When beginning a strength program, the trainee has an important, if unconscious, question to answer: does the trainee hire a strength coach or try to figure it out on their own? This is an important question that must be addressed and neither solution is right or wrong. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, but there are unintuitive aspects of each that the novice trainee should be aware of. Finally, if a trainee chooses to hire a strength coach, there are a few key characteristics of a qualified coach that are important to recognize.
Training alone for some people seems obvious. They don't want to pay for a coach. They like researching what they are going to do and have put some thought into what needs to be done to achieve their goals. Training alone can be advantageous because the trainee doesn't have to pay a trainer and doesn't need to rely on someone else for scheduling. All it might take is $30 a month for a gym membership.
Some downsides to this approach are obvious, like having a hard time staying motivated, but others are less intuitive. Progress will be slower and injury rate will be higher. Trainees without experience will not make all of the correct decisions the first time. They will have poor technique, they create or follow programs that are not appropriate for them, and they will make seemingly benign errors that are actually massive problems - a good example is rest time. When left to their own devices, trainees will rest somewhere between thirty seconds and three minutes in between sets. This may work for strength exercises for a short time, but before too long, trainees will be unable to complete sets and not understand why. This is simply not enough time to rest between sets.
The only way to mitigate these problems is to become as educated as possible on strength training during training. These problems will still not be eliminated, but the more the trainee knows, the less problems will befall them. It is an understatement to say that a trainee's free time will be consumed by this endeavor to avoid common pitfalls in training.
After long enough, the trainee will have accumulated enough knowledge, suffered through and fixed enough problems, and seen enough mistakes made by others to be a modest coach themselves. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but for those who are not willing to either pay in time or pay in injuries and slow progress, it will not be appropriate.
Training With A Coach
Training with a coach has a disadvantage that is immediately apparent: cost. The advantages, however, can far outweigh this disadvantage. Experienced strength coaches know the fine details of what certain trainees need for technique, programming, motivation, and diet considerations. Any coach that has even gone through the process that they put their trainees through will have learned a great deal from making their own mistakes. This alone may save a trainee from spending numerous hours in the gym, wasting time doing ineffective exercises and programs. In some cases, this can save a trainee years of not progressing.
Additionally, trainees will not suffer the same pitfalls their coaches did. This can be the difference between a 405lb squat and a 315lb squat or being able to work out pain-free and not being able to do one's job effectively for a few days or weeks. Everyone that has worked out on their own has an injury story that annoyed them for days, weeks, or months. Strength training should be a positive experience that enhances one's life, not detracts from it. A massive advantage is that all the trainee has to do is show up and do what the coach says. They don't have to become particularly educated on strength training outside from what their coach has taught them. The time they would otherwise spend becoming educated on strength training can be spent doing a sport, spending time with their family, or pursuing a hobby.
Identifying An Effective Coach
Unfortunately, there is a massive range of quality in personal trainers. Some will charge $300 per hour, require additional "performance" testing which may cost more money, and will get little more done than simply acting as a proxy for a therapist. On the other hand, some coaches will have vast knowledge, have coached thousands of people, only charge $100 per session, and will get a great deal done. They will get you strong quickly and safely. These coaches are far less common than the proxy-therapist coaches.
Identifying an effective coach is an important aspect of a trainee's lifting career, even if they only decide to hire the coach for a brief period. It may seem obvious, but a good coach actually coaches; if a personal trainer does not actually teach technique, they are not a good coach. If they show the movements and say "do this" without actually coaching in real time, they are not a good coach. For example, an ineffective coach will only says things like "good job", "one more", "you're doing great" during the set. A effective coach will use cues to fix technique errors as they happen. Examples of these include "chest up", "look down", "stay on your heels", "knees out". An effective coach will teach the technique in steps and ensure quality movement throughout the teaching progression.
For strength specifically, a coach should have their trainees do compound, barbell lifts consistently. If a trainee is not squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and bench pressing every week, they are not going to make progress. The main lifts and consistency are key. If coach has a trainee doing squats one day and then doesn't do them again for a month, how could the trainee possibly learn good squat technique?
Another point to be skeptical of is a coach that doesn't practice what they preach. If a coach has not gone through the process they want to put their trainees through, there has to be a good reason. If a coach that wants to teach strength, but has never gone through a strength program, they will not be able to teach it as effectively. It doesn't mean they can't, but going through the process teaches the trainee a great deal about themselves and the method. If a coach hasn't gone through this, their knowledge will be deficient. This leads into the next indicator that they are not an effective coach; they pretend to know things they do not know. If a trainee asks a coach something important to their training and the coach doesn't know, there is only one suitable answer: "I don't know, but I will find out." This is partially an ego issue, but it is important to find a coach that is honest not only about their trainees, but themselves. Additionally, a coach that does not continue to learn through study of textbooks, articles on the internet, and experience will not be as good as a coach that is constantly learning. Along those same lines, it's important to recognize when one is incorrect. A coach that does not admit their mistakes and learn from them will be deficient as a coach.
At some point, a trainee will need a coach, even if they only meet with them once or twice a year. Everyone needs someone to watch them lift and give recommendations. There are some things that cannot be done on one's own and coaching is one of them. If a trainee chooses to acquire a coach at the beginning of the training process, a lot of time and energy can be saved, even if they only choose to have a coach for a short amount of time.