Education and learning opportunities are essential to a health and fitness professional’s development. Successful personal trainers, physical therapists, strength coaches, and athletic trainers have learned to utilize a variety of sources for their educational information. In turn, they are better equipped to serve their clients, patients, and athletes throughout a variety of circumstances and towards results.
Regardless of what your title or role is within the fitness industry – your career depends upon your ability to learn new information, understand it, and then repackage it for consumption by others. Unlike our clients and patients, simply learning something is not enough.
A fitness professional must learn with the intent to redistribute. We must sort through good and bad information as well as recognize the differences between evidence-based and experience-based information. Ultimately, the goal is to synergize all that has been learned. To build a strong, but movable structure upon the foundational bedrock of science.
Our ability to deliver results while operating with the highest integrity requires an active investment into all types of information, a refined filter for recognizing low-value or dangerous information, and the ability to deliver all that we know in the simplest package/message.
To do all this, you must first understand the two primary sources of education and information in fitness:
Verifiable and higher efficacy data is known as evidence based. College textbooks, accredited certifications, and articles within peer-reviewed journals are specific examples of evidence-based education. This type of information is also known as objective due to its emphasis on provable facts and numbers.
Some critical components of evidence-based information are:
2. Citation of References
3. Maximal Elimination of Personal Bias
The best trainers utilize credible, evidence-based information as their bedrock – the unbreakable, non-negotiable science that allows them to consider the million permutations of “it depends”. Topics such as anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, kinesiology, bioenergetics, and more serve as the strong base to a fitness professional’s education. Even assessments and periodization strategies fit into this category.
Surely some of the “truths” of these fields will adapt with time, and some may even be debated between two expert resources in a public or private forum. Still, this level of evidence-based science is more than enough to empower a fitness professional to positively impact a client’s life. This is always the goal.
Driven by interpretations of facts (articles and lectures), memories of events (such as training sessions), and personal bias (n=1 effect) – experience-based information is rich in context and sensory information while lacking academic esteem. This type of information is also known as subjective due to the unique approach each person takes to the same task.
Some critical components of experience-based information are:
1. Clear and Articulate Takeaway
2. Results Proven Across Broader Population
3. Acknowledgement of Potential Bias
4. May Lack Clear Scientific Justification
The best trainers also utilize credible, experience-based information to influence their thinking. While not as sturdy as the bedrock material (evidence based), experiences provide context, character, and malleability. In this way, experience-based information is like wooden logs – capable of being stacked together to build an incredible structure, but also quite susceptible to forces if attacked in the right way.
This experience-based information is often passed down professional-to-professional by the way of a formal event, articles and blogs, and interpersonal communication. For most trainers this is the primary form of learning beyond their formal certifications and education that was needed to launch their training career.
Program design, repetition tempos, coaching cues, corrective interventions, and even nutritional strategies largely fall under experiential information. Surely there is scientific research and peer-reviewed information on these topics, but that sort of data is often used to justify a position or opinion on a matter, instead of using the data to inform or adapt.
Together, these two sources empower trainers, coaches, and therapists throughout the industry to make the right decisions, at the right times, for the right clients, for the right reasons. It is the perfect blend of knowledge and experience that allows a trainer to individualize their programs, sessions, and related services to meet a client where they are.
THE EVIDENCE AND EXPERIENCE SPECTRUM
You could visualize these two sources of information as the ends of a spectrum. These ends represent the “extreme” emphasis of one type of information over another, such as only utilizing evidence-based information to inform training decisions. As one might expect, both “extremes” are undesirable positions for a fitness professional to place themselves in.
A fitness professional who relies too heavily upon evidence-based information might impress other peers with their knowledge but will likely struggle to translate textbook data sets into usable pieces of fitness information for the general population.
A fitness professional too reliant on experience-based information will likely make unsubstantiated claims, knowingly or unknowingly deceive their clients, and struggle to advance in their career due to an unstable foundational knowledge of the human machine.
Ideally, all should aim to be closer to the center of this spectrum – in the middle 20%. This freedom allows them to change their position based upon new data or experiences while remaining open and respectful of other considerations. The key is to discover if data is valuable enough to change your position.
Unfortunately, not all information or experience is valuable. In fact, some of it is downright horrible. To navigate these waters, a fitness professional needs be equipped with the appropriate mindset when they are learning new information – regardless of if it is from an evidence-based source or an experiential one.
SORTING THROUGH INFORMATION
There are many places that a fitness professional can look to learn new information and refine their craft. With the rise of social media platforms, personal websites, and at-home virtual certifications – now is the perfect time for every coach to level up and build their knowledge base. Yet, all opportunity possesses a risk. In this case, it is the risk of learning “bad information”, or worse, “dangerous information”.
BAD INFORMATION (2 TYPES)
POORLY SUPPORTED EXPERIENCES
Trainers often see their efforts as representative of a potential unknown truth (at least unknown to them). This occurs when a fitness professional’s experiences point to something working magically even when there is no objective data to support such a claim (yet). Often, these claims are an attempt at explaining results or leveraging commonly exchanged information that is not “quite” right. Personal bias is also a possibility.
Some examples include:
1.Cutting carbohydrates is the most effective way to lose body weight.
a. While not incorrect – science demonstrates its about even with general caloric restriction
2. Foam Rolling decreases an athlete’s readiness to lift, run and jump.
a. Foam rolling reduces kinesthetic apprehension and can improve performance if used appropriately in a warm-up sequence.
In the academic realm, otherwise known as evidence-based information – it is important to speak only on facts. This requires a person to focus primarily upon proven data points to justify decisions and courses of action.
For example, a trainer who has read a recent peer-reviewed journal may build their training programs around the latest science of time-under-tension or amended force-velocity curve statistics. In this trainer’s mind – nothing can go wrong because they have the scientific data available to justify their decisions and program. This can create a blindness to personalization and contextual awareness.
Some examples include:
1. Strictly following periodization principles for general population clients
a. While a yearly structure is nice, a normal person doesn’t have “seasons” like athletes.
2. Plyometric exercises are ideal neurological primers for post-activation-potentiation
a. Some clients have injuries or conditions (even fear) that prevent “twitchy” movements.
Put simply, dangerous information is the sort of coaching, hearsay and pseudoscience that can get someone hurt and potentially ruin (or end) their life. It ranges from the old-school doctor telling his aging client to stop lifting weights to prevent “excess strain” to the idiot Instagram influencer telling people to get UV light into their anus daily.
Dangerous information is telling people that they can eat anything they want so long as they eat less calories than they burn, and it is also telling people that they shouldn’t squat or deadlift (ever) because it hurts their knees.
It’s also cherry-picking scientific studies for a claim that supports your supplement, your training methods, or even your college essay. It’s manipulating evidence-based claims to fit an agenda that is packaged and sold to the masses as “safe” and “verified”. Dangerous information is also using evidence to avoid having context-rich conversations or personalizing to meet a client where they are in the moment.
Dangerous information is how our industry keeps getting set backwards in the eyes of the public and governing bodies. It is the stain on an otherwise spotless piece of fabric. It is the deception that leads clients astray when they are most desperate for change and positive effect. It is the weight tied around our ankles as our industry tries to swim ashore in a world where the value of fitness and exercise is known, but rarely championed, as the single most influential lifestyle factor.
All successful fitness professionals know where to draw the line between bad and dangerous information. They can accept someone operating on less data, or too much data, but they can’t embrace someone who twists to push their personal agenda. Especially when that supplement, behavior, or exercise intervention could cause serious harm.
Thankfully, if you are reading this article, then you are one of the top 5% of our industry. Your commitment to development and your internal drive to do what is right by your clients means that another character doesn’t need to be wasted highlighting the risks of dangerous information.
It is possible though that you are sharing some “bad information” without knowing it. For that, we must regularly check ourselves, our beliefs, and our practices for accuracy.
MOVING TOWARDS GOOD INFORMATION
It is not uncommon, or wrong, for a trainer to say “bad information” from time-to-time. It’s only a problem when they know it is bad and continue doing it.
All of us have said something that was later proven wrong, partially incorrect, or at least lacking context.
To overcome this instance and move towards a better way of learning and distributing information, do the following:
1. Write down the top 5, 10, or even 25 things you regularly tell clients
a. Be sure to spread out these things across different disciplines and areas of emphasis
2. Schedule an 1–3-hour block during the week to “Check your Sources”
a. Explore your claims and experiences in scholarly search engines (google scholar, PubMed)
3. Write down key points that either confirm your position or challenge it
a. Repeat this process for all of your beliefs and claims
4. Schedule a separate 1–3-hour block in the following week to adjust and amend your positions
a. Look at all evidence-based information vs. your only experiences
5. Begin writing “statements of belief” that you keep on your private devices
a. Your written belief, links to sources, and possible refutes
6. Repeat this process quarterly (3 times per year)
With this process, a fitness professional can leverage evidence-based information and experience-based information to better inform their positions, and as such, better help their clients achieve results. The goal is ALWAYS to help our clients. But to do that we need to adjust our language.
The challenge for most trainers, coaches, and therapists is knowing how to deliver information to their clients via conversation, exercise programming, and various behavioral checklists. For far too many clients, their trainer is “too in the weeds” for them.
Lost in the science – this trainer is quick to reference studies and proven facts while easily forgetting that this human in front of them has two kids at home and a boss that demands the use of the Oxford comma. They overlook the emotional desire to simply make change…any change…so long as it works and its mostly painless.
For most clients, an adequate dose of simple, but consistent, interventions is all that is needed to achieve results. Regardless of what goal they might have – most personal training clients want to do enough to move the proverbial needle towards success, but not at the expense of enjoying the experience that is their scheduled training sessions.
This is where Occam’s razor is incredibly effective. It is the idea of avoiding “doing too much” or “saying too much”. It is quite literally the idea of simplicity being the best course of action. Honestly, it’s just a fancier way of saying keep it simple stupid.
All trainers need to use this proverbial razor to cut their information and knowledge down into tasty bites that a client wants and needs. It’s distilling out the hard-nose evidence, avoiding bias-rich experience, and instead building an enticing analogy, story, or short excerpt on what is happening and why…
“Miss Jones, we are having you eat some carbohydrates at night because some studies show you might achieve deeper sleep, while also powering up for our workouts at 6am”
“Mr. Rogers, we are doing these lateral lunges instead of squats for the next four weeks because I believe the muscles of your inner thigs and glutes are holding you back from that 315 you want.”
By applying the razor – we can close the loop. We can change lives.
We can make light weight feel heavy so that heavy feels light to our clients.
MAKE GOOD WITH YOUR INFORMATION
Like most things in life, a successful fitness professional works to position themselves towards the middle of the information spectrum. With the ability to utilize evidence or experience to guide decision making these fitness professionals are better prepared to help more people solve more problems – a critical ingredient for building a long career in this competitive space.
The best trainers, therapists, and coaches know that there is always a time and place for all information that they have encountered. They are masters of the “it depends” answer.
When speaking amongst peers there is should always be a health debate and consideration of information that isn’t already known (or understood in the specific context in question). But with clients – it is always simple and effective, thanks to Occam’s razor.
Which brings us to the analogy that makes all this make more sense:
All information is like spaghetti. There is good spaghetti, bad spaghetti, and probably some that could make you quite sick
Evidence-based spaghetti is that 5-star restaurant that pairs it with the perfect red wine and spoons finely grated parmesan over your dish when it’s served. The spaghetti is perfect. The ingredients are verified and proven to be the right ones…\
Experience-based spaghetti is your grandmother’s recipe – improvised and passed down through generations of survivors and immigrants from Rome. It’s different, might even feature a few things that evidence doesn’t support…
But you aren’t going to shut down your grandmother’s spaghetti just because it wasn’t done by a 5-star chef. And you aren’t going to reject the 5-star chef just because it isn’t how your grandmother did it.
So spin the noodles around your fork and dig-in, there is enough spaghetti (information) for us all to be fed.