You Gotta Know To Be Able to Do

During a recent popular fitness podcast episode, one of the hosts was making a joke about how gym members “don’t want to know what kind of energy system they’re using in a workout or why they’re doing the workout, they just want to work out.”

I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt here. Maybe he was talking about coaches who draw energy system diagrams on the whiteboard with every workout, or explain things not to explain things but to confuse people into thinking they know their stuff.

Those guys are douches.

On second thought, maybe I won’t give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he does believe people don’t want to be taught. They don’t want to know “why” or “how”, they just want to “do”.

Here’s the problem, though – you gotta know to be able to do.

A Tale of Two Workouts

In order to prove my point, here’s two very different workouts, both of which I’ve prescribed:

Workout A
4 rounds:
30s Power cleans 115/80
30s Front Squats 115/80
30s Burpees
Rest 4 minutes

Workout B: 
At 80% Maximum heart rate:
10 minutes:
20 cal Airdyne + 10 heavy two-handed kettlebell swings
rest 2 minutes
10 minutes:
20 Calorie row + 10 burpees
rest 2 minutes
10 minutes:
250m run + 10 pullups

Let’s say the coach  leading these workouts believes in the idea that “people don’t want to know, they just want to work out”.

Take a second to look at the workouts and and put yourself in the “athlete who’s about to do the workout” shoes. What kind of questions are you asking?

Why so little work and so much rest in workout A?
Why do I have to only go 80% in workout B?
Couldn’t I get a better workout in A if I went straight through without rest?
If I go harder then 80% in B, won’t I get more fitness?
Can I go heavier in A? It’s only 30 seconds of work for each movement and I want to get stronger.

The coach’s responses, because of his philosophy, will sound something like, “Because I said so,” and “Because that’s what the workout says,” or ” No, just do what it says,” or “No, the workout says 115/80.”

Maybe this coach runs a gym with people who never ask any questions during class or aren’t curious as to why they are doing what they’re doing.

Here’s the thing though – no gym like that exists. If a coach is coaching, someone is asking them questions. And these questions should be answered to create athletes who have ownership of their training and perform a workout in a such a way that they achieve its desired effect.

You Gotta Know – Workout A

Coach: In Workout A, we’re developing your ability to produce anaerobic lactic power.


This means that we want to improve your ability to produce as much power as possible in the 20 to 60 second time domain.

“Oh. OK.”

In order to do this, the efforts have to be as hard and fast as possible. The weight is relatively light so you can move fast with lots of reps, and the rest periods are long so that you feel recovered enough to hit every round as hard as you can.

“Cool. Makes sense.”

Do you want to be better at putting your foot on the gas to catch someone who’s beating you in the last minute of a workout, and do you want to improve your ability to destroy workouts that are 12 minutes or less?


This workout does that.


This was not an overly complex conversation between a coach and an athlete. It also doesn’t sound that uncommon. People want to know why they’re doing what they’re doing, and coaches should be able to tell them in a simple, easy to understand way. The athlete is now armed with information that equips to correctly perform similar sessions in the future, allowing them to own and understand their training.

You Gotta Know – Workout B

Coach: Today we’re going to train to improve your aerobic threshold. It’s important that we keep your heart rate around 80% of its maximum.


Sometimes we train to intensely to increase the power of each heart beat. Today we train to increase the amount of blood the heart puts out with each beat.

“That sounds like it’d be good for performance.”

It is. If the heart beats too fast today, there isn’t enough time for blood to fill the left ventricle, and so the heart won’t grow and we won’t increase the volume of blood the heart can handle when it beats.

“That would suck.”

Yeah, so let’s go 80%.


Again, a simple explanation showing the value and intent of a training protocol. Isn’t this what coaches do? Don’t isn’t their job to take complicated things and turn them into simple and immediately useful things?

Isn’t this what athletes pay coaches to do?

Both of these conversations can be had once with occasional reference as a reminder. I don’t think this is too much to ask of coach, and I don’t think it’s overestimating an athlete’s desire or ability to know why they’re training how they’re training.

An informed and knowledgeable athlete is always a better athlete.

Athletes, ask questions. To be able to do things better, you need to know why you do them.

Coaches, we need to be teachers with comprehensive understanding and simple communication.

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