If you don't understand the basics of energy systems, human behavior, force vectors, and stress, you shouldn't call yourself a trainer.
I’ve seen a lot of trainers come and go. Some looked like Thor; others had more charisma than Kanye, but almost all of them lacked legitimate scientific knowledge–even basic concepts like how the body utilizes energy during exercise.
This is unacceptable, especially if we trainers are responsible for someone else’s body. I’d even go so far as to posit that a lack of understanding basic concepts combined with ignoring a constant pursuit of knowledge is often why an average trainer becomes a bad one, which impacts the industry altogether.
A successful personal trainer needs to develop adequate knowledge in fields such as biology, biomechanics, anatomy and physiology, or physics, period. Success in this instance is not about the money earned, or total clients in the books. Rather, it is being able to safely design and execute an exercise program for a variety of clientele with a wide range of training goals.
Granted, there is not an established minimum baseline understanding of science for all trainers. Everyone’s college and background may vary, so I thought about the most critical elements that someone needed to succeed as a trainer. Here are the top five things I came up with:
1. Energy Systems
Whatever your exercise program–whether you have an 80-year-old grandmother doing sets of stand-to-sits, or a 25-year-old triathlete doing a hill climb on a spin bike – an energy system is in use. Always.
Many fitness professional don’t seem to understand how energy systems blend together and why each has a place in a training program, for example. To review, here are what they are (with brevity):
- ATP/CP: Fast-reactive energy. This energy system lasts roughly ten seconds and leads to high levels of force output.
- Glycolytic: Carbohydrate-driven energy that is relatively high in force output, but provides decent endurance. This is the most commonly used energy system in a standard training session.
- Oxidative: Needing oxygen to fuel the metabolism. This is cardiovascular in nature and has a high level of endurance at the expense of low force output.
I bring this up because there are so many trainers who think that the only way to help a client lose weight, specifically body fat, is to pound them to the ground with absolute oxidative and cardiovascular madness. Not to mention some clients actually benefit from only a few days of cardiovascular system training per week anyway. Lifting coaches don’t get off easy here either: having a client perform a sub-max lift, then foam roll and chat during three-minute rest periods isn’t the best use of time.
So remember, no matter how intense an exercise program is there is always an energy system that is active.
2. Force Vectors
There comes a point when you stop training muscles and start coaching movements. This doesn’t mean you become a “functional guru” and only do off-the-wall training methodologies to draw attention. Rather, this means that you stop thinking in terms of pectorals, biceps, and hamstrings, and start thinking in terms of push, pull, and hinge.
These fall under biomechanics, or as I like to call it, “the physics of the body”. It is quite the complex and mathematical subject involving centers of mass, ground reaction forces, and force vectors. Yet, for a personal trainer it really doesn’t have to be that complex.
Quite simply, a force vector is the direction that a force is “aiming”, or moving.
To understand what I mean, you must understand force vectors and how they relate to exercise:
- Force is produced by the body to act upon force(s) that are imposed on the body by both the body and outside resistance. For example, muscles in the shoulder joint will begin to contract as a response to sticking your arm out straight to your side and leaving it there, where gravity will then act on it as well.
- Force is best produced when the body’s joints are aligned properly to resist and overcome a resistance. This is why you will always bicep curl more weight than you front raise. Quite simply, the axis (range of motion) is shorter, and hence, makes the movement more efficient.
- Force is best produced when the body is pressed against a stable, non-giving surface in an effort to create leverage. This is why you shouldn’t place your feet in the air during a barbell bench press if your goal is to press maximum weight.
One other thing to note: Just because movement may be upwards does not mean that there are no forces that exist downward. A vertical jump is an upward movement that overcomes gravity and is the result of applying downward force, into the ground. A machine chest press, on the other hand, is probably going to have opposing force vectors in a more horizontal plane. The weight functions as a force towards your body while your body creates force to press the load away from it.
There is no “one” ideal alignment. All vector positions will be related to the individual details of a client and an exercise. These details include limb length, pelvic alignment and shape, injury history, modality and specificity of exercise selection, and overall performance readiness. Always remember: forces are everywhere around the client. Those vectors are action and have action upon their body.
3. Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands (SAID)
The SAID scientific principle governs everything a client will do in the gym. This fact cannot be taken lightly.
Essentially, the SAID principle states that the human body will adapt very specifically to the demands of activities that are imposed upon it. This matters even when your client isn’t in the gym.
Take, for example, sitting on your backside, eating cookies and watching television. Over time, they’ll cause specific body adaptations. Namely, atrophy in the posterior chain, and aggressive fat deposits in the abdomen, legs, and upper arms. A loss of cardiovascular efficiency and total tidal volume may also occur. You’ll often see rounding of the thoracic spine (kyphosis), poor hip and shoulder mobility, and quite possibly forward head syndrome.
Bodies don’t want to necessarily become overweight and immobile objects, but they will if that specific demand is placed upon them on a consistent basis. By contrast, people go to the gym to force positive adaptations upon their bodies. So, your job as a fitness professional is to completely understand the “downrange” effects of your exercise programming.
For example, a client wants to lose weight–a lot of it–so you put them on a calorie and carbohydrate restricted diet while also having them do cardiovascular sessions four to six days per week. What do you think is going to happen?
More likely than not, there will be an initial burst of weight loss followed immediately by stagnation. Once this plateau is reached, you’ll either cut calories further, or dramatically increase the frequency or duration of the cardiovascular plan. Again, you’ll see results, but at the cost of your client’s long-term health.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen this protocol recommended by numerous trainers everywhere. Their intentions are pure-they really want to help their client lose weight and feel better–but they don’t understand that this misguided weight loss program actually sabotages their client’s metabolism by making them lose muscle mass and experience a host of other counterproductive responses in the body.
Whether a client is lifting maximum loads, building muscles, performing WODs, training for a marathon, or spending all of his time on a bike, there will be specific adaptations in the body and outcomes. It is absolutely critical that a trainer understand the implications their program will have on a client’s body. There’s more to it than just body fat and muscle mass.
A successful trainer understands the chain of events that will occur as a result of their program and can comfortably and eloquently relate them to the client’s goals and current condition.
4. The Science of Stress
Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older– Hans Selye
The quote is from the man who discovered stress, or at the very least, named it. Hans Selye is considered the world’s authority on stress, endocrinology, pathology, and even steroid chemistry. His research led to the description of the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS).
Why do we care?
Stress comes in all forms and can have a positive or negative impact on our well-being. You’re stressed. I’m stressed. The world we live in is filled with both big and small stressors, like commutes to work, credit card bills, and getting your online dating profile just right. Heck, even exercise is a stress itself. Basically, stress impacts everything. It can emphasize or suppress hormones, control body composition, impact muscle tension, contribute to injury or burnout, and obviously impact psychology.
Keep that in mind the next time you say hello to your client at the beginning of a paid session. A stressed client doesn’t hate high-repetition deadlifts because he is lazy and unfocused. Maybe he has two reports due by Thursday, a sick child at home, and hasn’t slept well in days.
Grasping this concept of stress is important because it allows you to be empathetic and understand that not every workout is going to look like a perfect Instagram video, or that every client even wants to look shredded in photos.
It’s important to take the time to study the effects of stress, or “strain” as Selye wishes he called it, so that you can design and implement an exercise program that actually improves a client’s life, not complicate it.
Know when to push and know when to pull back. Show empathy toward your clients, and that could lead to better adherence, more trust, and overall success of a training program.
Psychology is an ever-expanding science that’s full of professionals looking to understand the “why” and “how” behind human thought and action.
If you learn psychology, you can better relate to your clients. “Personal training” has the word “personal“ for a reason, after all. More importantly, it affords you the ability to predict what someone might (or might not) do, so you can adjust accordingly during the course of a session. This is important because it’ll help you get to the root of a client’s reaction, emotional state, motivation, and so on.
Maybe your client hates when you put him on a treadmill, and he completely changes his attitude with you. Without a little knowledge in psychology and human behavior, you might just assume the client is being lazy and weak. You might tell your client to “Dig deep and suck it up” or “The fat won’t burn itself.” Sure, the client might plow through it begrudgingly, but will probably always hold a bit of resentment for you. Not for the hard work, but for not caring enough to ask questions…
You simply didn’t care enough to ask why he hated the treadmill. If you did, you might’ve found he once fell on a treadmill in front of an entire gym of people and was so embarrassed that he quit the gym the next day.
That’s psychology, folks. It is becoming someone who empathizes and asks more questions than provides answers. It’s being willing to help your clients explore deeper parts of themselves in an effort to tease out those little demons that have held them back from achieving their goals in the first place.
Not every client is going to have a dramatic story or overwhelming need for empathy, but psychology is ever present in all of us and every moment. Whatever the complex issue it may be, you need to understand the cascading effect that psychology can have upon a client’s workout, progress, and overall happiness.
As an aside, this part of personal training is most important to me. I believe that in acknowledging the importance of psychology you become a coach, not “just a trainer”. I’ve had a client text me after a breakup, ask me to just stretch them and listen, and even cried on my shoulder after the loss of a loved one. Clients will share their life story with you if you let them; every success and fear just the same. It is this reality, and not the money or series of letters behind your name, that matters most.
Quite frankly, if you can’t appreciate your client as a person and refuse to do so, please leave the industry.
Science is all around you in the gym. It is in the weights that are lifted, in the minds of your clients, and even in the sweat they push out or the air that they breathe.
The most important job for a trainer is to deliver an outstanding personal training service that is safely executed upon the well-researched backs of science, mindful programming, and a keen ability to perceive and adapt accordingly.
Without these components, you can never truly succeed as a good trainer.
Related Articles Other Trainers Found Helpful:
- Properly Screen the Squat – Justin Kompf
- The Ultimate Guide to Pain – Anoop Balachandran
- The Big Rocks of Personal Training – Bret Contreras
- A Coach’s Guide to Upper Cross Syndrome – Eirik Garnas