The Power of Touch: Where Some Trainers Miss the Boat

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When we were down in Florida a few weeks ago on vacation, even though a bulk of our time was spent vegging by the pool eating honey wheat pretzels (me) and drinking martinis (Lisa), we still made it a priority to find a gym to train at so that we could 1) burn off said transgressions mentioned above, and more importantly 2) get our diesel on.

I know what some of you may be thinking:  dude, it’s vacation…….chill out! It’s okay not to train for a few days!

I couldn’t agree more, and if it’s any consolation we did have a “day of beauty” (her words, not mine) at the spa where we enjoyed massages and other “stuff” that I won’t mention here for fear of  having my man card revoked.

Truth be told both Lisa and I LOVE training and it just wouldn’t sit right with us if we didn’t move around a little bit and lift some heavy things.

After a day or two of not working out, we’d definitely have some withdrawals!

So every morning we’d wake up and head to the gym.

Now, knowing that we were going to be training at a commercial gym for four days, I had to mentally prepare myself for the incessant bleeding of the corneas I was going to experience.  And, as predicted, I wasn’t disappointed.  I saw a lot – nay, a shit-ton – of things that made me shake my head is disbelief.

  • Some guy placed a stability ball in between his legs while setting up to bench press.  He’d un-rack the bar, and then proceeded to press and swing his legs simultaneously.  That was interesting.
  • Another gentleman stood on an inverted BOSU ball and performed standing cable bicep curls.  Even worse, he was demonstrating to a young, impressionable teenage boy how to do the same.  I wanted so badly to walk over, grab the kid by the elbow, place him in front of a bar on the floor, and introduce him to deadlifts.

When all is said and done, I can’t fault random patrons for doing whatever it is that they do. People don’t know any better, and at the end of the day at least they’re doing something.

Where I really get angry, though, is when I watch inept personal trainers completely waste people’s time (and money).  Now, I don’t want to make this entire post some diatribe on all the epic fails I witnessed and why a vast majority of trainers have no business being trainers.

That’s been done time and time again and really serves no purpose on making the industry any better.

Although I did watch a male trainer take his female client through some of the worst 1/4 squats I have ever seen in the smith machine, only to load the bar with waaaay too much weight, and then watch as she conveniently crashed to the floor when she made the mistake of going too low on one particular rep.

Clearly embarrassed, he then took her over to the leg press – loaded with FOUR plates per side – and did 1/4 ROM leg presses.  Brilliant!

I could easily write 4000 words on all the nonsensical things I saw trainers do while I was down there.

But who am I to judge?

I mean, maybe there was a legit reason why a middle-aged woman who was 30 lbs overweight (and could barely walk without limping) needed to work on her “bicep peak” – which is something I overheard a trainer commenting on as he was showing a client how to twist her wrist a certain way during a rope bicep curl.

I doubt it, but hey, you never know.

While I’m sure you can sense the small tone of cynicism I’m throwing down, again, at least they’re doing something.

What really disturbed me – amongst everything else – was the lack of coaching being done.  More specifically, the lack of touching.

Not the Creepy McCreepypants kind of touching.

Rather the kind of touching which demonstrates that some coaching is being done.

As an example, I watched one trainer time a client through a set of prone planks.  Easy enough right?  It’s a simple exercise that, when done correctly, demonstrates that a client has ample lumbo-pelvic-hip control, in addition to demonstrating that they can resist extension.  Normally, it looks like this:

The anterior core is braced, the glutes are squeezed and the entire posterior is in a straight line.  If a dowel rod was placed on his or her back, as pictured above, there should be three points of contact:  the back of the head, the middle of the shoulder blades, as well as the sacrum. If at any point form falters – whether it be the lumbar spine dipping or the upper back rounding – proper feedback should be given to correct it, and if the client can’t sustain it, the set ends.

In the case above with the trainer, what I saw was anything but.

The client was looking straight a head rather than down, and was literally hanging on his lumbar spine in extension. It was painful to watch. Meanwhile all the trainer was doing was looking at his wrist watch completely disinterested, counting down the seconds blurting out things like “good, only a few more seconds.  Keep it up!”

There was no effort whatsoever to correct form.  He gave no kinesthetic feedback with his hands nor looked like he could care less that the client was completely butchering the exercise.

Sad.

Compare that to what I would have done, and what I advocate ALL trainers do:  GET YOUR HANDS ON THEM!!!!!!!!  Or, to be less creepy……use more tactile cuing.

  • Gently tap the stomach to get them to engage their anterior core.
  • Gently tap the glutes to get them to fire and to promote more posterior pelvic tilt.
  • Gently push down on the mid-back to get them into more of a neutral spinal position.
  • Tell them to tuck their chin.  If they don’t understand, use your hands to put them in the position you want them in.
  • In the end, be PROACTIVE.  COACH YOUR CLIENTS!!!!!!

Of course, and this goes without saying, it takes practice and experience to learn how to coach people.  Even more time to get comfortable enough to put your hands on them and build a rapport with them to get to that point.

Not too long ago, I had a distance coaching client come to Cressey Performance for an in-house assessment, and one of the things he complimented me most on was the fact that I was very hands on with him.  Here’s an email he sent to me a few days afterwards:

One of my pet peeves as a physician is when I see a patient who has been “examined” by another doctor and the patient tells me that previously their doc sat behind his desk for the entire exam and never touched the patient. Unbelievable but it happens all the time to patients I see.

Kudos to you because you were very hands on (appropriately) in our training session. I think touch by the trainer (and ART and massage count here too) is as important for trainers to do as it is for physicians.

Just some positive feedback on one aspect of our session that you nailed.

I think a lot of trainers are unaware or afraid to touch their clients – and there are a minority of them who don’t like/want to be touched – but the majority of us are ‘tactophiles.’ Meaning, a large part of how we learn is through touch.

To help elucidate more on the topic, I leave you with a TED talk that my client sent me by Abraham Verghese which I found hit the nail on the head.

 

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.
  • Nicholas St John Rheault

    TG, good stuff as usual.  It’s amazing how many simple, yet direct cues you give as a professional trainer all of which positive.  You certainly “leave no rock untuned”…. a true sign of a Jedi Master!!!!

    • Anonymous

      Well, I try I suppose…..;o)

      I know some have misconstrued my message (namely on Facebook), but just so I’m clear: I am in no way insinuating that I treat EVERY client the same. Some don’t mind that I’m poking and prodding them, while others are a bit more reserved. You DO need to have a social filter and understand that some people respond well to it, while others…..not so much.

      All in all, though, I do feel it’s a component of training that many trainers fail to grasp.

  • Kristine

    Great article. Thank you!

    • Anonymous

      Glad you liked it Kristine.

  • Good stuff man

    • Anonymous

      As always, I appreciate the support Rees!

  • Another great article, Tony! Reading the things you’ve witnessed reminded me MY gym, haha. This article is just what I need now that I’m training more clients.

    Proprioceptive feedback is a great tool for clients. And let’s not forget those clients who only respond to being “physically manipulated” into position.

    • Anonymous

      Exactly. Sometimes, clients need more tactille feedback to “feel” what it is you want them to do. Sometimes, you need to get your hands on them………in a non-creepy way of course….;o)

  • Emily

    Awesome post Tony. I loved the video. So true and so needed. Thanks for sharing.

    • Anonymous

      Great! Thanks for the kind words Emily.

  • J.B.

    Tony, great point, and a great talk. There’s an anecdote in Dr. Verghese’s talk about sitting and listening to the CFS patients.. struck a chord with me. Too many trainers/coaches don’t listen to their clients. I wrote about it at length here: http://jbzero.blogspot.com/2012/03/listen.html
    Thanks for sharing that.

    • Anonymous

      JB – I ALWAYS appreciate your insight. Seriously. That’s something I made the mistake of doing back when I first started: NOT listening to my clients and always trying to prove to them that I was right. If anything, it turned them off and made them less receptive to my coaching.

      Thanks for sharing that post!

      • Bethel

        Tony can you write an article for us 
        middle-aged woman who are 30 lbs overweight. 🙂

      • J.B.

         Thanks for the props Tony!
        I try to be sensitive to inserting links into the comments of other people’s pages. In this case the two points are so closely related: communication with the clients, and bringing ourselves into their space instead of keeping them at arm’s length.
        People helping people.

  • Love this! I train mostly women and make it a point to always have that one point of contact at all times. During set up, I touch areas that I want engaged,  sort of creating a road map of the muscles being worked. Then keep my hand (s) in a particular area I want worked. If it’s a squat, I put my hand on the sacrum so they remember to push up through the hips and not the chest. If it’s a glute bridge, I I keep my fingers pressed in that glute area I want them to squeeze. As the progress through a given movement, I do this less and less, but always keep that close contact with them so they know I am paying attention to them and not anything else. 

    I always get feedback from them stating that they never made that connection with their muscles prior to this and the sensation of my touch helps them to engage those muscles correctly. It makes all the difference in the world.

  • James

    Best thing that I learnt from TG whilst at CP…has totally changed the speed at which my clients have learnt proper technique!

    • Anonymous

      Well, you’re talented coach as it is James……I don’t think I had much to do with that…..;o)

  • Eric Lagoy

    Nice post Tony, in the interest of being less creepy, you could maybe call it “tactile cuing” haha

    • Anonymous

      haha. True.

  • RS

    Tony,

    I’m never as disillusioned as I am when I visit the gym each day and see the trainers taking folks through the most stupid of exercises. It’s really sad. 

    RS

    • Anonymous

      OMG – no kidding!!!!!!!! Granted there are plenty of trainers out there who do it right and actually give a shit. But they’re definitely far from the norm.

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  • Bret Contreras

    Totally in agreement Tony!

  • Tony, AWESOME. I definitely found myself nodding in agreement the entire time. The coolest part for me was experiencing this firsthand when you coached Kelsey and I during our stay at CP….we were able to see from the client’s perspective just how useful physical touch really is. 

    • Anonymous

      Thanks Steve….glad you liked it. Lisa and I need to make it down to your neck of the woods soon!

  •  no idea why this posted twice… sorry :-/

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  • Brett

    Thanks for the great info Tony

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