Friday, December 30, 2011

Is the entire fitness industry BS? Everything you know is a lie. Part 1 (Personal Trainers)

Super Hans from Peep Show sums up most of the fitness industry in one phrase

Or as my ol' Pa used to say 'Bullshit baffles brains'

This is a three part series, part 1 will cover personal trainers or more specifically an 'in-house' PT conference I went to, part 2 will cover the concept of 'master trainers' and a review of Les Mills cxworx program, part 3 will cover fitness qualifications and courses.

I haven't got time to cover everything that is wrong with the fitness industry and personal trainers, so I will have to focus on some specific examples. Before I start it goes without saying that there are some very good personal trainers and fitness coaches out there, and if you're looking for a decent trainer I hope you find one. There just happens to be a lot of bell-ends as well.

Full disclosure: I don't do that much PT anymore, I think it doesn't work for most people, and small group training works better for more people. I think even writing a decent program and walking your clients through it and them training by themselves works better in most cases.

PT Conference - cigarettes & crisps

I work mostly for a company that is now reasonably big (I also work for myself as well) and it held an in-house PT conference. I took a couple of my trainers to it, hoping to meet some like minded trainers, exchange ideas, and hopefully learn some new things. Boy, were we in for a surprise.

There were about 20-30 people at the conference, including a couple of trainers I know and respect and quite a few I'd never met before.

As we entered the building, we saw a couple of PT's having a last minute cigarette before entering the conference. That's what I like to see, PT role models living the fitness dream. One of the PTs having a fag later turned out to be one of those people, one who has the confidence of a much smarter person.

Later at lunch checking out what some of the PTs were eating was also enlightening - crisps, the usual soft drinks crap. Bear in mind this was in an actual gym, where some of them will train clients, and some of them were wearing their PT polo shirts at the time. Now if you're in the fitness industry I don't expect you to be a saint, I myself have eating my own bodyweight in cheese over the festive season and drunk enough beer to knock out a honey badger. However, most of the time I'm pretty good, and please don't be doing this stuff in front of potential clients, people who will ultimately pay your wages and will ask you about nutrition.

Sales - it's all about the shirt

We kicked off with some of the usual stuff about sales, what is PT, we don't know how to market it, do you want to make more money, hey the product is you, blah blah. Personally I don't buy into this concept that PT is all about the individual trainers strengths, so we can't really market it. I would subscribe more to Alwyn Cosgrove's idea, in a large organisation you have to a model you can replicate; otherwise when your best PT leaves, all your clients go with them.

At this point one of the PTs handily pointed out that when she was wearing her fleecy jumper no one could see her ever so stylish polo shirt that has 'personal trainer' stamped on the back in big letters, and what we needed was fully branded fleeces as well. WTF?! Even the sales guy looked dumbfounded. Hey, if no one can see your polo shirt how about taking your fleece off. And here's a thought, if you are out on the floor actually training people, then people might actually think your a personal trainer and not just an overweight person wearing a fleece standing next to someone on a treadmill.

Then things got worse - the secret

You may not be aware that many gyms follow quite a simple model for PT. They normally get a PT or fitness instructor to do a standard gym induction, and by standard I mean awful. The idea is to give the client the most basic, machine based program that doesn't work. You then tell the bemused client who thought you were to help them, that yes, you can show them the secrets, the special exercises, but its gonna cost them, PT is the skeleton key to success.

I thought this still only occurred in the most backward globo-gym big box commercial heartless facilities, where the PTs pay £900 for rent and are on the breadline. After all, nearly all commercial health clubs require a monthly fee, and they all big up there individualised one to one program and there exclusive caring 'induction process'. Of course, they don't tell you that there individualised program consists of showing you three machines and a static stretch.

Due to this my personal training and fitness team have always worked on the premise of writing the best programs for people even if it isn't a PT session, but a session that is included in their membership. This way, they can sleep at night with a clear conscience, and hopefully the client will be impressed enough to get some PT after the 'free' sessions are done (doesn't always work out, people take the piss, but we all feel better about our profession and some of our gym members actually achieve their goals).

This rambling section, brings me to the actual point. In some 'break-out' groups we discussed programming and what we do. It then became clear that many of the PTs were following the crap induction model outlined above.

I was explaining that in a first session we might do some functional movement screening, and then might show the person some goblet squats or bodyweight squats. One of the trainers then looked at me as if I was punching clients in the face with a kettlebell. He actually said 'sounds like your over programming', another one chimed in 'kettlebells on the first session? There's no way they are going to be ready for that.' Other comments included, 'you can't be showing people power exercises like the swing', and that things like movement screening would be 'too confusing for clients'. And lastly, you're giving too much away.

Can't coach, won't coach

At this point my bullshit meter hit critical.

Never take one of these into a room full of personal trainers

In response to the squat question. If you can't coach a squat to a normal health person I don't know what to tell you. I use chair squats/ bench squats with clients with chronic back pain, people after hip replacements and stroke survivors. Yes, the evidence base recommends chair squats and eventually squats hovering above the chair for people after stroke. If I can get a stroke client to squat to a step built up with some risers while wearing an AFO (ankle foot orthosis), and you're telling me this movement is too complicated for a person who want to lose weight and tone up, I don't know what to tell you. If you can't coach a squat to normal healthy person in their first session, you either can't coach or you are too lazy too coach; sitting down and getting out of a chair everyday is a fundamental movement pattern that millions of people do everyday. So I asked what they would show people, they said leg press, you're freakin' kidding me right?!

In answer to the movement screen being too confusing and too complicated for clients: Obviously you don't necessarily use the verbage 'functional movement screen' with clients, and I'll leave it to Gray Cook to explain why you should screen clients. I probably train more injured people than the average PT (back pain, GP referral, stroke clients) and I employ some form of movement screen with them all (though I don't think I've ever done the entire official FMS with anyone), it might be the selective functional movement assessment (SFMA) seated compression test for back pain clients etc. And as far as I'm aware no one got confused, and the whole thing takes about 5mins.

I then proffered the idea to the assembled PT chumps, that you don't even have to do a movement screen, surely you will see if they can do a squat or if they have limitations in the mobility warm up, some scapula wall slides, bodyweight squats and cat camels are going to tell you quite a lot. At this point some tumble weed blew past. It seems most PTs don't know what a mobility warm up is either, 5 mins on the cross trainer anyone?

The conversation went on for a bit, where me and the PTs who work for me said things like 'why would you give someone an exercise program you know doesn't work?' And, of course, you would make sure someone could hip hinge before getting them to do a swing'. And yes, we do kettlebells with people who can use them within the first or second session. But it seems we are in the minority. It seems a program that consists of squats or step ups is too complicated or 'over-programming', yes somewhere, Rippetoe is crying with laughter. And more importantly giving clients crap exercise in the first session is an income generator later on, when it turns out they didn't lose weight or achieve anything with the half arsed 'program' they were given.

It seems the average PT has such little faith in their clients or the public, that they will only show them a leg press, because obviously they are too dumb to grasp anything else. Even though, they are injury free and have most probably used gyms countless times before. Even though I can start a back pain client on the road to hip hinging in session 1, for a female weight loss client this is obviously too dangerous. I concede there is a place for machines for certain people in certain situations, but these PTs blanket dumbing down of exercise for everyone is pure laziness.

Whining & Moaning

After this me and my team were ready to return back to base, and continue training clients in the awesome way they had become accustomed too, safe in the knowledge that most of industry rivals had never read a book. But there was more to come.

All PTs in this company get free access to PTontheNet, personally I've looked at it twice as I'm too busy reading fitness books, text books, DVDs, research articles, other fitness website & blogs & journals; but it's there if you want it. One PT then claimed she didn't have time to read it as she was too busy at work and wasn't going to look it out of work. Once again me and the rest of my team were dumbstruck. WTF?! This is your career, your life, how about turning off the TV. I do all my reading outside of work, as do my team. I personally manage at least 1-2 hours everyday minimum, because this is what I do, I want to be expert in this field. Her unwillingness to invest anytime or effort in her chosen field was astounding.

To top it all off, we got onto the subject of training courses. To be fair to this particular company, they are pretty good at sending their staff on training courses. But for one particular PT this wasn't good enough, she wanted to do some kids fitness course, which her manager wouldn't send her on and she said she couldn't afford to pay for it herself. And thus she managed to miss the entire point of the conference, which was to make more money from PT. Here's a clue, if you were a better PT, you would actually have some clients, which means you would actually have some money and you could pay for the course. And here's another hint, if you really wanted to do it, you would find a way, we're not talking £1000's, but a few hundred pounds.

I often wonder why people become PTs, it seems many of them have no training background and have as much interest in fitness and health as Jabba The Hut. Maybe they couldn't think of anything else to do, maybe its just a reflection of society, where superficial understanding and qualifications with guaranteed pass rates are par for the course.

Meanwhile, they make the rest of us look bad, they make the industry look amateurish, and the ones with real passion and knowledge are lost in the flood.

In part 2 I will review the cxworx program which I took part in at the same conference, and rant about master trainers

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Futile Search For The Magic Exercise. (Gestalt Training)

While flicking through Verkhoshansky's Special Strength Training Manual For Coaches, I came across this line in the preface which struck me as fundamentally important:

"In the past, the coaches were searching for the 'best exercise' which could assure an easy way in achieving the higher increase in athlete's performance. Later, it was understood that the single exercise cannot assure by itself the best increase in specific performance, but that it can be achieved by a group of different exercises integrated into a system."
This is an issue that reverberates throughout commercial fitness facilities, people want you to show them the magic, secret exercise that will change everything. To a lesser extent you still see this mentality in strength coaches as well, all we need to do is the Olympic lifts and everything will be fine regardless of the individual, their background or their sport.

Often times I will write a program for someone, and when they look at it, there is a sense of disappointment. Where are the secret exercises that will transform their body, where is the secret special ops bullshit that will make them throw up and therefore feel like they've had a real workout. Instead they see deadlifts, squats, presses, pull ups etc blah etc, all that stuff that has worked for thousands of people for at least a hundred years.

The point is not necessarily the individual exercises, however good they may be. The point is the accumulated effect of doing all these exercises together over several weeks, months & years. The workout is not just a list of exercises on a piece of paper, it's the effort you put into every single rep, every single hill sprint, the sessions you blast through when you don't feel like training, the focus, the tenacity, the push outside of your comfort zone. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Not technically gestalt, but you get the idea

"Boring stories mister"

These are all examples of real world conversations I have had, some happen on such a regular basis, as to become generic, some are recent specific examples.

The bicep guy: "I'm looking for an exercise to hit the outer head of my biceps brachii, I've heard that semi supine 135 degree partial rep band curls are the answer, I was thinking of adding them onto my bicep day?"
Me: "How many chin ups can you do? And how big are your biceps now?"
Bicep Guy: "I don't do them. About 9 inches pumped"
Me: "You don't need a  bicep day, you need to do some chin ups and total body training, and stop drinking freakin lucozade while working out"

A real conversation I had a couple of weeks ago when someone walked into the gym
Woman: "I'm on holiday for 10 days, which one of these is the best machine to lose weight and get rid of this (pointing to stomach)."
Me: "Only 10 days, hmmm, none of them, eat less" (okay, I padded that out with some blah talk about nutrition and long term exercise, but you get the drift).
Also bear in mind that this woman wasn't a pre contest figure athlete in need of Lyle McDonalds stubborn fat loss protocol and a shipment of yohimbine, she was the standard fat loss client.

Six pack guy or gal: "Whats the best exercise for this? (pointing at stomach). At this point they want you to tell them about some secret ab-curl variation, do 100 of these and you will get a six pack, instead you ask

"Do you want to get your core stronger or you want to see your abs?"

Nine times of of ten, they want to see there abs. So you tell them its about nutrition really. But if they like, you could show them some total body training that's going to hit the core, as well as everything else and burn more calories than sitting on the recline bike. No, no, no! They don't want that, they want the easy answer, they want the magic exercise.

Magic functional core exercise - this will give you a 6 pack in 6 days: Or just do some squats, asymmetrical carries and buy an ab wheel

Or the person who thinks Pilates is a panacea for all their woes - back pain, posture, lose weight, get that stomach they always dreamed of while lying down, with this secret set of exercises (but that's a whole other blog post).

Last example, Running guy came into the gym because he wanted to work on his upper body and because of some long term intermittent non specific back pain. So I give him the SFMA, Mcgill, full assessment screen (included in his membership, no extra charge!), then take him through cat camels, bird dogs, glute activation drills, body weight squats, goblet squats, one arm DB press,the works. Next time he comes in he tells me he wants to only use machines because there safer and he thinks he hurt his back doing the other stuff. So I tell him all the downsides of machines, and the one or two that are the exception & may be worth him using, and then take him through hip hinges & golfers lift. And the next time he almost believes me, but he can't quite bring himself too, because I'm just a guy in the gym and not his physio, and he tells me he wants to use the leg press machine for his legs, so I tell him about the lumbar spine flexion on the leg press, and how the goblet squat is superior and safer, as is all the unilateral leg stuff we've been through, and how more functional it is to his needs blah blah. And how Dean Karnazes and Scott Jurek both lift weights etc etc.

And he looks at me like I've started speaking Vogon and the babel fish has fallen out of his ear. Because all he wanted to do was come to the gym and use some of those magic upper body machines and core machines and not have to think, and not really change the way he is moving at all. And carry on being a kyphotic runner with upper crossed syndrome and spindly legs who is forward flexion intolerant.

Did you not hear me when I said the Leg Press is not good for your back. Am I speaking Vogon or something?!

"I don't believe you, you're a liar". Magic machines.

Some people think they've joined a gym or facility and the money they pay is for the machines. Its not. You're paying for the expertise of the trainers. I think it was Stuart McGill who said you can tell how good a facility is by how few machines it has. A cable column, some kettlebells, power rack, barbells & prowler is the sign of a good gym.

Now I realise there is a sub-set of gym goers, or more specifically health club users who specifically pay for the machines and the exclusive environment. They don't care that the poor sap minimum wage gym instructor doesn't know anything about training because they come to the gym to tell people they go to the gym. For them staying fat & unfit is not an issue, they can have their post workout caramel latte in the cafe afterwards and get the fat lipo-sucked out at a later date.

Some people look genuinely disappointed when you don't put any machines in their program. They don't believe that the floor exercise you gave them for their core is the best one they can do, they don't believe that those bodyweight exercises are really what is going to get their legs in shape, or that dumbbell exercise the best thing for their arms. No, one of those shiny machines must do the job better, they look so new and expensive, why would someone go to the trouble of building those machines if bodyweight & free weight exercises were all that was needed?! There must be something I can sit down on, some kind of vibrating platform that will do this for me? No, there isn't. Welcome to the lie of the fitness industry my friend. Trust me, your membership fee should have nothing to do with the amount of machines in the gym, it should be about the results the trainer can get for you.

Bang for your buck exercises (note to all American trainers and coaches, stop using this phrase in your writing and work, it's worn out and trite)

Some exercises achieve so much that they are worth a thousand machines. There is an exchange in the DVD secrets of the shoulder between Gray Cook and Bret Jones which goes something along the lines of: so what do you do for you posterior chain? Swings. And your cardio? Swings. And explosive power? Swings. And shoulder rehab? Swings.

So I guess somethings do border on magic exercises. The swing is a gestalt exercise, so much more than it first appears. There is more going on than most of your clients will ever know.

Cue perfect opportunity to have a Neghar Fonooni video clip of some kettlebell swings. (After the few reps it looks like Neghar is even doing some neck packing - good work & technique!)

Yes, the hip hinge, goblet squat and bird dog may look simple. But you have no idea how much more beneficial they are going to be than the adductor and ab crunch machine. Yes, not only are you paying me for the stuff I show you, you are also paying me for all the useless crap I don't make you do.

You are not a snowflake, but you are an individual

Copying other peoples training can be a mistake. They are not you, you may have specific needs, injuries and time constraints. You should have an assessment, or at least honestly ask yourself what you need to really work on. This doesn't mean, however, that in general there aren't some commonalities in training that work for everyone. Yes, its a worn out phrase but success does leave clues. For example, with running, intervals, hills and sprints all work. This doesn't mean you need to go and sprint up a hill on your day 1 session, but what it does mean is walking for 10 minutes on the treadmill is never going to get you to that 10k run.

The same with weight training, you might think you are the only drug free individual in history who needs a bicep day, and a tricep day and fifteen different pec exercises. The reason we know time travel isn't possible, is because if it was Arthur Saxon and Eugene Sandow would be here now, hitting every wannabe bodybuilder over the head with a weighted sandbag.

Sandow: Back when men could wear leopard skin pants, while sporting a moustache when it wasn't movember and somehow managed to build a physique without access to a smith machine

Now this doesn't mean training has to be boring. Go ahead try new things, have crazy sessions where you do random stuff, drink NOS explode until you pass out. But never lose sight of the basics, because they work. Basic heavy compound movements, explosive lifts, intervals all work, but they don't sell products on the Internet.

"We didn't start the fire, its been burning since the worlds been turning"

I guess people want an easy life and quick results. Why stand up when I can sit down. Why put effort in, if there is possibly an easier way. Why bother changing, its too hard. The comfort zone is warm and cosy and people don't want to come out of it (see I did learn something on the 10 min gym training,  bridge model course: in joke).

If you are training for 5k or 10k and you've never run before, at some point you have to stop walking and running. And it will hurt, not in an existential way, but in a real 'my chest is going to explode' way because you body likes homeostasis.

There isn't some secret running schedule that no ones told you about, there's not some special barefoot shoes that will help you. At some point you have to go and run further than you've run before, and then run faster, and those individually sessions will build up into something magical, greater than one mere training session or method could achieve.The whole program gets results not the individual days

And sometimes you have to break out of your mental comfort zone. Tell a guy who has been doing 3 x10 on all his weights exercises for years that maybe he should try 10 x 3, or 8 x 2 or 5 x 5  and he will look at you like you just set fire to Arnies Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. But why not try it, what the hell have you got to lose.

Will a deadlift alone change you? Probably not. The back squat? Maybe. However, put them together with presses, some kettlebell conditioning, pull ups, bodyweight exercises & a few hill sprints and 'you will become more powerful than you could possibly imagine'.

So stop searching for the magic exercise, or the magic programme. Its already here, you just haven't done it properly yet.

You gotta have a system, go and find one that works for you.