Saturday, April 9, 2011

Does Your Personal Trainer Know Squat?

Is your personal trainer qualified? How experienced are they? How can you know before committing to a long-term agreement? These are all questions that clients looking to hire a personal trainer have or should have.

Personal trainers hold a great deal of responsibility in their hands, as they "direct" their clients how to exercise safely and effectively. Personal training can be a lucrative career too, with some trainers charging as much if not more than doctor or lawyer consultation rates.

It is unlikely that you would hire a lawyer or a doctor strictly on heresy, popularity or if they "looked the role" but rather you would spend a good deal of time researching his or her credentials, track record and education. So why if you're going to pay a personal trainer equivalent fees should choosing an exercise professional be any different?

Rather than re-hash the details of the typical "How to Choose a Personal Trainer" cliche, this article provides the lay consumer just two helpful pieces of information to help when deciding on how to choose a personal trainer.

Grade the trainer's qualifications

A personal trainer is an exercise professional so their credentials should demonstrate this. Check to see if the trainer has had a formal education in exercise science, physiology or sports medicine.

Exercise is about science and is grounded firmly in the fields of anatomy, physiology and nutrition. Each field complements and builds on the other. Even the most experienced (or well-built!) personal trainer cannot fake knowledge he does not have. A thorough understanding of these fields is essential to effective and safe exercise instruction and is unlikely to be gained in a weekend or even a multiple week study course.

The client looking to hire a personal trainer should also check the certifying organization. Currently the most respected credentials are offered by the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association), NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine), ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) and ACE (American Council on Exercise).

Some certifying bodies such the NSCA require certain educational requirements to be completed before sitting for the exam. An example is the NSCA's Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), which requires a bachelors degree in a related field to sit for the exam.

Grade the trainer's experience

An experienced and well-educated exercise professional can easily recognize others on par with themselves simply by observing the manner in how they work with their client and by watching the client's exercise technique.

But what about the casual exerciser who knows nothing of exercise or fitness? How can they discern the small details that give clues to a trainer's experience and quality of instruction? After all, certification only means that the personal trainer passed a written exam.

The answer is that it is very tricky for a layperson to judge personal trainers themselves from simple observation and as a result, may rely too heavily on the opinion of others.

Don't get me wrong there is nothing more valuable to a personal trainer than a good reputation and "word of mouth", but an informed consumer looking for a quality exercise professional should do a little more homework.

While there may be dozens of time consuming and complicated ways to assess a personal trainer's instruction quality and experience, this article describes a single test that will give the client a basic insight before committing to a contract or agreement. A client should not be embarrassed or scared to use this test; it is the full right and privilege of the client to interview and consult with the trainer before committing on a long-term or contractual basis.

The importance of the squat

The squat is a very functional movement that mimics everyday tasks such as lifting and getting out of the seated position. The squat is also quite a complex movement to both learn and teach and must be performed correctly with optimal technique to ensure safety and effectiveness.

Consider the importance of instructing safe technique in the squat. A loaded bar resting on a client's back places them in a compromising position, opening the door to the possibility of a crippling injury. A personal trainer then needs to be particularly attentive to detail when their client performs such an exercise.

The squat test then is a good means of roughly assessing the trainer's instructional ability and experience.

How can I use the squat test for grading my personal trainer?

If you can do it before signing with the trainer, try to observe him or her instructing other clients in the performance of a squat. Does the trainer carefully observe the client's technique (in a mirror if spotting) and offer pointers if necessary or does he or she look around or out the window and seem indifferent? As I mentioned, a squat can be a dangerous exercise to perform, especially for the inexperienced exerciser so attentiveness to detail is essential here.

If you are unable to observe the personal trainer's technique beforehand, request a free consultation and during this time have him or her instruct you in the performance of a body weight squat (even if you hate squats and never plan on doing them as part of an exercise routine, request that the trainer observe your technique and offer pointers as if it were a barbell loaded squat).

In either situation, if the observed client's technique demonstrates the following pointers, or if the personal trainer confidently makes mention of most or all of them, it indicates a good working knowledge in how to teach and ensure safety and correct form in the squat.

If the trainer passes the squat test, the experience and skill they demonstrate will most likely transfer to the instruction of other exercises too.

Here are some of the most important pointers for safe and effective performance of the back squat:

· The bar rests on a platform base of the lower neck and shoulders

· The feet shoulder/hip width apart and very slightly toed out; the heels should only be placed on blocks if the instructor observes the heels rising off the floor in the decent (tight calf muscles)

· The lifter inhales before the descent and holds his/her breath (kudos if the instructor mentions avoiding the "Valsalva Maneuver"* here)

· The legs "buckle" under control - like "sitting down in a chair"

· As the knees bend, they remain directly in line with the toes and do not move past the toes

· The spine remains straight and very close to vertical throughout the entire movement (a slight "hole" is allowed in the lower back, but it is essential that the upper back does not "round")

· The chest remains up and out (extra points if the instructor mentions keeping the gaze straight ahead or slightly above to prevent spinal rounding)

· The back of the head remains approximately parallel to a vertical line from the back of the heels - which remain flat on the floor

· The bar tracks a near vertical line throughout the movement while "pressing with the heels"

· The client exhales through the "sticking point" 

(Your flexibility may limit the performance of a perfect squat but the pointers are still valid).

While a client must consider the other attributes of a personal trainer such as personality and rapport, it is important to have some means of measuring his or her experience and credentials before making a decision to commit to a contract or long-term agreement. Hopefully this article has provided some very basic information for the lay fitness consumer to be a slightly more "informed" one.

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