By: David Larson, MS, CSCS*D, Pn1
Unlike the majority of articles I write, this one isn’t entirely based on research studies. Rather, it is based on observations that years of training experience has brought me. I’ve had the luxury of training hundreds of people, ranging from elite athletes to figure competitors to post-surgical hip replacement clients. Luckily, we live in an age of increasing research, particularly in the strength and conditioning realm. Evidence-based practice is becoming the new standard, and it is particularly important that personal trainers are well-educated in biomechanics, physiology, and psychology; however, having an education is only half the battle when working with clients. There are numerous things you pick up that textbooks don’t teach you. Here are 6 things that I’ve noticed over my years of being a strength coach and personal trainer.
1.) Resistance training often trumps stretching for increasing range of motion (ROM). From my experience, building strength through full range of motion exercises such as squats, lunges, bench press, pull-ups/pull-downs, rows, and overhead presses is often times more effective than stretching at increasing ROM. I’ve had several clients who initially could not raise their leg past 135 degrees from a supine position; however, after approximately 3 weeks of progressive strength training they were able to get to roughly 90 degrees with ease. Keep in mind, I’m not talking about 3 weeks of corrective hamstring activation and stretching exercises, I’m referring to strength training. The exercises I typically will use include landmine squats, walking lunges, leg press, 45 degree back extensions, hip thrusts, calf raises, Romanian deadlifts, split squats, reverse hypers, hamstring curls, and lateral band walks.
2.) Feeling the muscle working is far more important that moving the weight, especially for those who are not power athletes. The mechanisms of hypertrophy are fairly well established. Mechanical tension, muscular damage, and metabolic stress are necessary components of those trying to add muscle. Typically I teach my clients not to lock out most movements (with some exceptions such as hip thrusts), but rather keep some tension on the target muscles. This helps to increase the metabolic stress felt during the exercises, thus facilitating greater mind muscle control and promoting hypertrophic adaptations. Furthermore, focusing on keeping tension on the appropriate muscles theoretically would allow for greater muscle damage to occur via the appropriate distribution of tension and time spent under tension. Lastly, I’ve found that it is very hard for clients to progress in weight when they have trouble feeling the appropriate muscles during an exercise.
3.) Most trainers tend to overuse prehab, balance/stability training, and stretching. Most clients come in overweight and weak, possessing very little muscle mass and subsequent strength. This is compounded if the individual has a lack of resistance training experience. The job of the personal trainer is to help their clients loose fat, build muscle, and motivate their clients. That’s it. So what does a typical personal 1 hour training session look like these days?
• 15 Minute Warm-Up
• 15 Minute Mobility/Corrective/Core Activation Exercise
• 15 Minute of Balance/Coordination Training
• 10 Minutes of Non-progressive Exercise
• 5 Minute Cool-Down
How is this program helping clients build muscle and lose fat? It’s not. Over the past several years, functional training gurus have convinced the majority of trainers that 98% of all individuals are dysfunctional – and that they shouldn’t actually be performing progressive resistance training. This is bullshit. Yes, many individuals have limitations; however, it’s the job of the strength and conditioning professional to find ways to progressively overload the body without injury. Countless studies have concluded that basic resistance training exercises, when properly overloaded and progressed, can result in dramatic improvements in strength, size, power, body composition, and function. Why re-invent the wheel? If someone needs more than 15 minutes of corrective exercise just to do a basic resistance training program, they should be referred out to a physical therapist that can accurately diagnose and fix the issue.
4.) Most people don’t do enough glute training. The glutes are our strongest and most powerful muscles (or at least should be). Having muscular and developed glutes is beneficial not only from an aesthetic perspective, but also from a performance standpoint. Although having strong glutes is imperative to successful resistance training performance, most people seem to have relatively weak glutes. This is likely exacerbated by the hours and hours of sitting that most people do each day. Sitting weakens the glutes, as they are placed in a stretched and inactive position for long durations of time. This long duration spent in an inactive stretched position is commonly referred to as “creep” in the physical therapy world, and is typically associated with muscle weakening.
Most people with weak and underactive glutes that I have trained tend to have a hard time with squats initially. I’ve found that performing barbell hip thrusts, glute bridges, seated abductions, and lateral band walks are a great foundation for building strong glutes before doing back squats. Once these movements have been mastered, reverse lunges, split squats, and landmine squats a great additions.
5.) Progression is never linear. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people get discouraged when they can’t add weight to the bar each workout. Sometimes it takes weeks or months struggling at the same weight before all of a sudden a huge jump in strength occurs. There are so many variables that can affect the ability of the muscles to adapt and progress. These include nutritional factors, training factors, psychological factors, and even physiological factors such as hormone fluctuations – all of which can influence strength on any given day.
If you are struggling with a plateau, there are several strategies that I have found to work very well. Some of these include cluster sets (aka interrepetition rest), drop-sets, heavy negatives, and static holds in a stretched position. Although probably not appropriate for every workout, these strategies can be quite useful when used strategically in a periodized program.
6.) Less coaching is sometimes better coaching. As a coach, it’s quite easy to get carried away with explaining foundations of functional anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics when trying to teach someone how to do a simple box squat. Us coaches tend to truly give a shit about things like knee valgus, instantaneous external forces, joint centration, and proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Unfortunately, none of this helps the client squat better. Thus, as long as we are aware of all this, there’s no need to bust out the powerpoint presentation on the biopsychosocial aspects of squatting mechanics mid-session. Sometimes a simple “weight on the outside of your heels and keep your chest up” is all the client really needs to perfect their form. Sometimes they just need to practice a few sets at a light weight. But the reality is, the more you say the more the client will have to think about — and the less productive the session will be.