Sunday, September 18, 2016

My 5 Biggest Personal Training Mistakes

Most seasoned trainers and coaches will tell you unashamedly that they’ve made a ton of mistakes over their decades in the trenches. For instance, Mike Boyle himself wrote an article a few years back called 25 Years, 25 Mistakes.

In 25 years, you’d expect a guy to make a few boo-boos here and there. No one’s perfect. But what about relative newcomers to the training game? I for one don’t have nearly the tenure of Coach Boyle. (I obtained my personal trainer diploma in 2013.) Yet I have to admit I’ve also made quite a few mistakes.

For younger trainers, however, there seems to be a taboo surrounding this admission of fallibility. After all, if people know I’m not always right when it comes to fitness, will they still want to train with me? Or will they realize I’m nothing more than an imposter in a personal trainer costume (i.e. sweatpants and a dri-fit t-shirt)?

Real personal trainer or imposter?

I think it’s safe to say that eternal professional damnation will not be in the cards if I admit to my snafus. I state this with confidence for the following reason: You have to make mistakes to stay fresh and keep learning. If you’re not screwing up every now and then, you’re not improving at your craft.

It’s exactly these “Oh Shit! Moments” that engrain in you the lessons you can’t learn from reading a textbook, blog post, or T-Nation article. Not only that, but experiencing them firsthand solidifies them in long-term memory, so you’ll never make the same mistake again.

The Rise of Online Training

The fitness game is changing, though. With the recent emergence of online-only personal trainers, all you need is YouTube and an e-mail address and suddenly you can train people — even if you’ve never trained a soul in person before. Even if you’ve never made any of the mistakes we in-person trainers have made.

But surely you can make and learn from mistakes through online training, right? Of course, but not the same crucial mistakes you can make only by training people in person and getting real-time feedback as to how different individuals respond to exercise. Mistakes you can pick up on only from watching every set and every rep from every angle of every exercise. This type of real-world experience is simply impossible with online training.

How I imagine some online personal trainers

Inherently, there’s nothing wrong with online training. It’s a fantastic way to connect trainers and trainees across the world. I’ve had awesome success with it over the last year. The problem is with the “trainers” who don’t have meaningful experience with a large sample size of people in person going online and offering their supposed expertise.

So what kinds of mistakes have I made while training people in person? All sorts. Below are the five biggest ones, plus the lessons I’ve learned from them.

Mistake #1: Bodyweight exercises for heavy clients.

My first big mistake occurred while training a client who was overweight. The first exercise on the roster that day was band-assisted pull-ups. Everyone I’d trained up to that point had performed this exercise without issue, albeit with one or two very thick bands helping to pull them up. Well what do you know, as soon as this client got into position and began to pull, they immediately strained an ab muscle.

Lesson Learned #1: In general, mastering your own bodyweight before adding external load is a good idea. But when bodyweight (even with band assistance) represents a substantial percentage of someone’s maximal strength, external resistance, typically in the form of dumbbells or cables, can actually be an easy way to further unload that client.

The smarter choice in this case would have been a lat pull-down variation, along with a low-threshold anti-extension core exercise like a bench plank. The same argument can be made for using a dumbbell bench press instead of push-ups until the client is lighter and stronger.

Mistake #2: Loading an unfamiliar movement pattern.

The hip hinge is one of the toughest movement patterns to master, especially for older clients who’ve never done it before and double especially for older male clients. Early on in my career, I threw quite a few clients to the wolves with deadlifts and attempted to teach them to hinge “on the fly.” Some picked it up quickly, but most ended up walking away frustrated with not getting the movement and having to regress to a drill — not to mention with a sore back.

Lesson Learned #2: Progression trumps regression. When working with a new client, always program a drill for unfamiliar movement patterns. For example, if they’ve never hip hinged, give them a “Bulgarian goat bag swing” for the first few weeks. If they blow through it with ease on their first day, progress it to the target movement right away.

Not completely unrealistic depiction of how some of my first clients deadlifted

Mistake #3: Programming an exercise without really knowing how to coach it.

Have you ever seen a new exercise variation on the internet and gotten so excited that you tried it out on your very next client? I know I have. Heck, I just did it the other day with paused kettlebell deadlifts. The trouble is, not every new-fangled exercise is as clear-cut as the YouTube video makes it out to be.

The other day, when my client felt the exercise (the paused deadlift) only in her back and not in her hamstrings, I was at a loss to correct it. I ended up giving her the exact opposite of the correct cue.

Lesson Learned #3: When a client struggles to grasp a movement, how are you supposed to coach them up if you’ve never even done the exercise yourself? You are your best test subject. Try everything out on yourself first. If you’re unsure about it, seek help from a more experienced trainer, and hold off on programming it until you can call yourself an expert.

Mistake #4: Supersetting multiple movements with the same limiting factor.

I love pairing pushing movements with pulling ones. In theory, it’s a great way to spread fatigue throughout the body and get a lot of work done in a short period of time. With this principle in mind, I once programmed a superset of bent-over rows and thrusters (which are a combination movement combining a squat and an overhead press) for a group exercise class.

After we were through with the couplet, the group unanimously informed me that their backs hurt. Welp, I thought to myself, as it finally dawned on me that both exercises placed a lot of stress on the spinal erectors. No wonder everyone’s bent-over position in the row and torso lean on the squat got progressively sloppier as the sets wore on despite my cueing.

Lesson Learned #4: Alternating between upper and lower body exercises or pushing and pulling is perfect in theory. However, you have to consider the movements being trained on a deeper level to ensure that they don’t rely on the same “limiting factor” (the low back in the example above).

Another common limiting factor is grip. Too many grip-intensive exercises back-to-back will fry the forearms, leaving clients unable to train the rest of their body with weights for several minutes because they can’t hold onto anything. (On the other hand, pun intended, this snag could be viewed as a positive for athletes who require strong grips.)

Mistake #5: High-volume, timed-set training using complex exercises.

I once thought it would be a brilliant idea to program a hundred reps of several different exercises for time for a group class of general population adults. Just writing that down sounds foolish to me now, but hear me out. The group liked to get after their workouts, and I figured that if the weights were light enough, they’d be able to take their time and get all of the work done.

The first two exercises, medicine ball slams and step-ups, went off without a hitch, but once they hit the 50-rep mark on the kettlebell deadlifts, everything went to hell. Just about everyone had to start lightening their load and shortening up their range of motion just to finish all of the reps. By the end, the class looked a bit like the scene depicted below.

Lesson learned #5: High-rep, race-the-clock, CrossFit-style challenges can be fun, but only if the exercises are selected very carefully (i.e. exercises of minimal complexity) and perfect form is second nature for everyone involved on all of the exercises.

Exactly what we don’t want to happen at the end of a workout

The Importance of In-Person Training Experience

As you can see from the examples above, training clients in person is essential to learning the tricks of the trade. Were it not for my experience in person, I’d likely still be giving all of my online clients
  • Bodyweight exercises, regardless of their body type
  • Loaded hip hinge exercises in their very first training program, regardless of their previous experience
  • Every cool new exercise someone posts on Facebook or Instagram, regardless of whether I’ve tried it myself first and determined the best coaching cues
  • Haphazardly strewn together push-pull supersets, regardless of whether the exercises relied on the same synergistic muscles
  • High-rep, timed sets (because they’re challenging and fun), regardless of the complexity of the exercises involved

Hopefully after reading this post, you’ll be able to avoid the same mistakes I’ve made. But don’t count on it! As I alluded to above, the only true way to avoid these mistakes – and others like them – is to make them for yourself.

Special thanks to Eric Bach of Bach Performance for encouraging me to expand this idea into a full-fledged blog post.

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