Evidence-based practice works reasonably well in areas such as medicine and psychiatry where practitioners are academically trained and the industry in which they operate is properly regulated. Such professionals are research-trained and possess post-graduate qualifications.
And then we have fitness, a vocation. Fitness professionals do not undergo an academic program of study to qualify. There are no academic upgrades after their training and, as such, personal trainers will likely not appreciate the power of parametric versus non-parametric statistics or the difference between a t-test and an ANOVA test of statistical difference let alone the concepts accuracy and reliability or, indeed, external validity in terms of research design. In fact, without formal training a personal trainer would unlikely appreciate the value of a meta-analysis to guide their practice, for example, over a small-scale research study with only limited subject numbers.
This is not a criticism of a personal trainer’s background or training. But it is a very good reason why we should not attempt to become an evidence-based profession.
I realise people with an academic background are posting online about the value of evidence-based practice. But my point is that this can be dangerous. It can be dangerous because it opens up scenarios where a trainer reads a conclusion from a journal or believes what a specific group say is evidence-based to be evidence-based without questioning it and change their practice accordingly.
Single studies should not change one’s approach or practice. The trouble is, they are! We are experiencing constantly changing messages about how to train, lose weight and eat. People pick and choose “research” to support their approach and anyone observing the fitness industry with some perspective would be able to see, we are getting worse not better especially in this information-age in which we live and operate.
Even well-trained researchers with post-graduate qualifications often struggle to critique research sufficiently to create any kind of conclusive implication for practice and have to be particularly aware nowadays of who is sponsoring research, especially in the area of nutrition. It is, therefore, highly unlikely a level 3 personal trainer will be able to sort this problem either.
I don’t believe personal trainers should be told to be evidence-based because I do not believe they are able to be so. Personal Trainers have other awesome skills, just not research skills in the main.
Of course, I realise the reasoning behind wanting personal trainers to become evidence-based. It is to improve standards and prevent random protocols and unjustified approaches with clients. And evidence-based practice doesn’t just relate to research evidence, of course. I applaud efforts of those trying to improve the practice of personal trainers and who wish to do so in a more robust way than has occurred in the past.
But here’s the challenge as I see it. We live in the 21st Century where most of what personal trainers are learning after they qualify is in closed Facebook groups. Here, people with the loudest voice get heard. Here most, but not all, requests for help end up in bad-mouthing argumentative, ego-fuelled exchanges by those, I assume, without enough paying clients to occupy their time. We have extreme approaches to nutrition with the primary rationale often being that it worked for me (or sometimes for a handful of clients) and so it must work for you, too. And this must change.
The general public is confused. They are unsure what to do and we have no coherent message for them, as an industry that is. We, of course, want it to be better. We want less mavericks doing their thing within the industry at least. We’ll always have celebrities doing their thing outside our industry. But, within our industry we must become better.
I am academically trained. I do possess a research-based master’s degree. I have taught sports science and, for my sins, research methods and statistics to undergraduate students as a lecturer at Liverpool University. And I still say evidence-based practice should not be the goal for the fitness industry. So, what is?
I think a far better way to go is Principle-Based Practice. In other words, we need to adopt some underlying principles for what we do as a profession. Principles are stronger than evidence. Evidence changes and can be skewed and manipulated. Principles, however, are rock-solid. They are based on science and compelling evidence that has stayed the test of time. They relate to examples of best practice and empower those guided by them to be creative in applying them and in personalised ways to best serve their clients and client groups.
I have been in the fitness industry for over two and a half decades. I have been a trainer in a gym. I have owned my own studio and run my own mobile PT business. I run the European Institute of Fitness, an international personal training school with graduates across 6 continents and in more than 30 countries around the world. Our courses offer 160 taught hours of face-to-face education as students qualify with 15-20 hours of real-life PT clinic experience with members of the public during their training.
Our success rate in terms of enabling lasting careers in fitness is unprecedented and I continue to coach many personal trainers in business, run business development retreats and absolutely love fitness education. Having spent my entire adult life in academic and then vocational education, I have taken the liberty of offering some principles below.
Principles to guide our practice.
1] Do no harm. A fitness professional should be a health professional first and foremost. This shows up in an underlying philosophy, to do no harm. There should be no extreme approaches, instead trainers should manoeuvre within the realms of moderation to meet different clients’ goals. In the longer term all clients should be encouraged to be strong (muscular strength and endurance training), be aerobically fit (steady-state and interval-based cardiovascular training) and supple (stretching and mobility work). Trainers should avoid only working within limited modalities i.e. only encouraging strength training or cross fit training, for example. Clients should experience progressive overload to meet their needs with corrective exercise to support the development and maintenance of good form and correct posture.
Any trainer allowing their client to continue increasing their weight with a limited range of motion, poor posture or faulty technique would, therefore, not be meeting this principle. Any trainer only engaging their clients in HIIT workouts and never encouraging steady-state cardio work, again, would not be aligned to this principle.
Any trainer taking an extreme nutritional approach would not be working within the guidance this principle offers. Trainers should not be allowed to qualify only online since this would also introduce practically insufficient training to ensure this principle is met.
2] Keep things as simple as possible but no simpler. Creating programs that clients can stick to is the name of the game. When it comes to both exercise and nutrition simplicity is key. Clients not only more likely buy from marketing messages that are clear so that they understand, but they better adhere to help and guidance that is concise, compelling and easy to apply.
The reality is most clients are time poor and often confused about what best to do to meet their goals. Therefore, time efficient as well as cost-effective solutions have tremendous value. This shows up as compound-based program design, half-hour and 45-minute session delivery times and a more collaborative style when it comes to developing activity and eating plans.
Collaborative approaches that take an expert-expert stance that recognise the expertise clients bring to the table with regards to their superior appreciation for their own preferences, personal resources, barriers and resolve respects their critical role in a more client-centred approach. The key is to create solutions for clients. And when all focus is directed to answering the fundamental question what do clients need to accomplish the outcomes they seek, simple but effective strategies work best.
3] Results come from what a client does when their trainer is not around. Understanding motivation and learning to influence behaviour change is critical. This includes what clients do in terms of exercise on those days of the week they do not have contact with their trainer as well as what they eat and drink, of course, daily. This shows up in terms of being a coach not just trainer, an integral component of a 21st century personal trainer skill-set. Without this ability, a personal trainer is little more than an extension of a gym instructor, a major floor in current training provider and awarding body models of personal training and provision of education to qualify as a personal trainer in the first place. A personal trainer is NOT an advanced gym instructor. In order for personal training to establish itself properly, a major paradigm shift is needed (part two). Until then personal trainers will continue to qualify with minimal training, experience or confidence around this fundamental principle of good practice.
4] No food is the enemy. Demonising carbohydrates, sugar, fats or any food group is not a professional approach. Teaching clients the importance of energy balance, guiding macro-nutrient consumption and finding balance within the realms of moderation is. This is simple and mostly clients know what they should rather be eating and drinking but just don’t do it. This principle requires that trainers focus more on coaching sensible changes in what clients eat and drink rather than attempting to change their diet for them. Helping the public with nutrition must not be the role only of a dietitian or nutritionist. A personal trainer is positioned perfectly to be able to influence and guide a client’s eating and drinking behaviours.
Currently, training provider content is stuck in much criticised UK guidelines designed for the masses, criticised by the masses. There is a very specific role for the personal trainer to fill. It is one orientated around coaching and macro-nutrient management. Unfortunately, many trainers have taken it upon themselves to create their own diet programs and meal plans for clients. The only way a personal trainer can adhere to all the principles of this guide is to work collaboratively with their clients as a coach not nutritionist, helping them identify areas they wish to address, helping them make modifications accordingly and moving towards an altered total calorific intake and refined macro-nutrient profile only. This should be the game plan of a personal trainer. The vast majority of the world’s population who are currently overweight suffering with poor health as a consequence would benefit tremendously as a consequence of getting help to better manage their total calorie intake and refine their macro-nutrient balance within the confines of moderation. This also meets principle no 2 about simplicity.
5] Play the long game. Even when working with clients on shorter-term goals always remain focused on longer-term behaviour change. This shows up with clients owning their own problems and solutions and, as their trainer, adopting the role of facilitator of change, not instructor of exercise. We are running the risk of being just another diet club. We criticise diets as being short-term focused and instead, all too often, prescribe a low carb, high protein way of eating loaded with daily HIIT workouts instead. This is little more than a modern-day diet plan.
If the intention as an industry and as an individual is to have a positive impact on the health and well-being of our country, indeed the world, we have to learn to think bigger picture than creating just short-term gains for clients. Of course, it is difficult. We know that the public at large have come to demand short-term fixes. But we must step up. If not us, who? If not now, when?
Principle no 1 was about cause no harm. Should a client lose weight and then fall off the fitness bandwagon, return to their old eating habits and crash out of the program we are causing harm. Every time a client yo-yo's their self-esteem takes a hit. We must focus on building longer-term solution into our practices even when clients start with shorter-term objectives. We just must.
6] Be a leader. Find your voice and help others find theirs. And fix problems. Create, take to market, and deliver products that are solutions to people’s problems and thrive. So much of what makes a trainer great is about leadership. Our industry, and the world, needs leaders. And leaders are principle-based! Leadership is about finding your why and sharing it with others so that others too can feel part of your movement. It is about building your practice with a strong sense of purpose. It is, indeed, about finding your voice and, in the process, helping others find theirs.
Really, fitness is not the end goal for your clients. It is not. Fitness is a vehicle through which people can live happier and healthy lives. Indeed, through fitness people can learn to thrive and enjoy spectacular lives. We are the most powerful people on the planet. But my word we need to learn to use our power to better serve others. And I hope these principles serve you.
7] Make clients say wow. Don’t just strive for customer satisfaction. Make clients say wow. Wow exists in the gap between what they expect and what they actually receive. And clients will not likely appreciate wow in what you are doing for them technically. That is to say, the above principles help ensure a great result, but clients appreciate a great experience. This means managing their whole experience with you from first contact, on-boarding and induction, behind the scenes support, in-session client care and basically, treating them as a person on a journey not a client being trained is key.
Get this right and clients will not only engage in the experience with you as they progress towards their desired goals but will appreciate progress in and of itself.
You see the intended outcome they started out with will not be the end result for them at all. Weight loss or improved fitness is never the end goal. It is a means to an end. And that end is usually much more connected with feeling happy, confident and more able to enjoy the things they are more able to enjoy again as a consequence. And you don’t need to be certain weight or to have a specific level of fitness to be happy. What makes us happy, all of us, is progress.
When we sense progress we inherently feel happy and, therefore, will change our perception of what we thought was the end goal. This final principle is all about ensuring a wow experience for each and every client. Do this well and your business, this industry and people all around the world will thrive. Without embracing this principle clients will focus only on the end result. This will either leave them falling by the wayside en-route or feeling empty and unfulfilled when they do. People start wanting a result but finished enjoying the experience!
I believe it would also help for fitness professionals to be guided by examples of best practice. There are enough organisations and individuals around the world that have been consistently changing people’s lives through fitness that could be identified as operating by such principles that would support emerging trainers.
Right now, the divide between “training provider” and “leading fitness professional” is huge. There is absolutely no mention of any leading organisations or individuals already doing what a training provider’s training is supposed to be teaching them. And the industry at large and especially the most established professionals have adopted an extreme opposition to the poor training standards that are qualifying new trainers.
This must change. There can be healthy debate and even disagreement between leading professionals and awarding bodies and training providers, but we must close this gap. Awarding bodies and registry bodies asking employers what they want is not the way either. The vast majority of trainers who survive 5 years or more in the industry are NOT employed. They are self-employed. This means an employer’s voice should only be minimal. It is also a concern their voice will likely represent the needs of their organisations only, and not the needs of the industry.
If training standards do not improve and personal trainers continue to churn and burn from this level 3 conveyor belt as they are, then employers must step up. There is a responsibility whether deploying a self-employment PT model or employed one to serve the industry. Like it or not most trainers come into the industry ill prepared for the role. The reason being their poor training. The cost being the industry and those the industry serves. This isn't OK. Then standards must improve and employers must step up.
The third corner in my diagram is professional experience. Of course in the absence of professional experience, principles and examples of best practice can serve trainers well. But with experience, especially when guided by principle-based practice, trainers can become increasingly more able to refine their practice and establish themselves as much needed leaders.
At the centre to this triangle is the importance I have put on clients themselves. Clients possess great expertise about themselves, their lives, their relationships and their situation and environment and this is critical if lasting solution is to be established. This expert-expert model is pivotal if the fitness industry is to step up and be counted in the midst of one the most serious epidemics to hit the modern world caused by inactivity and poor food choices with symptoms such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and coronary heart disease.
To clarify the dominant helping model in the world is that of an expert-client relationship where the expert is the person with all the knowledge to teach and instruct another, their client. This is a power relationship where the expert has authority over the recipient based on their role i.e. that of doctor, clinical psychologist, dietitian, physiotherapist, osteopath and even teacher.
The trouble with this model is two-fold. First, it is a model of dis-empowerment. It takes away responsibility from the client and, certainly today, people have learned to avoid responsibility, seeking instead someone else to fix their situation. However, the fix in this instance is a lifestyle change. It is to re-evaluate one’s priorities and create new eating and exercise habits. Clients are, therefore, the experts when it comes to their own life, their priorities and ultimately their habits. Second, such advice-giving often provokes a yes, but response. You see there is a part of the human brain that is designed to constantly scan the environment for threat. It is ultimately what keeps us safe. It is unconscious i.e. occurs without us realising it and is, therefore, the gate-keeper for change. It sees change as a threat. It does so especially when strong reward pathways are built up in our brains. A reward pathway is a rehearsed and rewarded pattern of behaviour reinforced by the release of dopamine. Examples, of course, include the consumption of fast-foods, sugary products and fat. Equally, the consumption of foods associated with emotional states can become quite a dependency. If food and drink have been used somewhat as a crutch or a coping mechanism for some kind of stress in one’s life then hearing an adviser tell them it will be or needs to be taken away will activate this threat response i.e. result is significant resistance to the well-intended advice. In other words the approach in the main doesn’t work very well for habit formation and lifestyle change.
Conversely, this expert-expert model where the helper (you) holds only half of the expertise in the room is one of empowerment. When we work more collaboratively with clients and avoid assuming we know what is best for them and, instead, use our expertise in exercise and nutrition alongside their expertise in themselves, in their lives and in how they might implement the expertise you can share with them, we get a much better result.
This approach that I speak of is not commonplace in our industry. It is not easy to adopt but is very necessary if the goal is to create a healthier and fitness country, indeed world. If we wish for people across the world to feel well, responsible, empowered and happier in themselves through fitness, we must change. And we need to change now.
I genuinely believe personal training is the most powerful role on earth when it comes to changing lives. Sure, surgeons can do some good, prime ministers and presidents have some power. But a Personal Trainer, like no other, can shape the lives of others for a lifetime!
Don’t you think it’s time we made a stand?
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