David Van Skike
The decision to “get in shape” or go on a diet are the most positive decisions people will make for their overall health, short of seeing a doctor. Many of these individuals will seek the help of a personal trainer to solve these issues. “I want to get in shape, I want to lose some weight, I want to feel better.” Your job as trainer is to figure out the best way to help them reach those goals, however, there is often a common breakdown in this process and that is in deciding what to fix first. To make this point more clear, put yourself in the client’s shoes and imagine you went to your doctor for a checkup with the following complaint:
“I don’t feel good, I’m just not myself these days…
You would expect a professional response and for your doctor to treat you as the individual you are. Based on best practices in the medical profession there would be an assessment; patient history, physical, maybe some blood tests, a discussion of symptoms, etc.
So, imagine what you’d do if, after all those tests, your doctor came back and said:
“You have acne, elevated blood pressure, and cancer…. Because it will be the easiest thing to address, we’re going to start by getting that acne taken care of”…
What would you do? You’d leave.
Medicine and physical fitness are two different things, but when the smart compassionate trainer takes approach as the medical doctor, the individual can be treated in a way that is efficient, safe, and effective. This starts with an assessment and figuring out what things are holding you back and/or are most likely to derail your progress.
Fix what is broken.
Most people are broken in some small way. As a trainer, ninety percent of the time you are dealing with people who are not in optimum condition. If they knew how to get in optimum, or even better condition, they wouldn’t need you. And again, ninety percent of these people will have a crystal clear overarching issue which impacts their ability to progress towards their goal, whatever that is. It could be pain, unhealed injuries, excess body fat, limited mobility, or poor lifestyle and quality of life. There may be multiple issues, but MOST of the time, there is at least a clear one to start with that will improve his or her ability to train effectively.
This does not mean that one focuses only on the overarching problem, but failing to address it will certainly negatively impact progress and may lead to more problems in the future.
Good training means being a student of the body
In order to properly assess your clients, you need to listen with your ears and eyes. Good trainers are students of the body. They look for cues, unique quirks, moving, guarding, limited ranges of motion and go after things that look “Wrong”. That does not mean that everyone has to move the same. Everyone is different: body composition, limb lengths, posture, injuries, habit, extended training or work all leave people with unique abilities and disabilities. However, over time, a good trainer can discern the differences between good and bad movement patterns for the individuals they are working with. This should actually the primary focus for the trainer/client relationship, IE, learning to move better whether that is running, lifting a heavy weight, or executing a skilled movement.
Clients come with a fairly common set of demands, (to be leaner, stronger, faster, conditioned) and the trainer’s first job is to determine why they aren’t already. What is holding them back? What are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? What can be improved? If you are not a coach who specializes in a particular sport, strength, posture, range of motion, and balanced movement are the primary things you will be working on. Endurance and conditioning are certainly important as well, but an individual with strength and postural deficiencies is best served by fixing those first.
In the weight room especially, powerlifting and weightlifting coaches make great all around trainers for the following reasons: They are constantly looking for weak leverage, places where the body goes soft or inflexible. They can quickly estimate bodyweight and relative strength. They can see where movements look “wrong.” They know what the body is capable of under load.
Being able to visually assess a person is a skill that anyone who works with people can develop. It is what a professor of mine called “the key to a scientific mind”: the ability to observe and to develop a keen insight into the obvious things. Is the person overweight or underweight for their goal, do they make loads look heavy or light, are they slow moving or quick, are movements graceful or painful? Don’t rely on what you’ve done with other people, trust what you can learn about THIS person.
Use simple tools.
Once you know what’s wrong, its time to fix things. This is not generally very complicated. Lack of mobility, posture, balanced movement, and endurance are all usually the result of one thing: weakness. And how do you fix that? By making them stronger. Nearly all of the movement based rehab that people need, can be done using simple movements that use the whole body. Simple movements, squat, press, pull variations. Simple body moving work, walking, running, jumping, throwing. Simple endurance approaches, Moving over an extended period of Time. Use basic body locomotion; walk, run, cycle, row.
These simple movements work because they run the whole body through large ranges of motion, regardless of body type, short lever, long lever, tall, skinny, short fat, etc. They are intuitive and simple to teach, and once learned are easily repeatable. They can also be done at different intensities to target the broad range of fitness qualities we seek in a training program: do them light for tonic effect, do them heavy for strength, do them with fatigue to build conditioning. For lack of a better word, big movements knit the body back together; they eliminate weak points.
The most critical element of big simple tools and simplified progression is that if something is not working, it’s very easy to understand and change. The more moving parts you have, the harder it is to diagnose what is wrong with the programming. There is no program so sound on the first try that it does not eventually need changing. Everyone reacts differently, all plans must be adjustable.
Plans that are built on simple, adjustable components will help your clients thrive. Those based on a series of complex specialized movements will fail.
Stop fatiguing. Start teaching.
Too often trainers rely on the easiest subjective measure: Fatigue. To look at most people’s training practice you’d assume this was their only tool. Returning to our medical metaphor, it’s like prescribing aspirin for everything. Some small pains it works masterfully, some serious cardiac issue it may be a great treatment but it’s not a universal. For me, it is the first telltale sign a trainer lacks experience.
All physical training whether it is to become more flexible as in yoga, more muscular by lifting, or a faster more graceful runner by running, is based on the trainee learning over time. Your job is to teach them, to help them adapt. You’re going to need a lot of tools. If you don’t have the tools, go get them by doing it yourself. Step outside of your comfort zone. Take a martial arts class, go to yoga, or volunteer to work with your local track and field club. Better yet, hire someone to teach you something new. Being a student of the body means being a student of your own body as well.
Teach what you know. Master your tools.
Your Clients are paying you for your judgment.
Ultimately, as a trainer, you are not simply a rep counter and dumbbell spotter. The client is paying for your judgment, not your supervision. Face it. Everyone knows what the need to do to lose weight, eat less, move more. Nearly everyone knows what they need to do to be a better runner. Run more. Like any other skill, say playing the piano, most people intuitively know that more practice equals more progress. What people do not know how to do is the balance between multiple good choices or to prioritize which practice is most necessary, which is less necessary. This requires judgment. They are paying for you to decide, yes to this; no to that. They are paying you to size them up and build them anew.
None of this is revolutionary. None of this necessarily indicts a system or way of approaching fitness. What I’m challenging is the way you think about your practice, your goal is to meet your client’s goals. And that may not be by the means they think is necessary. It can mean driving them through any number of challenging workouts but most of the time what it means is giving them the prescription they need now, not necessarily the one they want.