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A Personal Problem

Posted Sep 12 2008 8:53am
I hate personal trainers. Ok, perhaps not all personal trainers, maybe just 95.45% of them. If you’re familiar with statistics, then that number should make sense to you: it probably takes two standard deviations until you finally get to the “good” trainers, the educated, effective, motivating trainers that will actually make a long-lasting and positive change in their clients’ lives; the true professionals that take pride in their chosen field and who spend their careers constantly seeking improvement and in providing a better experience for their clients.

Case in point: my friend Jen and I were recently talking about her personal trainer and about his techniques. Descriptions of her body-part training and stability ball yoga ensued, complete with high-rep bicep curls, triceps kickbacks and crunches, finished with cautionary tales of the risk of “bulking up” and the need to maintain a “toned” body. Yeah…I wanted to cry. And yet, she really didn’t understand why what he was doing was “wrong.” After all, she was seeing results, and she did feel that she was working hard and having good sessions. Even after I explained what the problems were, she was still unsure of what to do: how would she evaluate another trainer? How could she differentiate a “good” trainer from a “bad” trainer? Funny that she should ask…

The first thing to consider when evaluating a trainer at your gym is the trainer him/herself. What are their qualifications in terms of credentials, experience and knowledge? Have they received certification from a nationally recognized and respected association (the NSCA, NASM, ACSM, etc)? Do they have an educational background in exercise science? Do they have experience in routine design for your particular needs? All of these factors will contribute towards the type of routine that they design for you and the overall quality of that routine. The more they know and have experienced, the better their ability to write a quality and individualized routine. Choosing the right trainer for yourself and your needs will be just as important as the workout itself.

Does your trainer want you to lift weights 6-7 days per week? Your body doesn’t. More than 4-5 days of lifting per week, or more than 3 days in a row without rest, can quickly lead to overworking your system. If you are a beginner and have less than 6 months of experience in lifting weights, 2-3 days of total body workouts per week is more than enough to elicit gains in strength and size. But if you’ve seen more time in the gym than Arnold, your trainer should also consider a four day split, such as an upper/lower or push/pull design. However, if you start to see ‘body part’ splits, i.e. a dedicated ‘arms’ day, a chest/back day, etc., this should throw up an immediate red flag: body part routines are inefficient in terms of the balance of the design, they typically do not provide enough total body rest, requiring 5-7 days per week, substitute big core movements such as squats and deadlifts for smaller isolated movements such as leg extensions and hamstring curls, and will cram too much volume into each day while reducing the frequency. But regardless of your ‘training age’ never forget that in the gym, sometimes less really is more. A full body, 3x per week workout routine is still an exceptional methodology, regardless of experience. Too little time off now will lead to a lot of time off later recovering from overtraining or musculoskeletal dysfunction.

Is the program balanced? Or are there too many pushing exercises vs. pulling, upper body exercises vs. lower body, or too much isolation work vs. compound lifts? Everything must be balanced, not just the trainer’s check book. Something that your trainer should understand is that muscles not only move the body, they act on it as well, directly affecting the health of your joints and skeletal system. Imbalances not only make you look like you were built by Dr. Frankenstein, they will eventually make you move like his monster as well. Imbalances in strength between opposing antagonist muscles will exert unequal forces on joints such as knees and shoulders, which can lead to major problems down the road. You should run away from any routine that is unbalanced and risks damaging healthy proportions and alignment, or you’ll risk not being able to run at all!

Does your workout suffer from the standard ‘3 sets at 8-12 reps’ recommendation of intensity and volume? Simply changing exercises once a month is only one way to modify your workout and infuse variety into a routine. By ignoring the influence that alterations to weight and volume have on a workout and subsequent results, you will never achieve your personal best. By periodically alternating the amount of weight and repetitions performed, either within the week, or week to week, your trainer will be able to get you to break through plateaus and gain strength and size. Along with the changes in reps performed, the volume of a routine will be inversely affected. The higher the intensity, the lower the volume, and vice-versa. Too much volume or too high an intensity for too long will cause your workouts to become stale and ineffective. The weight selection and volume of a routine are some of the most important, and unfortunately most overlooked, variables in a workout. A trainer that doesn’t incorporate this into your workouts is only writing your routine, not understanding it.

Is the program based on solid, functional exercises? A rotating unilateral single leg bosu pulley row may sound pretty cool, but what purpose does it serve? A quality routine should be based on free weight compound lifts: the squat, deadlift, bench press, dip, pull-up, row, etc. When you select an exercise that requires greater balance, i.e. a stability ball press over a flat bench, you are trading some of the resistance that you are capable of using for a larger demand on your synergist muscles and core musculature in keeping balance. This isn’t a problem if the volume of stability exercise is low, but if too much of your routine sounds like the assembly instructions for an Ikea bookcase, you will be limiting how much strength and size you will ultimately be able to achieve out of your routine because you won’t be able to use enough weight to continue forcing your body to adapt and grow. Exercises which test and present a new challenge in balance and coordination are legitimate and valuable additions to a routine and can add variety to an otherwise basic program; however, if you use too many of them too often, you are trading an applicable, functional movement program for circus act training. Unless your job happens to require that you walk on a high-wire, training on one in the gym wouldn’t be the best, most useable option. As a general rule about 10% of the exercises, at most, should focus on improvements in balance and coordination within a basic routine designed to improve strength and muscle size. Too many unconventional or bizarre exercises indicate a trainer trying to look informed and unique, instead of one that actually is.

Does your new routine reflect your goals and do you feel that it’s individualized enough, taking into account your particular strengths, weaknesses, and abilities? A good trainer should be able to assess your condition, make note of any imbalances in strength or abilities, and design a program that will correct those issues while still respecting and addressing your requests and needs. Contrary to popular (and incorrect) belief, regardless of your goals, you should always look to lift heavy. Any trainer that tells you that high reps are for ‘cutting’ and that low reps are for ‘bulking’ has too much bulk in their head and not enough knowledge in their brains! Remember: your trainer’s only agenda should be in improving your health and making sure that you achieve your goals. You are paying for a personalized routine, it should be one!

Finally, when in doubt, ask questions! Don’t just accept the trainer’s recommendations on face-value. If something doesn’t look right, ask the trainer to explain his/her reasoning and ask for the logic or evidence that supports the choice in your routine. A good trainer should always be able to back up an exercise or program design with solid reasoning and science. Program design should be more than just stringing together a group of random exercises to fill up an appointment. Every exercise, weight selection, tempo choice, repetition amount and volume assignment should be specifically chosen with a purpose and a plan. If they don’t have the answers to back up their work, then you don’t have a good routine.

In the end, a good trainer can be a fantastic asset, while a bad trainer is simply an ass. Luckily, Jen took my advice and fired her trainer soon after our talk. She’s now looking for a new, more qualified trainer that will help her to achieve her goals effectively and safely…and not stare at her chest every time she runs on the treadmill. Gotta love that 95.45%...sigh…

-Jonathan
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