By Eric Trexler, CSCS, CISSN
Former Director of Research and Education, INOV8 Elite Performance
Mark Rippetoe recently wrote an article about the field of exercise science, documenting a list of perceived shortcomings (the article can be found here). I have a degree in Exercise Science Education, and am currently working on another degree in Exercise Physiology, so I certainly have a biased viewpoint on the topic.
Despite this bias, I can readily admit that the article raises some valid points. First, the author correctly points out that many researchers would benefit from a more extensive background in practical applications of strength training. This would help prevent scenarios in which improper research methodology leads to conclusions that are incongruous with the virtually unanimous observations of experienced weightlifters. Secondly, he suggests that future strength coaches should build a knowledge base, in part, by training and competing in their respective discipline and working to accumulate coaching experience. Finally, I agree that exercise science programs should include more hands-on, practical experiences in the teaching and demonstration of resistance training technique.
However, as I read the article, I felt that it contained a few notable fallacies. Rather than rant in a long-winded stream of consciousness, I will instead address some of these fallacies one-by-one.
1. Exercise science programs don’t include the science-majors version of the “hard sciences”
I can’t speak for all exercise science programs, but this simply was not the case in my experience. When I looked around the room in my chemistry class, I saw people majoring in chemistry, biology, engineering, and other hard sciences. The same goes for biochemistry, physics, and a number of other courses I took.
Along the same lines, my anatomy coursework was taught by faculty in the school of medicine. The same goes for my physiology coursework, where the courses were team-taught by faculty members who each taught their own respective research specialization. As a certified meathead, I was thrilled by the opportunity to learn muscle physiology from a researcher on the cutting edge of developments in myostatin inhibition. The idea that exercise science students are just sitting in their own classroom learning some watered-down versions of these courses is simply not correct, at least in my experience.
2. Students should study a hard science, then apply it to strength and conditioning
I took a number of courses in the hard sciences, including chemistry, biochemistry, and physics, among others. I understood the necessity of taking these prerequisites, but very few of the topics discussed were truly applicable to exercise physiology. While I do believe that some coursework in these fields of study is necessary, I don’t believe that diving deeper into any of them would be the most efficient use of my time as an aspiring exercise physiologist or strength coach. In my opinion, the deeper you get in these types of courses, the less general applicability you have to related fields.
Even directly related topics, when taught outside of the context of exercise, can be difficult to apply. I remember asking a cardiologist, who was teaching my physiology course, a question about blood flow restricted training and blood vessel physiology. He was unfamiliar with the concept, which I expected. However, when I explained the concept to him, he simply said, “Bodybuilders are crazy,” and neglected to entertain the question. When confronted with the same question, an exercise physiology professor consulted the primary literature on the topic and got back to me with an answer. This professor, with sufficient background knowledge in cardiovascular physiology and an interest in exercise, was more equipped (and willing) to answer such a question.
In fact, I think the diverse array of courses offered in exercise science programs is an important strength of the field. I got to establish a base of knowledge in the hard sciences. Beyond that base, I was able to branch out and cover coursework in psychology, behavior change and counseling, exercise physiology, nutrition, pharmacology, statistics, athletic training, and others. This broad coursework supplied an introductory level of knowledge in a number of skills and topics relevant to strength coaching, and equipped me with the basics I needed to further develop a specialized focus on nutrition and strength & conditioning.
I don’t deny that some level of self-taught specialization and application is needed beyond the attainment of an exercise science degree. But, it is helpful to establish a base of knowledge in relevant coursework in a classroom setting. The issue with being self-taught from the start is that no one is there to guide your learning, or to let you know when you are guilty of misinterpretation or are missing critical lessons and resources in your self-constructed curriculum.
3. Exercise science research should use large sample sizes of really strong people
I totally agree. Unfortunately, when I hang a recruitment flyer for a study, I don’t immediately get 60 emails from elite strength athletes who are willing to relinquish all control of their diet and training.
It’s really hard to get well-trained athletes to participate in these types of studies, and it’s no mystery why. I wouldn’t let some random researcher, with no vested interest in my success, put me on some standardized diet/training program. Also, the average campus isn’t exactly crawling with elite athletes. And the few elite athletes that are around are already playing on the university’s sports teams, and there’s no chance that their coach would let them participate and run the risk of injury.
4. Exercise science programs should be designed to adequately prepare you to be a strength coach
My undergraduate program had about 50 exercise science students the year I graduated. I don’t think more than 2 or 3 are currently pursuing a career in strength and conditioning. My graduate program lets in 7 or 8 per year— I only know of one student in the program who plans to pursue a future in strength and conditioning coaching.
So what are these people doing? They’re pursuing PhDs in various fields, working in cardiac rehabilitation or other clinical applications, going to med school or physical therapy school, becoming physician’s assistants, or working in research laboratories on a wide variety of research topics.
The plight of the exercise science program is a tricky one— it must adequately prepare students for a very broad range of future career paths. As such, they are designed to provide the student with a broad base of knowledge. Beyond that, the responsibility to acquire specialized knowledge and skills is on the student, not the program.
Mark Rippetoe has an excellent reputation in the world of strength and conditioning, and rightfully so. As such, I very much respect him, his work, and his opinion. However, I believe that his recent article makes incorrect assumptions, and places unfair demands, on university-level exercise science programs.
The exercise science student goes on to pursue additional schooling and/or careers in clinical rehabilitation, medical school, physical therapy school, cancer research, endurance sports, and a million other specializations. The first few years of medical school supply the student with a similarly broad view of the medical field; only after specialization and years of practice does that doctor become an expert in their concentrated area of focus.
An undergraduate program should equip the student with a broad knowledge base, and the skills to interpret future research and apply this knowledge base to the specialization of their choosing. To pursue a career in strength and conditioning, the student must still spend plenty of hours with a bar on their back and coaching anyone who will listen. Mark Rippetoe’s article agrees with that statement. The difference is, I would contend that the knowledge gained throughout an exercise science degree is a tool that, when applied intelligently and consistently, will enhance the development of that future strength coach. It is by no means a mandatory prerequisite, but a very helpful tool nonetheless.