Mistakes That Trainers Make: Sucking

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I have to admit it, I’m oftentimes really embarrassed about the profession I’m in. All in all, though, I guess the same can be said for any industry whether we’re talking about retail, Wall Street , public office, or Lady Gaga – but it’s amazing to me just how many personal trainers, flat out suck!

Here’s a perfect example. Not too long ago a female client of mine asked me advice on how her sister should go about finding a “good” personal trainer. I gave her some pointers, like:

1. Are they certified through a reputable (and recognized) organization?

2. Do they actually take their clients through an assessment? Or, as is the case 90% of the time, do they just take them through the Cybex circuit?

3. Are they personable? Do they take time to listen to the needs and wants of the client?

4. Do they actually coach? Or, do they stand there like most clipboard cowboys and cowgirls, and just count reps?

5. Do they understand functional anatomy? Sadly, I’m willing to bet that if you asked 70% of trainers to name the rotator cuff muscles, they wouldn’t be able to do it.

6. Do they have any testimonials from current (or past) clients?

7. Do they actually look like they train? Not necessarily mandatory, but who’s going to want to listen to a fat trainer?

8. Do they refer to themselves in the 3rd person? Can they actually write a coherent sentence?

9. And, most important of all, do their clients actually train with proper form and technique? If not, don’t bother.

Nevertheless, I did the best I could, and given my client has been training with me for well over a year and knows what it’s like to train around smart people who know what they’re talking about, I assumed her sister would be in good hands.

That is, of course, until I received this email yesterday:

So my sister did her first free session with a trainer – she went in prepared with the articles I sent her, and very aware of her own current physical condition. She said he was out of a movie screaming in her face “GOOOO. MOOOVE. YOU CAN DO IT”.

This didn’t bother her until she realized she was not going to be able to continue. She told him she needed a quick break, and instead he made her do treadmill sprints. She is 230lbs. Day 1. End result: she passed out.

I understand that people need to be motivated, and I’m certainly not one to hold back on giving people a little “tough love” when they need it, but is this guy serious? Making someone who, already has a phobia about training in the first place, pass out on her first day is a sure fire way to turn her off from exercise altogether. What’s the likelihood that she’s ever going to come back? Probably not high. Nice job, dude!

Conversely, I have another client who’s been trying to get her mother to train for quite some time now. After some prodding, she was finally able to convince her mother to attend a few kettlebell classes with her (on my client’s dime). All told, she agreed to four sessions before deciding whether or not to quit.

Not surprisingly, the first session was miserable. The second, third, and fourth sessions, however, were less vomit-in-the-mouthish; and as my client noted, this past week was the first time her mother attended a class free of choice.

Much the same, when she started, her mother was every bit as out-of-shape and deconditioned as the girl above. Yet, unlike the girl who passed out on her first session, she’s probably going to stick with this for the long-haul because her trainer, you know, doesn’t suck at life.

Rather than taking a Biggest Loser approach with her (which is borderline criminal in my mind), this trainer “gets it.” Despite being a kettlebell studio, this trainer had her doing nothing but a ton of mobility stuff, some body weight work, as well as some very introductory resistance training like farmer walks, rows, and kettlebell deadlifts. It wasn’t until this past week (week #5) where she started doing kettlebell specific work. Namely, the swing.

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Nonetheless, whoever this trainer is, I want to give him (or her) a internet high five, because I LOVE hearing stories like this. It gives me hope that the industry is getting better, and that there are less doucheholes like the other guy walking around hurting people.

That said, here are some things to leave you with. What makes a trainer not sucky?

1. Understands that beginners are just that – beginners. It’s often comical when I work with someone new and they’re caught off guard when I don’t beat them to a pulp on their first day. Listen, anyone can make someone tired. That doesn’t mean they’re getting anything out of it, and it certainly doesn’t mean that because they’re still able to walk on two feet, the training session was any less beneficial.

2. Progressions, progressions, progressions. More to the point from above, a good trainer understands what it means to progress people. I’ve heard stories of trainers taking clients who can’t even perform a proper body-weight lunge, over to the squat rack to perform heavy barbell goodmornings. That’s just a back surgery waiting to happen.

Likewise, I also remember hearing a story of a trainer taking a woman who had a double mastectomy through a 20 set chest workout. HUH?

All in all, a good trainer recognizes that people have different ability levels and have different wants and needs. What applies to one individual, won’t necessarily work with someone else. Again, progressions.

3. Technique reigns supreme – you can tell a lot of a trainer by how well their clients execute their movements. Sorry, but if a trainer has his or her client doing 1-arm DB rows with a rounded back (and they don’t correct it), they lose all credibility in my book. The same can be said for how they perform, squats, deadlifts, push-ups, you name it. If their form sucks, most likely their trainer does too.

4. Why – as a trainer, you should have a rationale for WHY you’re having your client do what they’re doing. Why trap bar deadlifts and not conventional? Why front squats instead of back squats? Why 4×3, and not 117×11? If you don’t know why you’re programming what you’re programming, you shouldn’t be programming in the first place.

5. Understand that your shit doesn’t stink – I think I may have mentioned this in passing before, but I once worked with this trainer who flat out said, “I’ve learned everything I need to learn in this industry.” What an a-hole. I’m sorry, but if a guy like Mike Boyle – who’s been coaching for close to 30 years -can readily admit when he’s wrong, not to mention is constantly learning and changing his approach to training athletes, I can’t fathom how anyone could possibly think they know all there is to know.

6. Is this a career or a hobby? – this is a hyyyyooooge point. I think for many, they become trainers because they like to train or they look the part, and someone told them they should be a trainer. They treat it more as a hobby than a career. Would you hire a doctor to perform open heart surgery if it was just, you know, something they did on the side to make a little extra cash?

I think this is where the problem lies, and where we can draw the line between good trainers and bad trainers. The bad ones are the ones that do this for shits and giggles. They want to hang out in the gym for a few hours every day, hit on girls, and give each other high fives after each set of leg curls.

Contrarily, the ones who “get it,” are the trainers who go out of their way to attend weekend seminars and conferences. They read books, articles, blogs ,and they make an effort to establish networks with other fitness professionals. In short, this isn’t a hobby, it’s a career.

All told, I could easily keep going, but this post has gotten long enough and I think the above traits are a good start. Before I leave, in closing, let me just say that I am by no means stating that I’m perfect. Far from it. But I’d like to think that I have a firm grasp on being able to differentiate between trainers who make my eyes bleed and those who go out of their way to do it the right way. For those who are reading, feel free to share your stories below (good or bad), or give your two cents on what makes a good trainer.

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