5 things that define a great personal trainer

I became a trainer in 2006, a few months after graduating college in 2005. I’ve had my share of struggles, failures, redemption and success over the years. My never-ending passion for training and fitness has allowed me to continue to find ways to evolve and get better at my craft. Personal Trainers are the most sought after fitness professionals in the fitness industry. For this reason, entrance into the personal training industry is as easily accessible today as it’s ever been.

However, many personal trainers get complacent upon getting certified and acquiring their first few clients. This can severely impact a client’s decision to remain with that trainer over the long haul and can destroy the trainer-client relationship. We owe our clients the best possible services we can provide in order to foster a long-term working relationship.

Here are my top 5 things that make a great personal trainer:

1. PROGRAM DESIGN: This is perhaps the most crucial component of being a great personal trainer. Writing out workout programs for clients is essential because it outlines a plan over the course of a few weeks or months. It also helps address specific goals of the client and allows both the trainer and client to monitor and track progress over time. Having a workout plan prevents the idea of guessing or freestyling through the session which can be dangerous and lead to injury. I see this happen far too often with many trainers today. It is a very risky idea and must stop! For more about designing programs, read this blog I wrote a few weeks back. A well written-out program must be inevitably accompanied with a tracking method like a clipboard or tablet/smartphone tracking app.

2. NOT ENCOURAGING CONVERSATIONS DURING WORKING SETS: There are a few things in life that make me cringe. Nothing annoys me more than seeing a personal trainer chat away with a client in the middle of a working set. Here’s my theory on this. If a client can comfortably chat with you in the middle of a working set, then he or she is not working as hard as they need to. Talking during a set means the heart and lungs have to work twice as hard making breathing difficult (via expiration) and elevating heart rate to higher levels.Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for humor, laughs and jokes with our clients. I’m not some kind of evil dictator-type trainer. But if we our clients can hold conversations in the middle of a bench press or squat, then it means we need to increase the intensity a bit. Every client should be working at a 7 or 8 on the Ratings of Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale. Remember our clients pay us to work them out, not to chat.

3. CONTINUED EDUCATION: I don’t care how many clients a trainer trains a day or a week. Heck, I don’ even care if you’re the top trainer at your gym or health club. Every trainer should look to pick up a new certification, skill-set and continually brush up on their science and craft. Because of the ever-changing trends and theories in science and fitness, it is our obligation to keep up with them, share with our clients and integrate them in our training programs where necessary. Certifications allow for the learning of a new craft which can expand a trainer’s repertoire. TRX suspension training, Kettle Bell training and Corrective Exercise Training are some of the more popular certs out there.

4. ABILITY TO MODIFY AT THE LAST MINUTE: Imagine this scenario. You have a workout program already written and prepared for your client coming in shortly. It’s prime time at the gym which means it’s packed like a zoo. Your client comes in and the first exercise you want him to do is barbell back squat. However the squat rack is being used by a group of meatheads who will most likely be there for a while. What do you do? Or your client comes in with a nagging shoulder pain for chest workout and is unable to bench press?

Having a back up plan for clients is an overlooked aspect among trainers. It allows sessions to run with a smooth flow and helps disrupt continuity. I try to give clients as much as they can get in the hour we have together. If I have to tell them something about their diet or training, I’d rather wait until the end of the session or communicate with them later on via email or text. Remember being overly prepared is better than being prepared.

5. THE 3 P’s: Exhibiting professionalism, punctuality and politeness will separate a great personal trainer from just a good one. I’ve always maintained that if a personal trainer can be professional, polite and punctual with their clients, nothing else will mater. Being early and prepared for sessions, disengaging from improper language and appearance all reflect the 3 P’s.  A few years back, a new client I picked up made this remark to me when she noticed by stoic professionalism.

“Your job is to make me laugh”

I chuckled but politely disagreed. I told her my job was to address her health and fitness goals by delivering the most effective and sound training exercises and programs. We must understand our roles as personal trainers. We’re not comedians or entertainers trying to make our clients laugh every time we get an opportunity. That should register in the head of every personal trainer or else the priorities and objectives of both the client and trainer will get lost in the shuffle.

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Top 10 bodyweight exercises for building muscle and strength.

From the beginning of time, exercises and movement patterns were mostly performed solely with one’s bodyweight. Over the years, and in part due to the evolution of mankind, barbells, dumbbells, resistance bands and kettlebells have become the norm in our resistance training programs. While I do believe these are permanently here to stay, occasionally reverting to bodyweight training could alternatively help increase your strength and muscle gains.

Here are my top 10 bodyweight exercises to improve strength and build lean muscle. Keep in mind, these exercises must be performed at  moderate to high challenge level good enough to illicit a good physiological response on the nervous system.

1. CHIN/PULL UP:  This is obviously a no-brainer. No other exercise collectively works the biceps, forearms and lats as effective as the chin/pull up. In my humble and professional estimation, there’s no preferred choice between a chin-up and pull-up. Do whichever is easiest for you for a decent number of reps. The close-grip parallel bar handles, which can be seen on most modern day pulley stations, are a bit safer on the shoulders and elbows. 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps no more than 3 days a week is ideal. When that gets too easy, attach weight plates via a dip belt to your body or simply wear a weighted vest and do as many as you can.

2. PISTOL SQUAT: This is arguably the most challenging bodyweight exercise due to its unique execution. This exercise will work your entire lower body and could even challenge them harder than a traditional back squat because each leg has to absorb the weight of the entire body. Balance, hip mobility and coordination are some the factors that impact this exercise so don’t get discouraged if you can’t do them initially. Patiently and gradually work your way up to perfection. Aim to do 15 reps per leg for 3 sets.

3. PUSH-UP: Considered by many as the the premier bodyweight exercise, the push up is arguably the most routinely performed exercise in the world. Its easy set-up makes it virtually possible to do anywhere. The chest, triceps and anterior deltoid are the primary muscles involved but the anterior core gets engaged as well due to its anti-extension component (preventing the lumbar spine from going into extension or ‘arching’). Perform as many reps until low back starts to arch and progress to weight plates on your back when it gets too easy. Unique variations like the one-hand push-up, TRX atomic push-up and decline push-up offers exciting challenges.

4. PLANK: The most basic and simplest core stability exercise for developing the abdominals. The plank is arguably everyone’s favorite exercise for working the abs. Although the rectus abdominis and the transverse abdominus are the primary muscles involved, it is assisted by muscles of the trapezius, shoulder girdle, lumbar spine, quadriceps and calf muscle. The only drawback to the plank is it challenges the shoulder a great deal. This means a person with preexisting shoulder pain or chronic ailment will have a hard time holding a plank for a long time.

5. BULGARIAN SPLIT-SQUAT: This variation of the squat is much easier than the previously discussed pistol squat. Stand with your back facing a  bench, chair or stool. Pick up one foot and place it on the bench or chair behind you and descend to a squat. High reps really work the quads and glutes very well with this exercises so aim to perform 3 sets of 12 to 20 reps.

5. SINGLE-LEG HIP THRUST: The hip thrust, invented by the innovative Bret Contreras, is the most effective exercise for activating the gluteus muscle group. No other exercise works the butt better than the hip thrust. It’s that simple! The single-leg hip trust is basically the same but performed with one leg. Make sure you drive the hip as high as you can when you thrust and hold and squeeze that butt cheek at the top. Perform 12 to 20 reps per side. For all you ladies looking to tighten and firm up your butts, this is a must do!

6. PARALLEL BAR DIPS: The most effective triceps builder is also the number one ideal supplementary exercise for developing the chest. Just like the push-up, the pectoralis muscle group and anterior deltoid are the prime movers. Do not dip the shoulder beneath elbow on your descent as that has been linked with impingement of the shoulder. Perform as many reps as possible and just like with the chin/pull-up, attach additional resistance when the challenge starts to get easier.

7. MUSCLE-UP: Inspired by the CrossFit movement, this unique exercise combines a pull-up and a dip. Because of its requirement of supreme athleticism, coordination and dexterity, most people will never be able to do this exercise. But if you’re like me and you welcome challenges, patiently practice and learn the movement. 6 to 8 reps will suffice for most people.

8. HANGING LEG RAISE: I talked about this exercise on my post on abdominal training last week as part of the hip flexion exercise. A very challenging exercises that requires balance and coordination, this  exercise may take you time to master. But when done properly, it immensely recruits the fibers of the rectus abdominals. The only drawback is when performed too often, it can tighten the hip flexors. Take your time in learning the necessary steps and do this exercise no more than 4 times a month.

9. SIDE PLANK: Just like the plank, the side plank is one of the most popular exercises for working the obliques. And just like the plank also, shoulder stability and strength are the prime factors in performing the side plank. While some people can hold for as long as 60 seconds, I personally wouldn’t recommend more than 45 seconds of hold time to prevent stressing the shoulder joint too much. If 45 to 60 seconds is too easy, progress to advanced variations like the TRX or stability ball.

10. BIRD DOG: Not too many exercises target the anterior and posterior chain simultaneously. The Bird Dog is one of the few that does just that. The anterior core, shoulders, upper back, lumbar spine, glutes and various hip extensors are all engaged in this unique exercise. Balance and coordination are key factors so it may appear difficult initially, but once you master the technique, you’re going to want to make it a staple in your training program.

The truth and science behind abdominal training

Abdominal training is just as polarizing and controversial a topic as abortion is in our country. Almost everyone has a different opinion and it always tend to spark big debates (I had one yesterday with a buddy of mine). Our abdominal muscles (transverse abdominis, rectus abdominis, internal oblique and external oblique) are designed to assist us in trunk flexion, rotation and side bending. They also provide stability to our trunk and keep it rigid.

We engage our abs unknowingly most of the time when running most of our daily errands so our gym ab work shouldn’t have to be too long. Walk into any gym in your neighborhood and chances are half the people in there are training their abs via endless sets and repetitions. They are arguably the most obsessively trained muscle group in commercial gyms and health clubs today. But according to research and practical theory, we only should be training our abs with a select few exercises.

The following 4 categories of abdominal training will make your ab work at the gym more efficient and effective:

1. ANTI-EXTENSION EXERCISES: These are exercises in which you try to resist the trunk from going into lumbar extensions. The Plank, Pike and Roll-Out are some examples. In all 3 exercises,  the lumbar spine naturally wants to ‘sink low’ but you have to make sure your don’t arch’ your back or let your hips dip to low into lumbar extension. This resistance from you makes anti-extension exercises a staple in abdominal training.

2. ANTI-LATERAL FLEXION EXERCISES: These exercises cause the resistance against tilting, side-bending or lateral flexion of the trunk. Barbell Rainbows, Suitcase Deadlift and Waiter’s Walk are some of the popular ones. In all exercises, you have to keep your trunk stabilized and rigid to avoid tilting laterally. The resistance provided by you causes contraction in the abdominals and oblique muscles.

3. ANTI-ROTATION EXERCISES: The Pallof Press (all variations), renegade rows and 1-arm plank variations are best choices in this category. The Pallof Press may be the most effective, as it also activates the shoulder girdle and hip abductors. Again, naturally the trunk and hip want to rotate and you have to resist against those rotational forces. The Barbell Rainbow is also an anti-rotation exercise.

4. HIP FLEXION EXERCISES: Hanging leg raises, reverse crunch and prone jackknife are the ideal choices here. Unlike the first 3, where stability is the challenge, these exercises traditionally contract the abs eccentrically and concentrically. The hip flexors, the muscles responsible for bringing the knees and trunk together (psoas and iliacus), are the primary movers of these exercises. These exercises usually create a much more quicker ‘burn effect’ on the abs than the above 3 so people tend to perform them more often.

WARNING: Too much hip flexion exercises can tighten the hip flexors thereby leading to chronic pains and even injuries. This is even riskier for those with desk jobs who sit for an extended period of time. Because we already use our hip flexors when we walk, climb stairs and bend over, the objective here should be to try and limit their involvement as much as possible when we train our abs.

Keep in mind, abdominal training should not be confused with core training. Although both of their training modalities overlap, one can have a sculpted set of abdominals but also have a weak core. Having washboard abs is a result and testament of genetic potential, diet and lifestyle management. Development of a strong core is based on the ability to resist forces against the lumbar spine and hip complex. Powerlifters with pot and beer bellies and athletes possess some of the strongest core musculature. Powerlifters have to resist stability forces in complex movements like the squat, clean and jerk, deadlift and overhead press while athletes are constantly resisting lateral and rotational stability forces in their sports.

I hope I was able to shed some light on abdominal training. You don’t need to be spending endless amounts of time training your abs. Depending on your training schedule, select 1 or 2 exercises from each category listed above and perform them at a challenging effort level. 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps will suffice. Remember, a clean and solid diet will ultimately determine how sculpted your abs will get.

Here’s a sample ab routine for a person who trains 4 days a week:

DAY 1: Anti-Extension (Plank : 3 sets of a challenging hold time)

DAY 2: Anti-Rotation (Pallof Press: 3 sets x 15-25 seconds hold per side)

DAY 3: Hip Flexion (Reverse Crunches: 3 sets x 12-15 reps)

DAY 4: Anti-Lateral Flexion (Suitcase Deadlift: 3 sets x 12-15 reps)

To Carb or Not to Carb?

The following is a part of a dialogue that transpired between a new client and I during her initial consultation 2 years ago:

Me: Tell me a little bit about your diet.

Client: It’s pretty good. I eat healthy.

Me: Could you be more specific?

Client: Well, I don’t eat carbs.

To eat carbs or to not eat carbs. It’s a hot topic of interest that has ubiquitously made waves all around the world and more apparent in fitness circles. Carbohydrate consumption has become arguably the mot polarizing topic in the health and fitness industry. Television and print media continue to saturate our minds with so many overwhelming theories and information leaving the consumer very confused. I will tell you what I’ve learned through trial and error and extensive research study in 10 years.

Carbohydrates are the most important macronutrients in the human body. They are the body’s most important source of fuel which also provide the most immediate burst of energy during activities like sprinting and weight training. Simply put: Without carbs, we’d all be dead! Protein and Fat, the two other macronutrients, aren’t capable of breaking down quickly enough to supply the body with fuel during high intensity activities. When carbs are readily available in the body (stored in the form of glycogen), the body is able to push itself through all types of physical activities. When we don’t consume enough carbs, our bodies will look to obtain fuel from other sources, most notably our protein stores in the liver. This will subsequently lead to loss of muscle.

Our nervous system also relies heavily on carbs for sustained maintenance and energy. When blood sugar falls beneath the optimal functioning level, our bodies quiver and we get weary quickly. Ever felt so tired and out of it in the middle of the day for no apparent reason? It is because you probably hadn’t consumed enough sugars for the day up to that point. When these blood sugar levels dip too low, unconsciousness, lethargy, dizziness and brain dysfunction are the results.

Carbohydrates are classified as Simple (High-glycemic) and Complex (Low-glycemic). While both are crucial for optimal functioning and performance, complex carbs (oatmeal, brown rice, beans, vegetables, almonds, fruits) are preferred because of their low glycemic index feature which allow them to be absorbed more slowly by the body and provide sustained energy. High glycemic carbs (white bread, pasta, bagel, corn flakes, soda ) may be ideal for refueling and replenishing the body’s glycogen stores after exercise, but at other times of the day, their heavy carbohydrate load results in fat storage. This is because when these carbs are consumed but not utilized right away for fuel, they are converted to fat and stored in the body’s adipose tissues, which stores fat in the body’s midsection.

Carbohydrates should make up 45-65% of our daily calories. Carbohydrate consumption should be based on physical activity levels, time of day and fitness goals. If you’re an elite athlete or competitive lifter, you should consume more carbs than the average person. If the goal is weight loss, carbs should be on the low-to-moderate side, altough calories consumed versus calories burned will ultimately be the deciding factor. Carbs are good for you. Just make sure you’re not eating too much of them and also consuming the right ones.

How to design your own workout program

Stronger, leaner, body fat reduction and improved endurance are some of the plethora of reasons why we exercise and train. One of the most difficult challenges in exercise is the ability to continually push the body safely and effectively but also being able to yield upward progressions. Many trainees have told me of their struggles with boredom, inability to bench press or squat past a certain load and a lack of enthusiasm on training days.

All of this can be attributed to program design, arguably the most overlooked aspect of training. Very few people put in the effort in planning out their workout programs over the course of several weeks and months. The eagerness to get a good pump in the weigh room or to break tons of sweat on the treadmill has often lead to this. All of the sudden we stop seeing the results and over time, complacency creeps in, lack of focus, lethargy and we hit a plateau.

I was faced with these same problems when I first started training, both with my clients and myself. Here are my 5 most effective ways to design a training program:

  1. SET GOALS: Goal setting is like the foundation that is laid out for a house to be built upon. Knowing exactly what your specific short and long term fitness goals and objectives are will make it much easier for a program to be written and quicker for the goals to be met. Regardless of the goal at hand, programs should be planned for 2 to 4 weeks in advance with small progressions in intensity and exercises.
  2. INTEGRATE RESISTANCE TRAINING: It has been scientifically and theoretically proven that resistance training is the most effective modality of training. Fat loss, muscle gain, increased metabolism, improved self-esteem, reduction in high blood pressure and increased bone density are some of the many benefits. Resistance can be obtained via one’s body weight, barbells, dumbbells, medicine ball, bosu ball and resistance bands.
  3. WARM-UP: This is obviously a no-brainer but warming up is more than just using your favorite cardio machine. Although core temperature of the body will elevate after a 5-minute brisk walk on the treadmill, dynamic and mobility drills offer more bang-for-your-buck perks. Foam rolling, self myofascial release work and certain dynamic drills help loosen up the muscle tissue and promote blood flow quicker and better prepares the body for the workout ahead.
  4. EMPHASIZE COMPOUND MOVEMENTS: These are exercises that utilize more than one joint and also engage more than one muscle group. The squat, push-ups, deadlift and overhead press are some of the popular compound movements that can work virtually the whole body which translates into more calories burned. Perform compound movements at the start of your workouts before transitioning to single-joint movements like biceps curl, tricpes extension and lateral raises.
  5. DE-LOAD: The body is like a car in the sense that it can’t run continuously without frequent refueling and serviced maintenance. By frequently scheduling active rest and recovery periods (at least once a month), the body is able to recharge its batteries and increase performance. Far too many people exercise for several months in a row without de-loading and end up with nagging aches and pains, lack of motivation on training days and a decrease in energy and strength. A de-load period can be anywhere from 4 to 7 days with complete rest (no training) or achieved performing lower intensity activities like brisk walking and/or cycling, resistance training at very low intensities or self myofascial release and soft tissue work.

These steps are based on my experience as a seasoned trainee and trainer over the course of 12 years and through extensive research study. Listen to your body, leave your pride and ego at the gym door and remember to always use good form.