The First Step to Fixing the Fitness Profession

Active coaching by some sexy bastard
Active coaching by some sexy bastard

“Don’t bitch about the problem if you don’t have a viable solution to offer.”

The fitness industry, in its bid to graduate to the “Fitness Profession” has a sturdy record of turning on its own kind. And oftentimes this comes with good reason. I may have been known to point out incompetence or to call out a charlatan here or there myself, on occasion. The gap between the best in the biz – the true fitness professionals – and the typical personal trainer is a vast one. Perhaps 90% of our industry operates at a level of such mind-numbing incompetence that complaining about the problem is inevitable. Our unregulated industry with its low barrier to entry is rife with trainer horror stories.

Hopefully you, as the sort of person who would even take the time to read an article titled as this, is not among them. The trainer who is actively out pursuing the betterment of their craft almost always falls into the remaining 10% by default. Those 10% are the ones who “get it”.

And among that 10% we often pine and postulate on strategies to employ that will result in The 90% closing the gap on The 10% thereby bringing the industry up to par.
So this post is really for those who are in a position to create change: The industry leaders. The gym and staff managers, the facility owners, the mentors, the presenters, the online voices.

Where do we start? Which is our top priority? What is the first step?  

The first step is to understand that our role is to coach. Not to be better coaches, though that’s a critical next step. The first step is to understand that as a personal trainer, a fitness professional, our role is to actively coach our clients. Personal training should be thought of as a verb, not a noun. Training another person is an action, not a static job description.

This is my stance at this time of writing. To many it may seem an obvious one, but is it really?

What has been your response when asked for a solution to our industry’s woes?

Anatomy and Physiology

Many would answer that a stronger foundation in anatomy and physiology is the logical starting point. It’d be a fair response, too. It was once my answer. I mean, when you understand what all the parts are and what they do, everything else is easy, right?

While no doubt a critically important aspect of our job and one which I encourage all fitpros to continually improve upon, I don’t believe this reductionist viewpoint has proven useful as a first step. I mean, after all, The 10% can’t even agree on what’s most important here. We can all acknowledge the synergistic role of each of the body’s systems, yet we still have some sectors of the industry teaching the utmost importance of understanding the muscular system and its role in functional anatomy, while others preach that individual muscles don’t matter as fascia trumps all so we should all familiarise ourselves with the fascial lines or slings or trains or whatever we’re meant to call them now.
Some claim that by understanding the joint actions the bigger picture becomes clear, while another corner of fitness education teaches on the virtues of the central nervous system, being that it is the master control centre.

I think anyone in this industry who is to be taken seriously would acknowledge that all of these are important, and any philosophy that teaches the superiority of one while dismissing the importance of the others entirely would be rightly laughed off stage and out of the industry (which evidently, has not occurred, seeing as they still permeate our field).

But how much does acquiring that knowledge automatically affect a trainer’s practices? Have you ever seen the personal trainer who could talk fascia and joints for hours yet couldn’t coach a remotely respectable split squat? I have.  Anatomy and physiology isn’t step one.

Physics

What about basic physics? You know, F = ma, P = fd/t (or, P = Fv actually…) and levers, fulcrums and that ol’ gravity chestnut. Basically all the parts you fell asleep through at school but suddenly got excited about again while reading Zatsiorsky? Because basically everything we do is based on some good old Newtonian physics, right? Again, this is absolutely worth studying to bring up to a base level. But does this automatically create great trainers and coaches? Nope.

Program Design

Perhaps program design is step one. Surely if we can provide someone a proven basic template to train effectively for a specific goal and not hurt their client, that’ll get them pointed in the right direction?
Well, it might. And I’m quite a fan Mike Boyle’s analogy that a new trainer is akin to a kitchen cook: their role is to simply follow the recipe, and not deviate from it. When you become the chef you can create your own recipe, but until then you’re a cook, and you follow it to the letter.

This has merit. But what if things go wrong? What if our client complains of pain, or boredom, or finds the exercise too difficult, or if equipment suddenly becomes unavailable? We’ve given our trainer instruction to follow the script, yet no tools to deal with a forced deviation from that script. This can’t be our first step.

Evidence-Based

What about if we could just teach all trainers to read research, encourage their critical thinking skills, and reinforce the concept of being led by the body of evidence?

There is now a definite “movement” both in the fitness industry and society at large that encompasses all of the “evidence-based practitioner”, the “sceptic” and “the critical thinker” among other labels. This is overall a very promising and positive direction, and one that has enhanced my own career immensely by letting the evidence steer me away from false and extreme claims and poor practices, and towards more moderate and tentative claims and better, proven practices.

But much like in our physics scenario, does taking a green (or not-so-green, yet very underdone) trainer and throwing them into a Coursera, umm…course, on research and coming out the other side instantly improve their competency on the gym floor? Well, it might. But more than likely they’ll have minimal or no practical application for what they have learned and it falls well short of bringing them up to the necessary skill set to ply their trade. Embracing the concept of being an evidence-based practitioner isn’t our starting point either.

Coaching Still Wins

The common theme here is that these are all worthy educational pursuits and are cornerstones to competency, let alone excellence, in our fitness field. But they aren’t the first step.

The first step is coaching. Not just to coach, or how to coach, but to understand that the role of the trainer is to be actively coaching their client. Just do something! Anything. Be active during the client’s sessions.

Because what happens when we coach? We have to figure stuff out, right? Can’t get my client into that deep squat pattern? Hmm, maybe I need to look into that. In doing so, I stumble across “corrective” exercises and how they might fit into program design. I dig deeper into how these exercises might solve my client’s problem, and am opened up to the world of the aforementioned anatomy and physiology. Is it the tight calves of the muscular system, or is there a structural limitation at the ankle joint? Perhaps that pesky fascia is limited through the deep back line. Or maybe the CNS perceives a threat when encountering that unfamiliar deep squat position. I’m not going to say which one (if any) is right for sure, especially with this imaginary client. The point however, is that the mere act of coaching is the catalyst for further education into all the other related areas.

Get in there and coach! Get hands on if needed and appropriate. And ideally, put the plates on straight...
Get in there and coach! Get hands-on if needed and appropriate. And ideally, put the plates on straight…

Further than just exercise instruction, continue to coach in the gaps.
Educate. Teach clients sound nutritional practices based on sustainable habits and, with it, perhaps this would serve as a launching pad into reading research and following the body of evidence. Separating fact from low carb myths, clean eating dogma and protein broscience would be as suitable place to start as any.

Empower. Build clients’ confidence on the gym floor. Show them how to rack and unrack weight plates. How to safely pick up the heavy dumbbells from the top rack. How to adjust the bench, loop the band, set the cable arm. Tell them to bring a towel and wipe down their bench when finished with it. Clients like this! They don’t want to be the one doing the wrong thing. Don’t baby them to the point that they remain helpless in fitness without you present to hold their hand. This might open up the trainer to the realm of behavioural psychology.

The continuing theme is that a single obstacle which was encountered due to active coaching can open up a whole world of future fitness study to our hypothetical personal trainer who was once a member of The 90%, but now, given some time and with a newfound understanding of what their role actually entails, might be able to make the transition into The 10%. They might start to “get it”, and that 10% might become more like 20%, or even 50%, and from there we could only dare to dream of the positive direction our fitness profession could move in.

So the takeaway point for those industry leaders, those managers and teachers who are in a great position to help improve this industry:

Just think to yourself, what are The 90% doing when training their clients? They’re on their phones, they’re talking about their weekend to the other trainers on the floor, they’re daydreaming about their next coffee break, they’re counting off reps while watching their client’s atrocious form. Whatever it is that they are doing, it’s assuredly NOT coaching.

And this needs to be stamped out. Don’t sit idly by and allow any of this to happen under your watch.

I’ve truly come to believe that The 90% either don’t understand that their role, their job, is to coach, or they are for some reason hesitant to actually get in there and coach.
Intervene and inform these trainers that merely counting reps is NOT coaching. Prescribing a workout and writing it on a whiteboard is NOT coaching. Being merely present while your client works out is NOT coaching.

Teach them that coaching (verb) is coaching (noun).
Coaching is cueing.
Coaching is demonstrating.
Coaching is assessment and feedback.
Coaching is correcting and adjusting.
Coaching is asking and listening.
Coaching is observing.
Coaching is body language.
Coaching is hands-on.
Coaching is knowing when to nit-pick on form and knowing when to stand back and let someone figure out their own way with their own variation of our perceived ideal.
Coaching is active.

Hopefully I was telling him to catch the bar further back on his fingers...
Hopefully I was telling him to catch the bar further back on his fingers…

It’s up to the industry leaders to drive this point home. This, in my firm opinion, is the first step to fixing the fitness profession. Whether or not we ever get there remains up to those in a position to make it happen.

Thoughts, questions, hate mail, or anything I missed? Feel free to drop a comment below. And of course, sharing this article will naturally help you jump the queue in your wait for karmic justice to start paying out. 

10 thoughts on “The First Step to Fixing the Fitness Profession”

  1. Hahaha!! Great article Will, I’ve spent a little time in the industry and remember being at a brainstorming session about what we expected to see from Personal Trainers, after around 2 mins of very complex answers I said “a programme and a stop watch”!! Do the basics well and everything else falls into place!! I don’t normally comment but this is close to my heart, great work!!

  2. Fantastic article Will. Feel lucky to have you as my personal trainer! (or should I say coach?) The 90% should all read this article!

  3. Nice article Will, I agree that a trainer needs to master the art of coaching before learning tiny details and technicalities which make no difference to the client. I also massively agree with the need for evidence based training by everyone, this lack of evidence by many is what I feel doesn’t put personal trainer on par with other health care professionals.

    1. Thanks for reading Dane. Yeah as you know I’m all for EBP, but the reality is we still see (occasionally) very good trainers who have zero understanding of how to read research or of the evidence hierarchy, simply because they coach well. That’s why I put that first. Once they understand that’s their job, then by all means, get them aligned with the body of evidence where applicable.

  4. I felt this was a great article and much needed..we need to really work on bridging the gap and help those that may not be at the highest level of training and help educate and get them there…we need more unity as we all started at step 1

  5. you had me at Zatsiorsky…great points, some of the better trainers I’ve seen may not be able to identify the location and function of the teres major BUT they do care about their clients and know how to deliver exceptional customer service; as long as they know how to deliver safe, basic, effective exercise programs everything else can be learned OTJ

    1. Thanks for reading Pete. And I agree (obviously), which is tough for me to say because I’m actually one of the more “technical” trainers myself, who loves digging deeper into the science. But I’ve come to realise that although that’s great to have, it actually isn’t entirely necessary, and great can be the enemy of good in this instance. Let’s just get the industry good first, by teaching them to coach. Then perhaps we can work on making it great.

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