This past June marked the 10th anniversary of me landing my first ever personal training job at a gym. I’m not the sentimental type, but it did make me think back about the trainer I was back then, compared to the one I am today. Plenty has changed.
It’s been said that spending 10 years or 10,000 hours practicing your craft will give you a sound understanding of it. Interestingly, despite the experience, I still feel like a frosh with a lot to learn. In that process, I’ve picked up on a few truths I found beneficial to share.
You’re nothing without lifting experience.
As much as I hate the trite “your body is your business card” statement, the truth is, most people will respond favorably to a trainer who appears to be in fair shape and take his own training fairly seriously. With all things considered, it’s not too much to ask, either. But more important than that is the fact that actually training gives you a window into what workout programs feel like, what muscles respond to, what joints respond to, and how all of this can benefit clients.
This becomes even more important if you enter an arena of specialization (like the Olympic lifts or powerlifting, just to name two). Reading every textbook under the sun can provide the theory, but the intangible factor that is real world application is what makes the difference in helping someone see results.
Fitness is a Revolving Door of Trends. And Revolve it Will.
Instability training was the thing, then it was the worst thing. Now it’s a thing again. Kettlebells rose from the ashes over the last few years, and let’s not even get started on how many nutrition-based trends rise and fall from popularity. At the end of the day, there are many ways to elicit a result, and most people get in over their heads trying to choose between them. None of the above is going to change, and the truth is that tried, tested and true methods will never go out of style. Any smart lifter or coach knows there are no shortcuts, and as a general rule of thumb, seeking fast results probably won’t mean they’ll be sustainable ones. When it all comes down to it, training for long-term benefits comes from following methods and sticking to them for a while, without jumping ship for the next popular fad.
Most Clients Don’t care about Anything but Results.
For about the first two years of my career, I would have been called a horrible trainer by the worst coach that you’ve personally ever seen. As long as an exercise was flashy and difficult to maneuver, I was all over it for my clients. Typically that would involve plenty of instability, complex movement patterns, and more of a mental toll than a legitimate physical toll. Once I started learning from great coaches, hired a trainer for my own gains, studying from industry-specific books and great websites like T-Nation, EliteFTS and more, I realized there was more to it, and that my methods were all show and no go. So I got technical.
Technical enough for my clients to have to endure many of my minutes-long dissertations to explain the “why” behind each lift, technique, superset, or program.
As valid as many of these explanations and choices were, the truth of the matter is, my clients probably didn’t care. Most people pay for personal training because they figure the “safety” side of things will be taken care of, and that the coach they hire will use the most appropriate methods to deliver results. Moreover, most of them will gauge their trainers’ abilities upon whether they receive those results (as wrong as that may be for some to do). Of course, given we work with members of the general population, we’ll all get the occasional clients who have a vested interest in learning about the details of training on a deeper level. But let’s face it: Most just want to be told what to do, how to do it, and reap the benefits of their hard work. So long story short, my esoteric summaries generally didn’t matter. I’ve found a great skill that was worth building was that of taking technical descriptions, and learning to simplify them enough for them to be understood by a child – and that regards both the content itself and the time needed to explain it.
There are Downsides to Strength Training.
Spend enough time studying educated training sources, and you’ll probably notice the consistent (and important) theme in that strength training should prevail over all other types of training. That ideology generally and largely goes undisputed, as it’s an irrefutable truth for people who want to lead healthy lives. The thing is, most of these sources continue to cater to people who have no perceived ceiling on their progress – whether they’re 98 pound weaklings or barbell hobbyists. Put simply, once you’ve gotten strong, if you don’t compete in a sport, it would better serve you to focus on staying strong, rather than constantly getting stronger. Once you’re past the age where you think you have something to prove in the weight room, you realize no one cares about your 560 pound deadlift or 450 pound squat, and it has very limited real world application.
More importantly, there’s a tradeoff that can come in the form of wear and tear on the joints and connective tissue (even more so if you’re not at a mechanical advantage as a lifter. More on that later), to add to the “life” wear and tear that getting older creates by default. It’s important and humbling for a lifter to realize that his body is no longer the bionic, 20 year old body that could handle anything that was thrown at it, and bounce back like nothing. Instead of repeatedly testing strength, it’s worthwhile to start training it in a smart way. Own lighter loads. Chase different rep ranges. Use tempos and pauses. If you can lift 400, find out all the things you can do in the same lift with 225. The only gym test that it’s really important you pass at the end of it all, is the test of time.
Staying Away from the Gym is Just as Important as Getting in the Gym.
Some people think “overtraining” doesn’t exist. Earlier this year, my friend Dr. John Rusin said something that really stuck with me, and serves as a great response to such naysayers:
“While overtraining might be a myth, the phenomenon of under-recovering is REAL.”
That echoes my sentiments, especially when thinking about my client base over the years. Especially since about 2010, many of my clients have been the typical white collar type-A executives who work 60-80 hour work weeks, have families, have poor diets, poor sleep habits, and generally prioritize their work over their health. Their basic personality type will motivate them to wake up at 4:30 to go to the gym every day before work and crush a hard workout. But even 3 days per week at the gym may be too much in light of their schedule and lifestyle. In an ideal world, we’d all have all the time we’d need to train, and a consistent schedule to boot. But recognizing when you’re under more stress or are leading a less than healthy lifestyle should move you to ease up on the gas pedal where hitting the gym hard every day is concerned… At least until you get things sorted. Your body will thank you in the form of one less reason to burnout.
If you’re not Built for This, Suck it up and Change your Approach. Or get injured.
Mentioned earlier, leverages are a huge deal. Not paying attention to this as a lifter or as a coach with clients will lead to ramifications at some point down the road. It’s not a matter of whether you’ll get hurt, it’s a matter of how badly. Aspirations to bench press the world when you have the wingspan of an albatross won’t come without paying dues of shoulder stress, and acknowledging that a guy your strength with shorter arms and a bigger ribcage will fare better in the lift. Like it or not, strength training in particular is very much a dance with physics, and attaining proper leverages is half the battle to developing the lifting skills needed to move impressive numbers. A 6’8” lifter with spider legs probably won’t have a walk in the park trying to reach a double-bodyweight full depth squat or conventional deadlift. This in itself can put to question many “strength standards” people hold as gospel.
Especially if there’s absolutely nothing but pride and ego riding on it, there’s no shame in changing your approach, setup, lift variation or technique to make movements safer and more effective for your body type. Force-feeding movements because the books say they’re the best is a good way to show you lack critical thinking skills.
Many Obsess Over Getting Big and Strong because they’re Skinny and Weak. But They’re Skinny and Weak Because they Obsess over getting Big and Strong.
So it’s been ten years.
In all that time, I’ve never seen an internet troll, or anyone preoccupied with training minutiae that had absolutely incredible, ground breaking results to match their catatonic behavior. That’s because people who are constantly in search of the “best method”, spend too much time writing off other training and nutritional strategies as inferior, or find too many problems with them before just putting them to practice. The result is almost always a less-than-impressive physique and less-than-impressive lift numbers. Shutting up, buckling down, and putting the time in the weight room is the best strategy for gains. Period.
The Uniform for the Form Police Always comes in size Small.
Since we’re on the topic, it’s also worth noting that with experience in the gym comes a better understanding of how to push your body and muscles to achieve a result. Any good trainer will cringe at a lifter setting up for some camelback deadlifts, or squat-mornings. But if that trainer also thinks that every set of rows should be performed with a perfectly rigid and still trunk, he’d be remiss. If your goal is to be huge, don’t expect to get there without employing some smart cheats. Here’s an example of what I mean.
Professionalism is Subjective.
As fitness professionals, the clients we’re probably going to keep for the longest time will be a fair combination of those who get the best results and those who share many of our personality traits and views. Since I’m a trainer and a writer, I notice even more of this trend. A coach with a laid back attitude will probably attract clients who are similarly cavalier about their work ethic in the gym. A truculent online coach who decidedly writes with an acerbic wit likely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. A coach who follows his client around with a clipboard recording every set, asks permission to touch, and turns his phone off until he’s home from work will probably have clients that find something wrong with my first and second examples. My point is, there’s a “best fit” for everyone. The coach who says he’s the best fit for anyone under the sun probably wants to make fast money. Especially in the past five years, I’ve turned a few new clients over for referral, not because I didn’t think I could help them get their results – but because I felt we wouldn’t be a good fit for one another. This industry largely revolves around relationships, and referring someone to a coach who better suits them can be a testimony to your professionalism too.
Aim for your Audience to be Those who will Listen.
I’ve lost count of how many articles I’ve written in my career. I’ll count it out at the end of 2017.
I’ve also done a growing number of speaking engagements, especially in the last 3 years. All of this has taught me that there will always be people who can extract actionable advice when a professional is pointing out how he does things. And there will always be people who are stuck staring at his finger.
This subheading doesn’t mean avoiding all forms of debaters at all cost, but rather tailoring your work to benefit as many people as possible, and most importantly, choose your battles wisely. For many, the internet is a bastion that enables them to hurl whatever vitriol they want at you while hiding safe behind their laptop screens. In many cases, the random person you could be having an exhaustively long winded and heated training debate with could be someone you didn’t know was suffering from serious mental issues. It sounds extreme, but there’s lots of truth to that statement. Staying focused on the people you can help is more productive than trying to reason with the people you can’t. Plus, in my opinion, fewer fractious exchanges probably equal a better professional rep in the long run.
I chose these points among many others because I think they cater to lifters, trainers, and educators fairly equally. As you’ll see in coming articles, many of these points above really set the tone for where I’m at today. From a profession that’s largely based on inference, suggestion and hypothesis, comes an environment that one can literally never stop learning from. And 10,000 hours from now, I’m sure the 10,000 hour idea will be extinct.