Knowledge vs. Experience


I’ve noticed a disturbing trend online lately.

It probably started a few years ago, but it seems to becoming more and more prevalent as the weeks and months roll on.

Here’s what I see happening:

Too often, people are trying to replace experience with knowledge.

What’s the difference, you might think?

It’s a big difference. HUGE in fact. But let me begin with a story.

JiroThis past weekend, I was watching a documentary called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” It’s a fascinating documentary that Carolina Panthers strength coach Joe Kenn recommended to me, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The entire documentary is about an 85-year-old sushi guru, who has spent his entire life working to become the best sushi master that he possibly can.

That’s 70+ years of experience, tweaking and refining his craft to make the best sushi possible.

As a result, he’s been given elite status by Michelin (3 stars). You also have to make reservations at least a month in advance to get a seat at his restaurant, and you’re going to spend a minimum of $300 per person to eat there.

That is experience.

That is mastery.

On the other hand, imagine if he just sat around and read books or blogs about how to make sushi. Do you think it would be anywhere near as good?

We are living in the information age. The sheer amount of information that we have access to is ridiculous, and now anyone with an internet connection and above-average writing skills can develop an audience via a blog.

That blog can obviously lead to bigger and better things. Maybe they start a podcast, or a YouTube channel where others can “learn” from them.

If they’re really good, they may get an offer to write for major online websites such as or T-Nation.

The scary thing is, just because they have KNOWLEDGE doesn’t mean they have real-world EXPERIENCE.

When I think of experience, I immediately think of coaches like Dan John, Joe Kenn, or Al Vermeil. Guys that have been in the industry 20, 30, or even 40+ years.

Guys that have talked the talk and walked the walk.

Think about it like this:

Do you want to learn business from a stuffy professor in a classroom?

Or do you want to learn it from someone like Donald Trump who has made billions of dollars?

On the other hand, what we’re seeing more and more of now are people that can recite articles and research from Pubmed like nobodies business, but I have serious doubts as to their abilities as a trainer or coach.

Perhaps one of the most gratifying things about doing this for over 15 years is that I have a much better idea of who really knows their stuff.

There’s a huge gap between being able to theorize and pontificate about training-related topics, and being able to get results for a client or athlete.

In our little niche of the universe, keep this in mind – just because someone can write a catchy blog, or has a bazillion articles up across the Internet doesn’t mean they can actually get people results!

When you step back and think about it, how messed up is that?

As information consumers, how often do we let someone who has minimal training background sway our training thoughts and ideals because they’re a persuasive writer?

This has been reinforced to me over and over again when attending conferences and seminars the past couple of years.

If I hang out for even a few minutes and talk shop, you realize very quickly who knows their stuff and get results.

What I’m about to say could sound heretical, and I’m 100% okay with that.

But I want you to think about this for a moment before you say that Mike has finally lost his marbles.

I want you to stop reading fitness related blogs for an entire week, including my own! If you must read something, start stripping down your RSS reader to the top 3 or 4 blogs.

At the end of the day, blogs are instant gratification. They give you the warm and fuzzy feeling that you’re learning something, but unfortunately all it does is play into our ADD lifestyle.

Instead, I want you to go out and either buy a book, watch a video, or attend a seminar.

If possible, try and make sure this person has been around for a while and is really doing what they claim to be doing.

In other words, take back your time and attention and focus on learning something of quality and/or depth.

The next goal is to get out there and actually train someone. I’m all for quality over quantity, but there’s something to be said for someone who has flat-out trained a ton of clients and athletes

I’ve seen Robert “Dos” Rememdios train 100 football players with only an intern for assistance over the course of a “typical” morning.

I know Eric Cressey can see 50, 60 or more baseball players on a Saturday morning.

How good would you be if you simply made it a goal to train a ton of people?

To really dial yourself in and focus on becoming a great coach?

It’s amazing what you learn when you stop try to accumulate knowledge, and try to fill in the gaps with real-world experience.

Maybe you don’t even have a job yet, but you want to work in the field. Volunteer your services at a health club, gym, or athletic performance center. Try and land an internship at a facility that does things the right way.

So the goal of this blog is simple – to motivate you to become better. The easiest way to do that is to follow these two easy steps:

1 – Learn from qualified and reputable sources. Don’t ask for the readers digest version; get the real scoop by watching DVD’s, reading books, research articles, etc. Start to take back your own time and focus on QUALITY learning versus QUANTITY.

2 – Get out and train a ton of people. If you’re new, give away your services for free. If you’re established, don’t just train other clients, but mentor young up-and-coming coaches. Continue to hone and refine your skills. Focus on getting better every single day.

It’s up to YOU to make this industry better; to take it to the next level.

It starts with YOU, TODAY – good luck!



(Lead photo courtesy of Joi Ito)

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  1. Mike,
    right on point!

    You realize this more and more the longer you’re in the industry/trenches. I think we should all strive for a combination of both knowledge and experience.


  2. Remember, you started your career the same way and haven’t been around as lonf as Dan John 😉

    Just out of interest, could you recommend any seminars or coaches in continental europe… since this whole t-nation crowd is US-based* I wouldn’t know who’s workshop to attend.

    *(except Mr Rooney, who’s flying to scandinavia regularly)

    I’ll keep yr bolg in my rss-feeds anyways, sorry…

    • Chris –

      Never claimed to be Dan John, either. He’s just someone I look up to and highly respect.

      One other thing I wanted to mention – keep in mind when I started writing on/offline in 2002, the game was a lot different. There was a stronger barrier of entry, because blogs either had just gotten started or hadn’t started yet.

      In other words, if I wanted to write for an online site, I usually needed to demonstrate a certain level of understanding and/or credibility before doing so. They weren’t going to promote rubbish.

      That isn’t the case today. ANYONE can start a blog/website and have a certain amount of instant authority.

  3. I frequently see the opposite, Guys who say “I’m KNOW I’m right, because I’ve been doing it for years and it works for me!” despite the fact that their anecdotal evidence just doesn’t stack up in the real world.

    They expect you to bow to them, simply because they’ve been doing it for years, and ignore the fact that they’ve been doing it WRONG for years, spouting the same old rubbish about diet and exercise that have been debunked many, many times.

    • Rob – I’ve seen the same as well. People that have been training clients or treating patients for 20+ years with very average results.

      Keep in mind, neither is optimal – we NEED a balance of knowledge and experience.

  4. So true. It’s interesting to hear or read materials from folks who have knowledge, but have yet to test their “theories” in a real world setting. Some stuff that works in a lab or a controlled environment simply bombs when put in play with clients/athletes in the gym.

    Then again, what do I know. We only opened our doors 20 years ago 🙂

    Nice post

  5. I love the idea of knowledge versus application. Well said.

    I think the greatest thing we learn from traning multiple clients (ofte at the same time) is that quality training should be simple to execute, understand and remember.

    • I always tell my interns – “If you can’t explain it to a waitress on a cocktail napkin, you don’t understand it well enough.”

  6. You’re right that people are swinging too far in one direction and lacking experience but don’t overestimate experiences ability to teach us what is true either! In some fields, like rehabilitation, it’s very difficult to know what is true without randomized controlled groups and statistical analyses of pain reduction/healing rates/functional improvement. That’s where knowledge (scientific research comes in).

    Let me also say that if I wanted to learn business I would probably learn from both professors with lots of knowledge about the scientific literature on successful business practices and successful businessmen themselves. I can guarantee you that Donald Trump probably has many false beliefs about what decisions/strategies have made him successful that literature has found is false.

  7. Awesome post! I really like the 10,000 hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell discussed in Outliers. I think that trainer/coaches should spend at least 10,000 hours in the “trenches” before they consider themselves experienced. Getting people results take a lot of time and effort and a lot of people in the fitness industry just want to make a quick buck.

    Thanks for providing great information.

    • I like the 10,000 hour rule as well. It’s not perfect – I know horrible trainers who have coached for 20+ years, but I definitely feel like once you’ve gotten to 10k you’re a lot closer to being where you want to be.

  8. Of course experience is paramount, but arguably… so is knowledge. You can be experienced in doing the same things you’ve been doing for 10, 20, 30 years… that don’t work or are potentially dangerous. I’ve seen the evolution of knowledge in both your and Cressey’s books and DVDs and it seems to be knowledge driven. Take thorasic vs lumbar rotation as an example. I might be completely misunderstanding what I’m seeing/reading… but it appears there has been a change in opinions from earlier Magnificent Mobility to what I’ve been studying/learning from your most recent Back/Knees Seminar. Are those experience based conclusions, knowledge based or both?

    I work as a programmer. While real-world experience is where you put your knowledge to practice… those who stop learning… are left with fewer and fewer career opportunities.

    To me it’s a yin and a yang. You have to work on both.

    • Eric –

      I always enjoy your insights – you have just enough contrarian in you to keep it fun!

      See my comments below, as I don’t want to sound like a broken record. Of course knowledge is important – I firmly believe that it’s critical to our growth, and we should relish in the fact that we have so much readily available to us.

      I just don’t want people to assume that because they’re read every book on training known to man that they are somehow qualified to train effectively. Once you learn it, you have to get out there and actually do it!

    • Well, I hope I’m not coming off as disrespectful, because that is not my intent! 🙂

      I enjoy reading your blog and viewing your DVDs.

  9. Right on Mike. I have only been coaching for 4 years. All of them have been spent in a commercial gym setting. However, In those four years I have probably coached 100 different people on how to perform various lifts. Furthermore, in that time, I would estimate I have been coached by 10 to 12 very knowledgeable people with many years in the industry. I do my best to read as many books, watch as many dvd’s and attend as many seminars as I can. Additionally, I try to just get into as many different gyms as possible to watch and learn. Recently, I was given the opportunity to help coach the strength training at a D1 school. I felt like a frickin rock star. A very reputable strength coach and athletic trainer had me teaching him how to deadlift. I thought at times over the past few years, “man, I really am getting tired of working with regular people. I want to train athletes!” But I’ll tell you what. I am confident now that I can teach the lifts, very confident. If you can teach a mother of 4 to deadlift and box squat, you will be able to coach any athlete you encounter down the road. It’s not paying your dues, it may just be some of the most valuable time in your career. Guess we’ll see!

    • Keep at it Greg! I firmly believe in sweat equity. You can get a very long way in life but simply busting your ass.

  10. Mike,
    This is a fantastic post! I completely agree. It happens in any field that is an “art form” field (medicine, training, etc.). Experience is invaluable. 50% of people that graduate college, graduate in the bottom 50% of their class. I’m sure some of them have blogs. 🙂

  11. It was great seeing you again at BCBC Mike. You always do a great job explaining WHY you do things the way you do.

    You are spot on about “coaching coaches” too. There is a huge difference between coaching a client and coaching a coach to coach. There is no hiding knowledge OR experience deficiencies in that setting.

    • Thanks Dean! And I agree – no better way than to coach a coach. They MUST know the how’s, the why’s, etc. to be great.

  12. I’m kind of surprised by this article… only because I’ve seen you lecture live half a dozen times now, and I know how much you like continuums. All knowledge but no experience means you probably can’t get people results. All experience and no knowledge means you probably are going to get people injured or poor results. You need both. I’ve always seen it this way… intelligence, knowledge, and experience (aka action)… those are the three pieces to the puzzle.

    Intelligence controls how fast you learn, how well you can sort out the gold from the crap, and how much you can innovate… but intelligence by itself does absolutely nothing if it isn’t applied or informed by knowledge.

    Knowledge is important for everything; it gives you a potential game plan, but without intelligence or experience, you can have a lot of useless or false knowledge.

    Action/Experience is the final piece of the puzzle. Without taking action, nothing happens. You can be super intelligent and super knowledgeable, but if you don’t apply these things, you are essentially useless.

    None of these work without the other… In the middle of a balanced triangle is something called “RESULTS.”

    • Agreed 100% Tim. Keep in mind sometimes you have to skew things in the other direction just a touch to bring people back to the middle 🙂

      Again, it comes down to who you are learning from, and from what medium.

      Think of it like this: If you had your choice, how would you learn from me? Would you rather read my blog for months on end, or attend a seminar where I’m speaking?

      That’s the power of the learning medium.

      Now, think about this – would you rather learn from myself, or some of the other people out there who keep blogs?

      That’s the power of WHO you are learning from.

      I know you – you’re already very well developed in your critical thinking skills. Other, I fear, are not.

      Hope that makes sense!

  13. Good thoughts. Lots of theory floating around out there, and much of it isn’t even worth reading. A lot of it just seems to be motivated by wanting to sell something, or show how much the blogger knows about fitness trivia or how clever they are.

    Still, I think it is worthwhile to balance this a little. The value of explanation is to help us understand how something works so that we can make predictions for how it will work if we change the conditions or try to apply it in a radically different way. With practice you may be able to throw a ball much better than some guy who has mastered the equations for trajectory. But the guy who knows the laws of motion can predict where a cannonball will land using the same “knowledge,” whereas the guy who throws really well can’t extrapolate in that way.

    Theory is really, really important for a small and irreplaceable set of things in the hands of people who want to do those things. For the most part, for everyone else, it is just stories of varying accuracy that bear only marginal relationship to what we can actually do.


    • I don’t disagree with you here Todd. As I’m probably going to say a few times in my replies to these comments, I’m not discounting how important knowledge is.

      All I ask is for people to become more cognizant of WHO they are learning from, and in what format.

      Great points!

  14. I look at blogs as info-tainment. Kind of like what the WWE is to actual sports. I find this lets me just sit back and enjoy them for what they are: snippets of the authors thoughts on a particular topic at a particular time.

  15. I think Todd put it right. You need both. Lyle Mcdonald is a good example of someone who does very little training, but who is the leading expert in fat loss. You will see trainers who are training 60-80 hours a week buying his books. Why is that?

    Two classic examples in medicine of how experts got it wrong are the hormone replacement therapy and the anti-arrythmia drugs. In both cases, experts and practicing doctors were convinced. Studies were done just to confirm the experts, but came out the exact opposite! In medicine atleast, evidence based knowledge evolved because experts were getting it very wrong. So it always a combination of both art and science.

  16. Totally agree with all of the above and to again reference Dan John (who was over here in Dublin, Ireland December 2009 – before he went and got more recognised!!) – “if you only had 15mins to train what would you do?”.

    If you only had 15mins to read an article every day who’s articles would you read or what info can you use straight away with YOUR clients (everyone’s clients can vary)

    All the best

  17. Having been a home improvement contractor all my life, ( retired) Here’s something I learned, intelligence and knowledge do not insure a “good” job. Experience is the deciding factor, the sine qua non of performance.
    Another example of which I have experience is playing piano. You mightn’t believe just how many parallels there are between training and piano playing and the more insightful trainers today, you among them, are using those same “learning and conditioning” principles. Quite interesting really.
    So, for one, knowledge is like the musical score, the sheet music as it were, and experience is the ineffable translation of that knowledge into music, the execution, the performance. Thanks, Mike

  18. I love this article, provoked some thought!

    I think knowledge and experience go hand in hand. Experience can also equate to one’s knowledge and therefore appears to have a greater weight than knowledge. I always say “be qualified to show you experience since without your experience, no one cares about your qualification/knowledge”.

  19. Mike:

    Great post, but can I add something. After a 20+ career training soldiers, getting educated, running a couple businesses, I have realized a trend since the early 90’s in the fitness world……stuff is being repackaged and resold and folks are becoming educated in the wrong manner.

    Let me explain. You know how you went to college, got the Bachelor’s, the Master’s, did internships, was a strength coach, got the certifications, licenses, etc…? Well, folks are not doing that because they think if they go to a seminar taught by you, Boyle, Cosgrove, Tate, Berardi, Cressey, etc… that will suffice and now they have copious amounts of knowledge…..this is BS.

    None of what you stated will change in our fitness industry until it gets REGULATED.

    With that I mean, just a like a Contractor who comes to remodel your house has to be licensed, bonded, insured, and have the skills, the trainer or coach should be the same.

    A guy like you running IFAST, should be able to open a facility or train folks without at least a Health Science degree, an ACSM, NASM, or NSCA cert at a PT or CSCS, and then have the appropriate insurance, bond and State and Local licenses to run the facility.

    WHY? You don’t see reputable doctors, therpaists, etc…working on the human body without being state or board certified do you? Hell no you don’t.

    You don’t see lawyers trialing cases without passing the bar and being boarded do you? Hell no again.

    The only way this gap between knowledge and experience will ever change is when little wannabe know-it-all fitness bloggers, some of whom you know very well, will have to have the MANDATORY State and Local certs, licenses, bond, etc…to run their fitness business, even online too.

    To make matters worse, you have folks I know and you know from Men’s Fitness, Men’s Health, and in the inner circles of fitness and strength training make excuses for some of these young guys like there are EXCEPTIONS and that young fintess gun knows his stuff, but yet is too lazy to get the college degree or get a formal cert……and most importantly, maintain their CEU’s or CEC’s.

    I can’t tell you how many folks are running rampant without the current certs and current business licensing….it’s a damn shame, but not until someone dies or gets hurt will REGULATED guidance become mandatory for fitness professionals.

    Anyway man, just my 2 cents, I agree on some of what you say, but your close friends and colleagues are guilty of much of what said and until it changes, the same ol shit will continue.

  20. Mike,

    Long time reader, first time responder. This line:

    “At the end of the day, blogs are instant gratification. They give you the warm and fuzzy feeling that you’re learning something, but unfortunately all it does is play into our ADD lifestyle”

    Hit home to me hard. I find I spend hours some days after work reading blogs by you, Cressey, Reinold, Boyle etc and leave feeling “depressed”. I read a blog by you and it has links to other blogs and they have their own links to other blogs…and everything is “MUST KNOW KNOWLEDGE”. It becomes overwhelming and disheartening in a sense….you read for hours and feel you’ve learned nothing cause there are so many links one can click on in a day haha. I started a blog related to my field, physical therapy, where I write about what I do clinically. I don’t link to other blogs (well, on rare occasion I have to yours), because I want the reader to take time and understand one concept instead of being directed 10 different ways…and eventually forgetting what he/she even started reading in the first place.
    Bottom line, you are right. Blogs make the reader feel like they are putting in work to learn more, and in a way they are. But blogs are superficial and don’t tell the whole story. They do however provide entertainment and food for thought. Texts such as Stu McGill’s Ultimate back Fitness book (which I’m reading now) make you own the material. Blogs seldom do that.

    I still like reading them though!

    Jesse A
    Registered Physiotherapist

    P.S Are you coming to Toronto any time soon?

  21. Good post. I can’t say I’ll go a week without reading the following blogs: Cressey, Nate Green, Kevin Neeld and yours. I want to know how the best do things, so I can try and incorporate it into my own training and put my own spin on it with my clients. Some people put themselves out there to gain attention and hopefully grow their brand. I’ve tried to put myself out there as more of a youth specialist because I’ve coached and been teaching in public schools for over 10 years, so I feel I have a good background to start as a trainer introducing youth to resistance training. I fully agree with you that saying something and doing something are two totally different things.

  22. I think this is a tricky one. I agree that I’d rather have too little formal knowledge than too little experience…


    I think gaps in ones proficiency as a coach are bound to exist if knowledge isn’t chased in a formal manner.

    For example: I started my (applied, completely hands on, zero lectures or classes) PhD about six weeks ago. The doors, and therefore experiences, which have opened up for me already, outweigh what several years of working in one place gaining ‘experience’ would do for both my skillset and ability as a coach.

    Do I think folks who go through degree after degree without getting solid experience bring very little alue to our field?

    Absolutely…but it’s not that simple 🙂

  23. This was an awesome article for me. I have bought a ton o f books, DVD’s, and read articles (just new to the blogs), so I have all this knowledge without a lot of real world application. The advice was spot on and something I had been thinking about. I’m always training to be ready to train. I just purchased Physical Prep 101, so its time to get to work. Ultimate goal be great at my craft as a S&C and Basketball coach and make athletes better! Thanks MR – keep on keepin on!

  24. I
    enjoyed reading the short story in the article. Makes a lot of sense to me. I
    agree with “having knowledge doesn’t mean you have real-world
    experience.” I’ve come across a lot of recruiters who recruit employees
    with experience (and not just educational credentials). I read an article
    which talks about why hands-on experience is important and how you can equate
    experience and education to make it work in your favor:

  25. I enjoyed reading the short story in the article. Makes a lot of sense to me. I agree with “having knowledge doesn’t mean you have real-world experience.” I’ve come across a lot of recruiters who recruit employees with experience (and not just educational credentials). I read an article which talks about why hands-on experience is important and how you can equate experience and education to make it work in your favor:

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