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Should Personal Trainers Stretch Their Clients?

by Jonathan Goodman | Follow on Twitter

We brought in Bob McAtee, author of Facilitated Stretching (which has sold over 100,000 copies since 1994) to answer whether or not personal trainers stretch their clients?

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Note from Jon: The first personal training book I ever bought was called Facilitated Stretching written by Bob McAtee. Originally published in 1994, the 4th edition is coming out in November and it’s sold over 100,000 copies. This book was the start to my career and many others.

Since then, the efficacy of static and most assisted stretching has come under scrutiny and for good reason. Yet most personal trainers still stretch their clients even though it’s unlikely that it is having a measurable physiological effect.

For me, this is one of those magical full circle moments and I’m honored to introduce Bob himself to discuss whether or not personal trainers should stretch their clients.

Enter Bob McAtee

THE MAJORITY of clients want trainer-assisted stretching, but should trainers include it in their personal training sessions? As in most questions related to health and fitness, the answer is “it depends.”

Before addressing the specific question, it’s important to acknowledge that many opinions about the benefits/dangers of stretching continue to fuel industry discussion. This blog piece is written from the viewpoint that stretching is good – and in the spirit of full disclosure, I teach facilitated stretching seminars for personal trainers to learn safe and effective stretches to use with their clients.

Even so, I value differing opinions that help further the discussion and contribute to the pursuit of the best interests of our clients.

Nick Tumminello, founder of Performance U International, is known for his innovative, hybrid fitness training concepts and for his ability to provide simple, honest, and immediately applicable solutions to common problems fitness professionals face .

When asked whether trainers should stretch their clients, he gave this response:

“Manually stretching clients is not a part of the Performance U approach to personal training because:

1) There’s a lack of good scientific evidence that assisted stretching offers clients benefits they can’t achieve from doing basic strength training and active mobility modalities (i.e., yoga, dynamic stretching, etc.) through full, controlled ROM.

2) We found clients start looking at trainers as some sort of pseudo-massage therapists who they keep asking to stretch them instead of actually working out.

3) In the sue-happy world we live in, we feel it’s safest for trainers not to put their hands on their clients to manipulate them in any way.”

Mark Nutting’s views are at the other end of the spectrum. Mark has been a personal trainer for over 32 years and was named NSCA Personal Trainer of the Year in 2009.

Mark states, “Stretching for stretching’s sake is pointless. Just as when someone says they want to be fit, you need to ask, ‘Fit to do what?’ When you think about stretching a client, you have to ask, ‘Flexible to do what?’ That’s what a needs analysis can provide. A personal trainer should absolutely stretch a client — if a needs analysis has determined what areas need to be stretched and the trainer understands how to do manual stretching.

Depending on the stretching technique, there can be some risk with manual stretching. Trainers need to stay within their scope of practice and shouldn’t be doing any technique that they haven’t studied and practiced, particularly if it poses some risk to the client.”

personal trainer stretch client

At this point in the discussion, let’s agree that flexibility is an important component of fitness. Given that agreement, the key points to address to help answer the title question fall into four categories:

Who Should Perform the Stretches?

The crux of the issue isn’t whether clients should be working on their flexibility; it’s how they should achieve that flexibility. Do we encourage flexibility work but leave it to the clients to implement it? Or do we take a more active role to include stretching during training sessions?

In contrast to Tumminello’s approach, I say trainer-assisted stretching as part of each training session is more effective in the long-term for helping clients improve their overall flexibility. It’s also true that little or no benefit will accrue if clients are stretching only on the days they work with their trainer. This leads into the next point, client dependence.

Client Dependence

Many trainers feel that stretching clients at the end of a workout is a poor use of time because clients should be stretching on their own, outside of the training time they paid for. As Tumminello points out, clients may prefer to work less and have the trainer spend more time stretching them. In my view (and Nutting’s), this dynamic should bring us back to reviewing the client’s goals and the results of the needs assessment.

To avoid dependence, trainers need to take the time to teach clients how to perform stretches correctly on their own, outside of training sessions. This provides an opportunity to enhance communication and rapport with the client, and allows the trainer to continually monitor clients’ stretching techniques to ensure they’re correct.

shutterstock_50077900Work Within Scope of Practice

A review of scope of practice documents from a number of personal training certification organizations finds no specific mention of stretching. The general guidelines are that personal trainers evaluate their client’s fitness and design, implement, and supervise appropriate exercise programs for them. Stretching would certainly fall within these guidelines.

ACE (http://www.slideshare.net/ravostulp/week-1-scope-of-practice-15923951)

CanFitPro (http://canfitpro.com/en/personal-training-specialist/pts-standardofpractice)

NASM (http://nasm.org/docs/pdf/nasm_boc_certification_candidate_handbook-%28pdf-376k%29.pdf)

Of course, a subset of the scope of practice is having the proper education to perform the assisted stretching.

Do Trainers Need Specialized Training?

Many trainers have experience with stretching and feel it appropriate to transfer this knowledge to their clients through the “describe, demonstrate, monitor, and correct” training method. In this scenario, the trainer typically isn’t putting their hands on the client.

However, we’ve all seen trainers performing stretches on clients and doing it poorly. This improper application of stretches is what fuels the controversy over trainer-assisted stretching.

Keats Snideman, personal trainer, strength & conditioning coach, and licensed massage therapist in Chandler, AZ , shares my view that trainers do need specialized training to safely and effectively stretch their clients.

He says, “If a fitness professional is well versed in anatomical and neurophysiological sciences, and has hands-on training from reputable resources, a personal trainer or strength coach is qualified to apply rational and appropriate assistance to clients for improving range of motion, reducing excessive neuromuscular tone, and promoting a general ease and reduction of body tension.

However, this is a big ‘if’ since many trainers and coaches aren’t well versed in these sciences nor are they trained adequately in how to properly administer and apply these techniques. There’s an “art” to the gentle handling of the human body with manual methods and it takes time to develop these skills. When the body is forced to move into ranges beyond its current adaptability, bad things can happen.”

There are plenty of opportunities for trainers to learn specialized stretching techniques to use with their clients, the best being face-to-face workshops with plenty of supervised practice. In many cases, a certification process is available for the trainer who wants to specialize in a particular flexibility technique.

Trainer-assisted stretching generally falls into three categories:

1. Passive stretching — Where the trainer does all the work to stretch the client. Passively stretching clients presents the most risk for overstretching and possibly injuring a client.

2. Active Isolated stretching (AIS) — Trainer-assisted or passive stretching. AIS is an active form of stretching and this significantly reduces the chance of injury. There’s a passive component to AIS that can be performed too aggressively and therefore increases the risk of client injury.

3. PNF stretching — Where the trainer directs the client to engage the target muscle group isometrically before the stretch. PNF stretching can be performed actively or passively.

Facilitated stretching (my specialty) is a version of PNF that’s the least likely to cause an overstretch injury because the client actively stretches the target muscle group after the trainer-assisted isometric contraction. The trainer rarely adds any passive stretch.

Personal trainers should take it upon themselves to be aware of the various styles of stretching and to improve their skills in this area through appropriate education/certification before incorporating trainer-assisted stretches into their programs.

Once properly trained, they’ll be acting within their scope of practice, and they’ll be unlikely to injure a client while helping to improve their overall flexibility and range-of-motion.

They’ll also have happier clients.

Author Bio

bob mcatee faciliated stretching

Robert E. McAtee, RMT, CSCS, C-PT maintains an active, international sports therapy practice at Pro-Active Massage Therapy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA. He is the author of Facilitated Stretching, a how-to book about PNF stretching, used by health and fitness professionals worldwide. Since its release in 1994, the book has sold over 100,000 copies and been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese. The 4th edition will be released in November 2013.

Bob regularly presents workshops on facilitated stretching, sports therapy, and rehabilitative exercise nationally and internationally. He’ll be presenting for the 6th year in a row at CanFitPro in Toronto, Canada, August 14-17, 2013. His Pre-Conference seminar for personal trainers (August 14th) is “Using Facilitated Stretching in the Gym.” For a list of all of his CFP sessions, click here: http://bit.ly/11ZVPbC or visit his website: www.stretchman.com

About the Author
Jonathan Goodman

As the creator and head coach of thePTDC, I'd have to say that this thing is pretty awesome. If you're interested in my book, it's called Ignite the Fire. Feel free to come hang out on my Facebook page where I talk explore the perfect balance between fitness, business, and living an awesome and fulfilling life.