The Misunderstood Strength Coach

An Interview with Mike Boyle

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The strength and conditioning field is like no other. Coaches have bitter enemies and die-hard devotees – and sometimes a person will qualify as both depending on the day of the week. There are insane egos and there are humble, incredibly bright coaches who go unnoticed. Finally, there are a lot of coaches who people really don't get.

On one hand, you have genuinely bad strength and conditioning professionals who couldn't coach their way out of a wet paper bag. On the other hand, you have extremely knowledgeable coaches who people really don't seem to understand – either because they don't try to understand them or because they're working off of false pretenses. Mike Boyle tends to fall into the latter category. In fact, he might be the world's most misunderstood strength coach.

Until last year, I really didn't "get" Mike Boyle either. However, I've had the chance to meet up with him twice recently, and we've exchanged a few dozen emails about training methodologies. We still don't agree on everything, but I can definitely say this is one smart, experienced coach who has a lot to offer the world of performance enhancement.

You don't have to like him or take everything he says to heart, but you're missing out if you're not at least listening with an open mind. So, without further ado, Mike Boyle.

T-Nation: Let's get right to the good stuff. You and I have joked about how you're the most misunderstood coach in the world of strength and conditioning today. You've spoken all over the place, have some pretty impressive credentials to your name, and have probably worked with more professional athletes than any strength coach in history. With all that in mind, why the heck don't many people "get" you?

Mike Boyle: I think there are a number of problems. My first book, Functional Training for Sports,gave people a very skewed view of how I train people.

I think a lot of the "old guard" have preconceptions about the concept of functional training. When they see someone's name associated with functional training, they envision balance apparatus and stability balls.

The funny thing is that much of the negative stuff that comes back to me is from people I don't know; they've never seen me train an athlete. People form an impression based on reading a book or a hearing a lecture, or worse, hearing the negative opinion of another.

I can take two positives out of the negative things that get back to me. One, people actually know I exist. (I guess that's a positive.) And two, the same experts obviously think I'm having enough impact on the industry to take the time to badmouth me at a seminar or on an Internet site!

I know that when people come and actually see my athletes train, they get an entirely different view of me and how I view training. We clean, snatch, front squat, bench press, and do lots of other exercises that people don't associate with functional training. On the other hand, we do lots of single leg stuff that people would view as a little "out there."

My contention has always been that functional training is training that makes sense. I train athletes, not powerlifters, not Olympic lifters, not bodybuilders. As a result, although I'll take pieces from all those disciplines, I don't copy training programs from other sports.

T-Nation: I think the problem is the concept of functional training has been so bastardized in today's media that nobody really knows what it is anymore. It started out in rehabilitation, as therapists sought to utilize the exercises that best simulated their patients' daily activities to progress back to "normalcy." Now, thousands of fitness professionals (a term I use loosely) have come to the conclusion that functional training needs to be multi-planar and, for the most part, performed on unstable surfaces.

You shouldn't throw people into the fire with frontal and transverse plane-specific exercises until they've mastered the sagittal plane (an imaginary line which divides the body into left and right halves). While the unstable surface stuff has its place, it's being grossly overused. So, how do we fix the problem? Where do we draw the line?

MB: I agree 100%. Keats Snideman wrote an article called "Defending the Sagittal Plane" that did an excellent job of highlighting these issues. He basically said exactly what you said.

John Pallof, a great Worcester, MA-based physical therapist, made the simple observation that we may need to work sagittal first, then frontal, and eventually transverse. If you believe as I do in the concepts of relative flexibility and muscle stiffness, then transverse plane stuff is downright scary. I don't think we should have physical therapists who don't train athletes for a living telling us how to train athletes. This is where the big disconnect is.

Strength and conditioning coaches are being talked down to by PTs who've never done the job and don't really understand. The key is to learn from the PTs without letting them dictate your programming. The knowledge is excellent, but the application can be a bit sketchy. A guy who can't lunge has no business doing multi-planar lunges.

I do some unstable surface training to make sagittal plane exercise more multi-planar. I really believe that unstable surface training and multi-planar training are excellent tools when used at the right time and place. The difference is that all the bells and whistles with no horsepower is a waste of time. I've often used the analogy of trying to take a subcompact car to a NASCAR race. You can tune it up all you want but, but you need the big engine.

T-Nation: Good points. Why else are people so anxious to throw you under the bus?

MB: One reason that I may be misunderstood is that I'm not worried about other people's opinions of me. I provide honest information. I've described this as a "swift kick in the comfort zone."

Many people just want to hear that you agree with them. I want people to think, to question. I think the Functional Strength Coach DVD set I did will really be a long-term positive for me. People get a snapshot of what we do from a one-hour lecture. They get a ten-hour view of what we do from the DVD set but, more importantly, why we do it.

Another reason I may not be well liked is that a lot of good athletes in the New England area have come to train with me after their college careers are over. This may have offended many of my New England peers, and in some cases, guys across the country.

Between football guys training for the NFL Combine and hockey players training for the NHL, I guess my work has helped me in the eyes of athletes but probably given my peers plenty of reasons to dislike me. I have to admit that I'd be offended if one of my athletes stopped training with me to work with another strength and conditioning coach.

T-Nation: I can't help but laugh when you vaguely mention the athletes you've worked with. I know all too well that you could've been blowing sunshine up your own butt for the past twenty years.

MB: I don't self-promote. I've worked with a lot of great athletes, but I've tried to give them credit for their own accomplishments. I know some guys in our field who take credit for every athlete they ever met. It amazes me that people can claim credit for things they never did. The same people promote themselves on the Internet as "world's best," etc.

T-Nation: The T-Nation audience is full of aspiring performance enhancement coaches. I'm sure they'd be interested to hear any advice you have on making it in the biz. Whatcha' got?

MB: Here's a few things:

1. Learn anatomy. You're an idiot in this business if you don't know anatomy. If you didn't pay attention the first time, start over and relearn it. Everything comes down to anatomy and physics.

2. Lose the cute email address. A cute email address makes you look unprofessional. Get something that simply uses your name. Email is now the accepted professional method of communication; use it as such. Same with a phone message. "Yo, leave yo' digits" doesn't make me want to call you back. And when [email protected] applies for an internship, I usually throw his application in the trash.

3. You've got two ears and one mouth for a reason. You should listen at least twice as much as you talk. There's nothing worse than someone coming to visit your facility to "watch" and finding out all they want to do is tell you how smart they are and describe how they do it. It's a classic case of "enough about you, let's talk about me."

4. Schedule visits. Visit anyone, anyplace, that you think is doing a good job. I've been to Parisi's in New Jersey, IPI in Florida, Athletes' Performance in Arizona, Velocity in Georgia, and several others. I want to see every facility I can and watch lots of coaches coach.

5. Invest in yourself. I'd estimate that I've spent $50,000 to $100,000 of my own money on seminars, books, videos, and DVDs. That may seem like a lot but it averages out to between $2,000 and $4,000 per year since I graduated from college in 1981. I attended my first NSCA in Pittsburgh in 1984. I spent money I didn't have.

T-Nation: I hear you. It's only June and I've already spent over $5,000 this year – and I still have student loans. You really have to see the forest through the trees and prioritize what's really important.

MB: Speaking of you younger guys, here's an important note to more experienced coaches: let kids sleep on your floor, buy them drinks, and buy them dinner. I have a vivid memory of being out with Jerry Simmons (Carolina Panthers), Rusty Jones (Chicago Bears), and a great guy named Keith Irwin (then at Rice) in 1984 at a restaurant eating free food and drinking free beer. Those guys taught me to be gracious and generous. I had no business being there, but luckily I knew Rusty from college. I was in strength and conditioning heaven.

That brings us to the next item on the list...

6. Find mentors. I've been blessed in this category. New England Patriots Strength Coach Mike Woicek (owner of a record six Super Bowl rings) was my dorm director at Springfield College for two years. I was exposed to speed and plyo concepts in 1982 that were revolutionary. Rusty Jones was a GA football coach at the same time.

I had a great opportunity to meet great coaches while still in college. Later I was lucky enough to meet Johnny Parker (San Francisco 49ers) when he was with the Patriots. He was also gracious and generous with his time and his knowledge.

7. Read. Read more. Self help author Brian Tracy says that reading one hour a day for one year will make you one of the five most knowledgeable people in your field.

T-Nation: Okay, good stuff. Now, we all make mistakes, it's just that we don't all learn from them. I think it's safe to say that you're a guy who never makes the same mistake twice. What were some of the mistakes you made along the way to strength and conditioning notoriety, and how did they impact where you are today?

MB: I really struggled with the "two ears, one mouth" thing. I was probably a pain in the ass when I was young and probably was a bit of a know-it-all. Some people would say I still am.

Copying is another mistake. I hurt Chris Doyle's (University of Iowa Football Strength Coach) back one day doing single leg hops. I went to the NSCA convention, heard a track coach say that the key to speed was multiple single hops for distance. I went back and tried it with Chris, who was 6', 285 pounds at that time.

The only thing we accomplished was to give Chris SI joint pain. In retrospect, it was moronic to think that this was a good idea for anyone, much less football linemen. Use the shit test: If it looks like shit and smells like shit, it's probably shit.

Finally, I made the mistake of trying to do it all myself. For my first ten years, I worked alone. No interns, no assistants. I was like a child who insisted on dressing himself and ended up in cowboy boots, shorts, and a plaid shirt. Once I began to take interns, our productivity increased drastically.

T-Nation: Okay, here's a chance to wow our readers. Randomly throw some idea out that will really make T-Nation readers say, "Oh, crap, that really makes sense! Why didn't I think of that?"

MB: Okay, I'll toss out a few:

1. Front squats instead of back squats: I love front squats because you can't really do them wrong. No back pain, lots of leg work. I think the only reason most people back squat is because they never thought about not doing it.

2. Close-grip snatches: The only reason anyone uses a snatch grip is to lift more weight in competition. Close-grip snatches give all the benefit with significantly less risk.

3.Slideboards: An energy system development piece that costs under $500, lasts forever with no maintenance, works the hip adductors and abductors, works in a sport specific position, allows two to three users of various height and weights, and develops balance and deceleration skill. Need I go on?

4. Looking at joints instead of movements: I'm just finishing an article that looks at the training needs of each joint. The basic gist is that each joint has different needs. Some joints need mobility, some stability. Makes you think.

5. Looking at injuries as symptoms of imbalances: Weak glutes cause pulled hamstrings. A weak psoas and iliacus leads to pulled quads (rectus femoris to be exact). Rotator cuff strains come from lack of scapula control. I think we spend way too much time treating symptoms and trying to strengthen the wrong muscles. Shirley Sahrmann says that if you have an injured muscle, you should start looking for a weak synergist.

T-Nation: Awesome points, especially the last one. Okay, let's look to the future. Where do you see the industry going in the decades to come, and how would Mike Boyle like to be remembered down the road?

MB: I think that the whole functional training thing is here to stay. I also think that over time coaches will get smarter and realize that the best programs get the best results with the least possible risks.

More and more coaches will unfortunately move away from powerlifting and Olympic lifting due to the high lumbar loads. I think you'll see strength and conditioning coaches be as common as athletic trainers. Sooner or later, administrators will realize that it's cheaper to prevent injuries than to care for them.

As for me, I hope I'm remembered as a good father, a good husband, and a good friend. Professionally speaking, I hope people see that I made sense and was honest. The best thing anyone ever said to me was when Jeff Oliver said the best thing about me was that I never sold out. I hope people will think that I had an impact on the industry and that I made people think.

T-Nation: Great stuff as always, Mike. Thanks for taking the time to throw some wisdom and personal experience our way! Where can readers find out more about you?

MB: They can go to my website, www.MichaelBoyle.biz, where there's a selection of articles and even video clips of specific exercises. If individuals have specific exercise questions, we can get a video clip up fairly quickly. My products can be purchased directly through Perform Better.