An Interview with Sean Collins
Meet Sean Collins, @barbellsandcats. Head coach of over 50 athletes—in person and remotely—at Murder of Crows Barbell Club in Brooklyn, NY. Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and USAPL Club Coach. 74kg lifter—recently took home a bronze medal from USAPL’s Northeast Regionals. Currently working on getting Obama to like or comment anything he posts on IG. His happy place is binge-watching something at home with his wife, Kayleigh, and his cat, Demetri, with coffee and something sweet.
Before you began coaching, did anyone coach you?
Yes! I actually found powerlifting through CrossFit. I had been doing CF for about 6-7 months in an effort to get stronger for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which I wasn't particularly great at (lol), but I thoroughly enjoyed the technical, mental, and physical aspects required out of just not getting tapped out, let alone tapping someone else out. During my CF time, I really enjoyed squatting in class. I decided to go in during open gym time and max out—I ended up with a super high 275-pound squat, and the coach on staff (Eric) told me all about powerlifting. The next time he was on staff, I showed up with new squat shoes, gallon of milk in hand, and decided to grow out a beard, and the rest is history. Eric has been my coach on and off for close to 4 years now.
What were things you liked about your coach? Things you didn't like? Is your own work influenced by your experience with them?
I owe everything to this guy! He's very knowledgeable, precise, and mentored me in my coaching / programming methodology. My own work is definitely influenced by him, as he was the one who originally put me on to RPE-style training. He stressed the importance of knowing the fundamentals of sports science and programming methodology like the back of my hand, but also pushed me to focus on making intelligent decisions when I wanted to stray towards what was sexy and novel at the time, while also remaining creative enough to solve unique problems athletes may run into. He constantly challenges me to be a better athlete and coach, and to focus on what the athlete needs to improve. I think a lot of qualities he showed me appear often during my own interactions with my athletes.
What should an athlete look for when deciding on a coach? Do you believe there is a "right" time to hire one?
The three things an athlete should look for in a coach is personality/character, reputation, and communication style (especially if you're looking for an online coach). Personality/character is key because you need to work hard for someone you can buy into—the best program in the world is worthless if you can't personally connect with your coach. Working hard for someone who you believe in, and are confident in, is super important to athlete psychology and thus, important in overall performance improvement. Your coach should be someone you are proud to work with, both in a powerlifting and personal sense. I believe the relationship aspect between coach and athlete is extremely underrated, and is one of the bigger reasons why a lot of my athletes are successful- they know I have their back, and they know my decisions are only for their improvement, and that I'm personally invested in them as a person and athlete. Reputation is important because you don't want to waste your precious training time (and money) on just anyone. They don't have to be the most famous or well-known, but get intel on your prospective coach, pay attention to how long athletes stick with them, and what they're known for and / or what they've been able to do to enrich an athlete's performance. To be clear, reputation isn't the end-all-be-all. I don't have a problem with athletes hiring newer coaches, or working with their friends so they can learn how to program and coach- I think there's a stigma against the proliferation of online coaches which I try my hardest to stay away from being negative about, because it's not up to me to pass judgement on folks that want to give it a shot and pursue their interests and passions. I think the market speaks for itself and athletes are going to gravitate naturally to the ones who are of quality, despite experience level. Just know what you're getting yourself into, and do the research, and ask the questions you need to feel comfortable and confident. I think there's never a wrong time to reach out to a coach. I personally think it's best to work with a coach earlier on rather than later, because neurological patterning is a tough thing to change. One of my biggest challenges I constantly face as a coach is convincing someone that the way they've approached a movement or program is incorrect, and revamping their movement or thought process (effectively undoing months / years of ingrained learning before we get to progress) is a very tough situation to be in. I've actually recommended to a few athletes to not compete for 6+ months in order to focus on corrections. Sometimes, it's a deal-breaker between prospective clients and myself.
What do you like and dislike about online coaching?
I love that I get to work with folks from all over the place! I'm at a unique advantage in that I do in-person and online, and a lot of my online athletes are within the tri-state area, so a trip down to Murder of Crows is often strategically used when learning or perfecting movement. There's nothing I specifically dislike about online coaching, but I do think that the biggest challenge is infrequent check-ins. Sometimes athletes tend to default to "I'm only going to reach out when there's a problem", not always knowing that the problem could be circumvented if check-ins were more regular. I, like a lot of fellow coaches, utilize check-ins to determine whether the current strategy is working, how the athlete is handling volume, intensity and fatigue, and how the athlete is managing variables in their life—mainly food, sleep, and stress management. A lot of times I feel that I can be leveraged much more than I actually am, and when an athlete misses check-ins for weeks on end, they are just paying for a custom program that becomes less and less accurate over time when that communication aspect is ignored. The athletes that communicate often also tend to be the athletes that do the best, objectively speaking. Also, as an aside, athletes need to stop apologizing for "being a bother", or feel that they can't reach out when there are problems or concerns. If your coach is making you feel like you're annoying them all the time, it's probably a sign to look for a new coach haha. It's a huge pet peeve of mine!
What is the most common problem athletes seem to have with any of the big three? What's a helpful cue that remedies this?
One of the biggest problems I see is the lack of accessory movements that target weaknesses. A hopefully not-so-obvious one is front squats for low-bar athletes. If your hips are shooting out after rebounding out of the hole, you're either one of two things: 1) Not driving your shoulders back into the bar to "lead" with the chest (and not the hips) to provide a space for your glutes to fire forward to extend your hips efficiently upon lockout, and / or 2) Your quads are too weak, so the responsibility is deferred to your hips / posterior chain, which puts way more stress on your lower back than necessary. Doing front squats, high bar, or SSB squats in addition to low-bar should create a more efficient system by strengthening your quads and add more horsepower to your squat. Outside of a novice situation, specificity needs to not be so hyper-specific, and weaknesses (and / or lack of musculature in certain areas) need to be addressed to progress.
For you personally, what cues are most helpful in your own squat/bench/deadlift?
Squat: ribs down, push your breath into the belt, shoulder blades pinched back and hands pulling down on the bar to increase back tightness. I enjoy focusing my eyes on something static rather than looking down or up, and the most important cue I always discuss with my athletes: hips back, knees forward, bending at the same time. Far too often athletes try to focus on extremely vertical shins and insist on starting at the hips well before they break at the knees, which is largely inappropriate based on their specific anthropometry a lot of the time. Find the squat that works best for you, not the squat that works for someone else. If I had a quarter for every time I heard "but so and so does it this way!", I'd be mildly wealthy. Bench: grip the bar as hard as you can while paying close attention to applying pressure on the outside of your palms so you feel your shoulders and lats get very tight (this is often described as "bending the bar" but is also often misguided/misinterpreted). Keep breath held for as long as possible on bench reps, and keeping pressure in the heels static the entire time. Deadlift: pump your hamstrings and pull your armpits closed (as if you're trying to squeeze a fruit hard AF in your armpit) prior to lifting, and pretend like you're rowing the bar towards the center of your chest before pushing through your heels to take slack out of the bar. Honestly, the biggest thing I struggle with is being extremely aggressive on this lift, and it's been the biggest challenge for me to cue that for myself.
The final and most important answer people are looking for: If you could swim in a bowl of cereal, what kind would it be?
I'd probably choose lucky charms... but ONLY the marshmallows!