Should you hire a personal trainer?

I get a lot of requests for take home training  programs. Typically they are from people who don’t have time to get to the gym, or don’t like the gym, or don’t want to spend the money on a trainer, or don’t live nearby. Preparing custom take home training programs used to be my bread and butter. Clients would come in a comprehensive functional assessment (including the Functional Movement Screen and sometimes the Titleist Performance Institute golf fitness assessment); I would create a custom program based on their results and the equipment they have access to; they would come in for a session where I would walk them through the exercises; and then I’d send them home with a package including pictures and descriptions of each one. It was great. But over time I started to question the approach.

  • How many brought the package home, put it on the coffee table and left it there. Until cleaning day, when they moved it to the desk in the office. And then spring cleaning came and it was put in a drawer.  Only to be found at tax time while looking for receipts, it was dusted off, the person decided they need to get fit and put it back on the coffee table. Until…
  • How many brought the package home on Monday, worked through it enthusiastically on Tuesday and Thursday, but then Saturday was busy so they skipped. Monday they picked it up again, feeling guilty for having missed a session, then Wednesday it was raining and who works out on a rainy day? A week later, they find the program under a pile of papers and move it to the desk…
  • How many brought the package home on Monday, worked through it enthusiastically on Tuesday and Thursday, and Saturday, and continued to do the exercises three times each week religiously; but never really got the hang of the exercises so that over time, the exercises started looking less like sound functional exercises and more like this:

Based on feedback, and follow up conversations and sessions with clients, I estimate that these take home programs were effective for probably 20% of the clients who got them.  For everyone else, it ranged from a waste of their money to being done with such poor form that it was dangerous.

These days most of my clients workout with me, yielding much better results for them. I do provide take home programs on occasion, but now I screen clients for them. I need to be confident that a client meets three criteria before I will create a take home program for them:

  1. Highly self-motivated
  2. Have great body awareness
  3. Have access to decent equipment

If you work out on your own, or are thinking of buying a book to start a home workout, or going to seek a trainer to put together a home workout plan for you, consider whether it is actually your best option.

Would you pass my test?

 

1. ARE YOU HIGHLY SELF-MOTIVATED?

How can you tell if this is you? Do you work out regularly now? If not, odds are, this is not you. I know that sounds ridiculously basic, but, from my experience, it’s pretty accurate.

I’m sure many people reading this run or bike several times a week (maybe even daily); or play tennis, baseball, ultimate, hockey, or soccer several times a week (maybe even daily) and are thinking “I’m totally self-motivated! I do my sport all the time and have for years!”. Yup.

And how long have you known that you should probably augment that activity with some training but still don’t do it?

How long have you known that you really shouldn’t play or train every day but still train every day anyway?

How many times have you trained through injury knowing that you really should rest instead?

There’s no question that there are a few of you who have recently become convinced of the value of strength and flexibility training in addition to your chosen sport, and some of you probably fit the bill as being self-motivated enough to do your strength and flexibility training on your own.

But most of you are not:

  • You know working out is a good idea, but you don’t do it.
  • You understand that running is not actually building leg strength: it’s building cardio.
  • You understand that from a physiological perspective, strength is built with fewer repetitions of a movement, and that running involves thousands of repetitions. If you don’t believe this, give yourself a quick test. Stand on one leg and squat down to a chair, touch it very lightly at the bottom, and then stand back up again still on the one leg. Can you do this on each leg without difficulty? Can you do it without your knee wobbling around like a weeble?

If this is challenging for you, is your sport really getting you strong? Or is your lack of strength troubling considering how much you run?

You are motivated to run or to play because that’s what you love to do, but you are not motivated to do the work your body needs so that you can continue to run and play instead of becoming that person who talks about how they used to be an athlete.

I’m pretty sure I’ve turned some people off with this definition of self-motivated, but I’m comfortable with that. It had to be said.

This is not intended to be a judgement, but rather a self-check: maybe having a set meeting with someone who will motivate and help you through your workout is what you need to ensure you do the workout? There is no shame in this!

 

2. DO YOU HAVE GREAT BODY AWARENESS?

From Mirriam-Webster:

“Spaz: a clumsy, awkward person <I haven’t played tennis in years, so don’t be surprised if I am a total spaz on the court>

Synonyms butterfingers, dub, looby, lubber, lummox, spaz [slang]
Related Words clodhopper, gawk, gawky, lout, lump, oaf,tawpie [chiefly Scottish], tyke (also tike) [chiefly British];bungler, duffer, fumbler, stumblebum, stumbler”

Is that you? If so, you are not an ideal candidate for working out on your own. My apologies for bringing up painful schoolyard memories, but there’s a reality here: not everyone has a good sense of their body. If you are one of those people, then doing exercises on your own without cueing and coaching to make sure you are doing them correctly is a bad idea. I truly don’t mean this as a knock to anyone. We all have our shortcomings. For some it is coordination and body awareness; for others it is math, or language, or art. If you saw a drawing of mine, you’d quickly understand my big shortcoming. I only failed one course through all of my schooling and it was drafting in first year university. Despite going to every class, doing all of the homework assignments, and studying like crazy, my final grade was 35% on the course.

It’s a fact: I cannot draw a straight line with a t-square.

Is it a fact that coordinated movement is not your strong suit? If so, consider training with a personal trainer instead of on your own.

 

3. DO YOU HAVE ACCESS TO DECENT EQUIPMENT, EITHER AT HOME OR AT A COMMERCIAL GYM?

When people come to me for an exercise program, we typically talk about what equipment they have.

Client: “ I have a stability ball, a band, a yoga mat, some free weights and a stationary bike.
Me: “Oh? What free weights do you have?
Client: “I have 2, 5 and 8 pound dumbbells.
Me: “You don’t have free weights; you have paper weights.

If  this sounds like your home gym, then guess what? You don’t have a home gym. Here I go offending people again! There are two major problems with this type of “home gym”:

  • Unless you are an octogenarian or have a significant physical limitation, you will outgrow those weights very quickly. Likely in less than a month. And that’s a generous estimate. I train clients of all ages and abilities, and they all progress well beyond what they can get out of light weights like that. Consider that a bottle of olive oil weighs more than your 2 lb weight, and an empty stock pot weighs as much as your heaviest weight. How much do you think those 3 bags of groceries that you will lift  awkwardly out of your trunk weighs? Or the stock pot when it is full of soup? Are those 2, 5 and 8 lb weights really serving to strengthen your body enough to handle your daily tasks?
  • There are some great bodyweight exercises out there that can contribute to getting you strong and helping you to move better. Push ups, for instance. The single leg squat test above is a great exercise for strengthening the legs. The problem is that it is very hard to create a balanced workout with just body weight.

This is particularly problematic for those of you who spend a lot of time at a computer. Desk time creates short and tight pectoral muscles (chest), and stretched and weak back muscles, usually resulting in rounded shoulders. Pushups can actually make this worse. Or at least pushups when done without their alter-ego, pulling exercises, can make this work. It is important to balance out your pushups with something like dumbbell rows, or cable pulls, chin ups, or one of my favourites, the TRX inverted row.

 

 

The TRX is one piece of equipment that can turn a “home gym” into a reasonable workout space with a relatively small price tag. The reason is that it provides an option for many exercise types that are an important part of a balanced workout, but are otherwise hard to do at home. In addition to providing an option for rows, it also provides options for working your obliques or rotary core muscles, and your glutes and hamstrings or posterior chain muscles.

What is the verdict? Are you truly someone who is well-suited to working out on your own? Great! Do it!

But for those of you who aren’t (a.k.a. most of you), maybe it’s time to consider hiring a pro to help get you going? Yes, it can be expensive (although some of us provide great options like semi-private training), but it’s your health.

 

Consider this: do you spend more money maintaining your car than you do your body? How many cars will you likely have in your life? How many bodies?

 

 

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada. She works out regularly at an awesome little personal training studio in Hintonburg.

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