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


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  2. Sable, the industry needs people like you otherwise it will be taken over by chumps. It can be hard in a commercial gym, but the main thing is to be true to yourself and your exercise philosophy. If gym memebers start seeing you getting results with your clients they will want to train with you. And also if you walk the walk , women especially will want to train with you to look like you. Goodluck