The Golden Rules of Choosing an Exercise Professional
In this post, I am going to run you through a bit of a guide using my 20 years experience in the fitness industry. In this time I have seen a lot of different kinds of trainers, worked with physiotherapists and exercise physiologists, and seen who gets results and who goes nowhere, and even gets worse.
I am going to split this up into categories based on the goal of the clients; do they want to lose weight, prevent injury, manage or recover from a recent injury, improve general fitness, build muscle, or improve athletic performance?
Manage or Recover from a Recent or Serious Injury
This depends on the severity of the injury, but if it is in anyway serious, you need to visit a physiotherapist and not a gym trainer. Physiotherapists are well trained in joint anatomy and the biological processes of healing an injury, as well as understanding potentially dangerous things you can do as well as accurately assessing recovery time. They usually have pretty decent resources and equipment at their disposal, and they see injured people day-in, day-out. They are also insured if things go wrong.
Rule 1: See someone who deals with people with your problem or goal day-in, day-out. A real specialist.
I like to think of myself as an expert in biomechanics and injury prevention, but if you've just pulled a knee ligament, don't come to me as I do not deal with such injuries in my every day work. I see people move every day and work to improve their movement, so guess what, correcting movement is what I am good at doing not treating injuries.
If you aren't recovering from a recent injury, but want to reduce your chances of getting injured in the future or have general chronic pain, then this might shock you, but I would advise to not necessarily seek the help of a physio or exercise physiologist. Why? Well, for the same reasons as above, they do not deal with movement efficiency on a daily basis. They have much less experience in watching people move, especially whilst exercising at any reasonable intensity, than your average gym trainer. Like I said, physios deal mainly with injured people, who they aren't going to take to large ranges of motion whilst exercising. Exercise physiologists cover too broad a range of specialties, so see movement in exercise even less frequently. To illustrate this, here is a list of reasons to see an exercise physiologist, taken from a facility close to where I live: Our team has worked with people with the following health issues and conditions:
Diabetes & pre-diabetes Cardiovascular disease
Depression & anxiety Osteoporosis
Chronic respiratory disease Asthma
Chronic pain & injuries Dementia
Stroke Cerebral palsy
Kidney disease Mobility & falls risk
See the problem? How can someone with such a broad range of expertise be ever truly an expert in one? As many of you will have experienced, just because you have studied a subject at university, doesn't mean you are an expert until you have gone out into the world and practiced it, once again, day-in, day-out. Which leads me on to rule number 2.
Rule 2: Letters after someone's name and a university degree mean something, but not everything.
If you have a very serious condition, it is best to see those have the credentials, don't get me wrong. You certainly aren't guaranteed that they'll be good, but you'll stand a better chance of not seeing some charlatan. However, don't be fooled by letters after people's names. I have worked with some truly useless physios and exercise physiologists, who take their clients money at high rates and deliver to them exercise regimes for injury prevention that would without doubt make their client's situation worse in the long run, or at least not help in the slightest. It is my experience that when it comes to injury prevention when a recent injury is not involved, physios and exercise physiologists mostly have no idea what they are doing and make up for their lack of knowledge and experience by giving people tired old generic stretching and rehab exercises that simply don't work. I know that sounds controversial, but this is my experience. I am often flabbergasted by what I see physios and exercise physiologists doing with people in the gym, either because it is so unsophisticated or because it will inevitably lead their client to further injury in the long run. At the very least they charge exorbitant fees for exercise programs and advice that your bog-standard gym instructor could give someone for about half the price.
This is going to sound harsh, but I have worked alongside a lot of fat trainers in my time. One thing you can be guaranteed to see when you see a fat trainer is that they'll have fat clients using their services, which leads me onto my next golden rule:
Rule 3: Pick a trainer that embodies what you want to become, someone who walks the walk as well as talks the talk.
What this doesn't mean is that your trainer has to be perfect. There are some trainers that are overweight, yet have actually lost a considerable amount of weight and still losing it. There are trainers who got injured in their youth playing sport and have learned to managed their injuries, yet still don't move well because of it. You have to decide whether the person you have chosen can actually deliver you to your goal and it isn't quite as simple as looking at their body shape; what would a lanky, skinny, endurance athlete trainer who has never had issues with their weight know about losing weight if they have never had to go through it themselves? So although rule 3 does sound a bit mean, rule 4 can somewhat balance things out:
Rule 4: Don't judge a book by it's cover. Unless you're into aesthetics.
Muscle Building and Aesthetics
There is more to being fit and healthy than just looking good. If however, you want to prance around showing off your six-pack and your guns, then you'll probably want to train with someone who has them to insure they know how to get them. Personally, I think there is more to life, but whatever floats your boat.
Actually, muscle building is a good example of why qualifications aren't always the answer. An exercise physiologist will have all the knowledge necessary about building muscle, but generally the people who know best about this are the big guys in the gym who again, walk the walk every single day. The exercise physiologist can give you a detailed textbook plan for putting on muscle, but there is always more to it than just following a book. The trainer that looks like Arnie, I'd go with him.
Rule 5: Experience Trumps Qualifications.
The above is especially true in the world of fitness trainers. Being on the national register for fitness trainers means nothing, what course they've completed means nothing. I say this because the courses are all about paying money, turning up and passing without any real assessment. It is all actually a bit of a scam to con the general public into thinking that trainers have some training that will keep them safe in the gym, and also to shaft trainers out of money to stay on the national fitness register. What many don't know is that a trainer actually doesn't legally have to be a member of any organisation, they just need insurance. Trust me though, any old Tom, Dick or Harry can get a personal training qualification.
Improve Athletic Performance
There are a lot who claim to be able to do this, but I am extremely sceptical about the claims of fitness trainers in this area, especially in their use of weights. Even in the world of professional sport, the way trainers operate makes me cringe. They used dated methods that I think are counter-productive. Sportsmen perform well at their sport despite their training regimes. So my advice in this area is to seek trainers either with specific knowledge of the sport you are trying to improve performance in, or see someone who specialises in biomechanics.
To improve your fitness and performance in any real-world sense, whether it be sport or every day life, you need someone who understands how to move with the correct biomechanics. People who can do this are a rare and recent breed and are often not classically trained. They usually have played high level sport themselves or have had injury problems and are obsessed with exercise. The reason for this is that they have probably run themselves into the ground and in the process of trying to figure-out how to continue torturing themselves without getting injured, have stumbled across the best way of training. Which leads me on to the next rule:
Rule 6: Choose a trainer with passion for their work.
There are a lot of trainers, physios, coaches, and exercise physiologists out there just going through the motions. Sometimes there are people who just hire a trainer for a chat and a gentle workout, but if you really want to affect change in your life, you need someone with passion. Passion usually has a very specific nature to it though. Hire a exercise enthusiast who is really into weight training to train you how to run a marathon and you will be disappointed. Sounds silly, I know, but people do stuff like this all the time. They choose a trainer because of their sex or their age or what they write on their profile. Well, as a trainer of many years myself, most trainers will put a long list of specialisms on their poster on the wall, many of which they couldn't care less about and have no meaningful expertise in.
General Fitness in Very Vulnerable People
In this category I would put those with specific conditions like heart disease, diabetes, stroke, kidney disease, osteoporosis, etc. This is where doctors and exercise physiologists can and should be consulted, mainly because they know best what not to do as they have the deeper knowledge about the risk factors for certain conditions.
Rule 7: If you have a serious medical condition, seek advice for exercise from someone with recognised medical qualifications first.
Like I mentioned with physios, the importance of qualifications comes to the fore most when suggesting things not to do. The science of exercise really has not developed in mainstream scientific thinking for decades, especially in terms of optimizing movement efficiency and performance and preventing injury. People who have detailed knowledge of anatomy and physiology and specific diseases do understand what kind of exercise is risky though. The "First do no harm" principle of medicine comes into effect here and is the final rule:
Rule 8: First do no harm.
When I work with people, this final rule is actually one of the hardest to get through to people. I am very careful to set people up to move properly in a way which is safe. Moving with good biomechanics is not easy for many people, especially those with postural issues, so easing them in with the basics is the best way to insure they don't hurt themselves in the short or long-term.
Unfortunately, however, the fitness industry and people generally do not follow this last rule. Cross-fit and group fitness gyms are some of the most popular now because of the motivational benefits and reduced costs, but these classes do not follow this last rule. They introduce exercises to people without the knowledge necessary in order for them to practice them safely. Mostly people don't care about this because they don't have the knowledge of the damage they could be doing to themselves. They generally just want a fun, hard workout.
I don't blame people for this, and I am not taking a pot-shot at crossfit-like gyms. Granted, I don't think they are very sophisticated, but if people value the energy boost and the mental well-being effect of such workouts (which is definitely a thing), they are free to take the risk, but they should know that the risk is there. My problem with clients, especially those in pain and who like exercise, is that they hate doing the basics, and they don't want to give up or even reduce their group class endorphin hits or their yoga classes. If they really want to reduce their pain, however, and keep exercising and moving freely into old age, they need to learn to first do no harm to themselves. It is my experience that most people would rather put up with pain than do this. It is a constant challenge to figure-out how to deliver sessions to people and help them realise this reality. Unfortunately, the answer to your problems is where you least want to look, which is obvious really or you've have fixed the issue already.