What Every Personal Trainer Should Know

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Like many of you I’m a member of a few Facebook groups. Some private, and some not so much. There’s a family page, a Cressey Performance page, a page that’s dedicated to my old JUCO baseball team, another one that I frequent which is for movie nerds, and another that may or may not be nothing more than a ode to………..you guessed it…..bacon.

What can I say? I love the stuff.

Another group I’m a member of is one that I was invited into recently – there’s a secret handshake and everything! – run by a group of young fitness professionals on the up and up.

They’re a group of young men and women whom I know and have a personal, if not a more than an informal relationship with, who asked myself and several other colleagues of mine if we’d be willing to participate and to serve as “mentors” so-to-speak.  Nothing fancy or time consuming, but rather just a place where they can ask questions, seek advice or just talk shop.

I said yes, but only under the stipulation that whenever I’m addressed directly they’d have to do this first:

It’s been great so far, and I’ve enjoyed the open dialogue and discourse.

One question in particular caught my attention the other day:

What are subject matters you think every personal trainer must know? And what are some subjects matters personal trainers should know, depending on what kind of niche they want to work with?

It’s a loaded question for sure, right on par with your girlfriend asking “do I look fat in this?” or “wanna talk about our feelings?”

But I felt it was a question that deserved some attention and something I’d attempt to tackle in today’s post.

Upon graduating from school back in 2002, when I first started out as a personal trainer I felt I knew everything.

I had been lifting weights since I was 13, played four years of college baseball, had a six-pack, and had graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in Health Education. How hard could it possibly be to train Jim from accounting?

Come on dude…I got this.

Needless to say, out of the gate, it was a rude awakening for me.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t a cakewalk. I quickly realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. And, to be honest, I considered it a success/borderline miracle if my client happened to finish his or her session with all ten fingers and toes still attached.

Of course the panic button was pushed less often the more experience I got.  After a few weeks I started hyperventilating less and less into a brown paper bag.  After a few months I started hitting my stride and getting more confident in my abilities.  And after a year or two I was basically a personal training Jedi.

Okay not really, but I was far cry from the rookie trainer who was green around the gills not long beforehand.

I can only speak from my own experience, but below are a few candid thoughts which I feel every personal trainer should consider:

1.  Career vs. Hobby

What’s your goal?  Are you doing this “personal training thing” because you see it as a viable, rewarding, long-term career, or something that, because you like to lift weights and stuff, will help you pass time until something better comes along?

Collecting baseball cards is a hobby. World of WarCraft is a hobby.

Taking people’s health and well-being into your hands is NOT a hobby.  At least it shouldn’t be.

I know I could sit here and wax poetic about how the barrier to entry in the personal training field is spotty at best.  At this point it is what it is.  There’s nothing I can do to stop people from getting certified on the internet by paying a random site $79.99.

That said, I truly feel that those trainers who approach this as a CAREER – and not just something to do – are the ones who are going to last the longest and do well for themselves.

2.  Know Anatomy

This seems like an obvious point, but you’d be amazed as to how many seniors in college on the cusp of entering the work force can’t even name all four rotator cuff muscles, let alone each’s function.

Let me ask you this:  shoulder bone connecting to the arm bone jokes aside, how do you expect to train someone’s body if you don’t even know what it is or how it works?

Now, I’m not saying you have to be an anatomy savant like Eric Cressey, Bill Hartman, Mike Robertson, or Bret Contreras – all of whom are on another level if you ask me.

But you should have a basic understanding of how the human body works, and I’m not just referring to insertion points and actions of the muscle.  You need to know FUNCTIONAL anatomy.

Take the glutes for example.  Read any anatomy book and you’ll learn that the glute max extends and abducts the hip, as well as externally rotates.  Cool, we’re all on the same page there.

But it also decelerates hip internal rotation and adduction, as well as pronation of the foot.  All of which are kind of important with regards to non-contact ACL injuries.

Knowing this will undoubtedly help a trainer (hopefully) choose appropriate exercises and movements that train the glutes (and posterior chain) in a more “functional” manner.

That’s a very rudimentary example, but it helps showcase my point.

Check out my Resources Page for recommendations for books, DVDS, and the like.  There are a lot of them.  Then again, I know a lot of smart people.

3.  Know Program Design

This goes hand in hand with anatomy, and is just as much of a learned skill as anything else. I love the analogy that Mike Boyle has routinely used in the past on program design and how it’s like following a recipe.

Some people need are cooks and NEED to follow the recipe as it’s written.

Some people are chefs that can write new recipes.

You can read more HERE (<—- please read it).

Along the same lines, trainers should write programs and NOT workouts.  Programs are planned, well-thought out, structured training plans with a goal or purpose in mind (fat loss, training around an injury, preparing for a competitive season, etc).  Workouts are nothing more than a trainer babysitting.

You’re not a babysitter.

4.  Know Technique

Whenever I train at a commercial gym I can’t help but observe my surroundings. Yes I always see some eye wash like a guy deadlifting with a rounded back or a woman who’s 40 lbs overweight performing DB curls on a BOSU ball.

Part of me wants to walk over, shake the shit out of them, and point them in the right direction. But it’s not my place.  And, to be honest, they don’t know any better.  At least they’re doing something, right?

What really sets me off is when I watch a trainer doing dumb shit with a client. Worse is when I watch the trainer allow poor technique and do nothing to correct it.  That to me is UNACCEPTABLE.

The problem, most of the time, is that the trainer doesn’t know what good technique is.  Well guess what???  It’s your JOB to know what good technique is!!!!!

A little humility goes a long way if you ask me.

If you don’t know how to coach something, don’t put it into a client’s program! Simple as that.

I’m often asked why I never include any of the Olympic lifts into my programming. My answer: I don’t have a lot of experience with them!  Not to mention they’re not a great fit for the population I work with.

Regardless, as a trainer or coach it’s imperative you hold yourself to a standard.  Use the window test.

If you were an outsider looking through a window watching your athletes or clients train, would you be proud of what you see?  Are they squatting to good depth?  Are their knees caving in on each rep? Do their backs round every time they do a 1-arm DB row?  Do their hips sag and elbows flare out when they perform pushups?

If so, why aren’t you fixing it?  Why aren’t you regressing the exercises?

You’re a coach, so coach!

5.  Get Into People’s Heads

One of the comments left in the original discussion was this (which I’m stealing):

For me, client compliance and communication with general pop. If you can’t convey your message and set up systems that your client can find success with then you’re basically a walking overpriced textbook that no none can read.

I read a lot of books on behavioral economics by authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Ariely, the Freakonomics guys, Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner, as well as others like Robert Cialdini and Chip & Dan Heath.

The reason being, because of the statement above.  It’s important to learn how to communicate with people.  If you’re an uppity a-hole who talks over people’s heads all the time, how do you expect them to follow through with your advice?

Conversely if you’re someone who “just shows up,” counts reps, and does nothing to set people up for success other than charge their credit card each month…..then you’re not doing much.

To understand why people do what they do, and why they think what they think can be an invaluable asset to you as a trainer and coach.

No one is insinuating that you have to sit people on a couch and become a psychologist, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a better understanding of what goes on in their head and how you can better motivate them to not hit up McDonald’s on the way home or take their freakin fish oil……..GOSH!!!!!!!

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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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

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Comments for This Entry

  • maddy

    loved that .. shout it loud please !

    July 10, 2014 at 10:56 am | Reply to this comment

  • Shelby Lynn Downey

    #4!! The Personal Trainer at the gym I attend had a woman doing punches with 10 pound dumbbells!!! I'm glad neither one of them were watching me as I walked in because I'm pretty sure my eyes bugged out.... I try not to judge other's work, but my rotator cuff and rhomboids hurt just watching her! *cringe* I have very little experience with personal trainers, but from the S&C coaches I have worked with, you hit the nail on the head with all these points! They strongly resonate with Athletic Training too. It's a bit more diversified, but a large component of it is training (prehab and rehab).

    July 10, 2014 at 11:04 am | Reply to this comment

  • Kevin Mullins

    Tony, seriously the best article I've read in a while. I myself feel as though I've really entered that phase where you are no longer in the "green" room, but your not quite an industry vet. like yourself, Cressey, Boyle, etc. I think beyond all. The Technique is key. Our number one priority above all else is to do no harm. So what if my client lost 10 pounds if she blew out a vertebrae.... Great post bud, I'm always linking people to your site whenever possible!

    July 10, 2014 at 12:38 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Travis Pollen

    Nice list, Tony! I did have a friend who approached World of WarCraft as a career, though.

    July 10, 2014 at 2:13 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Jordan Fellows

    Thank you for #2. Spot on.

    July 10, 2014 at 7:21 pm | Reply to this comment

  • Ronny Sanchez

    When I first started working as a personal trainer I soon realized that I had a lot to learn. Correct form is definitely the most important. And as far as programming often I'll have another Coach at the CrossFit box I workout do the programming because he's just naturally great at it. crossfitalbuquerquenm.com

    July 10, 2014 at 10:46 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      Technique is imperative and should be held at a high standard if you're a trainer. No exceptions if you ask me, and serves as my litmus test for ANY trainer. The second they allow bad form (and don't fix it), they lose all credibility in my book.

      July 12, 2014 at 6:22 am | Reply to this comment

  • Glenn De Kler

    overpriced textbook that no none can read FTW

    July 11, 2014 at 11:35 am | Reply to this comment

  • Brent

    Like to throw my 2 cents in here. Have lots to say but I'll just make one pt. Part of the problem with the industry isn't simply the trainers, but those teaching the trainers. My background in the classes I took never taught the functional role of the muscles. It was all origin and insertion stuff (important but only half the battle....GI JOE!) Even the higher end CSCS cert. I have never had this in their material. Likewise you can go to seminars until you are blue in the face, and many won't talk about the most important functional role of the muscles like rotator cuff (Perform Better is the exception). It's assumed you got this in your formal/school education. So..essentially, it all matters who you learn from. I am luck enough to actually ask a shit ton of questions in life about everything, so I got my education on the interwebz from the Tony's of the world after google was being a punk and giving stupid answers to everything. Unfortunately, I think we are a certificate/diploma society. We don't take learning as a lifelong pursuit and don't truly have a passion for the unknown. Furthermore, we are a loud and proud people us Americans. We don't like being wrong. We use symbolic pieces of papers like diplomas to validate our knowledge and 'expert' status, without realizing true knowledge is about constantly asking good questions and becoming better humans (it's not static...it's a dynamic process yo) we treat knowledge as finite, that there is some end, and don't truly appreciate the process of learning (see: the 'hacking' culture...how to shortcut life and get ahead...or so we think). <-god I hate that shit! PS - this blog sucks Tony cuz everyone knows another role of the glutes is to decelerate hip flexion. Gosh, man don't you read good? :)

    July 11, 2014 at 6:05 pm | Reply to this comment

  • kathy ekdahl

    The other thing I have learned over the years-decades- is to take a lesson from the "personal/life" coaching arena. I've been giving solid advice and creating great training programs for years, but no exercise is great nor any advice solid unless the client actually follows it. Educating yourself on the basics of personal coaching can help you help your client become fully engaged and responsible for their own success. While elite athletes may not have the same issues with motivation and sustainability as the average Joe, the world is filled with average Joe's, these are the people who really need us- and they are confused. Our industry is ruined by commerciality, quick fix schemes and diets. They can be fun and exciting- but nothing works unless you do. If you give a client a HIIT program, but they never do it, you need to ask yourself- why not? What's preventing them from engaging or moving forward? Time? Fear? Lack of organization in their life? Lack of support system? When prospective clients ask me what's the best exercise for..... (fill in the blank), I say- "The one you will do". This goes to understanding each client as an individual. This is not to say you dig psychologically into their lives, but understand that there are many factors which go into your clients success, and most of them are NOT related to what exercise you give them. Our industry is very directive- "do this, do that 2x/week for 1 hour" etc etc. , but consider adding the life coaching piece to engage your clients in their own success so they are sustaining their health and fitness via their own internal motivation versus our external advice.

    July 13, 2014 at 8:45 am | Reply to this comment

  • Shane Mclean

    Oh yeah, number 4 . Drives me nuts and my place of work. Trainers who have been doing this for 20 years, letting their clients get away with murder. Cause of this i have no tongue left :)

    July 13, 2014 at 9:38 am | Reply to this comment

  • Brandon Goulding

    great points Tony. I just started going to a new gym that opened up near me and I am appalled at their "personal trainers." I've watched them - not unlike the creepy guy hiding in the bushes at night - and have wanted to kick them square in the groin for the shit they're passing on to their clients. this one guy had a lady holding 1lb dumbbells and marching in place, and by marching I mean lifting her foot about 3 inches of the ground. WHY WAS SHE HOLDING THE WEIGHTS! for one, the purse she walked into the gym with weighed more than the weights, and what the hell was he trying to accomplish with her? Then when I was doing turkish get-ups (and getting funny looks from everyone) they client asked him what I was doing and he said, "that's just some exercise for his back." ok, so the turkish get-up may be hard to explain, but how about just saying, "I don't know" rather than mislead the woman. I could rant about the personal training industry endlessly, but I'll stop here and let you do the ranting, you're much better suited for it than I.

    July 13, 2014 at 1:45 pm | Reply to this comment

  • fitminded

    How long does a person need to be a personal trainer before they can call themselves a master trainer, or do they just take a class and poof become a master trainer? A trainer in Northern VA (Libby Westphal) is claiming to be a master trainer after only 9 months of training. Yet there are no stories or pictures of the people she's trained.

    July 29, 2014 at 8:23 pm | Reply to this comment

    • TonyGentilcore

      It's all marketing. Some clubs will have a "hierarchy" of trainer levels. One club that I used to work at years ago had "Private" trainers and "Advantage" trainers. The Advantage trainers, to their credit, were trainers who where for more than two years and took a certain number of continuing education credits. It never really meant anything more than that. Some of them were still idiots.

      July 30, 2014 at 7:59 am | Reply to this comment

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