philosophy in both of these articles is limited, but philosophy is used as synonymous as theory of training-a guide or explanations on the best way to train.

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Aim of Training

Finally, there are those who discuss philosophy in relation to the aims or mission of their training program. Some authors are specific about the aims of their program, whereas others are more general. For example, Burton (5) wrote that the Oregon training philosophy focused on training power and agility first and strength second. It appears that the aim of his training program is power, agility, and then strength. Williams (37) stated that the aim of his philosophy of training is to “develop a total athlete,” but he also believes that the development of sport-specific adaptations should be left, respectively, to those coaches. Still, Hammer (15) stated that his philosophy of training baseball players is directed toward achieving size, strength, and power. He also wrote that although empirical research had demonstrated the usefulness of weightlifting as a means to gain strength and power, he did not incorporate them into his training regimen because of his perceived risk associated with these exercises. Although not explicitly stated, it appears then that one of the aims of this training program is to not injure athletes or to reduce the possibility of injury.

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Although all the ways that philosophy has been used have some merit, there is something awry with the use of the term philosophy in this way. The field of philosophy can be seen as an approach to studying and understanding just as physiology is an approach to studying and understanding things (e.g., muscle fibers, enzymes, and physical processes). Philosophers write philosophical arguments to develop norms and standards for what should be, not what is-that is the work of empirical research (34,36). Philosophy does not refer to a distinct body of knowledge as do the fields of history or biology, and to narrowly define, philosophy does not speak to what philosophers actually do (1,13,27). Philosophy is a diverse and rich field that is comprised of branches such as ontology, epistemology, axiology, and aesthetics. The most prudent action here is not to narrowly define philosophy, which most philosophers would probably argue against, but rather, the argument being made here is that strength and conditioning professionals are using philosophy, or philosophical thinking skills, when designing and implementing a strength and conditioning program (30).

Philosophy is not, per se, a system of training, a specific method of training, an attitude or belief, a theory of training, or an aim of training-it is all of them. A thorough philosophy of training speaks to, at least, the (a) aims of training, (b) methods of training, (c) beliefs and values of the practitioner, (d) research and practice, and (e) what we know and do not know. Sound philosophies, or philosophical arguments, contain lucid, logical, and thoughtful reasons to support their case. For example, one author argues against the use of weightlifting exercises for baseball players (15). The 2 reasons he provided were that the aim of his program was to not injure athletes and that he felt there were other, safer ways to develop a baseball player's ability. It is noteworthy here to point out that this valuing statement establishes the norm and standard of safety, which is a function of philosophical arguments. Another practitioner may be comfortable using weightlifting exercises and feel that they could be implemented without increasing the risk of injury. One of the major functions of articulating a philosophy of training is for the practitioner to become aware of how his beliefs and values, derived from knowledge of research and practice, lead him to choose certain aims, methods, and systems of training.

When somebody asks, “What is your philosophy?” they are not asking you to respond with empirically unproven research about physiology or your attitude toward a particular exercise (method). Unfortunately, the less than precise use of the term “philosophy” to connote an attitude or belief serves, in one sense, to subordinate the discipline of philosophy into something less rigorous than the natural sciences that conduct empirical research. When somebody asks, “What is your philosophy of training?” simply put, they want to know everything about how you design and implement a strength and conditioning program. Strength and conditioning professionals do not design programs, but rather, they develop a philosophy of training. In the field of strength and conditioning, to have, develop, or modify a philosophy of training means for the practitioner to wisely and responsibly choose all aspects of the training program.

We need to be concerned when practitioners can offer no good reasons as to the design of their program. We also need to be concerned about a practitioner overusing aerobic training for a strength/power sport as much as we would be about a practitioner blindly using the same research as good reasoning to implement exercises that may not be safe or effective. Good reasons not only come from more than just empirical research and facts but also come from the practical experience and the practitioner's values. To use philosophy in strength and conditioning is to become aware and conscious of why we choose to train a particular way, to be knowledgeable of research and what works in practice, and to be responsible for the safety and development of athletes. For a practitioner to think philosophically would mean to truly reflect about what it means to design a quality strength and conditioning program and reflect on what we think we know and what we do not know, although recognizing that certainty is not always possible (13,30).

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Philosophical arguments are not a theory in the sense that philosophy does not predict relationships among variables that may be tested through the generation of hypotheses or empirical research. For example, one cannot test certain philosophies of ethics such as Kant's (20) categorical imperative, Buber's book (3) I and Thou, Sartre's (32) call for responsibility, or Nodding's (29) care theory. They cannot be tested in a lab; rather, their merits must be judged by other philosophical criteria. These examples are not experimental lab testable theories but rather are examples of philosophers who thought about a topic to construct a philosophy, or more aptly put, a philosophical argument. This type of theorizing is a cognitive exercise rather than a prediction of the relationship among variables.

It would have been more accurate for some authors to use theory or method rather than the term “philosophy.” For example, Greer (14) called Superslow training a “philosophy” when it would have been more accurate to label it as an untested method (e.g., using long eccentric muscle actions). Similarly, in the 1980s when single-set training was advocated, it was at this time an untested method (a particular way to train) in spite of one author calling it a “philosophy” (21). The author went on to argue that there are too many mistaken “philosophies” of training that have relied on anecdotes, pseudoscience, marketing, and untested claims. Herein lies one of the problems with using philosophy to connote a theory or method of training. Philosophy has nothing per se to do with pseudoscience, marketing, and weight training equipment. Philosophical arguments do not test the efficacy of various resistance training programs-that is the work of empirical research. This is why researchers have set up testable hypotheses based on the proposition, “single-set training is more effective than multiple-set training in developing strength” or “long eccentric contractions are more effective than faster contractions in developing strength.” Indeed, research suggests that both Superslow training and single-set training are not, by themselves, the most effective method to gain strength or maximize caloric expenditure (14,17,23). Because philosophies are not testable in an empirical sense, sport scientists mistakenly stated that they were testing philosophies when it would have been more accurate to state that they were testing propositions related to a theory or method of training.

To use the term philosophy to credit or discredit a particular way to train creates 2 consequences. First, it limits the potential for the discipline of philosophy to provide insight and clarification into numerous aspects related to strength and conditioning. Philosophy has already provided some guidance in strength and conditioning as can be found in the NSCA's professional standards and guidelines, which reveal a “philosophy” or belief in providing proper supervision, keeping athletes/clients safe from harm, and having knowledgeable coaches or trainers. Second, it ignores the premise that philosophical arguments are different from scientific arguments. Scientific arguments use verifiable and observational methods to support their claims, whereas philosophical arguments use logic and reasoning (34). If one wanted to speak about a particular exercise or a particular variation of training, it would be more accurate to call this a method. If we wanted to critique, debate, or discuss someone's philosophy of training, it would be more fruitful to address his/her flaws in reasoning and logic rather than placing unwarranted fault on the field of philosophy.

At this point, one recommendation for future use of the term philosophy is to consider not using “philosophy” when another word (e.g., belief, attitude, proposition, theory, opinion, and method) would be more appropriate. All forms of research, empirical and philosophical, should strive to define terms and use clear language, as is the case in many studies that use operational definitions.

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Using philosophy is inherent to designing strength and conditioning programs, and there are some advantages to recognizing this occurrence. Should the strength and conditioning professional prescribe the snatch or a medicine ball throw? While the former may elicit greater gains in strength, the latter is arguably safer, easier to learn, and offers a similar movement pattern. What are the most important goals of the program? What does evidence-based research not tell us? Making decisions like this are not neutral, but rather, they indicate which values are most important to the strength and conditioning professional and his or her organization. Identifying these questions may help coaches become more aware of why they do what they do. Furthermore, coach educators or coach mentors can use these questions, and others, to stimulate critical thinking skills and assess what reasons professionals provide based on evidence-based research and practical knowledge.

Other considerations will also warrant the use of philosophical thinking. For example, practitioners will need to consider their own unique situation to address issues related to, but not limited to, the coach/athlete ratio, space and time, and equipment available. Many large universities have several strength coaches. Although it may be appropriate for them to implement programs using highly technical exercises, it may not be responsible for high schools, or even some professional teams, where the staff and facility may be much smaller. Because most practitioners work in schools and report to a sport coach, it is also appropriate to consider the coach's aims for the strength and conditioning program. If the head sport coach was also the head strength coach, then he would have to choose between practicing the team longer or halting practice because he feared that they may be overtraining.

Thinking philosophically may be thought of as one, perhaps, the bridge between research and practice. To use philosophy (as a verb) is the process by which practitioners synthesize, evaluate, and connect research with practice, beliefs and attitudes, and aims and methods into every facet of designing a strength and conditioning program. To have a philosophy (as a noun) of training means the strength and conditioning professional has constructed an end product, a guide to training, which should be flexible and subject to change based on current research and practical knowledge.

Finally, by including the discipline of philosophy into strength and conditioning, it may permit us to further our understanding of other issues whereupon philosophical thought may be better suited. For example, empirical-based research demonstrates the performance-enhancing effects of anabolic steroids, but yet, the NSCA, and probably most strength and conditioning professionals, disapprove their use. In this case, the ethical belief of safety and long-term health apparently outweighs performance enhancement. Other ethical questions abound such as “What is the responsibility of the strength and conditioning professional in helping athletes detrain after their athletic career? or What should the strength coach do when the sport coach directs them to do something morally questionable?” Similarly, the NSCA's certification commission uses philosophy (under the branch of epistemology) when they delineate what a strength and conditioning professional should know, which speaks to the ideal or educated professional. Still, at other times, strength and conditioning professionals may draw upon the work of philosophers to help motivate athletes. For example, although often taken out of context, the German philosopher Nietzsche (28) is credited with having said, “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.” The point of these questions and examples is not to fully espouse on them here but to acknowledge how a broader, and more truthful, acceptance of the discipline of philosophy into the field of strength and conditioning would be beneficial.

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philosophy; program design; science; coach; training

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