A Letter From A Personal Trainer

Yesterday, I met with a new client with a few challenges – and I’m opening my follow-up email to you.  Personally identifying specifics have been omitted or changed to protect the innocent, but since I know many of my readers are trainers and/or fitness enthusiasts who also have challenges to work with/through/around – and this was such an interesting guy to work with – I invite you to add additional comments, critiques, questions or the usual random insults I’d expect from someone who’s willing to read through my caffeine-inspired (although I still remain diet coke free since Oct 2010!) ramblings.  ;-)

First, a little background: he’s dealing with weakness brought on by a traumatic injury to his wrist, elbow and shoulder (all the same side, same injury) ~40 years ago.  Countless surgical procedures later, he’s still limited in strength and range of motion –  as one might expect after such a serious “boo-boo.”

Next, a former competitive triathlete, he has “bad knees.” After working my mojo(e) with some basic movement/strength assessments, it’d seem that he has what McGill referred to as “gluteal amnesia” – or the term that I apply to ANY muscles that aren’t getting the right signals from mission control: ‘muscle dormancy’.  Those muscles are still there… they just need to ‘wake the f*ck up’ (to paraphrase Chris Rock.)  Since his glutes aren’t holding up their part of the deal, his knees are getting the kind of repetitive stress that all those “Unbreakable” combs did when handed out amongst my 4th grade class many years ago. (c’mon… if you were 10 and somebody handed you something branded as ‘unbreakable,’ wouldn’t you recognize that as a challenge?!)

Add to this the lack of any SPECIFIC goal other than to become “optimum” (seriously, I couldn’t peg him down to ANY goal – even with all the prodding, guiding, questioning I could muster – yet he’s been training 2.5 hours EVERY day like clockwork.)  While I certainly commend his dedication to the practice of training, without any specific goals, how could we ever know if training is getting us closer to an “optimum” state?  As I’ve said more than once, random efforts can only produce random results.  This meeting/consulting session opened up quite the thought-provoking, philosophical – and dare I say fun – dialogue that you’ll no doubt see forms the philosophical theme of my follow-up to him.

He’s well-versed in the basics, seemed to accept my analogies – and even though we made some significant progress in just one meeting, I could tell that my “modern approach” challenged his core beliefs of fitness to a point that seemed as if THAT made him a bit uncomfortable.

Oh, and he’s an out-of-towner so it’s not like I’d be able to oversee every minute detail of his new-and-improved training plan (not that I’d necessarily need to,anyway), so this one-off consult includes the additional challenge of addressing the most important concepts that’ll help him make the kind of (yet-to-be-defined) progress he wants – and have enough resources available to refer back to – when he returns to his fully-stocked home gym far, far away.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to fill in the gaps (since I frequently refer to conversation points from our meeting that aren’t directly obvious from my notes.)  And as I mentioned earlier, feel free to share your own constructive critiques, additional questions, etc… I’d imagine “Client X” will read this, too, so if you have something useful or otherwise thought-provoking to offer, I’m sure we’ll all appreciate it.

Now I’ll let my follow-up do the talking.  Hope ya’ll can keep up!


***** ***** ***** ***** *****

Client X,

Ok… so my pocket-answer to “how does one get in shape?” is the same as any of our grandmothers might’ve told us: eat right and exercise.

What this really means is, “how can I get from where I am to where I want to be?”  – so my job is to translate ‘eat right and exercise’ into a language that matches the individual’s goals, timelines, abilities/limitations, interests, available resources and experience to help them get WHERE THEY WANT TO BE.

In the book, Facts and Fallacies of Fitness (by Mel C. Siff – one of my early mentors through his Supertraining newsgroup and books), Dr. Siff defines fitness as “the ability to execute a given task effectively and safely.” I s’pose I’d define fitness even more simply as ‘the ability to perform work.’

How much work?  What kind of task?

Well, that depends on YOUR needs – which bring us right back to the Lance Armstrong/Asashōryū Akinori comparison.  Both could be considered among the very best at performing their chosen “work,” yet if you put Armstrong in the sumo ring or Akinori on a bicycle, either of ‘em would be lucky if they even received a “certificate of participation” at the end of a competition.  “Fitness” is specific, therefore, training to become “optimal” one MUST have a specific desired outcome.

One of the fundamental concepts of “fitness” is known as the SAID principle… Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands.  Demands could also be referred to as “stimulus” – adaptations are the response.  How we choose and apply the stimulus affects the level of response we should expect to see.

So unless and until you can recognize/identify/articulate a specific goal it’s gonna be impossible to determine which training stimulus we need to apply, how much, how often, at what intensity, etc…

Because your only immediate goal is to continue doing “something” (to the tune of 15-17hrs/week) that will move you closer towards “optimal” – but only in a “general” sense – I’ll address the 3 common components of “general fitness” one at a time.

STRENGTH – call it weight training, resistance training, pumping iron or whatever else you’d like, the main reason (some would argue the ONLY reason) we use resistance is as a stimulus to increase strength.  Therefore, if you’re not pushing the envelope to get progressively stronger, you’re not really ‘strength training,’ are you?  It gets even trickier when one considers the many different types of strength: maximal strength, relative strength, speed-strength, acceleration strength, strength-endurance, etc…  Which type is “most general”??? Beats the hell outta me!

ENDURANCEThis article provides an introduction to the 3 metabolic pathways.  We need one kind of endurance to sprint 100m/perform a one-rep max squat, a different kind of endurance to run 400m (or a P90X circuit training workout) and yet another kind of endurance to tackle a triathlon.  To me, this what ‘cross-training’ is… NOT switching between walking, running, biking, stair-climbing, etc. – all done at the same relative intensity/duration.  One could effectively “cross-train” with a single activity (let’s say a spinning bike, for example) by varying intensity, distance, time, etc. from one workout to the next.  Of course, I’d ALSO like to get away from lower body, sagittal plane dominant exercise as your ONLY form of “cardio” training, but let’s address one issue at a time, shall we?

Restated, there is no “general” endurance.  As far as I’m concerned, we can get all the “cardio” we need by manipulating the rest intervals and exercise selection during your strength training.  This kills two birds with one stone (as the saying goes.)  Of course, this kind of time-efficiency would cut deeply into your current approach of 15+ hrs of training each week – bringing training time down to 2.5 to 5 total hours (gasp!), so what else can we do increase your (perceived or real) training volume?

Long, slow distance (LSD) training *may* be appropriate during certain phases of training… as may high intensity interval training (HIIT).. or anything in between.  But we STILL need that specific target to aim for before just working out for the sake of working out.

I believe it was Alice (in wonderland) who asked the rabbit, “which way should I go?” The rabbit replied with something to the effect of “if you don’t care where you end up, the way you go doesn’t really matter.”

FLEXIBILITY –Static stretching? Active-isolation? PNF? Dynamic? Contract-relax? There are many ways to ‘stretch’ – but are we more interested in active or passive range of motion? (after significantly increasing your shoulder range of motion in about 5 minutes without ANY ‘stretching,’ I’m sure you know which side of the fence I’m on!)

My thought process regarding flexibility can best be summarized by a series of questions that goes something like this:

1)      do you have the ability to function effectively in your sport/activity/lifestyle and still have pain-free movement to spare?

2)      if no – is any limitation/tightness serving a protective function against instability?  (remember, stability proceeds mobility, so we can *usually* assume the answer is a resounding YES!)

3)      WHY ON EARTH would we want to over-ride or otherwise bypass an evolved protective mechanism that’s much smarter than I am?

Because I have to operate under the presumption that “tightness” may in fact serve a very important purpose, I’m morally and professionally obligated to present you with TWO options:

1. Suggest that we allow your body to protect itself from further damage and continue the predictable pain/tightness cycle – UNTIL it gets so unbearable, you give up and seek surgical/medicinal options that may or may not address the actual CAUSE of the discomfort/limitation.


2. determine which muscle(s) are weak/inhibited, causing the ‘tight’ muscle to work overtime to pick up the slack – then address that WEAKNESS. (since “diagnosis” and “treatment” are out of my jurisdiction, if determining your length/strength relationships goes beyond my own capabilities/scope of practice, all I could do then is return to option A but instead of waiting until the inevitable “breaking point”, I’d suggest you find someone better qualified to work with your particular limitations – one who could address the cause of tightness, not just the ‘symptoms’)

Now if you really want to entertain yourself on the principles behind the techniques I use, try googling “reciprocal inhibition” (and then send me a 2 page book report with your findings/follow-up questions!)

Better yet, find a Muscle Activation Techniques (MAT) therapist in your area.  The techniques they use are even MORE efficient – and effective – than the approach I work with.   Go to http://www.muscleactivation.com/main.html –> about –> finding a specialist (or –> ‘science behind’ if you want more info on how the system works its mojo)

Also, take a gander through “The Trigger Point Therapy Workbook” (Davies & Davies) and/or search YouTube for vids on Self-myofascial release (using a foam roll, lacrosse ball, etc.)

Nutritionally, I recommend the systematic approach of Dr. John Berardi’s “Precision Nutrition.” You can purchase the do-it-yourself ‘kit’ for about a hundred bucks; join one of JB’s lean eating coaching programs/contests (I think he’s been running this a couple times a year) or you may even consider my own basic and advanced personal nutrition coaching options (I was among the first dozen or so people to complete the Precision Nutrition Level 1 certification, so even though I’m no biochemist, this certainly wouldn’t be my first time at the rodeo!)

Other issues/concepts we discussed:

Calorie cycling – although I’d consider it more of an advanced technique and I’d really like to see you master the 5 basic habits FIRST, you do already seem to have a respectable grasp of basic nutritional concepts, so you may be able to get away with taking a ‘shortcut.’  Essentially, take your current 2000cal/day intake as an AVERAGE over a week, not a daily “absolute.”  At the end of the week, you’ve still taken in the same 14,000 calories, but by running couple days could be at a deficit, a couple at maintenance and a couple at a surplus, you’re now manipulating the stimulus that can produce change.

Your body will always seek a level of homeostasis (read: maintaining the status quo.)  Without variations in expenditure (through training & lifestyle related activity) and intake (read: the calories/nutrients you consume), our bodies will ultimately adapt to the stimulus provided and have no reason to move towards “optimal”… instead, you’ll move AWAY from optimal.  Of course, I’d suggest STRATEGIC and MEASURABLE variations (as opposed to random ones), but this brings us right back to the sticking point of not having any specific goal(s) to work towards!

There are 3 basic variables to nutrition: HOW MUCH you eat, WHAT you eat and WHEN you eat.  Change one or more variables, you change the outcome.  It sounds like you have all 3 variables locked in to your day-to-day routine.  My suggestion: start by focusing on just ONE of ‘em… and from what you told me, I’d start with WHAT you eat first  (this is a nice segue into my next thought…)

If you’re going to insist on training 15+hours/week AND you’re also going to consume a diet that consists of little more than whey protein powder, yogurt and diet coke (the recipe for the ‘gruel’ in THE MATRIX?), because you’re not providing alkaline (base) producing foods in the form of fruits and veggies, your body is left with no option but to break down the lean mass you’re working so hard to build/maintain, both for repair and to balance out your acids/bases. There’s a lot of alkalinity stored in the form of bone, connective tissue & muscle that your body will need to “eat”… t’would certainly be a shame to ‘wash it all away’ simply because buying/prepping/storing/eating vegetables is “inconvenient,” wouldn’t you agree?

Since you do have 15 hours each week to dedicate towards becoming “generally optimum,” you might want to consider counting food acquisition (shopping? gardening?), preparation and storage as part of your ‘time served.’  Remember, grandma said it best: eat right and exercise.  It doesn’t need to be rocket science, but to cause an adaptation response, we need to apply stimulus, recover (adapt), apply a NEW/greater stimulus… and so on. Doing the same thing all the time is a road map to take you backwards, not forwards.



Both of these guys could be considered “optimal” at different tasks.

Which is MORE optimal?

How do YOU define ‘optimal’?



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