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Personal Training Evolution

Personal Training Evolution

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Running from one end of the gym to the other. Jumping, hanging, swinging, and crawling from all types of equipment like my own personal jungle gym. Using as many unique pieces of equipment as was available. These statements all describe my own tendencies and personal training as a whole only a few months ago. Since then, through our society’s reaction to a global pandemic, not only has my behavior changed radically, but I think personal training as a whole is in the midst of a big change.

As recently as early March, my sessions would start with close proximity interaction while utilizing a combination of foam rollers and cardiorespiratory training equipment (treadmills, bikes, etc). We would then address the points of emphasis for that particular workout, and use a variety of not only different equipment and training modalities, but different rooms and spaces. Dumbbells, kettlebells, elastic tubing, cable machines, and suspension trainers were among the different forms of resistance my clients and I would use throughout a particular workout, but at least for the near future, that may be changing. Decreasing overall touch points throughout a session will be a new concept that will be in the back of my mind while planning and designing workouts for clients.

Aside from shifting my approach to in-person sessions with clients, I think we have all reevaluated how much equipment we all think we need. Yes, it is nice to have a variety of different pieces to help keep workouts engaging and exciting, but over the past two months, we’ve all been forced to get creative with what we have. More times than not, virtual sessions with clients at their homes have consisted of little more than a yoga mat and body weight. Of course, some people have more at their disposal than others. Whether it be a pair of adjustable dumbbells, or some elastic tubing and an adjustable bench, we’ve all been adapting and curating some fairly challenging and engaging workouts on the fly.

Applying Parkinson’s Law

Using the equipment one has to fill a session, like the aforementioned paragraph, reminds me of a common concept known as “Parkinson’s Law”. The law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. There are several corollaries that exist in different fields, but in an abstract sense, this law works well to describe the workouts that my clients and I have been working through over this imposed restriction of space and subsequent access to different pieces of equipment.

If a client had 20 different pieces of equipment at his or her home gym, I would more than likely try to incorporate as much of those as possible. On the other hand, most people (including myself) only have a yoga mat, foam roller, and/or some elastic tubing or theraband from a previous round of physical therapy. I think we are conditioned to believe that this is not enough, and that we need expansive selections of highly specified machines. Who or what has conditioned us this way is debatable, but let’s just all agree that there is more money to be made selling five traditional lower body resistance training machines than there is when selling a couple of dumbbells, just saying. Obviously, certain types of equipment are better or worse for different exercises, but more times than not the biggest limitation to the completion of a certain exercise is the creativity (or lack thereof) of the instructor and client. We will use what we have to the extent that is possible, but stripping everyone of a seemingly infinite selection of equipment for several months will have the positive side-effect of enhancing ingenuity and creativity for not only personal trainers, but their clients.

What’s the Future Hold? 

I truly think that the times of having highly selectorized or specific pieces of equipment for each muscle group have been slowly fading, and this current situation of stay-at-home orders and fitness center closures has made it even more obvious. Sure, there will always be certain populations that will gravitate towards the low mental bandwidth demands of simplified, repetition counting, selectorized machines. I respect those groups, and of course there will be exceptions where those machines will be the ideal, but overall I believe trends to be moving in two distinct directions. 

One direction being infinitely more equipment, and infinitely more technology packed into that equipment. Some of that equipment probably will have some type of artificial intelligence (if it doesn’t already), counting repetitions and identifying when it thinks you are fatigued. Crazy to imagine, but we’re not far off. I love technology, but dampening your own senses of fatigue, controlling your body in space, or understanding your level of exertion without a wearable telling you how exerted you are is a slippery slope. The human body is an adaptation machine, so prolonged and excessive use of certain technology in an exercise setting could have the unforeseen externality of decreased motor control and feelings of interoception (sense that helps you understand and feel what’s going on inside your body). This notion should be balanced with the overall positives of engaging in any kind of exercise or resistance training (something is better than nothing). I can imagine some aspects of exercise technology being beneficial, but more for tracking activity and gamifying certain exercises to make things more engaging, not for making things easier from a motor control perspective.

The other direction in my opinion will consist of tactfully inserting some technology to aid in feedback and activity tracking (or other mundane metrics), while enhancing the level of instruction and feedback from either other humans or some form of artificial intelligence. With proper instruction, a client can perform a wider variety of exercises with a smaller amount of equipment and overall space. Rather than heavy investment in large, bulky, individualized resistance training machines, more emphasis will (and should be) placed on quality and creative instruction. Being a practicing Exercise Physiologist, of course I am biased on the relative importance of quality instruction, but I am also trying to take an unbiased view of the future of my own profession.

Importance of Communication Technology 

Having conducted over 200 virtual personal training sessions and over 50 virtual group classes over the past two months, one cannot overstate the importance of communication technology as the field of personal training evolves. Not just personal training, but many service or consulting industries would be wise to at least partially commit to a virtual iteration of their in-person offerings. Having above average video/audio quality and internet speeds will be increasingly necessary as time moves forward and patrons start to incorporate virtual training either in addition to or in place of “in person” sessions. The combination of ultra high definition cameras/screens and the introduction of 5G on a mass scale will usher in a new level of telehealth and like services.

Although this technology will be important, I don’t think it should be the foundation of personal training, but rather an essential supplement. We haven’t yet found the combination of tech that can emulate face-to-face interaction and the non-verbal cues and feedback that happen beyond the reach of what a 4K camera can capture. That being said, maintaining a certain baseline of face-to-face interactions and social gathering has always been and will continue to be a vital component of positive mental health outcomes. Short of everyone wearing virtual reality headsets and touch stimulation suits, I’m not sure if there is any technology on earth that will even come close to recreating the inexplicable connection and happiness that stems from an in person interaction with a friend, family member, or even a personal trainer.  

The Bottom Line

When it’s all said and done, those who found a way to adapt will probably have a leg up when things progress to the next normal. I am fortunate enough to know where my next meal is coming from and that the mortgage is being paid. What that good fortune has allowed me to do, is to embrace the positive changes associated with our current global health situation. We have all been forced to adapt in one way or another, and to quote a previous blog post and popular proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention”. It’s easy to make predictions, but time will tell just how accurate these predictions of my field will actually turn out to be. Regardless of the future one thing is for sure, I personally have never gone through this much expansion of my own professional ideology. I am beyond excited to apply it to the services that I provide.

Prevention over treatment,