When you make the decision that you want to help people become fitter versions of themselves for a living, it comes with an anxiety. You know - the healthy kind. You know that you’ll be one of those people whose client’s wellbeing will be directly contingent upon your abilities, interactive skills, persistence, and proactivity. You’re a bit nervous, but you know what to do. So you take step one and go for an entry level personal training certification.
Entry level certs are like universal remote controls. They work to access many classic brand name TV’s, but for the higher end, more technologically advanced ones, they aren’t worth beans. You don’t know that, though. And besides, you want to start practicing your craft as soon as possible. You go for the cert.
You attend the workshop courses, conceding to the course facilitator as the endless plethora of knowledge on all things fitness and health. You read the course materials and prepare well for the written and practical exams. You ace it, and begin your career teaching clients to stay safe, keeping your course notes as the shrine of excellence to which you refer frequently. You attend the continuing education courses annually and down the road get rewarded for your long-term commitment to the organization. After a while you become qualified to become an instructor yourself, and regulate whether or not other aspiring fitness professionals get certified.
My training certification expired this year – partially due to negligence, partially due to choice. Regardless, (contrary to popular belief) I’m only a half-breed renegade, so I made sure to get in touch with my cert organization to freshen it up. A written exam and a few days later, and I was in front of my evaluator for the practical component of the exam. This evaluator looked familiar, and I remembered immediately that it was the same one I met back in 2008, when I got into a lengthy debate over the justification of bench dips being a contraindicated exercise. Oy vey.
The evaluator didn’t remember me or that scenario, however. Understandable. We moved on to the practical exam. The first exercise was a rowing machine to simulate a client’s “warm-up”. I used all the cues I could think of and mindlessly regurgitated more from the course manual I’d read 4 years earlier.
(Right then, the evaluator’s eye twitches involuntarily. This could be a challenge….)
Searching for something to harp on that I didn’t already cover, I took heat for the point of contact on the torso not being spot on the entire time. “You’re really reaching here”, I thought.
On to the evening’s entertainment: The barbell back squat - A classic example of a much needed primal movement pattern.
“ … I’m sorry, a what?”
A primal movement pattern – you know - a “natural” human movement that we try to simulate in the weight room. Something we learn to do innately that sadly gets altered in our acquiring muscle imbalances and ROM issues. A movement through which many other movements originate. My notions of feeling like I was being “tested” were promptly overridden by notions of feeling like the evaluator had genuinely never heard that term before. I got scared.
There was no solace in what followed. I began my breakdown of the cues, and tried to keep those cues openly geared towards a standard, general population, middle aged client, who barely trained at all, and was chalk full of deficiencies and muscle imbalances as a result (I guess I should have been happy - this was all conveniently and flawlessly personified by my evaluator’s physique). Keep a stance just outside shoulder width and maintain a proud chest. The bar should rest on the shelf you create with your shoulders and traps. Your toes should point out slightly wider than your heels. Abs tight. Breathe in on the way down, control your descent, weight on the full foot. Aim for full depth. Raise the weight by digging the heels into the floor and exhale strongly. And other crap like that. I didn’t get into any particulars about hip drive, the valsalva method, or posterior chain recruitment, pelvic tilting, or hinging. I wanted to show this beginning client the beginning steps to learning a squat.
But I was still scared.
“Look – I’ve trained with a trainer before. I’ve never heard anyone tell me to keep my knees and toes pointing slightly outwards while squatting. How is that healthy for the knee?!”
It was on now.
I explained that the alignment among knee, hip and shoulder was important, and that if the toes and knees point straight ahead, the hip flexors come in to inhibit a proper and full range of motion. I explained that since the femur and tibia are both rotating outward, there will be absolutely no greater effect on knee stress through the movement. I explained the inner thigh muscles not having as active contribution to the strength of the lift if this isn’t done. I explained that the most primitive creatures on the planet – babies – will be seen doing squats with this perfect alignment without even thinking about it. But that wasn’t enough. It turned into a personal battle which the evaluator was losing.
“What about the stress it places on the IT band?”
Really? OK, now you’re just getting desperate. Turning your toes and knees outwards will do nothing but relax the IT band from being tense. The IT band doesn’t get pulled tighter from a lateral rotation of the femur… Aren’t you supposed to know this stuff?
“Hey, I’ve been a professor of physical education for the last 16 years. I know anatomy and biomechanics. If we walk and run in a straight line with our knees and toes pointing forward, why would it be healthier for us to squat with our knees pointing outwards!?”
Great, professor. With all those years of experience then, you must be familiar with the screw-home mechanism of the knee. When you do a squat, or another closed chain movement like it, that mechanism works with the femur internally rotating. If your knees and toes pointed forward, do you know what kind of havoc that could wreak on your knee and hip complexes? Regarding your other comment, we don’t walk with our knees and toes pointing forward. Our hip socket is located towards the side of most people’s pelvic girdles. When we walk, we turn our hips with every stride in order for our knees, hips and toes to point straight ahead. But you already knew that too… right?
All of a sudden the tone shifted. I asked if we were ready to proceed.
Looking back, I should have considered how offsetting it would be for an evaluator who’s typically used to having nineteen year olds going for their first ever training cert conceding to their every word, to all of a sudden have to mix mittens with an experienced coach with a decent knowledge base and track record. The fact that this instructor just lost 3 consecutive arguments over the same exercise and, much worse, took it personally, probably dictated the following petulant air that could only be better embodied by a 13 year old girl whose parents just revoked her facebook and BBM privileges for a week.
“Alright, nothing I like better than some toes-out squats! I can squat all day! Let’s do this!”
A golden retriever could have noted the sarcasm that infiltrated those words. I was offended, but said nothing.
5 hasty, force-cued reps later, the barbell was recklessly returned to its rack, and the floor examination was cut short. A cursory review of two more exercises was done, which prompted more disagreements. (I wasn’t prepared to agree that a bench press performed with the back flat on the bench, flared elbows, and a 90 degree ROM was considered adequate, nor technically sound). The next step was the 1 on 1 discussion over the table. After the perfunctory run through of ways to determine a client’s 1RM and 10RM, locating pulse points and calculating heart rate maximums, the question for all the money made its presence.
“Give me an example of a contraindicated exercise.”
Call it snide – without hesitation I answered with “bench dips” (I’m guessing the evaluator remembered me by this point). There’s no shortage of research that states it’s tough on the subacromial space of the shoulder complex. 5 minutes of useless quarrelling and knowledge-exposing questions led to my evaluator self-digging a deeper hole than the beginning of the exam. Me sitting there watching silently, a few notes (that were kept concealed, of course) were taken on the multi-purpose-evaluators-only-professional-looking-clipboard, and that marked the end of the practical exam.
I mean come on......
This scenario (which DID happen) came down to a pride game. The evaluator let pride get in the way of realizing that there were people out there who knew a thing or two. The worst thing to do is adapt a philosophy (or a lot of philosophies) that all mirror the teachings of ONE coach, out of ONE book. The cherry on top is that it seems as though this evaluator, and all certification evaluators, are being paid to do just that. It irks me when logic gets thrown out the window in lieu of pride and saving face. I’m an instructor. No “student” is going to tell me I’m wrong.
…. Even if that student’s arguments are all based, not on ‘philosophy’, rather, on simple logic. Read my arguments again. In each case, I was objectively looking at the human body’s anatomy, geometry and structure.
As fortune would have it, I forgot to submit a written portion of the exam. I was given one week to email it to the evaluator. Needless to say, along with the writeup, I added that I was still unsettled by the conversations we had regarding squatting, bench pressing, and shoulder impingement, and the fact that we didn't see eye to eye. I attached myriads of sources, research, articles, videos, studies and even e-books by some of the most respected coaches in the industry – they included pieces by Mark Rippetoe, Eric Cressey, Charles Poliquin, Mike Robertson, Bret Contreras, Dr. Clay Hyght, Dr. Vladamir Janda, The National Academy of Sports Medicine, and the NSCA that demonstrated they were in line with what I was telling her. In doing so, it really brought to my attention that once you get to a certain knowledge level, you’ll notice differences in great coaches' philosophies, but all base teachings are one hundred percent in accord with one another. With a few exceptions, there will never be argument amnong any top coaches over something as elementary as toe position during a standard squat movement, whereas one will see tremendous differences in opinion over subjects like hip drive, recruitment patterns, and bar position to affect these.
I received no response to that email.
Remember my opening example? When you read it at the beginning, it probably sounded just peachy. Now we see the holes. Staying up to date with current information and educating yourself is a major key to being successful in the industry of fitness and training. For many, certification bodies are perceived as the gold standard of learning the best methods out there, when we fail to realize that in many cases, “bad trainers” exist because they were given a passing grade by a less than competent instructor. I fear it will be a long time before large certification bodies edit their approach, criterion, or information. For that reason, I won't be in a huff and a puff to put my money into their hands through workshops and other means. They’re businesses too, and sorry to say it, but in business, money’s the name of the game, not quality service. Ya dig?
Dealing with someone who’s simply on a power trip and doesn’t want to be usurped isn’t easy for someone who possesses knowledge himself to handle. As long as things stay this way, the prevalence of knowledgeable trainers (at least in my city) will always be kept to a minimum.
Remember to be open to learning, and not to become complacent with what you read from one source, or what you’re told by your bosses as per “the right way”. Maybe in 30 years we can get people benching below 90 degrees.
It’s a triceps-dominant world out there. . .« back to previous page