Thursday, December 22, 2011

How to Pick a Personal Trainer

New Years is coming around and it's about this time that gyms start to see a huge influx in memberships and personal training clients.  Maybe you've decided that this is the year that you're going to get serious about your health and fitness, and to that extent you've decided to hire a personal trainer to help get you to where you want to be.  Excellent!

Deciding to get a personal trainer can be an amazing investment in your health.  Most people haven't made the time investment to become experts in fitness and exercise, and in that case it is very appropriate to hire a trainer to help guide you.  Hiring a trainer off the bat can help you save a lot of wasted time if you're not 100% certain what you're doing when you go to the gym. 

Whatever the reason or whatever your goal, you've decided you'd like to hire a trainer.  But how can you tell if you're getting the best help for your money?  Sadly not all trainers are created equal.  Personal training isn't the cheapest service around and it would be worth your time to find a trainer who is worth the price. (And trust me, a good trainer is definitely worth it)  So here are some keys to look out for when you're shopping around:

1) Certifications and Degrees

It's an interesting thing about personal training certifications: They mean everything and nothing at the same time.  There is no national certifying body for personal trainers like there is for some other professions.  Many gyms have their own certification processes that consist only of weekend courses, which is definitely not enough time for someone to be taught and assessed as a proficient trainer.  There are hundreds of different certifications that one can get that labels you as a "certified" trainer.  This does not mean that the person knows what they are talking about.  There are some certifications that are considered more reputable: they cost more to get, cover a lot of material and are, in general, what some of the higher-end gyms and studios look for when hiring a trainer.  Some of these certifications to look out for are: NASM, ACSM, ACE and NSCA.  CSCS, RKC, MES, LAT or ATC are some more advanced, optional certifications that will probably increase the chances of that person being committed to their profession.

At the same time, just having these certifications is no guarantee that the person knows what they're talking about, will work well with you, is committed to keeping themselves well-educated or is worth your money.  As well, simply having a degree from a university in the field doesn't mean that they know how to design a program or teach correct form, but they will be more likely to have a good base understanding in anatomy and physiology, which I believe is integral for anyone who wants to train. 

You want a trainer who's book and street smart.
Take a look at this blog post by Nick Tumminello for more information on certifications:

2) The Assessment 

When or even before you hire most trainers, there will be some kind of assessment or consultation.  Every trainer will do assessments and consultations differently depending on what information they find useful.  But regardless of style, if a trainer does not at least ask you some form of the following questions, you will want to consider looking elsewhere:

-Do you have any medical conditions?
-Do you suffer from any bone or joint problems / pain from any previous injuries?
-Do you take any medications?
-What are your goals?  (A fair amount of time should be spent discussing this)
-Do you currently exercise? / Have you exercised or played sports in the past?

Aside from that, most trainers will do some kind of initial assessment to see where you're starting at.  Things that are included in these assessments can really vary from trainer to trainer, but a pretty comprehensive assessment will consist of:

-Body composition assessments (Skin fold, circumference, BIA, etc)
-Postural Assessment

A few things we can see in a postural assessment.
-Upper body strength (push-up test, bench press test)
-Lower body strength (leg press)
-Cardiovascular endurance (3-minute step test, 1-mile treadmill walk, etc)
-Flexibility (Too many to list)
-Muscular imbalances (Single-leg squat, squat, overhead squat)
-Balance (Single-leg squat, 1-leg stand with eyes open / closed)

Knee valgus is one of the things we look for in a squat assessment

-Core stability (Bird-dog, plank, toe tap)

I myself usually do a couple body composition tests, a postural assessment, a few flexibility tests, muscular imbalances and core stability.  A trainer should put you through at least a few assessments, but which ones they choose will vary based on facility policy and trainer preference.  If your goals are physique-related, a body composition test should be done, preferably skin folds or circumference measurements.   If you have a lot of aches and pains, a core stability, flexibility and muscular imbalances assessment would be appropriate, etc.  If you have no baseline, then how can you know for sure you're making progress?

However, assessing your performance should never stop at the initial assessment.  Looking for muscular imbalances, balance issues, inflexibility, etc. should happen every session. 

3) Questions to ask your potential trainer

-What is your background in training / how did you get into training?
Asking this can give you a lot of information about your trainer.  They'll probably talk about any sports they used to play and at what levels, their certifications and / or degrees, how long they've been working out, what kind of training they specialize in, how long they've been a trainer, what kind of clients they've worked with, and you'll probably be able to tell if they're truly passionate about what they do. 

-What is your training philosophy?
Again, this can give you a lot of insight into how your trainer views their job.  Preferably you want someone who can talk about the benefits of what they do with their clients, not just how awesome their training style may or may not be.  For instance, if I was asked this question I'd probably talk about how I believe strength training is an important element in anyone's workout plan, and why I believe that, as well as how although that is something I'm passionate about, I do incorporate other aspects of fitness to make a well-rounded plan.  This would also be an opportune time to ask about how they motivate their clients.  If this differs from how you perform best, let them know!  It's nice to be told up front that you are best motivated by being yelled at, since that saves us the time of having to figure it out and going through trial and error.

-What would a typical workout with you look like?
Well, hopefully they'd mention that workouts vary from person to person depending on goals and individual needs.  But you want to know that your trainer does have a method to how they construct workouts and that they do plan in advance for their clients.  Not all trainers do this - some just wing it.  You do not want a trainer who 'wings it.'  You'll want someone who can explain why they do what they do in layman's terms.  This way if you have any concerns about how they do things you can bring them up there and have them laid to rest before you get started. 

-Information about fitness and exercise always seems to be changing.  How do you stay on top of things?
This is just a nice way of asking your trainer if they strive to continue learning about their profession.  The real factor that determines whether you have a truly good trainer on your hands is if they make a big effort to know as much as they possibly can about training and practice what they preach.  I spend an embarassing amount of time reading various internet blogs, sites and forums as well as whatever books I can get my hands on about training and to some extent diet.  If you've got someone who has practical, hands-on experience in training (preferably by having trained themselves extensively), and who reads a lot, it really doesn't matter what certification they have or where they got their degree.  The certification in no way teaches someone everything they need to know to be a good trainer. 

4) Things to look out for during a session

-A trainer who texts while they're in a session with you.
I've seen this happen.  A lot.  Even once is too many times.  Save yourself the time and fire them immediately.

Let me just stick you on a machine while I catch up on facebook...

-A trainer who doesn't work around your injuries
If you have a sprained ankle, those suicides are probably not the best idea.  If you have a lot of shoulder pain and doing bench press hurts, chances are you're not going to want to do them.  If your trainer ignores these complaints entirely it's time to find someone who listens.

-A trainer who can't adjust a workout
Let's say that your trainer has you down for doing some squats one day, but you're not quite yet ready for them, ie. your knees cave in, you can't hit depth, your back rounds, you're not stable, etc.  Does your trainer have you continue doing an exercise incorrectly, or do they have you do box squats with a lighter weight, or have you regress the exercise to lunges or goblet squats instead?  Did you injure your shoulder in between sessions and now can't do certain exercises?  Your trainer needs to care about you doing exercises safely and effectively more than they care about sticking to whatever exercise they had planned out.  A good trainer can adjust. 

-A trainer who doesn't listen to you
If you bring up concerns during a session your trainer should take them seriously and address them  to your satisfaction(unless of course you're asking the same question time and again).  This goes along with having a trainer who can give you solid reasoning for whatever you're doing.

-A trainer who listens to you too much
Some people need to be pushed... some harder than others.  There is always a client who will pull out every excuse in the book as to why today they really can't run those stairs or squat that weight and a trainer needs to be able to discern when you're actually in pain and when you're just tired.  Of course, it's always nice if you're just honest with yourself!

-A trainer who works well with you
Sometimes personalities clash.  Sometimes you find that you'd rather work with another trainer in the gym than the one you have.  It happens.  Just make sure it's not because you want a trainer who will go easier on you.  Remember why you hired us in the first place!


So I hope that this post will help you in any kind of decision making towards personal training.  I'm sure there are some points I missed or just skimmed over, but this should be a pretty sufficient overview.  So good luck to everyone in keeping with your fitness goals this year and the years to come!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Respect the Journey

Take a long look at the pictures above.  They probably aren't very pleasing to your eyes.  It's probably not a physique you'd ever want to have.  You may even be a little disgusted.

It's completely fine to not want to look like a bodybuilder, I'd say most people don't.  However there's a trend I notice when talking about bodybuilders with many people that I do find a little disconcerting.  Bodybuilders are spoken of with disdain, with disgust, as though they were somehow less human than the rest of us merely because of their chosen sport.  As though because we don't like their physique ideals something about them must be flawed.  If you search google for 'female bodybuilder,' the first link is '20 most revolting female bodybuilders'.  Doesn't that seem wrong?

In truth, bodybuilders are doing what most people want to accomplish, but to a higher degree: Losing fat and gaining muscle.  They're experts at it.  Thankfully for most of us, we don't have to work half as hard as a boydbuilder must to achieve our goals. 

I'm hoping that this post will serve two purposes:

1) Lend more evidence to why merely doing strength training is not going to 'bulk' you up.  We'll take a look at how some bodybuilders train - it's probably a bit different than your typical strength routine!  Bodybuilders would love if they could just wake up one morning super bulked up from a few months of strength training!

2) Come to respect bodybuilders for their resolve, consistency and dedication to their sport instead of being repulsed by it. 

What is bodybuilding?

Before we start this discussion, let's clearly define what bodybuilding is.  In general, the goal in bodybuilding is to build as much muscle as possible with the highest amount of definition and distinction between muscle groups.  The more fat there is, the less muscle definition there is for the judges to see.  The fake tans, oil, and minimal clothing is as well to enhance muscle definition and make it more visible to judges.  Symmetry and proportion are also judged.  Sugar-loading immediately before competition, dehydration, and lifting weights before going on stage combined with drastically low body fat percentages are some techniques used to help increase vascularity and get that really 'shredded' look.  Before going on stage a competitor may also take in a high amount of carbohydrates in order to make the muscle appear fuller and larger.  Let's take a look at a few different kinds of 'bodybuilding':

Figure Athletes - Figure competitions focus mostly on muscle definition rather than size of the muscle.  While not really in the realm of bodybuilding, they are related and worth noting. 

Natural Bodybuilding - Bodybuilding competitions that focus on muscle size and definition but whose competitors are drug tested.  The first two pictures of this post are of natural bodybuilders.

Professional (Generally Non-Tested) Bodybuilding - This is where you'll find the Ronnie Colemans, the Jay Cutlers, Iris Kyle, etc. 

                                        Iris Kyle looks like she cares a lot about your opinion.

My friend Charlie is a former bodybuilder and had this to say about what it's like to prepare and be in a competition:

"You shave body hair, and start the coats of protan about Thurs [for a weekend competition]. You can not be too dark. Your posing routine is about 90 seconds long, so you should have been practicing for the last 3-4 weeks. Posing should be done the last 6-8 weeks. Posing actually makes you harder. On stage I have a bad habit of totally shutting everthing out, so I don't even see the crowd. I am very stoic and look way too serious. I am focusing on what I'm doing and forget to smile and don't have much interaction with the crowd. This would probably be better with more experience.
The show is actually fun, but I have got to admit it feels a little weird to stand around all day with a bunch of scantily clad people, tanned to the extreme, and oiled down."

Exercise Routine

So let's take a look at a standard bodybuilding routine for maximal results:

5 day split, 1x a week frequency 

*Numbers at end in parentheses () are how many sets to failure to do on that exercise
*Rest 90-120 secs between sets, 2-3 mins if you did a set to failure on a compound movement and are about to do another set to failure on the same movement

Monday- Chest/Calves

Incline Dumbbell Press - 4x 6-10 (2)
Flat Barbell Press - 3x 6-10 (1)
Decline Dumbbell press - 3x 6-10 (2)
Standing calf raises - 4x 8-10 (2) (1-2 mins rest for calves)
Seated calf raises - 3x 8-10 (2)
Leg press Calf raises - 3 x 12-15 (2)

Tuesday- Back

Pull ups - 50 or as many as you can do in 10 minutes
Barbell Rows - (torso at 45ish degree angle) 4x 8-10 (1)
Close neutral grip pulldowns - 3x 8-10 (2) (really like 3 sec negatives on these)
Seated straight bar rows - 3x 8-10 (2)

Wednesday- Legs (2-3 second negatives recommended on all exercises)

Lying leg curls - 4x 6-8 (2)
RDL's - 4x 8-10 (1)
Leg press - 4x8-10 (I like doing these before squats to help loosen up the hips) (2)
Squats or Front squats - 3x 8-10 (1)
Hack Squats (close stance) - 3x 8-10 (2)

Thursday- Arms/Abs Supersets for arms

Pinwheel Curls - 4x 6-10 (1)
Decline Elbows flared CGBP - 4x 6-10 (1)

Preacher curls on vertical side (spider curls) - 3x 8-10 (2)
Lying Behind the head extensions - 3x 8-10 (2)

Alternating Dumbbell curls - 3x 8-10 (2)
French Presses - 3x 8-10 (2)

Cable rope crunches - 3x 12-15 (2) (1-2 mins rest for abs)
Weighted Leg Raises - 3x 12-15 (2)

Friday - Shoulders/Traps

Seated Overhead Dumbbell Press - 4x 6-10 (2)
Cable lateral raises - 3x 8-12 (2)
Seated Dumbbell lateral raises - 3x 8-12 (2)
Incline Bench Rear delt raises - 3x 12-15 (2)
Standing cable X's - 3x 20-30 (3)
Shrugs - 4x 8-10 (2)

Staci, a natural female bodybuilder in the 118-132lb weight group gave a general idea of how much time she spent in the gym and how much cardio she also did on top of her regular training days:

"During off season, I am in the gym for 1 hour a day for weight training 4 days a week and cardio will take up 2 of those other days, with 1 day full rest. When I am cutting for competition, I am in the gym in the morning for HITT (High Intensity Interval Training) before breakfast and for another hour later in the day for weights. I will do this for 4 days, and depending on energy levels, I will put in a few more cardio sessions the other 3 days as well."

Is this a little bit more than what you've been doing at the gym?  Now bear in mind, this is also just a sample.  Bodybuilding requires you to take note of whether or not an exercise is working for you, whether or not you should consider a different angle on the bench when you're doing incline bench press, whether or not you should widen or narrow your grip, are you making sure to target both your soleus and your gastrocnemius on calf day?  Bodybuilders need to have a good, basic understanding of human anatomy to be successful.  How can you make a muscle bigger when you don't know it exists?  How can you make sure a muscle is activating unless you know what its function is and what bone or joint it attaches to?

So if one needs to have a broad knowledge base in anatomy and physiology (or hire someone who does) to be successful in bodybuilding, why do commercials like this exist?


Sure, they're a little amusing.  But they're also offensive to anyone who takes the pursuit of muscle seriously.  Where does this stereotype even come from?  Considering how confusing most people find the subjects of fitness, fat loss and exercise, those who have mastered them should be considered intelligent, shouldn't they? 

Nutrition and Supplements

If you think that your diet is restricting, try a bodybuilder's who is preparing for competition.  Men strive to reach levels of 2-8% bodyfat, women around 9-15%.  For reference, average bodyfat percentage for men is 18-25% and for women is 25-31%.  How do you have to eat to get to these numbers?  Charlie said this about dieting for competition:

"The diet is the tough part. Lifting is fun, being hungry for 12-16 weeks is not. Diet for competition is usually a low carb diet. I will go between 100 and 200 grams of carbs a day, 30 grams of fat and 250-300 grams of protein. total calories 1700-2000. The target is no more than 2lbs of weight lost a week, anything more your losing muscle. Off season diet is 3500-4000 calories a day with protein being about the same , but way more carbs...

Three weeks out from the show I wanted to quit. I was grumpy, tired , hungry, and wondered was it all worth it. I didn't quit, because I knew I would beat myself up if I did. The diet messes with your mind. You question everything your doing and wonder if your screwing up. This is why I think a coach is the most important thing you can have. Someone to talk you off the ledge, to have a sane mind that can hold you to the plan and can gauge your progress and make adjustments without sabotaging everything."

Here is an example of what a male 180lb bodybuilder's diet might look like who is preparing for competition:

Wake Up - Power Drive in1L water, 1 multi+
Breakfast -3 whole Omega 3 eggs, 30g Havarti cheese, 2 pieces lean turkey bacon, 0.25 bell pepper, 2 oz baby carrots, 0.25 avocado, 1 cup green tea, 1 cup water, 3 HOT-ROX OR Abs+, 3 Fish Oil capsules
Snack - 5g BCAA and 2.5g creatine, 1L water
Lunch - 6 oz extra lean beef, 2 pieces lean turkey bacon, 30g Havarti cheese, 2 oz spinach, 1 small tomato, 0.5 small zucchini, 0.25 small red pepper, 0.25 avocado, 1 teaspoon flax oil, 1 tbsp vinegar, 1 cup water, 3 HOT-ROX OR Abs+, 3 Fish Oil capsules
Pre-Workout - 5g BCAA and 2.5g creatine, 1L water
During Workout- 5g BCAA and 2.5g creatine, 1L water
Post- Workout - 5g BCAA and 2.5g creatine, Power Drive in 1L water
Dinner - 6 oz extra lean beef, 2 pieces lean turkey bacon, 30g Havarti cheese, 2 oz spinach, 2 oz broccoli, 2 oz cauliflower, 2 oz green beans, 0.25 avocado, 1 teaspoon olive oil, 1 tbsp vinegar, 1 cup water, 3 HOT-ROX OR Abs+, 3 Fish Oil capsules
Pre- Bed - 2 whole eggs, 0.25 green pepper, 2 oz carrots, 1 serving Greens+ Daily Detox, 3 Fish Oil capsules, 3 ZMA

Total Cal: Between 1800-2000

Taken from: 

Everyday food is logged.  How many ounces of chicken, how many almonds, how many tablespoons of peanut butter?  Exact calories and macronutrient levels must be measured.  There can be no cheating involved - you bring your food to work, to restraunts, to birthday parties and holidays.  Research the correct supplements, take them at the exact right times according to your training each day.  Any deviation might mean the different between first and second place. 

Then there is the diet you have to follow post-competition: The bulking phase.  The goal in this phase is to put on as much mass as possible before having to prepare for competition again.  Most people would probably see this as appealing, getting to eat massive quanitities of food in order to try and put on mass.  But it can be a little harder than that, especially for those who do not put on mass easily.  Having to eat 8,000 - 10,000 calories a day everyday can be grueling!

All that work and this is the progress one may see in a year. (50 weeks between pictures of Shelby Starnes)

The transition between a bulking and cutting phase can be very taxing as well.  Think of how drastic the changes are between the two different diets!

Imagine going through this transformation every year. (Yes this is the same guy, Lee Priest. Yes, seriously)

Staci had this to say about switching between phases:

"The main difference between off season eating and pre-contest diet is the amount of calories. When I am bulking, I aim for about 2500 to 3000 cals a day. When cutting, I am looking at around 1400 to 1000 cals, depending on the workout for the day. Macros will move up or down, obviously but keep protein very very high...The transition can be grueling. The key is to not reduce the amounts to quickly, as you will almost go in to shock psychologically and mentally. Obviously your body is use to taking in so much, and when it is not receiving, it will come back to bite you...[[One time]] I cut my cals too quickly and had a difficult time functioning, as far as speech, cognitive and emotionally. It was an eye opener to see just how much this affects you."

Even in light of all this, the physique of a bodybuilder will probably be continually unappealing.  And that's okay.  Take a look at this video of a young female bodybuilder:

Chances are good she doesn't care if you think she's too manly looking, or that you don't want to look like her.  But I just want you to look at the confidence she exudes while on stage.  Just from her body language you can see the hard work she put in, the dedication, and you can tell she knows she's amazing. 

Even if you don't want to look like her, we should respect her for her resolve.  We should respect her for having the guts to even decide to prepare to get up on that stage.  We should respect her for the respect she has for herself. 

That's something that we should all strive for, no matter in what manner.