Should You Stick to the Recipe?

The following article first appeared at

Anyone who knows me knows how much I like analogies. One area that continues to frustrate me is talking to trainers about programming. Often the conversation goes something like this, “I use a little of your stuff, a little of Mark Verstegen’s stuff and mix in a little of …”.  In trying to describe how this works or potentially doesn’t work I’ve decided that a food analogy may be the best route. Some people can really cook, others need cookbooks and recipes. Some people write cookbooks, others read cookbooks. Even in the restaurant world, there are cooks and there are chefs. Cooks follow the recipes, chefs create the recipes. Those who know anything about cooking understand that every ingredient in a recipe has a purpose. You wouldn’t bake and simply leave out flour would you?  The key is to figure out if  at this stage of your career are you are a cook or a chef. Here are some basic guidelines.

If you are writing your first program, you are probably a cook. You should find a recipe and follow it exactly.

Think about it this way. If you were making something for the first time would you take two recipes from two different cookbooks and combine them? Would you add ingredients from one of the recipes while subtracting ingredients from the other? If you did this, would you expect the end product to taste good? What if you took two pancake recipes and both called for pancake mix and eggs but, you decided to double up on the pancake mix and simply omit the eggs. The end result would probably be pretty lousy pancakes, correct? What if you said, “I don’t like water, I’ll just put the dry powder in the pan and see if it will cook?” All of this seems foolish doesn’t it.

Unfortunately, when it comes to program design, this is exactly what many coaches do. I  have athletes who have trained with me for years and then become coaches themselves. Instead of using the program that was so successful for them, they alter it. Then they email me the program and say “can you look this over?”.  Invariably the program is a little of mine and a little of theirs, with maybe a touch of third party. A combination of recipes if you will. Also invariably the program is poor. These are not experienced “chefs” yet they have chosen to alter the recipe to suit their taste. The better choice is to choose a recipe designed by a chef and then do a great job of making the meal. In other words, coach the heck out of the program you have successfully used.

If you have been writing programs for few years, perhaps you are a sous-chef.

The sous-chef is the second in command in the kitchen. Many third and fourth year coaches are sous-chefs. They have developed the ability to alter the recipe without spoiling the meal. They understand that ingredients can be altered but that there should be a plan and it should be followed. The sous chef also understands that the ratio of ingredients matters and that you don’t simply cook to your own taste.

After five years of successful program design, you might now qualify as a chef.

At this point you can contemplate bold changes to the recipe because you have extensive experience “cooking”. One famous coach used to say “it’s OK to break the rules, just make sure you understand the rules first”. After five years you should no longer be looking at a DVD and abandoning your whole program.  Chefs don’t abandon their chosen cooking style after watching an episode of Hell’s Kitchen, instead you are now making small changes to what should be a system.

Figure out if you are a cook or a chef. Don’t be afraid to copy if you are a beginner. In fact, I would encourage you to copy rather than to mix. I have said in previous writings that it is a mistake to copy programs. I guess what I should have said is it is a mistake to blindly copy programs.  It is a mistake to copy bad programs. However, it may be very beneficial to copy good programs. I would rather you copy my program than attempt to add bits of my recipe to the recipes of others. If you are not confident yet in your ability to create a program, feel free to copy. I guess cookbooks were created for a reason.

The idea is that eventually we all can become chefs but, we all start out as cooks.

9 Responses to “Should You Stick to the Recipe?”

  1. […] Still on the subject of dinosaurs (I jest! I jest!), this old article by Mike Boyle is one of the great classics of the personal training and strength coach lexica.  In Boyle’s inimitable style, he asks you, are you a chef or a cook?  Find out here. […]

  2. mboyle1959 Says:

    Thanks for reading. The explosion in our field has forced many cooks into chef roles. It might take us a while to catch up.

  3. I enjoyed the analogy. What came to my mind is “where has the quality internship experiences” gone? It would help the “cooks” become “sous chefs.” And how about instead of “copying” and/or “stealing” someone else’s program, a strength “professional” spends time in a system and learns the system. Such as a sous chef would before earning a kitchen of their own? You wouldn’t watch a chef from the front of house and then open a restaurant stating you were an “apprentice.” Get in the trenches and learn. Then find another trench to dig and learn from that experience too.

    Thanks for sharing Coach Boyle. I enjoy the blog posts!

  4. mboyle1959 Says:

    Jess- I read a lot of self-help and have read all the classics ( How to Win Friends and Influence People etc.) but, I think some of it is genetic/ environmental. My father was a high school principal and when he died they named the building after him. I grew up with great role models and am an avid learner.


  5. Mike-

    great analogy here. I truely believe it takes 5 years to make art and become a chef at your profession. However not everyone is chefworthy. As Seth Godin said in linchpin, do not let your lizard brain create resistance. This creates fear, procrastnation, and lack of confidence. He also said that you will fail more often than succeed, but in the process will get better.

    I’m curious how you were able to avoid that resistance to become so great…maximizing skills, creating a following or your charm. I find more and more it is less about skill. However you need a baseline skill to create confidence to try new things. In other words, how much do you hade to focus on your skills this far into your chefhood?

    Thanks for relating this to the strength/training world.


  6. mboyle1959 Says:

    Ron- are you a member? I touched on this idea this week. Great thoughts, thanks. Coaching is about hard work combined with a few experiments.

  7. Ron Crenshaw Says:

    Coach Boyle,

    Not to get too crazy by mixing metaphors, but do you think that coaching follows a hierarchy similar to sports, e.g. some coaches are all-stars, some role players, and others benchwarmers or fourth-line guys? Or perhaps, it is all-stars and role players, since effort should take even the most initially clueless coaching candidate to a greater level of proficiency.

    For example, some coaches always seem to be ahead of the curve year-after-year, while others seem like they are perpetually reactive and feeling unwilling or unable to move from an understudy role, so to speak, to that of the headline performer (minus the inflated ego, of course).

    Anyone beginning needs to follow the lead of those who have far more experience and insight, but the same thing that is of such great benefit seems like it may eventually become a set of chains in that that coach is now feeling somewhat married to someone else’s plan. I know several folks who have the potential to be true chefs, but they seem relegated to being solid cooks due to an fear of rocking the boat or starting to break the rules they now know so well.

    I suppose it would still make for a successful career following the mold of knowledgeable and classy coaches like you, I guess I am just wondering how a coach can begin to change his mindset to the point where he feels confident in establishing his own programming identity, that isn’t merely a carbon copy of someone else, nor is it a hodgepodge that just throws ideas at the wall and hopes something will stick.

  8. Coach,

    That is one of the most thought out analogies I have ever read. I love it! The other day I was wondering to myself if and why I should add something to my program. I have stole the crap out of what I do, but I am pretty confident in my abilities to coach it up. I have been creating programs for 7 years now and I still feel like a cook sometimes.

    I really enjoy reading your Blog!

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