With the Spring semester coming to an end, many of our interns are preparing for their graduation and saying their final goodbyes as they move on to the work force. This has made me somewhat sentimental as I reflect back to my graduation just a few years ago, remembering the panic and worry as the thought, “what now?” ran through my mind. I have been a trainer since I was 18, and I still love it and know it is what what I want to continue to do. But at the time of beginning my senior year of college, I felt as though I still had no idea what I was actually doing. Yes, I had improved from when I started, but I hadn’t obtained the overall understanding of human adaptation that I thought I would get from a college degree. There had to be more.
Even though I was just a few classes and an internship away from finishing my bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology, I felt as though I was still a blank slate for knowledge within the field. And I was. I still am. At the time, this filled me with frustration. My whole intention throughout college was to get out and crush it as a trainer and performance coach, but when I got done, I realized how little I still knew. I started thinking that I had to go back to school to get the rest of the puzzle. Maybe get a doctorate in physical therapy? Surely then I would understand the body and its neurological, physiological, and mechanical variables upon movement and how they could all be manipulated in training. I could master the realm of corrective exercise and then use the background knowledge to conquer the performance realm. “Yeah, that’s what I’ll do,” is what I thought as I began to immerse myself in the idea of going back to school.
After looking at my already daunting student loans and the prerequisites that I would still have to fill to get into a DPT program, I became nauseated with how much more needed to be done just to be able to apply. I told myself it would still be worth it and decided to just study what I could in the meantime and then figure out how to tackle the prereqs later.
I started reading more into clinical work and research. I read about the Janda and his ideas, about DNS, some Kendall & Kendall, lots of functional anatomy and several blogs that focused less on performance and more on rehab and general function of the body. I followed Gray Cook, read all of his books, took several of his workshops, whent to other seminars on human movement. I loved all of it and started applying the new concepts and methods with my clients. I became very good at correcting movement. I started to figure out better progressions, better ways of coaching movements and I started to notice something… Many of the PTs and chiros that I saw at these seminars were just as new to many of these ideas and concepts as me.
How could that be? These people had spent YEARS learning about functional anatomy, physiology, joint arthrokinematics, and all things tied to pain and movement. Surely they could already tell what compensations were apparent in the individual’s squat with whom we were using as an example. I had been certain that they would know great regressions, progressions or even breakouts to help correct the issues and train the person with restored function… That certainty turned to disappointment as it became apparent that many of them had little experience with this.
The idea of going back to school started to lose its luster. I started to shadow a PT of whom I really respect. I then noticed how much of current physical therapy is actually manual therapy followed by isolation work. I noticed how insurance limits them to working on and rehabbing one body part at a time. I saw clear compensations going on in many of the patients, yet he could only focus his work on one area due to time and/or insurance restraints. I started to realize that this is what they had been prepped for in school and it did not seem to be in line with what I wanted to do. Why had I thought that this would provide me with the answers I wanted?
Then it hit me. I had put the clinicians on a pedestal, viewing them as the next step up from trainers, when in fact it’s not even comparable. It’s a totally different profession with different objections and entirely different scopes. This is also not to say that one scope ranges further than the other. Yes PTs can do manual therapy and other treatments, but when was the last time you saw a PT write a macrocycle to prep a soccer athlete for their season, including such factors as injury prevention, conditioning and applied agility work (put your hand down Charlie Weingroff). A GOOD trainer is just as valuable as a PT, we’re just going to have an entirely different skill set and knowledge base. In order to become a great trainer you do not need to try to mimic another profession, you just need to really own what you do. (I’ll get more into this at the end.)
This made me then wonder: Why was it that I originally viewed Physical Therapists to be a step above trainers rather than in their own rightful category? I mulled this over while scanning facebook one day, then it hit me like my mama would have had I been rioting in Baltimore once I saw this:
The fitness industry is stupid. There I said it and I’m not taking it back. Yes, there are some REALLY smart trainers out there, but they RARELY get credit for the genius that they put into their craft. In fact, look at the 100 most influential people of the fitness industry. The top 50 alone is full of misinformed zealots who preach, “muscle confusion” and an ignorance of exercise form, not to mention that quack, Dr. Oz, being number 2.... This aspect alone had harvested a distaste for the industry within me since my introduction to it. Deep down I wanted to separate myself from it, I wanted to be evidence-based and results driven. I wanted to be like Cook, like Weingroff, like Boyle and Gentilcore. I realized that one of the other differences in trainers and PTs is that PTs need to know their shit, in and out, to be able to treat a patient. Trainers just need to be able to sell. I wanted to know my craft, in and out, just as PTs do theirs. I had put them on a pedestal because they practice in an industry that regulates competence, whereas my industry couldn’t be any further.
Society has no way to quality-check a trainer (other than, you know, fact checking their claims with research) so people often go with the hype and dump their money into whatever shows the most pictures of a six pack. Because of this, the industry has grown less science and results-based and more sales and revenue-based. Certain “fitness” academies, associations, councils and groups of monkeys wearing silly hats will even sell personal trainer certifications consisting of a weekend or even online course just so they can get a high turn-around. There is no way possible you can learn everything you need to know about training an individual in one weekend... Just to prove my point more, Jilian Michaels holds the weekend certification that I linked. That's the one she's had since 1993...
This has flooded our profession with individuals who don’t take the time to apply themselves in their craft. Trainers who may drive their clients into the ground, regardless of what training stimulus they’re trying to achieve. Trainers who don’t program and just do a different workout every session, hindering their client’s results. Trainers who have no rhyme or reason for the exercises or methods they prescribe. Yet, their clients may still feel exhausted, giving a false confirmation that their session was actually productive towards their goals. Or maybe the trainer is really well liked by their clients, gaining trust and hiding their actual competence level. I’m not saying they’re bad people, but if they aren’t programming a systematic progression of workouts and do not have science-based reasoning behind what they’re prescribing, then I can absolutely say they are bad trainers.
I can say this because that was me when I started training at 18. My clients got very little results, yet I never got questioned or even put on the spot like I should have because again, there was no way for my clients to understand the quality of what I was dishing out. Even though I had gone through a legitimate certification program, I was still equipped with only a fraction of the knowledge needed to truly, in my mind, be competent. I slowly improved with experience, but I don’t think I really reached any clairvoyance until that point in my senior year when I started asking myself, “what am I doing?” and, “why?”
I’m still very early on in my career, but I can honestly say that the more questions I ask myself, the more it pushes me to know and own my profession. To know movement correction, to know programming, to know energy system training, to know nutrition, to know the subtleties of cuing, it’s literally endless. Each variable of training in itself has a wealth of detail and other factors contributing to it. This plethora of details can seem daunting when considered, but we should view it as a challenge. It’s a plethora of opportunities to become better and a plethora of things to understand to better serve people within your scope. It's actually quite empowering when you realize all the different ways your role as a trainer can positively influence someone's health, happiness and well-being.
If you’re a trainer, I urge you to never stop questioning yourself. Always look for better ways to improve and don’t dare stop seeking out new information. If you’re a client, I urge you as well to always ask your trainer, “why?” Hold us accountable to be the trainers that we claim, want and charge to be, it is what you’re paying for after all.
For those that are graduating this Spring, congratulations! But don’t stop there. College gives you the tools to grasp a very basic understanding of many of the variables you will encounter in your line of work. It’s up to you to continue to ask questions and seek out the answers you need. Start to know everything about what you do and never get comfortable with your knowledge base, then you will really start to own your profession.
**Just a quick note: I by no means am saying that ALL of the individuals listed on the aforementioned top 100 list are incompetent, there are many on there whom I very much admire and aspire to be like.