Like personal trainers and group exercise instructors, strength and conditioning coaches help others to improve their fitness. But strength and conditioning coaches differ from the others in one very important way—the clients they work with are focused on improving their performance or skill in a sport. This is why strength and conditioning coaches work primarily with athletes.
With advances in the science of human performance, nearly all coaches have come to recognize the advantages of conditioning in high-level competition. This means strength and conditioning coaches are important contributors to most athletic teams. A strength and conditioning facility at a university resembles a fitness center but has significantly more weightlifting equipment because strength and power are crucial to success for most athletes. Conditioning coaches might also be employed by high schools, fitness centers, physical therapy clinics, and professional sport teams. They are increasingly employed by commercially based performance-enhancement companies such as the nationally franchised Velocity Sports Performance or Athletic Republic, or by locally owned centers such as Dynamic Sports Performance in Asburn, Virginia, or Proehlific Park in Greensboro, North Carolina. In this latter category of employers, the facility is likely to provide a range of equipment for improving agility, speed, and sport-specific performance.
Salaries for strength and conditioning coaches vary as much as the type of work they do; generally salaries are in the same range as those of personal trainers—typically in the $40,000 to $60,000 (U.S.) range depending on experience and qualifications. Most strength and conditioning coaches aspire to work at the college or professional level. Head conditioning coaches at the college level are typically paid anywhere from $45,000 to $75,000 annually. Some can earn as much as $200,000, but these higher salaries are rare. Conditioning coaches for professional teams typically earn more than college coaches, but usually less than $100,000 per year.
Strength and conditioning coaches have two primary goals. The first is to improve athletic performance, which usually means improving athletes’ speed, strength,and power (although specifics vary according to athlete and sport). Conditioning coaches develop systematic training programs for both teams and individual athletes, often working in close association with coaches. This usually includes teaching proper lifting techniques, supervising and motivating athletes as they work out, and assessing their performance before and after the program. The nature of the conditioning program will vary depending on whether the sport is in season or not. During the off-season, conditioning programs can be quite rigorous. In season, conditioning programs tend to focus more on maintaining athletes’ conditioning than on improving it. Conditioning programs also vary by sport, and even by position within the sport.
The second primary goal is to reduce athletic injuries. To that end, conditioning coaches often design regimens to strengthen body parts that are prone to injury in a particular sport. Andrew Moser, Strength Coach at Iowa State University agrees, saying, "Student-athletes can have a great training plan that improves their speed, agility, strength, explosiveness, etc., but if we can’t keep them healthy and out there competing, then all of the training improvements don’t help us." Thus to prevent athletes from getting injured during training, conditioning coaches must know the correct exercise and lifting techniques and be able to teach them to athletes. The conditioning coach also monitors athletes’ general health, sometimes providing nutritional advice or referring athletes to a registered dietitian if they need more sophisticated nutritional counseling.
In ideal environments, athletic departments hire one conditioning coach for every 10 to 20 athletes who use the conditioning facility. The actual number of coaches is usually much less. Depending on the size of the athletic program and the level of competition, there might be as few as one or two conditioning coaches. The University of Notre Dame has 9 full-time coaches who work with about 750 student-athletes. Iowa State University has 4 full-time coaches for about 450 student-athletes. Central College in Pella, Iowa, competes at the NCAA division III level and, despite also having about 450 student-athletes, only recently hired a second full-time conditioning coach. At the professional level, you usually find more coaches working with fewer athletes. For example, the Washington Redskins have three coaches for about 75 athletes, and the San Antonio Spurs have a coach for 15 players.
Conditioning coaches usually meet regularly with the team’s coaches to determine what individual athletes, or the team, needs to work on in the conditioning facility. If working with an injured athlete engaged in rehabilitation, conditioning coaches will also consult with the sports medicine or athletic training staff to be sure they do not ask the injured athlete to do anything inappropriate in the conditioning facility. Conditioning coaches who work in sport performance-enhancement facilities usually work with other performance specialists. Their client base tends to be younger (junior high school or senior high school students), and they interact often with their clients’ parents.
Athletic exercise programs can be fairly rigorous, and it can be difficult to get athletes to train as hard as they should. For this reason conditioning coaches must be good motivators. Because of the diversity of their clientele, coaches must be organized in how they administer each conditioning program and be detail oriented in terms of record keeping. Much like a personal trainer, a conditioning coach must be a good teacher because he will be trying to educate athletes on how to execute weightlifting and other exercises correctly. Conditioning coaches must also be perceptive; they will be monitoring athletes as they train, correcting any lifting errors they make. Finally, to work successfully with an array of athletes, coaches, and maybe even parents, the conditioning coach requires above-average interpersonal skills.
Like any professional, a successful conditioning coach requires the right combination of education, certification, and experience. A conditioning coach should have at least a BA degree, with kinesiology as the ideal major. A master’s degree is usually required for college-level jobs. There are many certifying agencies, but there is really only one widely respected certification for strength and conditioning coaches: the CSCS, or Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist offered by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. This certification is virtually a requirement for employment as a conditioning coach.
Experience might be equally as important as preparation for a career as a conditioning coach. The wise student will gain firsthand experience in a strength and conditioning environment while still in college. Whether working as an assistant, an intern, or as a volunteer, nothing is more important than gaining firsthand experience. Working in a fitness center is helpful in this regard, but most fitness centers are committed to improving health and fitness rather than athletic performance. For this reason, it is also important to merge studies in kinesiology with experience working under the supervision, or mentoring, of a skilled strength and conditioning coach. Fortunately many coaches like to share their expertise with enthusiastic young people interested in pursuing similar careers. As is true for the other fitness careers discussed in this chapter, it is worthwhile to become a member of a professional organization. The premier organization for conditioning coaches is the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Members have access to several journals focusing on the science behind conditioning as well as practical methods of doing so.
The job market for strength and conditioning coaches is brisk but tough. There is considerable competition for jobs, especially at the college and professional levels. Some strength and conditioning coaches hire assistants who have a good pedigree, meaning they have worked with well-known conditioning coaches in the past. It can be difficult breaking into this circle without having made connections or having proved yourself with top-level conditioning coaches. On the other hand, strength and conditioning expertise is becoming more sought after by performance-enhancement companies and fitness clubs. In a recent survey of worldwide fitness trends, the American College of Sports Medicine found that demand for strength-training experts was one of the top five most promising employment trends over the past few years. Note that this survey was administered primarily to fitness-oriented clubs and facilities, not athletic programs.
Read more about Careers in Sport, Fitness, and Exercise, by American Kinesiology Association.