Tag Archives: personal trainer

“This workout was not at the intensity I expected”

“Anyone can give you a workout that will make you tired.
We give you workouts that make you better.” - some smart trainer chick

We received an email this week from a client who decided she doesn’t want to keep training  with us because she found that the workout just isn’t for her. I have no issues with that – we’re not for everyone. But then she cited that she felt the workout was “not at the intensity” she expected. I felt this deserved comment because I think her desire for an intense workout at this point is misguided.

I decided to share my email response as a blog article, because I think the notion of intensity is one of the most misunderstood aspects of training, and that this is particularly true for beginners and those who have injuries or are returning to activity post-injury.

Here is my reply (I changed the name of course):

Hi Sara,

I am sorry to hear that the training did not meet your expectations. I do of course understand that our approach is not for everyone. We make no qualms about being conservative – in fact I would say it’s one of our selling points. Because we take the time to find the baseline of movement that clients can manage without pain, and progress them from there, we are able to turn clients who have previously had daily pain into uber-athletes who deadlift 200+ pounds and can thrive in a tennis tournament without advil.

I certainly understand the desire to push yourself (been there!), but the reality for you is that you have some physical issues that require us to put on the brakes with you so that we can help you get to the pain free level, and then work from there. The thing is there is sometimes a difference  between “what we want” and “what we need”, and I honestly believe that part of our job as personal trainers is to hold athletes back when they want to do too much, or push too hard. It tends to be the opposite with general public clients: they need us to push them. I have no doubt you will find a workout that you can do that will give you the intensity you want right away; but I suspect that any intense workouts you do will only contribute to the injuries that have plagued you for some time.

Slow and steady is not sexy, but I really think it’s the only way. This doesn’t mean you’ll be doing light weight or bodyweight only exercises for a long time. Quite the contrary! We will gladly progress you once you are able to do the exercises we program for you without pain, and that you feel them where you should. The latter point is as important as the pain-free part. With an injury past, there are often muscles that no longer work properly and so other muscles take over. From a systems design perspective, the body is brilliant – so much built in redundancy! But there is a price: the backup muscles don’t work as well as the primary ones. A bit like your car – the spare tire is a brilliant solution for a short period of time, but if you drove on it for too long, you’ll end up with problems. And so it’s really important that we get your body using the proper muscles for the movements you ask of it. But I promise you – once everything is firing properly, the workout you get at Custom Strength will have intensity.  Some of our clients sweat so much that I can read what their shirt says through the sweat mark they leave on the floor (see attached photos).

If you’re sure that this is not for you, then that’s fine. I wish you the best of luck with whatever training approach you choose. If  you’d like to reconsider and give us a go, then we’d love to see you building up to the heavy sweating phase of the program.



intense workoutintense workout leaves a mark












Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is a personal trainer in Ottawa, dedicated to providing the right workout to everyone who comes through our doors.

Plyometrics: Are they hurting or helping you?

Plyometrics are the cool kid in the exercise world. I mean, even the name sounds cool: Plyometrics. And they have a cool nickname: plyos. What’s not to love?

Here’s the thing: Like the cool kid in school, plyos tend to be more flash than substance. It’s definitely nice to have flash. But flash without substance is almost always problematic. Plyos without the less cool tools like weight training, muscle activation, foam rolling, and stretching, is almost always problematic. And unfortunately this is how they tend to be used. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard someone talk about an awesome 45 minute plyo session. They may be fun 45 minute plyo sessions; and they may make you feel tired; but I guarantee they are not awesome.

Here’s the simple truth: Plyometrics are awesome and you should use them, but there are a few things you should know before you do. Here are four simple guidelines to help ensure your plyos are helping you perform instead of helping you get injured.

1. Less is more
Plyometrics is a tool for developing power. It is not a cardio tool. Yes, plyos can make you sweat. They can also make you injured. Plyos are very taxing on your body, and are generally high impact. If you value your joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles, do not do 45 minute plyo sessions. Plyometrics in my gym take about 5 to 10 minutes out of a 1 hour program. I follow the great advice that Michael Boyle (my most influential mentor) often gives: no more than 25 foot contacts per workout. You maximize power by firing more muscles, not by doing more reps. In other words, this approach is both safer and more effective. How many foot contacts in 45 minutes do you suppose?

Another way to think about this: How explosive are you in your 35th minute of your plyo session? Long plyo sessions are the modern incarnation of high impact aerobics classes. Don’t do it.

2. Jump up before you jump down

Most people seem to have this backwards. They start by jumping off a box instead of jumping onto a box. I think because it seems easier to just step off something than it does to jump onto something. This is half true. Jumping off something requires less effort. The thing is, it requires much more absorption, which means it is much harder on your joints. If you think about it, doesn’t it make more sense to develop strong muscles (jumping onto something) to support your joints before you ask your joints to absorb force (jumping off something)? Use gravity for deceleration before you use it for acceleration.

Before embarking on a plyometric program, please make sure you understand proper progression. At it’s most basic, jump up before you jump down.

3. Strong comes before powerful

As noted previously, plyos are about power development, which is essential for sports performance (hitting a baseball, accelerating out of the blocks, jumping higher), but is also important in daily living (avoiding a fall after a mis-step). Power is the product of force and velocity (P = Fv). Power increases by either increasing the velocity (physics-speak for speed) or by increasing the force (strength). We can improve power by either getting stronger, getting faster, or both. Plyos is a way to improve both at the same time. But a word of caution: power without strength is a dangerous thing. I’ll go the cliche route by using the analogy of shooting a cannon out of a canoe. Without a secure base of support, power is both useless and dangerous.

Build strength first so that you can safely and effectively apply power (by the way this goes for speed training too: working on speed if you are weak is a recipe for injury).

4. Calibrate your brakes to your accelerator

We think of plyometrics as a means to develop explosive power, but as in politics, too much power can be dangerous. One of the big mistakes people make in their training is that they work on jumping higher and further without being mindful of their ability to land. The phase one plyometric drills I use with my clients include stability hops. The client does a series of hops where he or she starts on one foot, hops forwards or sideways, and lands on the same foot. The catch is that they must be able to “stick” the landing before proceeding to the next hop. If someone can’t control the landing, then they hop a little less high or far until they can stick it. I use on-field examples from their sport to explain why we do this first: think of a situation where you are jumping or lunging for a ball in whatever sport you play: what happens if you have the power to get to it, but don’t have the ability to land properly? Odds are you will sprain your knee or ankle. Develop the ability to control your power first and then develop more power, and you can prevent (or drastically reduce) these situations. Once you can land the jump or hop, then go bigger! But do it gradually. Training deceleration is also critical in improving your ability to change direction quickly. Which as it turns out is kind of important. ;)

Train the brakes as well as the gas pedal for optimum performance and injury risk reduction.

Do you do plyos? Love them? Hate them? Do you do them properly?

Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, helps athletes improve performance and reduce injury risk in Ottawa, Canada.

Preventive maintenance for your workout?

I have an online client who mentioned that he was not feeling great with the front squats in his program, but he was pretty confident he was doing them well since he is an experienced lifter. He is smart and self-aware, so I tended to think he was probably right. But I asked him to get someone to video his front squat because I have a pretty good eye for small details (I’m a ski instructor – if you can find small faults as someone launches past you on a ski hill, standing still on flat land is a piece of cake) and I just wanted to see what was up. Partly I just wanted to be sure that it was good form, because that would impact what exercises I would give to him.

He did, and before I even got the link he noted that he could see one major flaw in his front squat and that he was confident that I’d be able to help with it. I saw the video, which his son uploaded to youtube, and he is correct! The front view of the squat looks great – shoulders look great, the knees don’t cave in, and no lateral (side) shift. This is the view that you would have if trying to watch your own form at the gym if you had a mirror in front of you. Then came the side view, which lets face it, we don’t get to see. When you’re deep into a squat with weight on your back, you really don’t want to be turning your head to the side to check form. It could lead to bad things for your neck or back. But in fact, the side view showed the big flaw in his squat: his knees move way too forward as he comes down and his heels rise up slightly.
Continue reading Preventive maintenance for your workout?

The bench press test

Bench press is a great exercise, but for anyone with a shoulder issue, it may not be ideal. How do you know if you should bench? Well for starters, if it hurts to bench, you probably shouldn’t bench. What if it doesn’t hurt during the bench, but it hurts later, you ask? Same answer. I suspect you knew that but were hoping for a different answer. Sorry.

If the bench press is painful for you, seeing a manual therapist (athletic therapist, chiro, massage therapist, osteopath, physio…) is a good idea to get you to pain-free state. But once you reach that point, then what?

Ideally you would switch to other exercises, at least for a while. When someone recovering from a shoulder injury (or has a long-standing shoulder issue) starts training with us, we often start them with a cable press, as it seems to be the most shoulder-friendly of the pressing exercises.

After that we like to work on proper bodyweight pushups (Click here for an article all about pushups), followed by Bottom Up Kettle bell (KB) bench press, and then we move to “normal” bench pressing.

I love the bottom up kb bench press because it requires a lot of stabilizing to be able to do it, which means my clients literally will not be able to increase the weight if they lack strength or stability in their shoulders. If they can’t do the bottom up KB bench press, they are not ready to bench press. Period.
Continue reading The bench press test

6 Exercises for Low Back Health

Low back pain is a very common problem, and is a topic that comes up often when I talk with, well people. I have written a couple of articles about this in previous years, but I want to address it again, this time with a more practical approach. I realized recently that I have developed a bit of a template for clients who have low back pain, or who have a history of low back pain. The program for each person is different, but there are six exercises that I include for almost everyone who talks about their back when I first meet them. I am going to share these 6 exercises for low back health with you.

Before I begin though, I must point out the following: If daily living causes you low back pain, I strongly suggest that you look to a health care practitioner as your primary source of guidance for your back health. I won’t suggest what type of professional you see, just that someone who is a doctor, osteopath, physical therapist, chiropractor, athletic therapist, or massage therapist sees and hopefully provides some treatment for your back.

With that said, I’m going to share the 6 exercises that I have found to be most important and effective for helping people improve their low back health. Strangely I feel a need to qualify that again. I think that is because it makes me uncomfortable suggesting that I can help “cure back pain” when I am not a health care professional. I’m a trainer. And before I was a trainer, I was an engineer; not a doctor or a physical therapist. But here’s the thing: I help people’s low back pain by avoiding their back pain, not by working on it. Continue reading 6 Exercises for Low Back Health

My Favourite Training Tools #8 – Agility Ladder

This might seem like a strange item to include in my top 10 list, because it is probably not considered an essential tool by many. So why is it on my list? Because it is fun. And because anyone can do it. And most people should do it. But most people don’t do it.

I had an epiphany recently. My programs might be a little too serious. I’m a big geek. Some of you may not realize that before I became a trainer, I was an engineer. So being a geek is kind of part of the package. And when I put together fitness programs for clients, I look at it as though I’m designing a system. That means attention to every detail. Literally every element of every program has a raison d’etre. That probably doesn’t sound like a bad thing. But what is one of the common threads I hear from reluctant trainees? “It should be fun”. I think all of my programs are fun, of course. I mean come on – half-kneeling chops and lifts! Squats and deadlifts! Fun, fun, fun and fun. Intervals?
Continue reading My Favourite Training Tools #8 – Agility Ladder

Workouts are more fun when you succeed

As a trainer, I spend a lot of time trying to convince people how amazing training is. I like to think I’m convincing. I also like to think that the awesomeness of the workouts I put together and my great coaching skills seal the deal for people once they come to give me a try. Or that they think I’m hilarious and can’t wait to come for another session to spend more time with me. But in reality, there is a bit more to it. Here’s something I’ve come to learn: For many people, working out is not actually fun. And for these people, there are actually things they’d rather do than workout. Shocking, right?
Continue reading Workouts are more fun when you succeed

My Favourite Training Tools: #4 – the FMS

We’re now into the top five of my blog-series: My Favourite Training Tools (For my American readers, please excuse the ‘u’ in favourite. It’s a Canadian thing). There are probably thousands of tools out there for fitness. Some are ridiculous fly-by-night items (I can’t help but think of the Saturday Night Live commercial spoof of the Shaker Weight) while some have stood the test of time for hundreds of years (kettlebells). In each entry in this blog series, I’ll talk about one of my 10 favourite tools.

Today’s entry features the Functional Movement Screen (FMS). This makes my list even though it does nothing to get you strong. That’s because it is an assessment tool. I love this tool because it helps me to see where people have problems with the fundamental way that they move, and then that helps me to create a great training program for them that will not only get them “faster, higher, stronger”, but will also help fix movement dysfunction that they have developed in life. Continue reading My Favourite Training Tools: #4 – the FMS