Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Strength Coaching in America, A History of the Innovation That Transformed Sports - Jan Dellinger (2022)

Jan Dellinger worked for the York Barbell Company for more than 25 years, during which time he served in a number of capacities -- the editorial staff of Strength & Health and Muscular Development magazines, functioned as a company representative in the related areas of wholesale/dealer sales, commercial and institutional sales, corporate representative at trade shows, company liaison with National Football League Properties, Inc. and did occasional stints in the customer service department. He was also a Professional Member of the National Strength & Conditioning Association. 

Despite its title, the meticulously researched and comprehensively documented information in "Strength Coaching in America" contains enlightening riches beyond the inception and evolution of the strength coaching role in modern athletic training. In my opinion, the overarching illumination provided is the precise portrayal of the seldom-considered travails heavy progressive resistance exercise (PRE) endured on its way to reaching the massive cultural approval it enjoys today with athletes and non-athletes alike.

Weight training's struggle for acceptance? Younger readers, those under the age of approximately 40 or so, are asking themselves. When? How?

Such questions go right to the matter of who should be required to read this fine book. The short answer is anyone interested in, or remotely involved with PRE and was born around 1980 or thereafter. The focus on age is necessary because the aforementioned serious fitness and heavy training athletes never heard a discouraging word attached to weights.

No doctors ever told them to stay away from weights because PRE would give them an enlarged "athletic" heart, permanently raise one's blood pressure, diminish one's vitality, stunt one's growth or vastly increase one's chances of sustaining a hernia or cause breathing problems or vertigo. Actually, it wasn't all that long ago that physicians, physiological researchers and even physical educators listed some or all of the above as consequences of PRE to anyone contemplating engaging in it.

Likewise, this same 40 and under crowd never heard a coach or physical educator discourage athletes from training with weights because doing so would lead to diminished athletic capacity thanks to the condition known as muscle binding (or muscle bound in the vernacular), or a loss of foot speed. More to the point, most of the aforementioned detractors of PRE exercise, were weary of above-average muscular development, with some labeling hypertrophy as "pathological!" No exaggeration!

Quite the contrary, 40 and under folks were raised in a world where commercial gyms abounded on street corners, bodybuilding magazines and Arnold Schwarzenegger were mainstream, weights were readily available in high school gyms, YMCAs/YWCA, physical therapy setting and the list goes on and on.

In fact, this contrasting generational disparity regarding PRE is nicely demonstrated by the book's trio of authors. The Todds being of an age to vividly recall the "darker" days when weight training was viewed with a jaundiced eye in many quarters, whereas Shurley, who was born a generation or two after the Todds, had heard none of this as he came of age.

By the way, gender also plays into my age-related recommendation. Jan Todd had the additional hurdle of being a female who liked sports and heavy exercise, so encouragement was doubly hard to find for her. It took Title IX and time, but she and other females persevered.

Being born in 1951, and getting the itch to start lifting weights in middle school, I can honestly say I lived this stuff, too. Fair warning, I will be offering anecdotal insertions of perceived relevance in my mind, here and there throughout this review. So, when I first expressed interest in lifting weights, my father's objections centered on the concern that I would "ruin" myself (dad shorthand in those days for rupture).

Fathers of others in my generation had concerns of a different nature. For example, when former York Barbell Company President Paul Stombaugh wanted to start lifting weights as a teenager, his father told him that he would not be able to comb his hair, that Paul would become muscle bound! The opinion of Paul's father is worth noting because he played in the National Football League for a few seasons, and coaches from Pop Warner ball on up had drilled the muscle bound myth into him.

One final entry into the weight training myth parade involves a detracting notion from the female point of view. Around 1980, I was a part time instructor in a local Nautilus health club, which was enlightening as the goals and motivations of this group were decidedly a notch or two below the crowd I dealt with at York Barbell. At an open house, a very middle-aged mother and father came in with their college-aged daughter and her finance, who wanted to join and start exercising. Mother was vocal about the fact that she was dead set against her of-age daughter doing PRE of any kind, thinking it would eventually impair her daughter's ability to bear children.

Concluding my suggested list of people who should read “Strength Coaching in America” would be Cross fitters, competitive lifters and bodybuilders, athletic coaches on all levels, physical therapists, personal trainers, sporting sociologists, and anyone else who fancies himself/herself knowledgeable about athletics and heavy exercise. Hence, this book should sell millions of copies!

Reasonable minds might ask if PRE was under such heavy unrelenting “fire” from these elite quarters, how did it manage any presence at all in every day life? Thanks to a motivated, stubborn counterculture of vocal publishers who fielded nationally syndicated magazines which espoused the benefits of heavy exercise for athletes in an equally relentless manner, were the fallacies able to be put to rest. Chapter two of “Strength Coaching in America” is dedicated to the sustained efforts of these influential voices, with a pair of them (Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider) singled out in the subtitle- ”Promotion of Strength Training, 1932-1969”.

Within the pages of this chapter is a treasure trove of historical documentation detailing the massive contributions these influential voices put forth in confronting the myth of muscle binding, in particular, via their books and periodicals.

There is one “bone” to pick here with the authors' characterization as to whom was the “lead dog” in this protracted campaign to promoting weight training for athletics. Drawing equivalency between the track records of Hoffman and Weider is not consistent with the historical facts. Yes, in the early-mid 1960s, Mr. Weider did make a serious bid to establish a broad linkage between barbell training and athletic success with his “All-American Athlete”, publication, which was one of several titles he fielded. While it was an excellent and progressive magazine product when it came to depicting the theme of barbell training for athletes, enough of an existing market did not develop to support it beyond a couple of years.

For that matter, former lifter/bodybuilder/equipment manufacturer Walter Marcyan made a similar attempt at the same market around the same time with the release of “Physical Power” magazine, which did not last many issues.

Whereas, since 1932—the year Hoffman launched his multi- decades running “Strength & Health” magazine—the natural union of athletes 
of all categories who would benefit by barbell training was an ever-present theme in his powerful publishing voice. Moreover, the record shows that over time Hoffman took his borderline zealotic promotion to new levels of persuasiveness via myriad lecturers and the staging of actual demonstrations of the benefits of barbells, directly confronting the naysayers. One or two of these “magic historical moments” in the advancement of PRE are mentioned in this book.

One example of Hoffman's sterling “defense of barbells” which was not mentioned but was similarly impactful came in the 1950s when the Board of Directors for the entire New York State YMCA system was comprised of medical doctors who frowned on weight training for anyone and wanted to get weights completely out of Empire State YMCAs. A last-ditch effort was organized by the late Vic Boff to convince the doctors otherwise, and they agreed to witness a demonstration spearheaded by Hoffman and the “visual physical testimony” of a couple of York Barbell's best. The upshot being that this stodgy bunch of professional skeptics was forced to reverse its decision and allow weights to remain in all New York State YMCAs.

While Bob Hoffman was not the first to “rage” against the anti-weight training “machine,” no one—including Mr. Weider, who in hindsight very much appears to have been merely copying Hoffman in the magazine market—promoted PRE for athletics more consistently and fiercely over time. Hence, equating Mr. Weider's efforts in this regard, fine as they were, to Hoffman's is pure poppycock in my opinion!

Having established the historical antagonists and benefactors of weight training, let's move on to the strength coaching profession addressed in this book. "Profession" infers occupation status, and just about everyone is money conscious, especially in an era when big contracts are major news. Individuals charged with overseeing the training of those with, or in line for, big contracts, can realize lucrative remuneration. Tantalizing testimony to this fact is offered early (page 3) by listing the current salaries of some of the top flight strength coaches: University of Iowa ($725,000 . . . not a misprint), University of Tennessee ($625,000), University of Alabama ($585,000), Clemson ($500,000), Oklahoma State (500,000) and University of Michigan ($450,000). These eye-opening salaries clearly indicate that the modern day strength coaching position is valued at the major college (and by extension the professional) level. It also leaves no doubt as to just how much mega-dollars are floating around major college and professional sports, especially football and basketball. 

Before everyone who has even done a power clean or a plyometric box jump starts looking for the on ramp to this “gravy train,” understand that such dream situations are exceedingly limited in number . . . and, there is a noticeable compensation disparity between the head man—or woman in more recent times—and the assistant coaching staff. The authors cite a median annual salary in the $40,000 range for the underlings.

Nevertheless, that is considerably more than the $2 per hour that Boyd Epley, who is generally recognized as the first person to be hired as a full-time strength coach, got in 1969 when he was put in charge of getting University of Nebraska athletes football-ready to dominate. The low pay, however, did not exclude considerable pressure in terms of job security as the head coach, who still wasn't totally sold on weights, warned that if anyone got slower, Boyd would be fired. As stated early in this review, the trepidation concerning PRE tended to linger a lot longer than many realize.

Incidentally, Epley's personal back story regarding how he came to be viewed as a tremendously positive role model for barbell training, which is what got him noticed and then hired to strength coach, is documented and well worth reading.

And speaking of firsts, long after Epley undertook his landmark strength coaching career, it was a male-exclusive profession. That was until Meg Ritchie Stone broke through the gender ceiling to earn the distinction of being the first female full-time strength coach, although her “time” came multiple decades after Boyd's.

Moving on to a controversial, even distasteful, topic for some, the ever-present specter of PEDs within the athletic/sporting culture is undeniable, although the authors do make a decided attempt to disassociate the two. Early on in the book (page 3), the authors downplay or dismiss the possible influence of PEDs in athletic performance over the past few decades, presumably in an attempt to elevate the influence of the strength coaching profession. Readers are free to evaluate their contentions and opinions through whatever personal lens they chose. At the same time, to their credit, the authors did not refrain from addressing a past PED scandal which tarnished individuals from a couple of major universities who were prominent within a major strength coaching organization.

Shifting focus, the relevance of this book's subtitle, “. . . A History of the Innovation That Transformed Sports” is a decided nod to the actual profession of strength coaching, and by extension, the man who pioneered it. In many respects, Boyd Epley was the right man at the right place at the right time. Under Head Coach Bob Devaney, who hired Epley in August of 1969 to cultivate and direct the further strength and conditioning of Husker players, University of Nebraska football had been slowly building. Seemingly, Epley's impact was immediate as in 1970 and '71, the Cornhuskers turned in unimaginable back-to-back undefeated seasons and National Champion accolades.

Fortuitous for Epley was that Husker offensive football style of the Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne coaching tenures prominently featured a smash-mouth, run-over-them mindset, all of which dovetailed nicely with Boyd Epley's philosophies of maximizing explosiveness and brute strength.

Of course, the meteoric success of Cornhusker football attracted great attention from a variety of quarters: America's up-and-coming scholastic football talent started looking at Nebraska as a dream destination to play college football. Likewise, potential Cornhusker donor sources and their fans were becoming tuned into the training exploits of their boys. 

Suddenly, Epley was something of a coaching celebrity in the Heartland, being introduced to visiting NCAA dignitaries and the like. It was at one of these meet-and-greets with a Commissioner from the SEC in 1977, who seemed to have only the vaguest of awareness regarding his coaching specialty which Epley had held for the prior nearly 8 years, that the need to organize and professionalize his occupation occurred to Epley.

To this end, a mass survey mailing to schools across America in the fall of 1977, led to the creation of a published National Directory of Strength Coaches. From this venture, sprang the staging of the first annual meeting of the National Strength Coaches' Association (NSCA) in the summer of 1978, which was held in Lincoln, NE and directed by Epley and a corps of his assistants. Understand, at this point it was an assembly of disparate individuals who generally supervised whatever level of weight training activities for sports was conducted at their schools... not true “official” strength coaches per se. The initial mission of the Association at this point was merely to unify members and to cultivate a professional exchange of ideas.

So well received was this start-up gathering, that these annual assemblies for the sharing of ideas became a tradition. Concurrent with these meeting was the issuance of an organizational newsletter, which initially went out to 8000 coaches, YMCA directors and commercial interests, to maintain the lines of communication.

To Epley's great credit, by the end of the 1970s, every major university in America had at least one officially designated strength coach supervising the PRE of their athletes.

The NSCA's membership escalated nicely over the next couple of years which put the organization on solid financial footing, but the membership began representing a more diverse array of goals and interests than just strength coaching. To meet this challenge, there was a revision to their formal name, morphing to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (still NSCA) to accommodate broader objectives. The aforementioned NSCA Newsletter transitioned to the NSCA Journal, which became a prime vehicle for disseminating informational articles, while the accompanying NSCA Bulletin kept the faithful up on organizational info.

As far as packing their journal with what was then the latest findings on how to train athletes with PRE, there was relatively little of a true research nature available to them initially. Heretofore, most of the workout philosophies employed were anecdotal techniques garnered from the pages of competitive lifting and bodybuilding magazines. Viewing this as a shortcoming, the NSCA Journal began encouraging their membership to conduct various levels of “research” within their own settings. In fact, the journal went so far as to instruct their membership as to how such testing should be conducted so as to yield reliable, applicable findings. And for a time, some of the determinations these coaches and trainers discovered were published in their journal.

Of course, the NSCA wanted to be perceived as a highly professional organization, so an attempt to maximize the quality of their published research was made by developing their own research committee. The names of these individuals are mentioned in the book. Eventually, this research effort allowed the NSCA to create accredited certification programs for strength coaches and personal trainers, which added nicely to their membership goals and coiffures. This also allowed them the additional profile to release official position papers addressing various health and PRE-related trends or issues.

The amalgam of membership, money and research collided to create other sorts of growing pains for the NSCA as well. Predictably, the time-honored tension between the pragmatists who embraced increased commercial involvement—and the expansion dollars that brought to the party—and the research academicians, who felt the free-wheeling claims made in public advertising by certain of these interests compromised the integrity and objectivity of the organization, as well as their own standing.

So, for a time, members of the NSCA Research Committee applied the scientific method to certain ad claims made by some athletic equipment vendors, and were not shy about exposing those that proved erroneous in their opinion. This led to one particularly embarrassing moment for Boyd Epley, who had personally endorsed a product in published ads in an NSCA publication, which the organization's “consumer protection” squad found wanting.

A fractious spin-off of this internal clash also arose when the researchers came to the conclusion that based on repeated testing protocols, free weights were superior for cultivating strength and power (and, thus, enhanced athletic performance) in comparison to exercise machines. Moreover, they felt the “machine” interests had too much visibility in NSCA activities. To be honest, a lot of the initial pushback from the science crowd stemmed from the hyperbolic assertions (in their opinion) made by Nautilus President, Art Jones.

Predictably, the machine companies were not taking this lying down, and something of a philosophical training “war” erupted. The NSCA organization itself had a dilemma on its hands, as machine companies financially supported the body but were getting hostility from certain quarters.

Actually, “hostility” is not too strong a characterization for the tension. Allow me to insert some personal testimony on this point. York Barbell Company began sending me to the national NSCA annuals in 1979, and I (and York) were well received by Boyd Epley, Ken Kontor and other NSCA luminaries at the time. 
In fact, I became a "professional member" of the organization, and as the NSCA developed regional supporters and clinics, myself and John Terpak, Jr. attended a number of these gatherings in the Middle Atlantic an Mid-South states. 

During the early 1980s, also attending these regional shows was one of the prominent NSCA Research Committee guys, who himself was affiliated with a “strength research center” located in Alabama. He, at the time, was performing and publishing lots of research results on the effects of the periodization training model, which was fast becoming the preferred training methodology of the NSCA.

Because I was involved in my own personal quest to get stronger, I sought this Ph.D out to start a dialogue regarding his continued findings. Perhaps it was because I was the “York guy”, or perhaps he was just looking to cultivate disciples (a lot of that goes on on all levels of the strength game), we hit it off. In fact, the two of us made the “NSCA rounds” over the next year or two, and he shared a lot regarding his philosophical specialty.

Concurrent with that, York Barbell as a company was struggling in the market place. One of the aspects which it desperately needed was a complementary line of exercise machines to become relevant in the health club/hardcore commercial gym markets. To this end, there was an attempt on the part of John Terpak Sr. and Jr. to establish a working relationship with West German equipment manufacturer Joseph Schnell, who was looking for a North American distributor for his fine line of gear box exercise machines.

Schnell had strong relationships with the lifting, strongman and institutional athletic communities in Europe already, and wanted to penetrate that latter market here in America. With that in mind, he petitioned York to make his gear box units part of our exhibition display at the 1984 NSCA annual in Pittsburgh. In fact, Schnell himself came over to work in the York booth at the show.

Understand my perspective in this matter...I was a young guy who was deeply interested in training and wanted to see York Barbell latch on to something which allowed it to regain visibility and prestige in the market place. Hence, while my background was strictly of a barbell-dumbbell nature, I was pumped at the prospect of having something else to promote to a wider audience.

Cutting to the chase, when I encountered the aforementioned NSCA research guy at this show, it was right in front of our booth. He took one look at the Schnell machine therein and literally went off on me. And when I tried to explain York's side of this new addition to him, there was zero objectivity from him. In fact, he made it clear he did
not want to hear ANY justification from me, becoming increasingly incensed with each passing sentence of angry criticism. After making it clear I was dead to him, he stormed off. I should mention that later on, this particular individual became the president of the NSCA.

This volcanic shoot-on-sight display by this “man of science” pretty well portrays the level of extreme animosity harbored in some quarters of the NSCA at the time to literally ANY exercise machine, even ones heretofore unknown and untested.

Ironically, though, as the NSCA expanded with certification (for money) programs to include personal trainers, health club employees, chiropractors, physical therapists, and a widening array of other allied job descriptions, most of these practitioners were, in fact, exercise machine-friendly. With that in mind, I'll track back to the statement I made numerous paragraphs ago, there were very contrasting factions vying for the heart and soul of the National Strength & Conditioning Association.

That particular ugly incident notwithstanding, in the closing decades of the 20th Century, a number of positive things were taking place within the organization. For starters, they began attracting numerous categories of specialties within sports medicine, therapy and allied professions who felt an affiliation with the NSCA was a resume builder. This influx was bumping up membership on an average of 1000 per year, year-in and year out.

Females (athletes, prospective coaches and academics) in general were joining the NSCA, too. To attract the growing scientific segment, in 1987, the NSCA released a stand-alone research journal—Journal of Applied Science Research.

To better train and equip members for future employment opportunities, a wide variety of certification programs were instituted. For example, in the early 1990s, personal trainers were the fastest growing segment of the NSCA membership. In fact, in 1993, this category comprised 35% of the membership roll. These are just some examples of the NSCA's heyday!

However, all was not sunshine and roses during this period, as there appears to have been budgetary and personnel mismanagement at the administrative level. But perhaps the most resounding negative was the fact that the Big Tent trend was progressively alienating the root core constituency of original strength coaches, who felt they were quickly losing their voice within the NSCA.

In fact, as mankind's “odometer” turned to the 21st Century, a rival organization catering strictly to this jilted corps titled The Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa) sprang up behind the able leadership of Brigham Young University Strength Coach Chuck Stiggins . . . and took hold!

And what of Boyd Epley, the pioneering strength coaching forefather who so expertly spearheaded the formation and building of the National Strength Coaches (and later, Conditioning) Association for so long? In perhaps a fitting model of high irony, he ultimately embraced the CSCCa.

My ramblings notwithstanding, this is not truly the end of the road regarding modern day strength coaching. Nor did I begin to capture every interesting or intricate plot-twist connected to any broad theme or organization outlined in this book. An utterly fascinating read is 
guaranteed to anyone who cracks open “Strength Coaching in America.”

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