I’ve been watching personal trainers a lot lately. This rant has been percolating for a while now. So put on your safety goggles, because here it comes…
What Does A Typical Personal Client Look Like?
Overweight. Under-muscled. Injury-prone. Metabolic disease risk. Low energy, low self-esteem. That pretty much covers it, right?
Sure, there are unique cases and outliers, but this description accurately portrays well over 90 percent of personal training clients.
In A Word, What Does A Typical Personal Client Need?
Muscle is what sets a cascade of positive adaptations into motion — faster metabolism, ability to eat more without consequence, more strength, improved endurance, better balance, increased bone density, less predisposition towards obesity and heart disease. Better energy, better sleep, higher sense of self-worth.
Some gerontologists actually measure biological age by a patient’s amount of lean body mass — it’s that important.
What Does A Typical Personal Client Get?
Given all of this, I’m eternally puzzled about why the bulk of people’s exercise activities in the gym always tend to be things that do not contribute to the growth of new muscle in any significant way. When I watch personal trainers at local fitness centers I frequent, it almost seems like these trainers purposefully avoid any and all exercises that have potential for stimulating new muscle growth.
Instead, they have their clients do things like the following:
• Agility drills.
• Isometric exercises.
• “Stabilization” exercises performed either on one leg, and/or on an unstable surface such as a Bosu™Balance Trainer
• Tire flips.
• Bicep and tricep exercises.
• Abdominal drills.
• Stretching and mobility exercises.
Now, before I dive into this in more detail, I’m happy to state that all of the activities on this list do in fact have a legitimate purpose given the right context. The problem is that none of them have a real payoff when the context is muscle development.
I don’t want to launch into a hyper-technical discussion of why the above items are ineffective for the purposes of stimulating new muscle growth, and in fact, even novice readers can figure most of it out on their own. But just very quickly:
• Agility drills: Designed for the development of agility, not muscle development. Agility drills do not expose muscles to forces that are intense enough, or prolonged enough, or over a sufficient range of motion, to develop appreciable muscle growth.
• Isometric exercises: While isometric contraction can improve strength, they do little to promote muscular hypertrophy.
• Jumps: Like agility drills, jumping exercises do not expose muscles to forces that are intense enough, or prolonged enough, or over a sufficient range of motion, to develop appreciable muscle growth.
• “Stabilization” exercises: When you stand on an unstable surface, you’re unable to expose your muscles to the tensions required for muscle growth. If you question this, try curling a heavy barbell while standing normally on two feet, and then try curling the same bar while standing on one foot. Sure, curling a bar while standing on one foot is “harder,” but harder doesn’t mean more effective. Curling a heavy bar is harder when I punch you in the face too, but obviously not better (thanks to Nick Shaw for that rather convincing example).
• Tire flips: Flipping heavy, oversized tires does have some muscle-building potential, provided you flip heavy enough tires for a sufficient number of reps, but few people ever do that. Further, there are many far better drills from a risk-to-benefit point of view.
• Abdominal drills: Training abs will probably promote their muscular growth to some degree, but who cares? These are small muscles to start with, and are structured in a way that limits their potential for growth, as compared to muscles like the hamstrings and lattisimus dorsi.
• Bicep and tricep exercises: Same problem as abs: sure your arms will grow when you train them properly, but assuming you’re not a competitive bodybuilder, who cares? The amount of muscle you can grow by training arms pales in comparison to training much larger muscles.
• Stretching and mobility exercises. Stretching doesn’t promote muscular growth.
Now with all of that said, again, all of the above exercises have a place in either physical therapy, athletic development, or other specific applications. But if you’re a typical personal training client, you need more muscle. It’s pretty much that simple.
What A Typical Personal Client Should Receive
The staples of progressive resistance training have been known for decades now: multi-joint, full range of motion movements performed in a stable environment against a challenging load (usually) in the form of a barbell or dumbbells.
Squats, pullups, deadlifts, rows, presses, and their variations.
When a given load becomes less challenging, the load is increased. Rinse and repeat.
Is there a place for stretching, ab work, and bicep curls? Sure. A small place.
Aren’t planks, agility curls, and stability drills better than nothing (they burn calories after all, right?)
Sure — they’re certainly better than nothing. Eating glazed doughnuts is better than nothing too, but can’t we set our sights a bit higher than that? Given that we all have limited time, energy, and motivation, wouldn’t it be better to just do things that get the best possible return on investment, rather than wasting your client’s time doing every possible iteration of useless nonsense that you saw on Jillian Michael’s latest You Tube video?
DO What Your Clients Need, Not What They Think They Want
Trainers: By and large, your clients simply need more muscle. Your job is to help them get it, not cave in to their misguided expectations about what they should be doing with you. You’re the professional in that relationship. You have an amazing opportunity to change your client’s lives for the better. I hope you’ll reflect on that, and as always, comments are welcome.