On this blog, I’ve written a lot about what I believe makes a good trainer. I’ve talked to you, the reader, about ways to determine whether a trainer is worth the money you pay for him, and highlight red flags to keep on the watch for.
Those were the obvious ones. But there are some that are not so obvious.
See, I (and many) have been quick to harp on those trainers who are incompetent, to say the least, with insufficient levels of knowledge for them to be dictating a session and attempting to keep a client safe. But let’s make the “good” trainers our focal point for this piece. It’s commendable for a trainer to make an earnest effort to develop his craft. Educating yourself in various forms is the key to standing out in the industry.
But there’s the overkill. And I’ve found myself to be a victim of this in past times. You start to learn stuff that’s quite advanced – exercises and methods that serve very specific purposes. Things that gym goers, and let’s face it – most trainers, have never seen before. There’s nothing wrong with this in particular, as it really can act to expand one’s knowledge to cover several different demographics. But you forget that you work in a gym, where 8 out of 10 clients hire a personal trainer because they’re not athletic. Sadly, training sessions with your average clients are now full of sport specific, super-athletic, hybrid movements and plyometric efforts. That stuff is considered “cool”, so all of a sudden, clients come flocking to you because your extremely elaborate knowledge is being put to use with a bunch of people who really should be taught the basics. Of course, they’re working hard, and are often unapt with the movements, all adding to the visual effect and bells and whistles that laypeople associate with a “good session” (All accompanied paeans to your favourite pro athlete coaches are acknowledged).
Unless you're a pro athlete like Brandon Jennings, you can't convince me that plyo BOSU push ups deserve an irreplaceable spot in your program.
In my opinion, the best trainers are the ones who can effectively train the people who possess the least knowledge about training. The ones who have never been in the gym and need to learn primal movements for the first time, and the ones who need things like imagery to get them to understand motor patterns. The ones who are so imbalanced from life habits that they have no idea what it feels like to have their glutes, hamstrings, or upper back do work. That takes tremendous amounts of explanation, patience, and monitoring. These kinds of people don’t even know what it’s like to tap into their maximum strength, and in their minds, that ceiling is much lower than it actually is.
When an average client comes to me with the intention of getting into better shape (this can be in any capacity – strength gain, fat loss, muscle building), I have a choice I can make. Give them the most scientifically advanced, super-elaborate exercise circuits like an explosive plyo pushup with hands on the bosu ball, followed by a rear leg elevated split jump squat with a unilateral load, and then top it off with a reverse-band bench press and reactive box jumps. I know why I’d use all of those exercises, and with whom I’d use them. I know if I do this, chances are my client will see value and continue to train with me.
My other option would be to focus on basic movements, refine the patterns, thoroughly explain their importance, and work towards technical and numerical progression. I know that if I do this well enough, chances are my client will see value and continue to train with me.
It’s like that old SNL sketch with Christopher Walken and Will Ferrell. In the sketch, Walken plays a manager to a recording group, and during the run-throughs of the group’s hit single, Walken repeatedly interrupts the progress by asking Will Ferrell to give him “more cowbell”. It gets to the point where the sound of the silly bell becomes hackneyed relative to the good song the group is trying to play.
The truth is, clients will likely perceive value from both kinds of sessions, but for different reasons. I’m not trying get you to take sides with me, much rather understand where I’m coming from. My ultimate goal would be to get my clients to do all that fancy shmancy stuff. But I’d want them to do it safely and most importantly, for a purpose. I could get into the research and science that brings into question the amount of muscle activation, fat loss benefits, metabolic demand, and the like that are induced from training on unstable surfaces, or using complex movement patterns (especially as compared to basic training methods) but I’ll keep things solely opinion based for this blog article. Do you want to keep clients coming back to you for delivering content that’s irrefutably legitimate? Or for unorthodox workout systems that are unique and challenging, though not suited for their needs in particular? I guess it’s really a win-win from some angles…
My "cowbell" is different than others'.
The prevalence of the mentality of ‘the more elaborate, the better’, or ‘difficulty is king’ has really started to mess with people’s minds. Just like kids who are low on life experience are impressionable, the same holds true to trainees who are low on fitness experience. The things that this can do to one’s mindset are very difficult to “unlearn” until the time is right. It would be wise to not be one of those trainers who facilitate that thinking.
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