A former client recently stopped by my facility to inquire about how things were going and to possibly start training again. I had not talked with this person for over a year. She had stopped training for a while due to some nagging injuries but recently started up again with a trainer who was teaching a CrossFit group class. During the conversation she mentioned that she really liked the way that the training made her feel at this new class but that there were some nagging issues which were beginning to develop, or in some cases re-emerge.
Originally she liked the classes but now her back was starting to hurt, her wrists were hurting and she was growing more and more nervous about her shoulder. She had a couple of minor tears in her rotator cuff tendons and was nervous about doing anything that would put her shoulder at risk. She mentioned that while the training was good, there was little attention to detail from the instructor, the amount of weight that the coach was trying to get her to lift was ridiculous and things were really starting to hurt… and not in a good way. This was the reason she had actually stopped back by… to talk about training again. She never felt injury-related pain when she trained with me—something I pride myself on when I work with clientele.
Many of the things that she detailed were typical of what I had heard about CrossFit coaches, but are not limited to them. Things like the use of excessive weight, extremely high reps, forcing clients to work through pain (not good pain), limited technical instruction and lacking any clear assessment protocol to identify potential red flags are the trademarks of many trainers out there and are not limited to CrossFit. In response to the things that she told me I thought it was important to write a blog post on potential warning signs to look for when starting any kind of fitness or group coaching program. Keep these points in mind should you choose to work with a trainer of any kind. They can save you a lot of pain and suffering.
ASSESSMENT: Assessment is a big issue for me, and one that a large number of trainers do not follow. When most people talk about assessment they probably think of circumference measurements, body fat testing and maybe a few strength tests to assess a person’s fitness level. Nowadays it’s much more involved. Good assessments involve not only the above but also critique other areas such as range of motion, movement patterns, flexibility, posture and core stability. There are also a number of assessments that have been developed by the medical and physical therapy world that high end trainers are using to identify a wide variety of problems that would have been missed by most people. By assessing these areas, a trainer or coach can better develop a customized program or choose what level to start that person at. It also helps the coach to determine what exercises are best for that individual and what exercises will do more harm than good. My personal opinion is that without good assessment, it’s only a matter of time until something goes wrong.
CLEAR INSTRUCTION: I don’t like to pick on the CrossFit people but they do have a reputation for using a lot of exercises from different training modalities such as weight lifting and kettlebell training. Exercises from these methods require a good deal of time and effort to master. Once you start delving into these areas you’ll notice that the exercises have a much greater learning curve to them. An exercise might look simple but can take years to master. These are definitely not things that you should be diving into on the first day. Exercises like cleans, high pulls and snatches can be potentially dangerous if the proper time and effort is not put into developing a sound base and proper mechanics. If you happen to be working with a trainer who isn’t taking you through a series of progressions and taking the time to teach you proper mechanics for the execution of such lifts, you might want to think twice about working with that person. This actually brings us to my next point.
PROGRESSIONS: Progressions are essentially a way to go from basic movements to more physically demanding and challenging movements. Think of it this way, you have to learn your ABCs before you can start writing words. You have to learn how to write words before you make sentences, and you have to learn how to make sentences before you can write paragraphs and so on. Many of the above exercises require progressions from basic exercises to more complex movements to make sure that the risk of injury is minimized. As an example, if I wanted to teach someone how to snatch a kettlebell, I would use the following progression and not move on until the client had mastered the current exercise:
1: Hip Hinge: teaching proper hinging at the hip as opposed to squatting. Proper mechanics involve pushing the hip backwards and lowering the upper body so that it appears as though the person is bowing. The spine has to remain neutral and the shoulder blades and thoracic spine have to be in the right position.
2: Two-Handed Kettlebell Swing: Takes the Hip Hinge and makes the mechanic ballistic
3: One Handed Kettlebell Swing: Trains the client to perform the Kettlebell Swing with one hand. This teaches the client to resist rotational stresses on the torso that are not present with the two handed swing. Also really emphasizes good solid shoulder packing of the swinging shoulder.
4: Kettebell High Pull: Similar in all ways to the swing except that the bell is pulled up along the body. The swing is performed straight armed and is at arm’s length when at shoulder level. During the execution of the high pull the kettlebell is kept close to the body the whole time which greatly reduces circular inertia.
5: Snatch: Once the high pull is mastered we move on to the final step of the progression. The snatch finishes overhead. Looking closely at the snatch, you can see elements from each of the previous exercises. The hip hinge from the most basic fundamentals is there. The snatch is performed with a single arm like the 1-arm swing. The kettlebell is never allowed to move very far from the body just like during the execution of the high pull. The only real addition is that the movement finishes overhead with the arm straight and the bell on the back of the wrist.
Progressions are the core of learning some of the more complex movements in the fitness world and if time is not taken to move through a progression safely and effectively, ensuring that the client has mastered all of the integral components bad things not only can happen, they probably will. If your coach has you try an advanced exercise out of the blue that you’ve never seen before and it doesn’t seem similar to something you’ve done in the past that could be your cue to skidoo!
IGNORING PAIN OR INJURIES: Pardon my French, but this one really chaps my ass!! Pain is an indication that something is wrong. It could be anything from improper execution of an exercise to a pre-existing injury. If you ignore pain during a workout, you are making it worse. If your coach is telling you to grind through the pain, this individual should get into a new line of work. If your back hurts while you are deadlifting, you will end up making a pre-existing back problem worse. If you don’t have a back problem, give it time. You will. If your shoulder hurts during an overhead press you could go from simply having some tight tissue in that area to developing tendinitis and impingement. If you already have those issues, they will get worse if you keep doing the same thing; and any coach who tells you to just grind through it is injuring you.
Any pain experienced by a client during a workout has to be assessed. Often times I get clients who complain of pain or irritation during exercises. Often times it’s simply tight muscles or improper execution of the exercises. In most cases a little foam rolling and technical correction clears things up. If everything has been done right and the pain persists, exercise selection has to be changed and the client should be referred out to a specialist to diagnose the issue. Any coach who does not take a complaint about pain seriously will end up doing you no good.
IN CONCLUSION: Fitness is not just about lifting heavy things or being able to run non-stop for long periods of time. It is about overall health and wellbeing. I personally believe that my clients should feel as good as they look. If your coach doesn’t assess you, he can’t very well know what you need. If he doesn’t offer clear and concise instruction he can’t very well teach you how to perform an exercise. If he doesn’t use progressions and teach you the underlying mechanics of complex movements you are risking injury; and if your coach ignores your complaints about pain or injury, he doesn’t care about you… just your next check.