I will confess that before I got certified as a trainer, most of what went on in the gym was a mystery to me. I lifted dumbbells and barbells to get bigger and stronger and I ran to exercise my heart and lungs. That was it. And I didn’t think that all my years working on a horse farm and training horses had anything to do with the strength and endurance I already had although they very much did. Outside of simple barbell work or dumbbell circuits, the majority of what I saw people doing in the gym just confused me. I did not understand why trainers did what they did, but I was certain there was some sort of deep intellectual process behind it all.
I was wrong.
I learned this after I hired a personal trainer at my local gym. I wish it was a good experience, but it was very confusing. The trainers at my gym all had good reputations and all used similar methods, but I could never figure out what the hell they were doing. Over the years I had been there, I saw the typical workouts go from more dumbbell and machine work to more high intensity interval training formats using plyometrics, medicine balls, and bodyweight exercises.
Watching other people suffering under the instruction of these much celebrated trainers, I thought that maybe I needed some of that myself. It looked hard and if anything, I needed to be able to work harder. I was exhausted from having three kids under the age of four at home and I felt like an old woman. I was dead wrong. After about six weeks and 18 sessions where I could never figure out what the point of the workout was, I just had to stop because I felt I was being pushed beyond my limits. My performance did not seem to be improving, I had no measureable progress, and I just felt tired and sore. I became demotivated and depressed.
Before giving up altogether however, I decided to use my skills as a research scientist and study this whole training thing on my own. That’s when I realized there was a difference between EXERCISE and TRAINING. This realization began when I set a goal for myself and researched how to get there. When I designed my workouts based on the scientific approach to a goal, and not entertainment, I found that focusing on the simplest elements of strength, endurance, and aerobic base allowed me to make gains very quickly. I was soon able to work much harder than my former trainer had tried to push me. I also saw that a lot of things she had me do were silly or just plain dangerous.
I started working on a training certification with the ISSA and as I learned more about training the right way, I became more and more disgusted with my prior experience. For example, the majority of research demonstrates that high intensity interval training is not any more effective for fitness OR performance when performed more than twice a week and actually increases overall stress and risk of injury. And yet, the majority of gyms in America have trainers doling out high intensity workouts 5 days a week. It seems that personal training these days has become more focused on putting on an impressive show. It also seeks to appeal to the individual who believes that being completely annihilated in a training session means he or she got a good workout. The professional trainer, however, does what is best for the client.
Exercise is good. Everyone should exercise more. In fact, 20-30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise is all that is needed to mitigate the majority of health risks associated with inactivity and obesity. It will not cure cancer or change your genetics, but it can help you live longer with a better quality of life. Group exercise is a very motivating way to get people active and it should be encouraged. Most people participating in group exercise can improve their fitness levels relatively quickly and have a lot of fun. However, whether the format is a boot camp, a dance class, a kettlebell conditioning class, or some other combination of resistance training and conditioning, it becomes very apparent where the point of diminishing returns is for most people. They stop making gains, they stop having fun, and they start to get some aches and pains they didn’t have before.
As beneficial as exercise is for us, as trainers, we should be getting our clients where they need to be physically as quickly as possible and support their efforts as their abilities and goals change. We need to support their ability to exercise, carry out daily tasks, and participate in sports if they like. And there is a very simple process to get there. Its called strength training. Not just any old strength training, strength training that is specific to their particular deficiencies. It can take many forms and be scaled a number of ways, but it must be specific and should be the primary goal of most training sessions. Strength takes a long time to develop and although there is such a thing as “strong enough”, most of our clients aren’t even close to that. We also have to make sure that they can use the exercises we give them efficiently. If a client can’t execute an exercise correctly, it is useless and a waste of time. All the other stuff we put into workouts such as conditioning work and finishers can keep things fun and give our clients a little bit of general exercise as well, but the majority of our focus should be on training.
If you can picture the Eiffel Tower in Paris, think of strength training as the elevator at the bottom that takes you directly to the top. Exercise is a spiral staircase that wraps endlessly around and goes up one story at a time. You probably get the drift here: exercise may get you where you want to be eventually, but training is much more efficient. Now, I’m not bashing exercise. It needs to be done. BUT, as trainers, we need to take an honest look at the individuals we work with and figure out if and how they can exercise more effectively and more importantly, safely. This is easy to do and just a few modifications to a training protocol to strengthen weaknesses and reinforce strengths can yield far better results than just grinding through a gasser of a workout.
In the context of clients with a performance goal, however, exercise really doesn’t have a place. The training session should support the goal and if that goal is playing a sport or competing, then the training session should also not put undo stress on the person’s ability to practice and play his or her sport. And yet, I’ve seen trainers completely drop the ball on this and not make adjustments for the stresses their clients encounter when outside activities are at play. Its not okay to risk a client’s safety by being inflexible. I have heard about and personally witnessed rather catastrophic injuries from this basic mistake.
So, obviously, our clients like to exercise and many won’t do it without us. However, they are not the fitness experts. We are the professionals in the field. And if we are only giving our clients what they want and not what they need, we are not doing our jobs. A smart trainer who combines both exercise and training in a single session will be far more successful than the trainer that relies on the session largely as entertainment. Fun is a legitimate goal in building a workout, but should not be the primary focus. Determine your clients’ needs and make these the primary focus of the training session. It is not hard to do and delivers much better long term results.
So, how do you know if you are training or just exercising? Its simple, explain why you’re doing what you’re doing and have some very good reasons for every moving piece in the workout. If you can’t do that and back up your conclusions with science, you need to re-evaluate your methods.
And just so we’re clear, these things are backed up by years and years of real scientific research as well as the observations of top level coaches who have been honing their craft for decades:
1. Strength has the greatest transference to most other training qualities: endurance, power, speed, body composition, and flexibility. Strength training is not strength endurance training. Strength training is training your nervous system to recruit higher threshold motor units and exert more force. This requires overload.
2. The bulk of the research shows that more than two high intensity interval training sessions per week is no more beneficial to overall health and performance and actually increases overall stress and risk of injury. Eighty percent of aerobic training should be of the long steady variety (this is not long slow distance training, it is consistent work at an intensity one can sustain for 30-60 minutes). The other 20% can be higher intensity conditioning, but without the long steady base, the high intensity stuff can only take you so far.
3. Weight loss occurs when there is a deficiency in calories. This can be from exercise, diet, or a combination of the two. There are no magic exercise or diet programs, any combination can work as long as it is consistent and mathematically correct.
4. Training sessions that consist of strength endurance and high intensity intervals are not training unless they are a specific part of a block periodization plan. They are also not nearly as effective for long term gains as a solid aerobic and strength base developed through long steady distance training and basic strength training. But, we’ll talk about base in the next article . . .