The Commercial Gym Challenge

“I wonder how they sleep at night, when the sale comes first and the truth comes second.”  Price Tag by Jessie J.

Despite my frequent Planet Fitness jokes, I believe all gym models serve a purpose.

In my case, I’m happy they exist for three reasons (1) Gyms are available at every price point (2) Everybody could use a good trainer and (3) They keep the majority of the D-Bags out of the places that I like to train.

My very short history of commercial gyms…

At some point 25-30 years ago, a gym owner figured out that personal training was a potential income stream. Eventually the industrial age model of hiring the lowest level of competency took hold and people with minimal skill were hired as trainers.

This wasn’t particularly difficult to do since a high amount of the training was performed on specially designed machines.  Instruction (when based only on an external view) required a relatively low level of ability, essentially the ability to get someone to sit down and for the trainer to count to ten three times.

Machines also made it easy to get someone in and out of the gym fairly quickly.

Later came the creation of personal trainer credentialing organizations and countless specializations, which continues to this day.  While I will state that the certification itself doesn’t make the trainer, I will also state that some organizations provide an education, while others simply sell you a pretty piece of paper.

As an example of the latter, I once semi-seriously tried to bomb an online test and I still managed to pass the exam.  I could have been titled as a Golf Specialist had I just sent in the $100 payment.

Later came the ultimate business goal of having members pay for a service (a low monthly gym fee) without ever stepping foot in the gym.

Commercial Gyms have served as the entry point for the overwhelming majority of personal trainers.  The high-volume/low cost/continual drive  to sign new clients model has produced some stellar trainers, as well as burning quite a few potentially promising ones out.

“All the client really needs is to have their ass kicked for 30 minutes.” was the singular bit of professional advice I was given from a fellow commercial gym trainer back in 2012. I don’t know about them, but I didn’t become a trainer to kick someones ass.

How does someone even form that training philosophy, much less give it as professional advice? My immediate thought is the person doesn’t know what they don’t know, or they themselves are un-coachable. Then again, The Biggest Loser TV series had already been on the air for 8 years.  Perhaps this is where the trainer found their influence.

I’ve come up with a few thoughts….

Eighteen months is the long end of the average commercial trainers career at a single location. Many leave within six months or less.  This indicates that the average person viewed personal training as a gig, or something easy to do until something better comes along.  In fairness, some of these people were minimally qualified  (or even failed to meet the minimum job standards) and were given the job based on their ability to sell training packages and supplements. The fact that they never took the job seriously should come as no surprise.

The same 6-18 month period also includes trainers with higher levels of skills and qualification that either burned out or found greener pastures elsewhere.  Attempts to retain them on staff are often non-existant. Some trainers manage to exceed 18 months and maintain financially lucrative positions with a good balance of quality instruction.

Some gyms pay all starting trainers the same wage. I’m not entirely against this idea when taking the high turn-over rate into consideration, however there needs to be some financial incentive to retain the better qualified applicants.  

While I am all for learning the sales and business end of things, trainers with high monthly supplement sales or training package quotas (which turns trainers into part of the sales force) can result in trainers delivering less than their potential in the actual training of clients.

Gyms that invest in their trainers (in house education being an example) tend to acquire, and retain higher quality talents.  Unfortunately, there will always trainers that don’t take advantage of the opportunities in front of them.

My advice to young commercial trainers (as in newly certified, not necessarily your chronological age.)  Save your money, build yourself to your best potential, learn and continually develop your craft. Know when it is time to move on.

Remember that clients are more loyal to a GOOD TRAINER than they are a particular gym.

Remember that ANY JACKASS TRAINER can kick someones ass for 30 minutes, but only so many can improve someone life in 30 minutes.




Professional Education

“If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.”

Buckminster Fuller

Over the past two weekends I’ve had the fortune of attending the Dynamic Variable Resistance Training (DVRT) Restoration course taught by Josh Henkin and Jessica Bento and the Kabuki Movement Systems (KMS L1) course taught by Chris Duffin and the Kabuki Strength staff.

I’ve also divided my home education into more manageable chunks.  I am spending slightly less time on a given subject per day, but I am absorbing the material and putting things into practice with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

By receiving education from different schools of thought I’ve been able to see where thought leaders agree, and disagree on best approaches. I’ve also been able to change my opinions and approaches based on the latest best available evidence. (1)

I’m not afraid to disagree with well-known thought leaders. If I’m proven wrong I don’t feel bad about it.  To date, there has only been a few educators that I’ve never found myself in disagreement.

Corrective exercise is an example of something completely foreign to me in 2012. Six years later I no longer use the term corrective exercise and my approaches in initial screening and application differ completely from what I was originally taught.

SYNERGY the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.

Trends emerged when reviewing my previous education. I continually sought instruction related to strength,movement and the art of coaching. I’ve been consistent, and never too fast to jump into something.

My recent attendance of DVRT and KMS shared several similarities with each other, and with previous instruction from seemingly unrelated courses. I was quickly able to see where each course had a place along my training continuum. Both DVRT and KMS are additive, and provide far greater coaching flexibility when compared to a person that relies on a single method,tool or school of thought. (2)

I have also noted my educational gaps.  While not completely uneducated, I have not sought out deeper instruction in training special populations or nutrition beyond that which is within my scope of practice.  I believe the former gap will eventually be addressed possibly out of need, but out of intellectual curiosity if nothing else.

(1) I’m putting in an honest effort into not be as biased against (or for) a particular method or tool.  Despite a history of having made more jokes about BOSU balls than I have had hot meals, I actually sat down and jotted notes on potential applications of the device. If my gym had one I would go so far as to test my ideas on an n=1 basis. I regard this as an improvement of sorts as previously all I did was sneer at the BOSU and judge gyms based on number of visible BOSU balls.

PS Bosu Storage

The sight of this still triggers my GTFO reaction, and historically there has been plenty of good reasons why things are that way.


It can always be made better.

(2) Both DVRT and KMS have multiple influences from other sources and from noted thought leaders.  It’s when I hear the same concepts and names come up that my interest rises even further…and future education gets put on the To Do list.

Do Good Work


I came across a sad situation the other day.  Sad enough that it made me pause for a moment and consider the events that led to it.

My collection of Kettlebells had a layer of dust on them, and I realized that I hadn’t trained with them in quite some time.  This meant that entire loading strategies, physical benefits and technical challenges went untrained.

For a guy that trains in a Conjugate method, this is tantamount to leaving money unattended.  It’s even worse when you consider that the owner of said dusty bells has received education from both Dragon Door AND StrongFirst.

Two thoughts quickly formed: (1) There were reasons why kettlebells fell out of my training life. (2) There are reasons why they’ve come back.

Taking action on the latter, I’ve begun a short cycle of daily Kettlebell training, much like I would assign to a beginner but with greater potential for variation.

“DGW-30”  (Do good work-30 days)                                                                                                               

10 Swings,5 Squats,5 Presses 

It’s very simple and almost too easy looking. 

The primary goal is to Do Good Work everyday for 30 days, and to do each technique perfectly.  I believe that is the difference between “Do Good Work” and “Do The Work.”

The secondary goal is to develop each technique so that it would pass muster at an RKC/StrongFirst certification with a test sized bell.  Believe me when I say the passable technical standards of these organizations are not easy.

The load can be waved daily and technique variation can be changed whenever I feel the need. Currently I am training the standard versions of each technique as that is both the logical starting point, and supportive of the secondary goal.

For those that get bored easily…

Swing: Two-Hand Swing, One-Hand Swing,Hand-to-Hand Swings or Double Bell Swings. They can be done with a Deadstop, an overdriven eccentric phase or continuous swing, or in the case of double bells, with unequal loads per hand.

Squat: Goblet position, single bell offset, double bells in rack, double bells overhead, single or double bottoms up or with two different bell sizes.  I can pause the bottom position or alter how fast I squat in either direction.

Press: Single, Double, See-saw Presses,Single or Double press off the squat. I can also add accommodating resistance with a band or chain to increase starting or lockout strength and change the press position (standing,kneeling, sitting etc)

Thats over 25 variations off the top of my head, which provides months of possibilities. That said, to earn a variation one must possess the standard movement skill with both competence and control, or what I call “Good Work.”


Everything for Nothing.

I briefly considered coming out of retirement the other day.

I was contacted by an interested party that were highly motivated towards a goal, which based on the provided stats and timeframe was not unrealistic.

The party had done a considerable amount of research to narrow the field of potential hires.  They were specific on their list of non-negotiable minimum levels of experience and qualifications.

They requested I provide a recent photo of myself, which thankfully I didn’t do as you can’t be too careful these days. This was my first warning order that something odd could go down.


TRUTH TIME: Yes, I would have sent this as my pic.

Their requirements exceeded most jobs opportunities I’ve come across. They actually seemed more industry informed than a number of hiring managers I’ve met.


Minimum of 5yrs experience in 1-1 or 1-2 training with supporting documentation.

Certified and in good standing with one of three named credentialing agencies.

Specialization in sports training with supporting documentation, NSCA CSCS preferred, but EXOS or NASM PES were deemed acceptable.

“Nice to have,but not super essential” RYT200 Yoga or Mobility/Stretching education, Kettlebell certification.

Nothing outright unreasonable, but it does tilt to the side of over-qualification.  The CSCS/Sports training background in particular as the goal didn’t absolutely require that level of trainer education.

Although not explicitly stated, I can reasonably speculate that they also wanted a trainer to “look the part.”  I base my speculation on the fact they asked for a recent photograph.


About 15 minutes into the conversation is when things soured.

“You seem nearly ideal for us…but you’re expensive. We’re looking for someone a fifth your fee.” 

Mind you, the individual requires a trainer with 5yrs minimum experience, holds one of three selected certifications (none of which are inexpensive and all have relatively high failure rates), a preference to those with four-year degrees (NSCA CSCS requires a degree to sit for the examination) or a named alternatives,additional specialized education in multiple areas AND had to “look the part.”

Based on their set of minimums, I equaled or exceeded all the non-negotiables and fill  the “nice to haves.”  I have no idea if I “look the part”, but I haven’t broken any mirrors lately.

Quite frankly, the odds of finding a trainer that legitimately meets most, or all the non-negotiables and charges roughly the equivalent of dinner for three at McDonalds would be astronomically low.

I simply said that I’m not as ideal as they thought, and recommended they try their luck at Planet Fitness.  The person won’t have to go far to find less for less.

Squats and Sticks.

“I think everything works for about six weeks”  Dan John


(Credit: GMB)

For the past few weeks I’ve assigned myself a deep squat challenge. Every morning following direct work on my feet, I sit in the deep squat position for a predetermined amount of time. Every Monday I add 30 seconds to the timer. When the time the expires I proceed with my morning mobility routine and address whatever I feel needs attention. Some mornings require more work than others, but there are never any aches, pains or massive inabilities to attain certain positions.

Over the course of a training week I invest my time towards strength adaptations in maximum,explosive and repetitive displays of strength.  The squat challenge requires stillness, and controlling myself in a range not typically trained.

The endpoint will be holding the deep squat for 10 minutes. I’m taking the slow road and am just over half-way there. My loaded squat form has noticeably improved and my hips have a slightly wider range than they did before. I believe this type of work will help extend my training years and save me from some of the pains and aches mature lifter often face.

The internet is filled with various fitness challenges, and like anything else found on the internet somethings will be better than others, at least on an individual basis.

The ever-famous claim is usually “this challenges your body in a completely different way.” That’s a big claim, and a dose of skepticism is a good thing to have before one decides to jump (or squat) into things.

First you must realize that nearly anything could be a completely new challenge to your body if you are coming from a sedentary background. Even comically bad exercise routines will lead to challenges and adaptations for an amount of time.

Does the challenge lead to an adaptation you want? Breakdancing can be incredibly challenging, but do you want to improve at breakdancing or improve strength,mobility, reduce bodyfat levels or improve general health?

Is the challenge greater, or markedly different than what you’re already doing? If you are sedentary the answer is easy, if you’re already active then some considerations need be applied.


The last thing I was told “would challenge my body in a completely different way “(in just 6 weeks!) was essentially an air drumming class.  It might be fun and you’d likely get sweaty doing it, but the 1/4lb/.113kg sticks won’t turn anyone into the next John Bonham or Ms. Olympia.

Take an objective look at the challenge, is it being advertised as something that can change your physique, health or athletic performance markers, or is it about fun and getting sweaty?  The former is training, while the latter is fun.  While I will agree that fun is a good thing, which do you suppose offers better long-term transfer of benefits to physique,health markers and athletic performances, a ‘fitness drumming’ class or quality time spent with a barbell?



Old Man Strength



Old Man Strength.  A physical quality that entails unforeseen strength of an individual, including unexpected techniques based off of life experience, and the ability to conquer others based on having more age age than them.  (Source: Urban Dictionary, definition 4)

I have friends of similar age or younger that are suffering from the effects of time and a general lack of self-care.  I know others age 45 and up that continue to strength train,and in some cases still compete at a high-level.  Most experience some degree of physical discomfort due to past training injuries,but a few have managed to keep this in check and lead highly mobile and relatively pain-free lives. I believe the latter represents an optimized state.

I put this situation along the continuum of Older-Untrained/Detrained, Older-Trained and Older-Optimized Training.

How does one work towards optimizing themselves as they age?

Improvement. It is possible to improve even from disadvantaged starting points. You are never to old to start.

Recovery. Our ability to recover reduces faster than our ability to increase physical abilities. All the good stuff from training happens after you leave the gym.


Realities. Impressive? Yes.  Does he appear fit? Yes. Could I do it? I’m not sure and don’t have the equipment to test it. Is this something I would have a beginner do? No. Did this person take time to build himself to this level of ability? I can safely speculate that he did.  What is the benefit of the exercise? I don’t know, anything I could offer would be a guess. I see value in regressions of this exercise as well as progressions past standard planks and push-ups.

First things first, does the individual have the necessary joint integrity,isometric force generating capabilities and tissue tolerance to even be put into a plank position? If yes, how long can it be maintained?

Exercise Selection and Management.  An exercises level of difficulty is based on the client defined abilities and the selection of any particular exercise starts with a few questions, For whom? For what purpose?(1) What is being managed, and how is it being measured?  I personally go with exercises that represent the greatest level of challenge the individual can control and successfully recover from.

Balance.  Life takes place in all planes of movement. It pays to train in all three planes and not to overtrain a singular movement pattern. I’ve seen enough firsthand evidence of this among older distance runners, martial artists and powerlifters to convince me of such.

(1) From The Science of Sports Training (Kurz), The simplest division of exercises are exercises that are directly applicable to the need, exercises that may not be directly applicable, but still prepare for it and exercises that reduce the potential for injury or overtraining, or aid in the recovery process


Indecent Proposal

I was recently offered money to take another persons online personal trainer exam. I didn’t accept the offer, and wouldn’t at three times the amount.  The thought that by saying no, the door has opened for someone else to say yes did occur to me, but that isn’t my concern.

It’s difficult to say this doesn’t bother me, and I’m irked that I was the first person they considered for the job (or so I’m told.)

The individual failed their first attempt exam, and in their words “none of it makes any sense.”  While the textbook is quite large and test questions thorough, it doesn’t have a reputation as being highly difficult with a high failure rate and testing conditions are generous.  Candidates are allowed two free attempts,re-tests beyond that are relatively inexpensive.  The test is untimed, open book and can be taken from the comfort of home. The material covered in the textbook itself is good. and the certification is widely accepted.

The person failed to answer my verbal questions on anatomy,exercise progressions, programming principles and client administration.  I discovered the person has rushed through the course, and they are “trying to get this $hit behind them”  (and presumably the letters behind their name.)

I was told that after they get through the exam they would go back and actually study the material. Personal experience tells me this most likely won’t happen.


I offered to tutor them, and to help actually learn the material. They would be starting at Chapter 1, Day 1. They would learn to think and apply the material on their own. My counter-offer was promptly turned down.

IMG_0576.JPG (Credit: Westside Barbell)

I believe some people become overly focused on passing exams or in adding letters after their name.  I can partially understand this thinking, but simply rote-memorizing material leads to failure when that supposed qualification is actually tested. My advice is to stop focusing on simply passing the test, and instead focus on absorbing the education and experience along the way.

Barely passing (or even scoring 100%) on an exam will not make you a successful trainer (whatever your definition of success happens to be,just that you were successful in passing the test.

Not knowing, or being unable to apply what your certification says you should know makes it a fancy, but ultimately meaningless piece of paper. Failure doesn’t automatically mean you are forever banished to the suck zone as a trainer either, it simply means you were unprepared to meet a challenge.

Learn all that you can during the process so that you can be the best trainer possible. I further advise to take the material to the gym and try figuring things out under live conditions. This is why better trainers never graduate.

If I were given the power to change how trainer exams were administered, there would be a battery that included online, proctored and live demonstration of skill and coaching ability.  I would want to see the persons work and hear/read answers given in their own words.  With few exceptions, I would go so far as to fail answers recited verbatim from a textbook.