• Elliott Richardson

The guide to effectively coaching any exercise

The curse of knowledge (and experience)

I've always been asked by younger interns and staff members how to best coach exercises. I've always defaulted to something general, or I wouldn't be able to properly articulate how I got to the coaching point I made. With my experience, it's similar to what Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book "Blink" about thin slicing. From all my experience, I realized I'm able to process and see things automatically. Further, what I've come to realized is that I haven't actually developed a coaching correction model that prioritizes what I'm looking at and what type of errors can occur, or if I do see an error, what might be the cause of it. This was until last week, when I stumbled on a 90 second video by Catalyst Athletics titled "Hiearchy for learning the Oympic lifts".

I initially thought it was cool and made sense for the Olympic lifts because it helped reinforce that a mistake made early in the lift (eg. start position) can impact the entire lift. So, I played around with what I learned, provided better feedback to my athletes while they were cleaning and snatching. After a session I was convinced it made some positive changes. I also showed the video to my football athletes to show how the best do it, and remind them that load isn't everything. After all, most athletes want to flip this pyramid on its head. Following the session I challenged my younger coaches to coach our cleans exclusively with this model. Immediately, we all saw improvements in our athletes performances and the technical execution of the lifts.

It wasn't until the next day of thinking about it that I realized that this coaching model could be extrapolated and applied to any exercise in the weightroom. That following day, the language and order of this coaching hierarchy was the basis of my coaching. And I was right, I could coach any exercise and provide great feedback to our athletes. Here's the guide of how to coach any exercise effectively


Make sure your athlete can do this first, since this is where it start and ends, literally. The first thing a coach should look at when an athlete is doing an exercise is if they are in the proper start and finish position. More importantly, a coach should assess if they can get into the proper positions. Since, if an athlete isn't in the proper start or finish position, then the lift probably won't go to plan. Yes, it's obvious with an exercise like a hang clean with an athlete who doesn't know how to receive the bar, or doesn't know how to setup a proper hinge. The same can be said for simple strength exercises like split squats, deadbugs, or even bench press. If their start or finish positions aren't ideal, we all know that the athlete will look awkward completing the exercise. And this is where it gets confusing for less experienced coaches. I find they're often so focused on the movement that because the movement looks 'off' they try and fix the movement, when its one of the positions that needs addressing. This is why you have to be certain they can get in the right positions and get to the right finishing positions before you move on to the next level of the hierarchy.


If they are in the right positions, but it still doesn't look right, then it could be a movement problem. Perhaps they know where to start and where to end, but they don't know the path in between. Hence, a movement solution. Perhaps they're taking the wrong path between Point A and Point B. It's a bit like google maps where you can choose multiple different ways to get to your destination. Even though google means well, it just doesn't make sense to take most of the paths it recommends. For an athlete, this might be a result of a muscle imbalance, weakness, or just lack of knowledge. So if you've knocked positions off the list, then you can coach (or constrain) the athlete on how to move better from point A to point B.


An athlete could be performing an exercise and be able to properly perform the movement to get from position A to position B, but the exercise still may not look the way you want it. For strength exercises the athlete might be performing the movement too quickly (or with lack of control), and for explosive exercises, not be performing the exercise fast enough (or with enough intent). Therefore, speed of the movement would be the next variable to manipulate towards the goal of optimal execution. After all there speed of the movement will influence the adaptation of the exercise (or imposed demand). Slowing down the movement is also a great way to help an athlete or client learn the movement. Time under tension can drive motor learning, and long term improvement. This is why eccentrics and isometrics can be very useful at the onset of a training program.


You can make the argument that this could be at the top of the list since an athlete that is lifting a load too heavy for them will have limited options for how they can execute a lift. Often, a load that is too heavy will result in a less than ideal compensation strategy. This would be prevalent in young football players trying to speed of the rate at which they get stronger. When they inevitably miss a lift, or get feedback that their technique is off, they will undoubtedly ask how to improve the technique. Often, changing technique under maximal (or supra maximal) loads are not possible.

Once an athlete can perform an exercise at the appropriate speed, through the appropriate range of motion, from the proper starting point to the proper end point, then it is the time to start thinking about coaching load. I think this is important for coaches to remember, since we often over focus on the quality of the movement that we don't worry about the quantity of the load being lifted. It's great that athletes are moving well, though we need to remember that the load needs to be enough to drive adaptation as well. I've seen interns and coaches overlook athletes who are moving well, but not moving much weight. Again, if we want the proper adaptation to occur, we need the appropriate load.

Once you've learned the principles of this correction model/system, it creates a great loop to be able to quickly and efficiently coach your athletes. Watch a rep and see, did they hit the positions, how are the movements, what is their speed like, how is the weight? Every time you look at a rep, don't bother coaching an error down the chain until you've corrected an up the chain error. For example. don't correct someones movement pattern if they aren't in the right positions. They're probably not executing the movement because of the improper setup. Hopefully this system helps speed up and improve your coaching practice!

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