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  • Jesse Irizarry

Barbell Training Should Be Martial Arts

I remember taking my shoes and socks off, straightening my belt, and bowing as I stepped into the dojang. I was about nine years old, I think. I practiced a Korean martial art. It was a small place in the town I grew up in and my parents took me there a few times a week. I practiced consistently for a few years until I got my red belt, a rank just a couple below the highest that a kid my age could reach.

When our Master stepped onto the floor, we all quieted down and bowed. Even though we were little punks, we felt and understood respect should be shown to a man who practiced and dedicated his life to an art like this.

I got into boxing after, and then eventually just into strength sports. There was camaraderie with training partners and with teammates, in all the sports I played in grade school, but I lost that feeling of honoring a coach that I knew so well when I wore that white uniform. After a while, I kind of forgot this outlook from martial arts.

About a year and a half ago, though I suddenly stepped back into this world again in more than one way. I both signed my six-year-old daughter up for Taekwondo and personally started practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Both places reminded me of the same thing.

The instructors, the masters, the professors, were dignified. Everyone treated them as they were. And why wouldn’t they? They were the keepers of this art, of this skill, of this strategy, of this not only physical, but mental and emotional framework and strategy.

When most people look at someone who’s dedicated themselves to learning martial arts, they don’t see them as physical brutes. They see them as thoughtful students of physical trade. But most won’t see that when they look at a strength coach.

There’s no apprenticeship in strength and conditioning. Maybe a little in college and professional sports strength and conditioning, but not enough. To become a head strength coach at university or for a pro team, or even to be hired as an assistant, you usually need to spend a very long time working under a head strength coach. You do whatever work they have available for you.

But you never have to really prove your ability and insight to someone who’s studied and reached a status where they’d be called a master. You should, but you don’t.

Things are even worse outside formal collegiate and pro strength and conditioning. There’s no real ranking system for a private coach or trainer to have. No levels, belts, or promotions to work through before people would come to you as an expert.

So because of the pride and indifference of professional strength coaches to improve the trade, myself included, those outside the small insulated world don’t see strength training, fitness, and S&C as thoughtful practice. Instead, it’s seen as something anyone can stumble into, read up a little on, have a talk with someone who works at a gym, and feel like they got it figured out.

It’s easy, so it’s said. And everyone knows their own body. It’s interesting, people will say that they don’t understand how to control their bodies when they learn gymnastics movements, jiu-jitsu moves or poses from yoga, but resistance exercise seems to be in its own mental category. Once you label movement exercise done at a gym, everyone is suddenly profoundly intuitive.

Not sure if it was made worse first by strength and fitness voices saying how easy it can be to learn and do exercise just to get people to try it and get moving. Or maybe everyone always assumed strength training was something that didn’t require thought and focus.

More people would have more hesitation to start a martial art, try yoga, or practice tai-chi than get a membership at a local gym, for sure.

This story made things worse. Now, too many think there’s nothing to learn, or if there is, it won’t take years to master and you can skip learning under a teacher for years like you would for martial arts

It really does no good to wonder why or how this happened...It is, that’s it. I won’t accept it though. I don’t have the answer on how to change the story, but I’ll write about the problem itself, and I probably won’t stop writing about it.

Coaches, movement specialists, and exercise scientists who’ve spent decades learning and practicing need to be seen with and treated with respect. They have instruction and insight that can keep those who learn under them from years of wasted effort.

Fitness zealots and barbell sports competitors who have a couple of years experience with their own training can be passionate and helpful to those they’re around, but they need to stop speaking as if they have the answers. Speaking as if they’re a black belt.

It takes a few years of practicing a martial art before you start to know what questions to ask in the first place. The same is true of fitness, strength and conditioning, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, strongman. But if you dropped in on a group of guys standing around some weights having a conversation, you’d think they’d had it all figured out.

But imagine this all changed? What if we could really change how everyone looked at barbell training? How much better would everyone be? How much stronger and more resilient? How many injuries could be avoided and how much better could everyone move and feel?

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