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My Life as a Trainer: 10 Years, 10 Lessons

My Life as a Trainer: 10 Years, 10 Lessons
Craig Valency, CSCS

I met my wife Christa in a martial arts studio, and it was love at first fight! Any martial artist knows that a black belt only signifies that you’ve learned the basics and are now in a position to truly understand, master, and apply the art. You have to be fully literate in the language before you can begin the journey of learning.

I’ve been a trainer for ten years. The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know. I used to have all the answers. Now, I have more questions than answers. But I also feel more empowered, less judgmental, and better able to use my intuition. There is no substitute for experience. After more than a decade in the trenches, I am finally realizing that I now know enough to effectively understand, master, and apply my art. The 10,000-hour rule usually takes about 10 years to kick in, so it seems appropriate to reflect on my craft at this time. Here are ten of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

1. Humility

When I was fresh out of the gate, I was eager to soak up as much knowledge as possible from the talented, seasoned trainers I shadowed. I had so much to learn. After about a year, an amazing thing happened– I knew everything! I was giving advice to experienced trainers about the latest and greatest exercises. After all, I had earned my CSCS certification and attended the PerformBetter 3-Day Summit!

With time everything changed. I realized that there were, in fact, things I did not know. I discovered that many of the iron clad laws I had preached were not always valid. I was forced to either dig in my heels to prove that I was right, or to change and admit my mistakes. Only with humility could my mind be open to learning. I have been and will be wrong again. Now, I try to temper my pronouncements with a healthy dose of skepticism. Ten years later, I am picking the brains of the talented trainers I work with every day and I’m still learning. At FQ10, there is a huge sign right above the door. It serves as a constant reminder to me: “Be humble. Be hungry.”

2. Continuing Education: Go Deep, Not Wide 

As a new trainer, I was eager to continue my education by attending seminars. I paid my $300, put on my best Under Armour gear, and eagerly attended as many sessions as possible. I excitedly collected a truckload of new exercises, and I got every client on board with the latest craze. 

Of course it’s helpful to learn new exercises, and seminars serve as great introductions to fresh methods and strategies. But the secret to being an exceptional trainer is to go deep. At a seminar, I’d rather choose a couple of speakers I really like, meet them, and ask a few questions. I buy their books, DVDs, or equipment. I follow them online and become well versed in a specific method and philosophy of training. Lectures and hands-on presentations are helpful; but I’ve learned the nuances and the purposes of different training methods by going for depth, rather than breadth, as I study. I take my new knowledge and add it to my toolbox. Over time, I have integrated what has worked for me and created my own personal style, which continues to grow and evolve.

3. Training is Teaching  
You’ve invested a lot of time, effort, and money into your continuing education. Don’t keep it all to yourself! Teach it to your clients. If you can teach something, you know it. I’ve realized that teaching my clients, rather than just training them, solidifies my understanding and pushes me to even deeper levels of learning. It also plays a valuable role in keeping clients engaged.

Anyone can work a client into the ground and create a near death experience. You don’t need a certification to do that. If my only job is to make my clients sweat, then I’ll be one of the first luxuries to go when money gets tight. A $15.00 Zumba video can accomplish the same goal! If, on the other hand, I’ve been an effective teacher, they are more likely to value the services they are receiving. In my ten years of training, I’ve learned that teaching the why results in buy-in and increased adherence. My clients need to know that, like any good teacher, I have a plan. Rather than keep my knowledge to myself, I’ve learned to talk about the rationale behind doing joint mobility work before barbell squats, for example. I explain my periodized programming plans so they can accept that not every workout needs to be a drill-and-kill fest. When clients know the purpose of what they are doing, they are more likely to stay motivated.

4. Clients Don’t Always Know Their Own Strength
Clients are often unsure about what weight to use for a given exercise. They don’t always know how much to increase the weight for each set, or what their goals are over time. That’s why I’m there –to tell them! They also may not be aware that they are performing above average. If my seventy-year old female client is dead-lifting with a 50 pound dumbbell in each hand, I need to let her know that the typical forty-year old struggles to lift that same weight. One of my clients noticed that, over time, I have continued to increase her weight. She asked, “How much weight do I need to lift anyway?” I realized that she viewed the weight increases as steps toward a final goal weight –an ending point. This was my opportunity to teach. We talked about sarcopenia and the need for progressive overload. We discussed her need to continue increasing the weight in order to prevent muscle loss. This gave her a real life purpose and increased her buy-in.

Clients and trainers often err on the side of light weights. At times, I’ve also underestimated a client’s power, balance, or agility. If I don’t push a client enough, I am doing him a disservice. I need to push my clients beyond where they would go on their own. On the other hand, some clients overestimate their own strength and put themselves at risk of injury. As a trainer, it’s my goal to find the sweet spot. I need to test the waters, but know the limits. That’s where the art of training comes in.

5. Find Your Niche
Any good trainer knows how to train the average client and the most common special populations. I learned early on that I would need to be a specialist in order to stand out. Finding my niche was easy. Actually, it found me. I had played tennis my whole life. I also had five years of experience working with kids at the YMCA. Before I knew it, I became a junior tennis specialist. I started with one fourteen-year old ranked junior tennis player. The next thing I knew, coaches were sending me their juniors. I ended up training the top ranked nine year old in the world as well as an NCAA singles tennis champion. Your niche should be your passion –something that moves you. If you look closely, your niche may already be standing at the door waiting for you to open it.

6. Complacency Kills

When I start out with a new client, I ask tons of questions, do informative assessments, and hold him accountable for his lifestyle habits. I do whatever I can to make an impact on his life. Then three years go by, and we find ourselves in a static routine of sweat, shower, repeat. Sound familiar?

I typically work with a client for one to three hours per week. What kind of impact am I making on the other 166 hours of his week, when he’s not with me? Client accountability programs are key for making real, lasting impact. It’s my job to provide resources, progress monitoring, and a high level of energy and engagement that carries over into the rest of his week. I need to show my clients that I care about them and their success. Long-term clients deserve just as much energy, attention, and accountability as new clients.

7. Connect with Clients
Client retention is more about personal connection than technical know-how. Even an excellent trainer, who focuses on his client like a laser beam, can miss the mark if he is not relatable. Clients are sometimes intimidated by trainers and the gym culture in general. I’ve learned that opening up about my own struggles with diet, exercise, and stress management can be an effective way to put clients at ease and connect with them.

When I begin a session, I usually have a specific program in mind. I’ve got a plan, and I’m sticking to it! Unfortunately, sticking to the plan isn’t always the best option. The key to connecting with clients is actually listening to them. If a client is particularly stressed out or exhausted that day, perhaps it’s appropriate to modify the program to better suit what she needs. Sometimes it’s helpful to shift my overall approach to show the client that I’m responsive to her needs as an individual. The human-to-human connection builds a solid foundation of trust.

8. The Power of Feedback

As a new trainer, I was often guilty of verbal overload. When working with clients, I gave way too many instructions about how to do an exercise and way too many corrections when it was being done incorrectly. Clients can quickly become overwhelmed and discouraged with this approach. I’ve since learned that when it comes to feedback, less is usually more. Now, I give no more than two tips at a time. “Chest-up. Unlock your knees,” is more effective than a laundry list of advice. If I don’t let a client feel his mistakes, he won’t have a benchmark of what he was doing incorrectly. If it’s something I’ve corrected it before, I wait for a while and see if he self corrects. I’ve learned that it’s better to give the client a chance to succeed before telling him what he’s doing wrong.

The best cuing tip I ever got was to complement the proper technique, even if the client isn’t doing it! “Nice job. You’re remembering to drive with your hips and keep your back straight!” As if by magic, that rounded back becomes straight as a board. The client wants to reinforce his solid technique! If I continue cuing, and the client still doesn’t get it, it’s time to find a new cue. It’s probably me, not him! Everyone is teachable. It’s my job to teach.

9. Know Your Biases
If you’re a hammer, every problem is a nail. We all have biases. A powerlifter may want all of his clients to squat, bench press, and dead lift as much weight as possible for one or two reps. A marathoner may feel that endurance training is the only true (very long) path. A trainer with a background in rehab may want to make sure that the first forty minutes of every program consists of scapular retractions and birddogs. It is all too easy to believe that one specific approach has a corner on the truth. In reality, goals, injury history, body type, gender, and age all play a role in what works or doesn’t work for an individual client. Olympic weightlifting may not work for my eighty-three year old with three spinal fusions, but power training is crucial for maintaining fast twitch muscle fibers. Knowing that, I can have him toss or slam a med ball instead.

I still have biases (I’ve been called Mr. Corrective Exercise Guy more than once!). Everyone does. The key is not to get rid of them completely –they play an important role in shaping our philosophies and approaches –but rather to be self-aware enough to know what they are and to approach each individual with an open mind.

10. Train like an IDEA Personal Trainer Of The Year!
I have the privilege of working with both a former and a current IDEA trainer of the year –Todd Durkin and Brett Klika. Working with them has created a paradigm shift in my way of thinking and training. I look at the intensity, dedication, hard work, and commitment they have every day. If I were to fill out an application for Trainer of the Year, how many of the boxes could I check? If I want to be the very best at my craft, I should be using Trainer of the Year standards as a guidepost. You may not be Trainer of the Year (yet!), but you can be a world-class trainer if you hold yourself to those same standards.

Recently, I was watching a reality show in which secret cameras recorded restaurant employees at work. That got me thinking. What if every move I made was being filmed and my boss was watching? Would I be engaged, or would I be leaning on a machine yawning? Well, the cameras are always on. Clients, trainers, my boss, and potential new clients are constantly watching. Whether I like it or not, I’m on stage all day long. It’s up to me to make an impact.

Craig Valency, CSCS, is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA). He is a personal trainer at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, California. He is pursuing his Masters degree in Kinesiology at San Diego State University.

Craig specializes in youth fitness and strength and conditioning for junior tennis players. Craig is currently a consultant for the Steven’s Point School District in Wisconsin, where he is helping to design and implement movement-based assessments and curriculum for the K-12 physical education programs.

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