Despite being nearly 40 years old, I’m new to the world of professional fitness. In May I celebrated my one-year anniversary as a Health Educator and Personal Trainer at Toronto’s College Street West End YMCA, my first legit gig (read: I get paid) in the industry. I’ve learned a lot during this time. Here’s a shortlist of the greatest lessons gleaned from a year in the trenches, presented in no particular order.
Women and Men Are Different…but not in that way. Generally speaking, men overestimate their strength and have terrible form. Women, on the other hand, underestimate their strength but have pretty great form. I don’t know what to chalk this up to. Perhaps it’s because young girls often participate in sports that teach body awareness (figure skating; gymnastics) whereas young boys grow up wanting to be The Incredible Hulk. Whatever the reason, one of the big challenges I’ve faced has been getting my females clients to lift loaded barbells while getting my male clients to squat in a way that won’t lead to a severed spine. We all have our battles. This one is mine.
- I’ve Got A LOT Left To Learn. Like many young graduates (or, in my case, not-so-young), I left college full of piss and vinegar. And why not? I studied hard, applied myself, and earned a spot on the Dean’s List each semester. I knew words and phrases like “piriformis” and “Daily Undulating Periodization“. I could squat a respectable 1.5x my bodyweight. Of course I was going to light the fitness world ON FIRE! Then I got a job and some clients, and that’s when the timeless words of Operation Ivy began ringing in my brain 24/7. Yes, going to college was important. The education I received laid a solid foundation that will never rot. But, as my teachers and mentors warned, the Real World is different. You really only learn a thing by DOING that thing and making lots of mistakes and adapting along the way. As it stands, I’m a decent at what I do. Another 10-15 years and I’ll be great. That’s just the way it works, kids.
- How You Do Anything Is How You Do Everything. Or, as a pre-Smooth Carlos Santana once said, “If you’re going to sweep the floor, sweep it better than anybody in town”. Giving a damn seems to be a lost art. I know trainers who refuse to clean equipment or put away stray weights because they feel such behaviour is beneath them. I’ve seen floor staff who were hired for the specific purpose of helping members with their queries shrug off questions in favour of staring at their cell phones. Now, I’m no angel. There are moments when I’ve behaved wrongly or acted like a brat. It’s not about being perfect; it’s about doing your best more often than not because the job you’re doing is one you love and are excited about and hope to be successful at for many years to come. How you handle minor, tedious tasks is a direct reflection of your commitment to the craft.
- You Better Have a Plan B, C, D, & E. It should go without saying, but it’s worth pointing out: commercial gyms are public spaces, meaning at any time of the day there will be a group of varying sizes using the facilities. If the program you’ve developed relies solely on performing barbell squats as the first exercise of the day, you run the very real risk of wasting a large chunk of your client’s time. Time they’ve paid a not insignificant amount of money for. Instead of waiting for a power rack to become free, why not try some leg presses? (I know, I know — the leg press machine is for sissies blahblahblah.) If the leg press is in use, go with heavy goblet squats. Or, pre-fatigue the legs with some split squats until the crowd thins out (Pro Tip: this option also allows you to dazzle your client by using a fancy term like “pre-fatigue”!). The point here is, unless you’re working in a private gym your plans will rarely pan out perfectly. Professional trainers should know how to act on the fly and give their clients a solid workout, equipment be damned. I once worked out with a trainer who kicked my ass using nothing more than a medium-strength resistance band and a yoga mat. THAT is a professional.
- Simplicity Rules. Not everyone needs to master the fine art of the power snatch (cue childish snickering…). Olympic lifts (the snatch, the clean and jerk. Man, I love these slow-mo Hookgrip videos) are great for developing power and super yoked traps, but they’re technically demanding and the steep learning curve can make them an inefficient choice for a one-hour training session. For non-athletes, modified O-lifts like the clean-grip hanging high pull provide all the benefits without taking years to perfect. When selecting exercises for your clients, efficiency and effectiveness come first. The temptation to show off your coaching skills can be strong, but you must resist at all costs. The last thing you want is to injure a client by having them perform complicated movements when a simpler alternative exists.