Personal Trainers: What The Hell Are You Doing?

by tffitness on April 30, 2015

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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.

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?

11198489_10153820217919447_570850388_nGiven 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.

• Jumps.

• “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.

11168969_10153820255824447_1158719810_nNow, 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.

11208911_10153820255869447_2059240298_nNow 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?)

11198608_10153820255604447_882858473_nSure — 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.

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Comment

{ 35 comments… read them below or add one }

Ron Wetzell

“Do What Your Client Needs, Not What They Think They Want”: I love this. A few years back, I had the opportunity to work with a number of middle age women who had been introduced to kettlebell training elsewhere. After 50 classes with the women, though, they began to complain that I continued to emphasize form and strength. They were wanting instead high rep ballistics in order to burn calories. I liked this class and wanted to give them what they wanted, but I just could not give them what they wanted because it wasn’t what I knew was right. Russian Kettlebell training is first a school of strength. I disbanded the class.

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tffitness

Thanks Ron!

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John

As usual, Amen to that! Progressive weight training based upon multi-joint exercise is the ONLY path to fitness.

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Edward Anderson

This is about one of the BEST articles that Charles has ever produced. It cannot be stated loud enough, long enough, or frequent enough that there is NO SUBSTITUTE for weight training-PERIOD!!! I’m also surprised that “swimming” wasn’t on the list of activities that trainers would recommend for their clients as that is one of the most effective aerobic exercises there is-bar none!!! Since we are dealing with “personal trainer pet peeves” I would like to add mine. Personal Trainers should “LOOK” like they know what they are doing. I’ve personally seen personal trainers get paid in cash in the locker room from their clients at the pool I was going to, and I’ve seen some of these “trainers” that looked like they could have used a personal trainer themselves as they were so out of shape, with a beer gut hanging over their bikini bottoms, (a woman trainer) who was at least 50 or more pounds overweight. I was told that she was “one of the top personal trainers is Savannah”!!! REALLY!!!??? She sure wouldn’t be getting any of my money!!! I walked into a health store in Houston looking for an herbal supplement and the black guy that owned the store had muscles popping on top of muscles, he would have put Popeye to shame.
He clearly LOOKED like someone who knew what he was doing, and HE would be the one I would be paying for training advice. Bottom line, if you can find a lot of brain dead retards that will fork out the cash to someone with a beer gut and 50 lbs. or more excess body weight to “train” them, GREAT!!! For the more discerning, you best LOOK like you know what you are doing, that’s the BEST “advertisement” one can get!!!

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tffitness

Thanks so much Edward!

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John Stack

Great article. I think that there are a couple of reasons why the average PT shies away from hypertrophy/muscle building. Firstly, they don’t understand it properly and/or do not know how to teach the exercises (health and safety legislation seems to rule everything nowadays to the point that teachers are afraid to teach). Secondly, it’s a hard sell, especially to women who fear the myth of bulking up (and some men too. Thirdly, ‘boredom’. I despise that word and hate to hear it from anybody. I’m very much goal oriented so if, in order to achieve X, you do Y, then get on with it. But it seems that so many people require to be entertained when they go to the gym. Trainers are not entertainers. Entertainment dictates client retention more than results it seems. So m any people are great at procrastination and avoiding reality nowadays. They will do everything bar what they need to do and then complain about the lack of success.

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tffitness

John, I couldn’t agree more!

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Chris

Charles,
I had been a LA Fitness club member for years. LA is better than most clubs but as you indicated there is so much white noise. All these people with and without trainers hoping to get healthy with no change year after year. A year ago bought a half rack squat rack for my garage and a c2 rower. I can do every exercise I need. Thanks for your concise overview of the club fitness problem. I enjoy all your articles and at 67 relate.
Best regards, Chris

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Matt Trimboli

Everything stated seems logical to me and I subscribe to it until the very end when planks get thrown in with other less helpful stuff. Many of your overweight, under-muscled clients probably need some targeted core stability work to safely support their squats and deadlifts. My casual observations tell me that most of these folks should do planks, back bridges, leg raises, etc. to make up for all that sitting that we all do. Curious if you agree.

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tffitness

I think a case can be make for planks, sure. My overriding point is that most trainers over-emphasize them. However, I do think that the importance of “core stability” is over-estimated for most people.

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Darren Garland

Great article! The average clients are in terrible shape and a strength foundation is a prudent strategy.

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tffitness

Thanks Darren!

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Phillip Schlueter

While I totally agree with you, in my setting, a community center, not a hardened gym, if I didn’t include, ladders, balance, some buddy curls, I’d lose clients right and left. Not to mention my bosses would show me the door. I have clients that can’t do a decent push-up because they cannot do a straight plank to save their lives. Even some seasoned gym goers I see reaching for the floor either with their bellies or their noses. I correct, they go right back and do what they were doing when I’m not looking. The pull-up with neck reach is another one of my pet peeves. Excessive reps of high risk movements that are dangerous to the shoulders (bench dips, upright rows, behind the neck pulling and pushing) and then there is the side bends for the “obliques” (ya right one), now that one is great for the aging and weak lower back and doesn’t do much to contract the muscles they think are working! I believe there is give and take between what the client needs and what they want. A little of both keeps management and the client happy and at $474 for 24 1/2 hour sessions, the client is paying the bills. I only get $7.50 per 1/2 hour as it is.

I second what Edward said, a trainer should be fit and look and practice what he/she preaches. Shallow as some say I am, if I’ma working for a six pack – I’ma going to hire a trainer that’s got one!! Then I’d say that indoor cycling rivals a big bang for your buck vs. swimming, ’cause many gyms do not have pools.

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tffitness

Thanks Phillip!

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Queen B

Back to Basics… nothing like lifting free weights. Ladies DONT be afraid of lifting heavy once in awhile.

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tffitness

🙂

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Paul

I think that at least some of this can be attributed to certification programs such as the one offered by NASM. They’re “integrated training” model calls for stabilization training before moving into strength and power. I suspect that most clients end their fitness engagement before ever moving into the strength phase.

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tffitness

Yes, very sad

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Jen G

Yes! I am certified with NASM, and I completely agree with you. I use the stabilization phase mostly as a test to see if the client really needs it. If not, we move on.

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Graham King

To defend the NASM model, a new client would spend 4-8 weeks in the introductory phase. I think that’s about right for any new person. There is a quite a bit of emphasis on strength training. But again, this is just a template from which to build a program. Each client it different and their ability to withstand training is different.

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Malinda

What a great reruosce this text is.

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tffitness

Thanks Malinda 😉

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Joanne Becker

First do no harm! So many who are inactive have issues related to their spine and posture. Everyone has to start somewhere and developing core strength and proper form is the beginning. Injuries caused by overdoing can sideline clients who have psyched themselves up to be motivated. Walk before you run. Sticking with a regular exercise program is what counts. Think Pilates!!!

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chris

I agree with most of what is written, except for the exclusion of mobility work. I usually have 2-3 mobility drills in a session because if you don’t have the ability to achieve full range of motion for a lift or muscular imbalances then mobility work is a must.
I do agree that many Trainers go overboard, but using mobility as active rest is very beneficial.

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tffitness

Thanks Chris — just for clarification, I’m not advocating the exclusion of mobility work — my point is that such drills are typically over-represented in most people’s programs.

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tffitness

Thanks Chris, and if I may, I’m not recommending the EXCLUSION of mobility work — In fact, well-chosen resistance training movements are amazing for mobility development.

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Leemy

“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).”….LMAO…That is all. 🙂

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tffitness

🙂

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t bolton

hello
just a comment on your views I agree you have to use the basic type of exercises I disagree with your view on isometrics old time strongmen used them for muscle and strength there is a trainer Paul batman Obrian who studied isometrics and proved that you can build muscle in less time so it has got advantages there is to many internet sites giving different information not to say that yours is wrong if I was a beginner I think I would give up by now . thanks

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tffitness

Thanks for taking the time to comment! In actuality, isometrics is the LEAST effective method of growing muscle of all the available options. Often, even top athletes are unclear about which of their habits and activities have contributed to their success, VS the ones that have actually impeded their success. Case in point: After years of successful competition, Serena Williams claimed publicly that here recent adoption of a vegan diet was responsible for her success. I agree that the vast array of fitness recommendations are bafflingly contradictory BTW, but that won’t stop me from posting the truth, even though it may differ from what you’ve heard elsewhere.

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Rob Pringle

Couldn’t agree more, and now we have a whole new generation of trainers, who have never trained anyone, being encouraged and ‘taught’ to do online training!?
Just when you think the industry has become ridiculous enough!

On a brighter note, I enjoy your posts.
From one oldie to another, keep them coming!

Cheers
Rob Pringle

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Terry Williams

My son is a PT and liked your article, he said you were exactly right and that he sees this a lot at the gym. He is only 22 but has been bodybuilding since he was 16 and it’s his life and he loves to meet new people whether at the gym or clients of his and works hard to change their body/life forever, thanks keep up the good work…..see in in the gym

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Graham King

Great article. I think the hardest part for a trainer is to educate the clients that muscle-building is the prime activity. There are so many stupid things like the Tracy Anderson method that preaches lifting nothing heavier than 2 pounds. Some women say they are afraid to get bulky. I tell them “if it were that easy to bulky then every 18 year old male here would weigh 250.”

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Joshua Doornenbal

Thanks for telling it like it is. I’m a huge believer that strength is the basis of all human movement so I’m always glad to see articles like this one!

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tffitness

Thanks Joshua!

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