Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Lessons From a Personal Trainer

I'm a firm believer that learning can happen anywhere. Nobody should ever be above the opportunity to learn something new. Especially in this industry; when you stop learning, you're dunzo.


There's usually a hierarchy in the strength world, in terms of whom is learning from whom. Guys like Gray Cook, Charlie Weingroff, Stuart McGill and Louie Simmons tend to be on the high end of that hierarchy. The next level down are the guys like Eric Cressey, Tony Gentilcore, Dave Tate, Dan John and Kelly Starret (just to name a few; there's lots more). There's another level of strength coaches under those guys; the up and comers, the coaches who have great ideas but haven't "made it big yet" and the such. Then there's the personal trainers; my people (for now). We are at the bottom of the barrel; nobody really looks to us for anything. Sure, there are lots of good strength coaches that started off as personal trainers. But that's not what we are known for, we are generally regarded as the Bosu-using, bicep-curling, intelligence-lacking, girthless wastes of space in this industry. Obviously there are really good personal trainers out there who have been accepted into the Strength Family, but they are the exceptions not the rule.

What, then, could a lowly personal trainer in a commercial gym teach a strength coach who works in a facility outfitted with every toy from the EliteFTS catalog? You may be surprised.




First off, something that we have become extremely adept at in my gym is doing a lot with very little. Do you know what we have for equipment to get people strong? A few barbells, a trap bar, dumbbells up to 100# (thank God), a TRX, a few kettlebells up to 45#, a bunch of iron plates and only 160# worth of bumper plates. No speciality bars, no sleds, no sandbags, no heavy medicine balls, no chains, no bands, no plyo boxes, no nothing. On top of that, it's a commercial gym! Weights must be placed gently on the ground. Grunting must be kept to a minimum. Chalk isn't even allowed. With all of those limitations placed upon us, we have had to find innovative ways to continue getting people stronger and fitter. How do we do this? Constantly varying the stimulus. A squat is a squat is a squat, but we can vary it just a little. Load it differently (front squat, zercher squat, Anderson squat, etc), we can change the tempo, we can add a pause at the bottom or we can change the stance width. I also went and bought my own EFS bands so that we can add a dynamic effort effect to some lifts. I need to be constantly inventive so that a guy I've been training for 3 years doesn't get bored with lifting. I don't have the luxury of simply being able to reach out for a different speciality bar. 

The need to constantly vary your training stimulus is so important because you need to keep clients. It's not really like the strength and conditioning world; when someone leaves our doors they aren't exactly running around telling their friends how many pounds I added to their deadlift or squat; nobody in their life cares how strong they are. These people are teachers, lawyers and doctors.  An athlete would leave the gym and brag to his friends about something like that, and they would all listen and think "well shit, I need to go train with this guy too". The only person who cares about my clients results are me and them. New clients don't exactly come pouring in based on referrals, so in order to keep a full roster of sessions I need to get tangible results and I need to get them fast. 


Mike Boyle wrote an article titled "My apology letter to personal trainers" a few years ago, where he outlined the reasons that being a personal trainer was harder than being a strength coach. The point that I agree with the most is that personal trainers see a client for 1-4 hours per week (4 hours if you are super lucky). The rest of the time belongs to the client, and they can do with it what they want. If they train with you twice a week, and then eat pizza and drink beer the rest of the time their results will not be amazing. We need to be able to convey the importance of proper diet and recovery without breaking any scope of practice laws; if they can't grasp that importance then their results will be poor. When their results are poor, they will blame you and stop training. An athlete going to see a Strength Coach has already made the decision that they need to devote the proper amount of time and energy to get better at their given sport and will be willing to do whatever he needs to do to achieve his or her goals. 

Another point that trainers need to be especially good at it selling themselves. A strength coach has the ability to refer back to other clients (athletes) and point to how much they improved during their time with them. Most athletes are after the same general things, after all (get faster, jump higher, get stronger, reduce injury). Every client, for a trainer, is a new client. They all lead very different lives and very few of them can follow a cookie-cutter approach to training. Sure, I do self-myofacial release, foam rolling and the same basic lifts with everybody; but the approach is constantly varied. I need to be able to quickly and accurately portray why my "style" of training works and how it will get results for them. I need to be able to sound like I know what I'm talking about, yet keep the terms simple enough that I don't sound like a pretentious dick who is trying to impress them with big words. I may be a dick, but I'm certainly not a pretentious one. 

In my opinion, the thing that a trainer has to be able to do far better than a strength coach is to be able to play therapist. Athletes trying to get to a D1 program or to the pro's don't often come into the gym with baggage. In a commercial gym, most people come in carrying it. The stress of their day, the stress of their family or just general malaise. On a daily basis I need to be able to listen to a clients problems, offer some sort of comfort/sympathy/empathy (without crossing any boundaries) and still be able to motivate them to get their workout in. Thankfully, this is something that I think I'm pretty good at. One (of the many) things that my wonderful sister instilled in me was the ability to genuinely listen and understand someones problem. I can listen, empathize and offer my opinion without ever coming off as condescending or disingenuous. This is one of those times where I really do give a fuck!



Being a personal trainer is easy. Being a good personal trainer is hard as a maw'fugga. Anybody can make you tired; it's much more difficult to cut through all the bullshit that comes with living life and get down to the business of getting results with a general-population client. If your trainer has managed to do this with you, feel free to give him/her a high-five or a pat on the tush. They're of a rare breed.

Now, go lift something heavy (or at least make sure your trainer is making you lift heavy shit!)

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