The Personal Training Conundrum - Mind And Muscle

bodybuilder hands on hipsThe Personal Training Conundrum  by: Jim Ganley

We live in an age of complexity. It used to be that all anyone needed to worry about was bringing home a paycheck, paying their rent on time, and putting food on the table. Not any more. Today we have financial planners to tell us what to do with our money, tax attorneys and accountants to keep the IRS off our backs, and dieticians as well as faceless government bureaucrats and public service announcements in the media telling us what to eat and when to eat it, and by extension, when and how long to sleep. Then there are an unsettling array of invasive medical tests that we really don’t need to discuss here. How many of you out there know how to program your VCR? Or has that been changed to a DVD? And if your computer seems to run by magic, you’re not alone. As I said, things keep getting more and more complicated, and most of us are more confused than ever.

In the field of healthcare, it would appear that our doctors can’t make many major medical decisions without consulting the HMO, usually with a staff person lacking medical training. The typical medico is often so tied up with paperwork that he or she often can’t see all but their most critical patients. Enter the nurse practitioner; no medical school, internship, residency, or board certification, but, hey…put a white lab coat on them and most people accept them as ‘almost a doctor’. So is a hospital orderly. By the way, it wasn’t all that long ago that barbers were allowed to perform minor surgery, so I suppose it could always be worse.

In many ways personal service has gone the way of the dinosaurs. Remember the last time you called your bank and were greeted by that hollow, metallic voice? “If you are calling from a touch tone phone, press 1 now….” Then you press 1 and are shunted from menu to irritating menu. It may be a good 10 minutes before you’re able to speak with a real person…if you’re lucky. More often than not, you’re apt to get your intended party’s voice mail: “I’m sorry, but I’m away from my desk right now…” Part of the difficulty is that our technology has advanced at a rate faster than what most of us can adapt to, understand, and apply. Keeping up with all the change is nearly impossible for those of us with family and work responsibilities. Here’s where the experts come in to serve as our guides into the world of the unknown, or so we’ve been led to believe.

Take health and fitness for example, topics about which the majority of the public knows very little. True, this information should have been taught in schools, but it wasn’t, and in many cases still isn’t. And where it was or is, most of the information is either dated or erroneous, and of no practical use whatsoever. Consequently, many of us today have a noticeable gap in our knowledge of the subject. Compounding this problem, or perhaps even taking advantage of it, the media, and those with commercial interests in the field, have become the public’s major source of fitness education. Granted, there are reputable sources of health and fitness information out there, but by and large they are to be found in the annals of sport medicine, research papers, and allied medical journals. But not in the popular press, which keeps running fitness articles dealing with corns and calluses, the heartbreak of psoriasis, agony of earwax, and the horror of hemorrhoids. Such topics have nothing to do with health; this is about disease. In this regard, the personal trainer has a very important role to play in bridging the gap for the consumer between fact, fable, theory, and practice. It isn’t all that simple, however.

Long before it became trendy and profitable, personal training was a free service offered by virtually all gyms and fitness centers, included in the price of one’s membership. But back then few members were interested in much more than a modicum of instruction. Typically a new member would tell me, “I’m going to get myself in real good shape on my own. Then I’ll let you put me on a program.” If they could do it themselves, then why would they need me or anyone else? Health club owners apparently asked themselves this very same question and, in an effort to trim their often burdensome overhead, drastically scaled back their staff to little more than a skeleton crew whose purpose, first and foremost, was to sell memberships and increase profits.

Most of us became aware of personal training in 1978 when movie execs placed actor Christopher Reeve under the tutelage of former British National Olympic Weightlifting champion David Prowse. Prowse, as you may recall, had come to prominence the year before when he had a non-speaking role as Darth Vader in the film Star Wars. James Earl Jones had provided Prowse’s voiceover. Christopher Reeve had been chosen for the lead role in the hit movie Superman, and while his acting credentials were excellent, his rather tubercular physique lacked the physical attributes to play a convincing role as The Man Of Steel. It was David Prowse’s task to help Reeve achieve a major physical makeover in time to begin filming. To both men’s credit they succeeded admirably.


Suddenly, wealthy, middle aged men and women from around the globe were dropping major dollars on personal trainers in a desperate attempt to shore up their fading looks, swollen bellies, and cottage cheese thighs, while spawning a cottage industry festooned with gurus, svengalis, and fast-buck artists. It always struck me as unusual that most of these trainers were never listed in the Yellow Pages, but then again, neither are bookmakers and drug dealers. Rather, such trainers seem to spend an inordinate amount of time hanging around the gym like pool hall hustlers. My fellow Dolfzine columnist Jamie Hale did an excellent job describing this scenario in his last column. If anything, he was holding back.

I’ve often wondered how the majority of these so-called fitness professionals can keep accurate records without taking notes and logging each of their clients’ workouts. The majority that I’ve seen seem to be flying by the seat of their pants, but maybe I’m missing something. By the way, while most of my income is generated via personal training, I do not call myself a personal trainer, preferring the term ‘health & fitness consultant’ instead. The term ‘personal trainer’ has acquired too many negative connotations and, at least from my perspective, become a hindrance if not an embarrassment. This isn’t to say that there aren’t many good trainers out there. It’s just that the good ones are lost amidst the endless cavalcade of charlatans promoted in the mass media.

Case in point was a segment that I viewed last year on ABC’s Good Morning America. Featured therein were former Olympic swimmer Samantha Torres and her trainer, Bob Cooley. Cooley began to expound upon the benefits of stretching in general, and his unique interpretation of yogic postures in particular. So far so good, until he went on to demonstrate a series of contortions on Ms. Torres and the show’s host Charlie Gibson while delivering the following running commentary: “This one is for your sense of humor. This one will improve your powers of concentration and improve the function of your liver, gall bladder, and immune system.”

Then Ms. Torres stepped forward and claimed that all of the heavy strength training she had done had made her big and bulky, slowed her down, and tightened her up so badly that her performance in the water had suffered. Bob Cooley, she related, had saved her athletic career.

In the words of the late rock musician Frank Zappa, “Just who do you think you’re jivin’ with that cosmic debris?” This is the kind of false information I’ve been crusading against for decades. Perhaps ABC’s program director should have run this misinformation past their medical director, Dr. Tim Johnson. The problem here, as I see it, is that the network execs are more interested in ratings than in accurate reporting.

While we may be able to accept the deception of an uninformed public. The flimflamming of our healthcare professionals raises more ominous concern by far. One would expect medical doctors to be so well informed as to be skeptical of ridiculous claims but, alas, they are only human. The following story is true. Only the names and a few of the specific details have been altered to avoid embarrassing the stupid.

A doctor friend of mine, whom for purposes of anonymity I’ll call Dr. Jay, had been booked as a keynote speaker at a convention for a major medical athletic association in a large East Coast city. Dr. Jay was a charismatic physician, loved by his patients, and known for having taken his orthopedic practice to the pinnacle of state of the art technology. Some years before, he had chosen to eschew the practice of surgery in favor of less invasive treatment options for his patients. His specialty at this time was rehabilitative exercise, augmented with physical therapy. His patients had achieved outstanding results, and consequently Dr. Jay received quite a bit of notoriety, being on a first name basis with some of the most prominent orthopedic surgeons in the country such as Drs. Lyle Michali, Vert Mooney, Dick Steadman, and Peter Anas. On this particular occasion, Dr. Jay had asked me to attend the medical convention with him to observe and, if necessary, help out with his presentation by demonstrating a few simple exercises. There we were, center stage in the convention hall of a plush hotel filled with perhaps several hundred medical doctors from around the country. Dr. Jay began talking about his medical practice, his experiences in treating athletes, and the common problems afflicting competitive and weekend athletes alike. I looked on in awe as Dr. Jay worked his magic, with virtually each and every one of the physicians in attendance having their eyes fixed upon his spellbinding performance.

Then, without warning, he leapt off the stage and began walking amongst the audience as if he were conducting a religious revival in the Deep South. “YOU THERE!” he shouted, pointing to a middle-aged doctor sitting several rows back, “You, my friend, are experiencing pain in your inferior, lateral malleolus!”


Several mouths dropped ajar as the target of Dr. Jay’s perspicacious observation, now obviously flustered, looked up and gasped. “Why, that’s absolutely correct, Dr. Jay. How did you know?” “Well,” Dr. Jay told him in a very matter of fact way, “your gait was a dead giveaway. Your right foot is over-supinating.”

Then he reached out, examined the man’s shoe, and discussed this case with the other doctors, by now swarming around to get a better look. “Note the uneven wear pattern on the outside of his shoe. He’s probably also experiencing pain in the medial aspect of his right knee,” he declared, pressing his thumb into the suspect location.

The over-supinating doctor, by now a patient, winced. “Ouch! I’ve been having trouble with that knee for the last month or so! How in God’s name did you know?”

I tried my best not to laugh as Dr. Jay stood up straight, faced the other physicians, and remarked dryly, “I’m a sports doc.”

And on he went, weaving his way throughout the crowd and doing cursory orthopedic examinations along the way. Lachman’s test for knee stability, Adson’s test for thoracic outlet syndrome, tests for shoulder impingement, etc. To me it was all a blur because he was moving and talking so fast.

In time Dr. Jay and I retreated back to the stage and were surrounded by scores of anxious physicians, some of who had removed their shoes for him to examine. It was like being with Jesus Christ at the miracle of loaves and fishes. The scene grew weirder still when Dr. Jay invited the president of the medical association to come up onto the stage with us. I’ll call him Dr. Claude. Dr. Jay announced to the audience that he was about to demonstrate some very important exercises to be used for both diagnostic and rehabilitative purposes; exercises that I had never seen before. He took Dr. Claude, put some rubber bands around his ankles, and then directed him to walk across the stage. Dr. Claude took perhaps two steps before falling flat on his face to the uproarious laughter of those in attendance. Then Dr. Jay put rubber bands around Dr. Claude’s wrists and ankles and commanded him to crawl around on the stage on his hands and knees. Dr. Claude fell down again, and was now told to move through a series of maneuvers making him resemble a turtle that had been flipped on its back, trying to right itself. This brought down the house.

Later, over dinner, I asked Dr. Jay about those special exercises he had given to Dr. Claude.
“Oh, yeah,” Dr. Jay admitted to me, laughing, “I never liked the guy and just wanted to make a fool out of him in front of his colleagues.”

Obviously Dr. Claude hadn’t suspected a thing, for the very next week he contacted Dr. Jay and offered to pay his way to New York, put him up with his family, and pay him a substantial stipend for an encore performance. We couldn’t believe it.

This episode at the medical convention caused me to think about what it means to train people for health and fitness. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that the power of persuasion is so crucial in bringing about a favorable outcome for one’s clients. They really need to be talked into reframing old behavior patterns, and this has to be done without their being aware of it. Dr. Jay had used a form of mass hypnosis to bamboozle those attending the conference. It was a great stunt, but what do you suppose the results might have been had he given Dr. Claude legitimate advice? We should all be asking ourselves the purpose of a legitimate, effective personal trainer. First on this list would be offering help in establishing
realistic short-term and long-term goals. Next would be to educate, motivate, and follow-up with progressively more challenging programs. Printed material and audio/visual re-enforcement will be of tremendous benefit here. To be truly effective, the trainer will have to be intuitive to the extent of knowing when and how hard to push the client and, just as importantly, when to back off. While praise is important for a job well done, constructive criticism is equally so when the client fails to meet expectations.


The best trainers may be viewed as benevolent drill instructors, tough yet fair. Ultimately, the effective trainer will strive to help the client transition to become an independent, self-directed exerciser. Talk of magic, mysticism and/or unpronounceable nutritional supplements should cause red flags to go up, sending you away in search of a more grounded professional. A good trainer will usually offer a free initial consultation and workout. During this complimentary session you will have ample opportunity to ask questions, learn your trainer’s style, and determine whether or not you and he/she are a good match.

What should one look for in a good trainer? Education, experience, and excellent communication skills are of paramount importance. Likewise for patience just in case it takes you more than one or two attempts to master a particular exercise. Certification is better than nothing, but certainly no substitute for education and experience. While a good trainer need not look like a competitive bodybuilder, being fit and actually training intelligently on a regular basis certainly is, if for no other reason than to have a passion for fitness that he or she can share or to have empathy for what their clients are undergoing. Of course checking references, preferably current or former clients, will serve to give you a better idea of what lies ahead on your path to self-improvement.

All things considered, the majority of individuals probably will not need a personal trainer. The requirements for basic health and fitness are so minimal as to make it unnecessary. Walking five days per week for thirty minutes at a brisk pace and following a balanced nutrition plan may be all that is required. Any reputable fitness professional will tell you this. On the other hand, someone seeking optimal physical performance, cosmetic improvement, trying to get into shape for sports participation, or rehabilitation from injury would be best advised to retain the services of the best trainer at their immediate disposal.

In short, a trainer under these conditions is no longer a luxury. Rather, it’s a necessity. Hire a trainer in whose judgement you can have faith. Most important of all, you are the only one capable of getting yourself into shape. Those needing to lose weight will also need a complete overhaul of their lifestyle, something beyond the scope of what any personal trainer can ever hope to achieve. Just paying a trainer won’t do it. It’s up to you and you alone to follow through and implement what has been recommended.

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