Quiet Please

Another lengthy time since my last post and so another post begins with an apology. Between writing for Breaking Muscle three times per week, a couple of print mags in Australia, normal work and then training for an Ironman the days just seem to slip by. That’s only going to get worse as tomorrow begins my actual run in plan to the Ironman in March 2013.

Along the way I’m discovering so many things so quickly I find it amusing. Amusing because I see and hear many “coaches” espousing “facts” about training they have no knowledge about. One of the many good reasons to hire a trainer is they’re simply experienced than you. Even if you began lifting weights the same time they did they’re still more experienced than you. Obviously you’d have the same amount of personal lifting experience but they have a little secret up their sleeve. They have clients to learn from. Every single client I train is like another training session for me in terms of how much I understand about a specific exercise or method of training. So over a year, if I train even as few as ten hours per week of clients by the end of the year I will have an extra five hundred hours of knowledge than you do about training. In terms of specific exercises let’s just say that we both average twenty-five reps on a specific exercise per session (doing something like 5 x 5). In a given week we’ll hit seventy-five reps if we’re training three times per week. But I’ve got ten clients doing those seventy-five reps so I’m seeing seven hundred and fifty reps each week. That’s 37,500 reps more than you I’m learning from this year alone. Now imagine I’ve done that for ten years…

The education as a trainer comes in the immersion. In watching the reps. In seeing what happens both during, and more importantly after. Because it doesn’t matter what you lifted today if the result was that the next time you came into the gym you were weaker or you played worse. Only the result of training matters. So the time spent doing it yourself and in watching others do it magnifies your knowledge and allows you to make better guesses at what should happen when you tell a client to do something.

And this is where the lies come in. You meet a trainer, a “coach”, who tells you that they can help make you better at a given sport if you follow their program. Well, maybe, but in a lot of cases they have no actual evidence that their ideas will work. It’s like taking marriage advice from an unmarried councilor or financial advice from a guy living out of his car. Somehow though, in the world of fitness and personal training, you will see overweight coaches giving out fat loss and diet advice or even selling programs on it. And this flows through the entire field of performance training – speed training, jump training…the list is nearly endless and nearly always perpetrated by someone who has limited experience with the subject matter but just wants to make a quick buck.

Another big problem, given most trainers don’t stick at it for more than a few years, is that many simply have nearly zero actual experience. While limited in experience what they seem to have is a great grasp of slick SEO skills and an ability to drive traffic to their blog and website. I’m reminded of comments I’ve heard in the hospitality field with the influx of reality shows like Masterchef. All these people are flooding to kitchens for work thinking they’re about to be the next Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey and then are shocked to find that cooking is long, brutal hours with little financial reward. With shows like The Biggest Loser and easy access to YouTube as well as the lies told by the training education companies about making six figure incomes as a trainer there are plenty entering the field with stars in their eyes. In the fitness industry it’s all about blogging and social media to draw attention to yourself and make a name. I guess I’m showing my age when I wish that people would just shut the hell up and do their jobs. Frankly I couldn’t care less what a nearly brand new trainer thinks about getting ripped without cardio. Nor do I want to see video from someone who just went to a kettlebell course on the weekend posting videos all over YouTube displaying the correct way to do a technique. Go spend a few years practicing. Get your 37,500 reps of watching in and I’ll bet you’ll be ashamed of those videos you posted of yourself the weekend after your HKC or RKC.

When you combine these two – the lies and the lack of experience you end up with what I think of as the biggest issue in training. Namely, people who just don’t know when to shut the hell up. The nature of sport, from a trainer’s perspective, is often frustrating. It’s great to get an athlete who performs at a certain level and after months of work with you suddenly performs at a higher level. The only issue with that is that if the athlete has made the concerted effort to address their strength and conditioning they are probably highly motivated and also giving extra attention to their sport skills training. So how can you claim credit for a victory when their fight skills will have improved too? There are very few sports that you will see a direct correlation between how an athlete performs and their performance in the weight room. Obviously lifting sports, and I understand from conversations with others to an extent the throwing events in field athletics too, but beyond those you won’t find a sport where the performance of the sport isn’t the over riding factor of success.

I honestly can’t think of a single time I competed in a martial arts competition against someone who was stronger and fitter than I was. Yet I’ve been beaten up and down the mat more times than I can remember. The reason is because my opponents all had more skill than I did. Fighting sports in particular have a very shady link with performance training – factors such as confidence, being intimidated by the opponent, a bad call by the judge – can all play deciding factors in a fight. It doesn’t matter how much you deadlift.

Which gets me to where I am now. I haven’t even started training in earnest for my Ironman yet and I already can’t count the number of times someone has told me to deadlift, to get my deadlift bigger because that will help me run faster. Now, I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure I could deadlift the entire Kenyan Olympic marathon team yet be outrun by them in the first kilometre. While my deadlift isn’t massive by any stretch (about 150% of body weight at the moment I would estimate) I will bet any amount that compared to any elite Ironman competitor I have them all by at least 30kg. But I can’t keep up with any of these people because my skill at the sport (in this case aerobic strength) isn’t as good as theirs. Yet still these same people persist – “don’t forget to lift heavy”, they say all the while displaying a complete misunderstanding of the most basic premise of sports performance training. It’s the skill at the sport that matters. And while they’re on their couches seeing if they can somehow manage to out snatch a doughnut I am out swimming, riding and running about twenty hours per week. Over the last year I’ve racked up nearly a thousand hours of those skills according to my training journals compared to their zero in those three disciplines.

The funny thing about training, even with all the great resources that are available these days, is that the “no pain, no gain” mentality still exists. If one set is good then two is better. Four must be even better. This is another area of confusion from many of these armchair “coaches”. They see an endurance athlete, one with near zero strength background and do some strength work. The result is obvious, isn’t it? If you take someone who has no strength training background and just give them a little then they’ll improve. But, at the point where the strength sessions start to impact on their endurance sessions, either for time because of the need for more frequent strength training sessions or in terms of recovery because of the heavier weights being lifted as the athlete gains strength you will see sports performance drop. In classical sports science literature the magic 2x body weight squat and deadlift is often cited as a good goal as after this point specialist training is required to see further gains in strength which will have a negative impact on sports training (from a recovery and frequency perspective). But what sports does that work for? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone in any kind of running race, beyond 200m, who you could apply that to. There’s no squat rack at the finish line, just a clock that records who was fastest. So running fast is the key to success for running fast.

One of the things I’ve always pushed myself to do is to be uncomfortable. I didn’t necessarily do some of the things that I’ve done because I was overjoyed at the thought of it. Training for a marathon is not and has never been my idea of a good time. And I’m pretty sure running a marathon after riding 180km is also not going to be much fun. But I’m out there learning. If all I learn from this experiment is that endurance athletes have no need at all for a big deadlift then I’m already one gem of wisdom ahead of all the fools who think it is. Staying in our comfort zone doesn’t push us as people and it certainly doesn’t expand our horizons much as professional trainers. The saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got” applies here. That’s great if you have your little niche interest, your special thing that fulfills you on a visceral level. But do your clients have the same attachment to that one thing? Along with their need to be known and have a big following trainers these days are keen to be niche oriented. That’s all well and good and it makes business sense, but when your niche revolves around a tool – like kettlebells or TRX, for example, – what happens when you find someone who just doesn’t like that tool? All of a sudden you’re out of a job.

The funny thing about being a strength guy is that there are many tools available – kettlebells, TRX, body weight, barbells, dumbbells, odd objects. Just as there are many ways to train endurance – swim, ride, run, row, circuits, pack walk. If you’re only experienced with one, at some point you need to make yourself uncomfortable and go learn some things. If the only race you’ve ever been in is to the front of a buffet line then perhaps you should try entering a fun run. Trust me, it’ll be good for you in more ways than one (you can thank me when you can see your ties for the first time in a decade or live past fifty instead of having a heart attack). Until then please just be quiet because all you do when you offer advice about as subject you clearly have no experience in is just embarrass yourself. Likewise if you’re new to the game, stop telling us all how clever you are because you ripped off someone else’s work. You may impress your clients but everyone else just sees you as a thief. Instead of spending time developing your brand and your blog try just getting good at your job and paying attention to your clients.

One Response to “Quiet Please”

  1. Phil Foster Says:

    Andrew awesome article and so true. How many Personal Trainers are out there that have never made themselves uncomfortable in any area of training. My motto is “Never ask a client to do something that you have never done”.

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