Archive for the ‘Training’ Category

A family member recently sent me a link to this article published in the New York Times.  It asks, “What’s the Single Best Exercise?”  In the article they ask a number of physiologists this question and each has a different answer.  Some conclude that it’s walking.  Other answers included squats, calisthenics, and high intensity interval training.

As far as I’m concerned though, I deemed this article worthless before I read beyond the title.

When we were younger and infantile (yea, I know… I’m older but no less infantile), my friends and I would pull our cars up to people walking, jogging and bicycling, roll down the window, and ask, “How do you get there?”

Anytime someone pulls their car up to you, rolls down the window and starts out asking, “how do I get….” there’s a knee jerk reaction to start thinking about where you’re at currently so you can respond helpfully. Or, depending on the neighborhood you’re from, you might be thinking, “Drive-by!!!! Get down!!”

We’d get a kick out of the confused look glaring back at us as the exerciser’s wheels spun trying to come up with an immediate answer.  Eventually they’d retort with, “Get where!?”

Now if only the physiologists interviewed in the above-referenced article were so bright.  Maybe then the New York Times would have had a meaningful article on their hands.

To ask “what’s the best exercise” without concluding the question with “for THIS particular goal and for THIS particular person” is akin to the mindless game we used to play above.

Get who where and how? Oh, and when does he need to get there?

See what I mean?

Specificity means something.  Over the weekend someone emailed me looking for help – she was trying to “transform her body” into something resembling “toned.”  Her exercise schedule started and ended with marathon training each and every day.  When I told her to do a google image search for “female marathon runners” and asked, “Is that that body you’re shooting for?” she got the point.

And that’s not a jab at female marathon runners or any women who do in fact strive to have that body type.  The point is, form follows function.  How you train your body will directly impact how it looks, neverminding genetics and nutrition for the sake of brevity.

There’s certainly an optimal way to exercise, but it’s always going to be context specific to the individual, goals and circumstances.  Don’t ever forget this.


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In part 1 of this series we identified the foremost problems plaguing the training and gym industry.  In part 2 we highlighted tools the consumer can use to minimize the chance that they’ll find themselves on the business end of a con artist’s misinformation.  In this final installment we’re going to present our advice for hiring a fitness professional such as a personal trainer, strength coach, or aerobics instructor.

For reasons covered in part 1, it’s important to frame the hiring of a personal trainer the same as you would the hiring of an employee.  Competence, without question, is mandatory and in the training industry finding it is easier said than done.

Below you’ll find multiple criteria you can use to weed out good trainers from not-so-good trainers.  Once you’re through reading, you’ll be able to go into a meeting with clear cut questions that yield telling signs about the trainer in question.

Even if it’s a trainer you have an existing relationship with, don’t hesitate questioning them. It happens often; trusting client hires trainer >> trainer establishes bond with client since conversations invariably entail personal matters outside the scope of fitness >> turns out trainer doesn’t know his ass from his elbow when it comes to exercise >> client doesn’t want to fire trainer on the grounds that it might hurt his/her feelings.

Is a trainer right for you in the first place?

The first order of business is figuring out if you would be best served hiring a trainer.  While there are certainly worse things to waste your money on, not everyone needs a trainer.  Plenty of people improve their fitness and physique without one.

If you feel you’ve a firm handle on exercise form and programming, you can probably fill in any gaps in your knowledge using the Internet.  Google can uncover loads of useful information.  More specifically, there are plenty of forums on the net where experienced people (even professionals) gladly answer questions.

If you do feel that it’d be in your best interest to seek professional guidance, it’s important to identify what exactly you’re looking for.  What are your specific goals?  What are your biggest hurdles?  How many times per week are you available for training sessions and at what times of the day?  Do you have specific needs or wants in terms of equipment?  Answering these questions will make it easier to match different trainers to your individual circumstances.

Fitting or conflicting personalities

You’re hiring someone who you’re going to be “hanging with” for at least 2-4 hours per week.  Beyond competency, it’s important to pick a trainer whose personality meshes with your own. Just remember – one without the other (competence and/or personality) generally doesn’t work out so well.

Time’s a finite commodity. I’m sure none of you are keen of wasting it with people you don’t like.  Put simply, the better you get along with your trainer, the better the chances are that you’ll be consistent in terms of making your sessions, and more importantly, enjoying them.

Being in and around gyms for nearly 15 years, I can say that there are some seriously flawed personalities in the training industry.  Sure, we all have issues, but the egoism of some of these guys is of epic proportions.  Settle for nothing short of a client-focused professional that relates to you.


On paper, a certified trainer with a degree in a related field is probably better than a certified trainer without a degree who’s probably better than an uncertified trainer with no degree.  That’s the gist of things when viewed from 30,000 feet up.  However, once you zoom in to granular-detail level, things are far from cut and dry.

For starters, many college level programs are watered down with useless and/or outdated information as far as the training profession goes.  That’s not to say it’d be a waste for an aspiring fitness professional to pursue a degree in exercise physiology or something similar.  I mention it simply to enlighten those reading that a degree is not the be-all-end-all determinant when it comes to competency in this field.

At the very least, though, trainers who have a degree in a related field are much more likely to understand what should be second nature to any trainer – biomechanics and exercise form, basic physiology, anatomy, etc.  Sadly a large majority of trainers know how to pump up the beach muscles and sell training packages – that’s about it.

Secondly, there are hundreds upon hundreds of certifying organizations in existence.  Unfortunately, as noted in Part 1, pretty much any person or group can call themselves a certifying agency.  By default, there’s a watering-down effect in terms of the information being presented by these organizations as well as the testing standards.

There are a number of promising certification organizations out there.  Leading the pack are the National Strength & Conditioning Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Academy of Sports Medicine.  However, while these tend to be the most recognized agencies, it should not be assumed that any trainer owning a designation from them is competent.  The testing requirements and standards are not as high as I’d like to see them.

At the very least the following requirements should be mandatory of any worthy personal trainer or strength coach designation in my opinion:

• 4 year degree
• Written or computerized test at an organization-approved and proctored location
• Hands-on component of testing
• Apprenticeship under a seasoned/approved trainer
• Continuing education standards

While I’m sure these seem like reasonable requirements for the personal training profession, I’m not aware of any certification organizations in the states that have all of them.

At the end of the day, use education and credentials for what they are – one of many easily quantifiable filters to apply to the population of trainers you’re considering hiring.  I personally know trainers who’ve forgotten more than I know regarding exercise science and have never sat in the formal college setting or obtained a personal training certificate.
When you’re dealing with such a diluted pool of professionals though, at least looking at these credentials seems logical.

Can you save me and is it worth suing you if you don’t?

A personal trainer should have current CPR/AED certifications as well as liability insurance.  Larger gyms will typically assure that these areas are covered.  With the explosion of independent professionals, gyms, and studios, however, this is something to be on the lookout for.

Is this your first rodeo?

Turnover in the personal training industry is very high.  It’s reasonable to assume that many of the trainers you’ll encounter are relatively new to the profession. Even if they’re not, it’s important to inquire about their experience.  How did they get into the industry?  Why did they pick this industry?  How long have they been doing this?  Who’s their typical client?  Have they worked with people who had similar goals as yours?

Some trainers will be able to provide you a list of references – past or existing clients who you can contact.  The idea is that these references will provide you objective feedback pertaining to their experience with the trainer.  Let’s not forget that in order to give their contact information out, the trainer must ask the reference for permission.  Do you think he’s going to target an objective sample from his client base?  Likely the list will constitute his favorite clients which will be useless for your sake.

Just remember that this industry tends to attract a lot of mentally lazy or mentally inferior people.  And even if they’re not, smarts only get you so far in this profession.  You need to know how to apply and relate your smarts to clients, which isn’t easy to do without experience.

You listen here…

While most everyone knows where they want their performance or physiques to be, they’re typically clueless about how to train for these specific goals.  This confusion stems from the mass amounts of misleading information about fat loss and exercise that gets pumped into our media.  Because of this, some clients have a hard time explaining what they want.

A knowledgeable trainer can:

• Hear what a client’s ultimate goal is
• Assess where they currently are in relation to said goal
• Explain in terms the client will understand why what they’ve been doing hasn’t worked
• Match the appropriate type and dosage of exercise that’s required to ensure that the goal is realized.

In other words, they can translate clients’ descriptions into physiological terms.  Doing so requires a foundational knowledge of the human body and how it responds to various forms and dosages of exercise.  It also requires fantastic listening and communication skills.  It’s worth noting that many good trainers will admit that they’re a student first and practitioner second.

When someone lacks the foundational requirements to do the job they’re hired to do, which is often the case in the training profession, they’ll usually use smoke-flare tactics to hide their ignorance.  These can come in many forms; not the least of which includes defensiveness and incessant preaching.  You’ll find many trainers will speak at you, opposed to with you.

They’re more interested in telling you to do things their way than they are listening to and learning about you.  And this is regardless of whether “their way” is appropriate for your given situation.  In short, they love feeling authoritative and correct.

Objectivity and critical thought are often faculties that aren’t equipped in most trainers.  They’ve learned what they know from specific sources (typically crappy sources at that) and they’re married to this.  Everything else either goes unnoticed or gets filtered entirely by their preconceptions.  Preaching and chest thumping tend to come well ahead of learning (continuing education) and teaching for these folks.  Because of this they tend to miss the forest for the trees and “muscle” clients into listening to what they have to say.

Maybe you’ll get the impression they’re not listening to you.  Or that they’ve no interest in learning anymore than they already know.  Or maybe it appears they’re more interested in pushing their agenda onto you than they are working with you.  If this is the case, run away.  Fast.

A lot of these guys get their certification (which involved a weekend Internet course, mind you) and feel that it’s their job to go out and tell people what’s what in the exercise world.  Poor guy doesn’t even realize that turning off their learning once they pass a certification exam puts them miles behind the pack.  Hell, it’s barely past the starting line.

This is a lagging indicator for the most part.  By that, I’m saying it’s tough to judge if your trainer falls into this camp or not before hiring them.  That’s why you can’t be afraid to fire your trainer.  If you learn that they’re not progressive or attentive – ADIOS!

How much?

Most trainers and gyms offer a wide array of packages and services.  The national average for a personal training session is around $50 depending on what source you use.  Obviously this is going to vary based on location, trainer, gym, etc.  I’ve seen sessions offered as low as $15 and as high as $100+.

As an example, you can learn about the training options and prices offered by Body-Improvements.

Going after the cheapest you can find isn’t always a recipe for success obviously.  However, doing some accounting of the available trainers in your area and their costs is probably a worthy cause.

Chain gym, independent gym, studio, or in-home…

For the most part, most big box gyms (like LA Fitness, Gold’s, etc.) have trainers on staff.  In my experience, trainer-quality at these places is very low.  The gym tends to worry less about trainer credibility/quality and more about sales.  They also take a large chunk of the training revenue meaning a lot of these trainers are paid little.  You get what you pay for.  Also, these trainers tend to have less leeway and freedom to do what they feel’s best for the client.  For instance, I know someone who works at LA Fitness. He wanted to buy an adjustable box for box squats and LA Fitness wouldn’t allow him.

Independently owned facilities tend to offer a mixed bag of trainers.  If the owner is a fitness professional himself, things tend to be pretty good compared to gyms that are owned by businessmen.  Reason being? – a fitness professional who has taken things to the extent where they own a facility tends to know what to look for when hiring other trainers for his staff.  I feel that when a fitness professional opens his own facility, it shows that they’re serious and passionate about their career.  Businessmen who know nothing about the foundations of fitness, on the other hand, do not know what to look for and are generally passionate about one thing – making money and that comes well ahead of integrity.

I include studios and in-home trainers for completeness.  Trainer-quality here is a crapshoot – use the criteria listed in this article to assess competency carefully.  The benefit to studio or in-home training is privacy, which is huge for certain clients.

I’m biased in that BI owns a full blown facility as well as a private training studio.  I wouldn’t send anyone I care about to any of the trainers at the local big box gyms based on what I’ve seen and heard.  Gordy and I are fitness professionals first and businessmen/owners second.  We offer whatever we feel is best for our clients with no hidden agendas and ideally that’s something you can find in your locale.

Whatchu talking about fat boy?

I’ve been in numerous discussions about this and it’s invariably a hot button issue.  Should your trainer walk the walk so to speak?  I’ve to admit – I know some overweight fitness professionals who are very worthy of hiring.  Obviously one’s physique doesn’t determine one’s intelligence and experience.

There’s something to be said, though, for practicing what you preach.  Many clients derive motivation from their trainers.  If you’re hiring a trainer, for instance, to help you lose weight, how easily are you going to “swallow” his advice if he, himself, is fat?

There’s no right or wrong when it comes to this.  It’s important to manage expectations though.  Not all fit professionals are going to have the same look.  Fitness comes in many packages.  A trainer who loves long distance running isn’t going to look like a trainer who loves powerlifting.  Form follows function.  To a degree, how a trainer exercises himself will dictate how he ultimately looks.

It’s also important to note that fitness isn’t what you see on the front of the bodybuilding magazines.  That would be steroids.  Not fitness.  Don’t expect trainers to have hulk-like muscle mass.

Exercise form

At the heart of personal training is coaching trainees how to safely and effectively execute various exercises.  Of course there’s programming, motivating, educating, and other things but these are beside the point.  The fact is, in order to be an effective trainer you need to know how to get people to move their bodies properly in various situations.

Frankly, most trainers SUCK! at this.  Even if they did in fact know what proper exercise form looked like, they likely wouldn’t be good at getting their clients to do it.

The lack of hands-on demonstration in most exercise physiology courses and certifications is mostly to blame.  Laziness is also to blame.  No matter how you slice it, proper form is the functional unit of exercise and most people, including trainers, don’t know what it looks or feels like.

Knowing this, it should be obvious that to separate the quality trainers from the rest simply witness the form they’re allowing to pass as acceptable while training clients.  The problem with this is in order to assess form, you yourself need to know what’s good and what’s ugly.
Certainly it’d be great to know what proper form looked like in all major exercises.  That’s not realistic though.  What you can do is familiarize yourself with say, squats.  It’s the perfect metric to use seeing as how so many trainers have their clients do some version of it (barbell squats, front squats, lunge variations, etc.).

On its most basic level, squatting is simplistic.  However, there are subtleties that allow you to pick out a good squat from a bad (depth/rom, heels, chest up, positioning of back throughout movement, tracking of knees, etc.).  You can use these subtleties to measure the trainer’s “form knowledge.”

Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength book has extremely detailed explanations of the barbell squat.   Even better is his Starting Strength DVD.  These resources will also arm you with information about the press, bench press, deadlift, and power clean exercises.  BI also has a number of instructional exercise videos on its website and detailed explanations on its forum.  Johnny Mnemonic also has a fantastic video series he calls Squat Rx on youtube, which you can find here.

Most trainer’s instruction on squat form is so far from good that a precursory glance at the links above would give you enough information to rate them on.

Dr. Trainer?

You want a trainer who’s going to guide you towards your performance, health, and physique goals safely and efficiently within his scope of practice.  SCOPE. OF. PRACTICE.  This is something most trainers simply don’t get.  They’ll prescribe diets, diagnose injuries, and try soft tissue therapy on their clients.  All of these things, plus more, are well beyond the scope of a trainer.

As stated on their website The National Strength & Conditioning Association defines the scope of practice belonging to a trainer as:

Personal trainers are health/fitness professionals who, using an individualized approach, assess, motivate, educate and train clients regarding their health and fitness needs. They design safe and effective exercise programs, provide the guidance to help clients achieve their personal health/fitness goals and respond appropriately in emergency situations. Recognizing their own area of expertise, personal trainers refer clients to other health care professionals when appropriate.

And the scope of a strength coach as:

Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists (CSCSs) are professionals who apply scientific knowledge to train athletes for the primary goal of improving athletic performance. They conduct sport-specific testing sessions, design and implement safe and effective strength training and conditioning programs and provide guidance regarding nutrition and injury prevention. Recognizing that their area of expertise is separate and distinct, CSCSs consult with and refer athletes to other professionals when appropriate.

Ask the trainer in question if they have a network of professionals they refer their clients to for specific nutritional guidance, injury diagnosis, massage therapy, sport psychology, etc.  If they hint that these are things they handle, make sure they have the necessary schooling and credentials to perform such work.  And if they don’t have a network or if they do handle those things on their own without the proper authority to do so, I’d look elsewhere.

U no reed teh Engrish gooder, no?

If I’ve not expressed my opinion clearly enough yet, let me break it down into clear and frank terms.  I feel that most people calling themselves trainers are the equivalent of booger-eating morons who’ve no business instructing you or anyone else how they should or should not be exercising.

I’ve found that the best trainers are engrossed with reading and learning about their industry.  They go to conferences to hear other professionals present on various topics.  And they have small libraries of textbooks, journals and books regarding all the nuances this field has to offer.

The “not best” trainers don’t read a damn thing having to do with this field.  And on the slight chance that they do, it’s almost always a magazine.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my doctors prescribing me advice they learned from the magazine shelf.

Bottom line is it’s reasonable to ask the trainer in question how they go about continuing education.  How do they expand their knowledge?  What are the top 5 influential books they’ve read? Who do they pay attention to in the fields associated with performance and physique improvement?

You don’t have to be familiar with the answers they give you (assuming they have actual answers).  You can certainly write them down though and do some digging on the Internet.  Swing by the forum if you’re unsure and ask there.

If a trainer is actually worth it, this sort of questioning will stand to reinforce his or her credibility. If they’re not worth it, it should be pretty obvious given their responses.

Go into a trainer interview with specific goals, questions, and expectations and be sure you’re prepared to express them clearly. You want the trainer to know you’ve put a lot of time and effort into figuring out what you want from a trainer. You want them to see clearly that you’re not just another easy sale blindly trusting any old “fitness professional.” Don’t be afraid to put them on the hot seat. They should have to earn your business, and if they’re actually worthy, it won’t be hard.Go into a trainer interview with specific goals, questions, and expectations and be sure you’re prepared to express them clearly.  You want the trainer to know you’ve put a lot of time and effort into figuring out what you want from a trainer.  You want them to see clearly that you’re not just another easy sale blindly trusting any old “fitness professional.”  Don’t be afraid to put them on the hot seat.  They should have to earn your business, and if they’re actually worthy, it won’t be hard.

Warming up for weight training

Posted: November 18, 2008 in Training

Without fail people come into the gym and do the same exact thing before lifting weights.  They hop on the treadmill for their daily 5-10 minute aerobic warm-up.  This is fine, actually.  Getting the blood flowing and physically warming up the body on various levels is a fine idea.  They then proceed to static stretching where they stretch various muscles to their end ranges of motion and hold for a count, usually 30 seconds or so. 


Static stretching has it’s place in your programming.  Statically stretching your body before lifting weights happens to be the wrong place for it though.


If you’re going to be training dynamically, meaning you’re going to be exerting force with your muscles through full ranges of motion against movable objects, you might consider warming up dynamically.  Dynamic stretching has been quite the buzzword as of late and for good reason.  Heck, even the NY Times is hopping on the bandwagon!


Research is also painting a pretty picture for dyanmic vs. static stretching pre-performance as noted here and here as example.


So what’s the deal?  Why should you consider dynamic warm-ups?


Well here’s a short list for you to ponder:


1.  Static stretching where you slowly, passively stretch a muscle until it relaxes (which is commonly done pre-training) appears to increase muscle/connective tissue compliance with a reduction in excitation from the nervous system.


2.  Think of the above like this:  Static stretching tends to overly loosen the muscle.  The muscle actually loses it’s stiffness and when you couple this with the reduced nueral activation you lose ability to generate force.  A lesser ability to generate force doesn’t sound like something you’d want to have happen before you lift weights, does it?


3.  Dynamically warming up elevates the body’s temperature much better than static stretching, which should be obvious given the fact in the former you’re moving and in the latter you’re not.


4.  Some suggest dynamic mobiltiy exercises in warm-up better prepare you mind-body link for movements.  You’re going to be moving a lot when you exercise and a dynamic warm-up is a nice initiation or rehearsal for that upcoming bout.


5.  Force production has been shown to actually increase with dynamic stretching.


The list goes on.  Depending on where you get your information, dynamic stretching is the rave.  However, in the local gym scene near us, we don’t see much of it as noted above.  Don’t fall victim to ‘following the trend” and don’t be afraid of trying new things in the gym.  The programs, form of execution, warm-ups and the overall attitude of the majority of gym patrons flat out stink.  If ‘the masses’ look at you strangely when you’re trying some of the exercises highlighted below, take it as a compliment.


Warming up properly is a critical component in weight training and injury prevention.  Next time you’re in the gym, toy around with some of these basic, dynamic movements.  A couple of sets in the 10-12 rep range should be more than plenty.


CAT-CAMEL STRETCH – A great movement for priming the spine for movement and stability.



SUPINE BRIDGE – Excellent movement for activating the glutes and readying your hips for extension.



FRONT & SIDE LEG SWINGS – Another great movement for opening up your hips and activating Tthe prime movers in your legs.




WALL SLIDES – This movement is great for loosening muscles that are commonly tight and increasing mobility of the shoulder complex.



This is by no means a complete list, rather a few simple movements that carry a high return on investment.  We are busily working on building out our exercise database which currently houses over 80 videos.  We hope to have a few hundred by the time we’re said and done.


Stay tuned!