Episode 53: Bret Contreras on Coaching Like a Carpenter, Not a Guru


You know what great coaches are like? Carpenters. Carpenters that have a whole host of tools at their disposal-- carpenters who know how to deploy those tools at the right times, during the right projects, and for the right purposes. 

You know what great coaches are not like? Cult leaders. Cult leaders who doctrinize exercise, who proclaim some movements “good” and others “bad”-- whose approach is not only anathema to science, but is also no good for their clients.  

Bret Contreras joins us on Episode 53 to discuss why he approaches programming like a carpenter, why he considers his athletes’ goals first, and why he pulls from a wide variety of disciplines in order to help his clients get the results they want.

It’s important to recognize, as Bret says, that “all groups of people are biased towards their way of training.” Gaining awareness of and overcoming their own biases is vital for coaches who want to serve their athletes interests. And only when coaches serve their athletes’ interests can they support clients in reaching their goals. In other words, you’ll never be able to help a bodybuilder achieve peak physical composition if you train her like an olympic weightlifter, and you’ll never help a powerlifter become as strong as possible if you train her like a CrossFitter. 

What’s more, overcoming biases promotes the cross-pollination of ideas from a variety of disciplines within the exercise and sports science world. And this creates an environment in which athletes can thrive. Strength coaches have a lot to learn from physical therapists when it comes to rehabilitating injury. And incorporating single joint isolation exercises can help all athletes make hypertrophy gains, not just bodybuilders.

Bret calls for more respect and open mindedness in the health and fitness community. He advocates for investigation into a variety of approaches, recognition of the value that professionals from diverse backgrounds offer, and a hearty dose of skepticism towards one’s own entrenched beliefs. Coaches have a lot of things to lose from limiting their clients to a narrow range of exercises, one of the most important of which is investment. 

As Bret says, “Variety is cool, because training is boring, and we’ve got to spice it up to make it fun. You’ve got to find ways to make it more fun.” The psychological component of training can’t be overstated-- athletes are successful when they feel motivated to train, when they enjoy training, and, as Bret explains, when they can attend to the things they want to during their workouts. 

This means that coaches must understand how and when to manipulate variables like volume, load, effort, and tempo to support psychological engagement in training. And that means understanding when manipulating an element of training might distract from the ultimate goal of a workout. To illustrate, let’s imagine that a coach wants her athlete to move heavy load during a training session. If that’s the case, programming strict tempos for every lift might not be a great idea; it could take her athlete’s focus away from lifting heavy.

Regarding growth, Bret provides a critical reality check: Human bodies progress in waves, not linearly. And their capabilities are heavily influenced by the context of everything else going on around them. That’s why progressive overload should be measured in relation to athletes’ recent performances, not what they were able to do years ago. 

What’s more, one rep maxes in multi joint barbell lifts are not the only ways to measure growth. Growth can happen across a broad spectrum of movements and across all programming variables. A good coach helps athletes recognize progress in all of its forms, in any of its shapes.

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If you want to know more about Bret Contreras and his approach to coaching, follow him on Instagram at @bretcontreras1 or visit his website, https://bretcontreras.com/.