Pete McCall by Pete McCall

Working out, exercising, getting fit, being physically active…whatever you call it we all know that it plays an integral part of an active and healthy lifestyle. If you’re certified as a Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor or Health Coach, you play a critical role in helping others learn how to become more physically active and, more importantly, make it a regular habit. From Ashtanga yoga to Zumba, there are myriad ways to exercise. The challenge is helping our clients find ones that are suitable to their interests and abilities.
We need to be mindful that any form of exercise is simply a physical stress applied to the physiology of the human body. The specific exercise stress and how it is applied determines the outcome. This is known as the principle of specificity, described by the acronym SAID for Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands. An exercise program designed for the purpose of achieving a specific, desired outcome should include:

1. A health risk and needs assessment to determine an individual’s current health status and to identify any special factors such as a soft-tissue injury or a chronic health condition

2. An appropriate application of the variables of exercise program design. Exercise selection, intensity, repetitions, sets, tempo, rest interval and post-training recovery should all be consistent with the individual’s health status, training experience, current fitness level and desired goals.

3. Sufficient intensity, volume and frequency of the workouts to stimulate the desired physiological adaptations

4. Adequate periods of recovery after workouts to optimize the physiological adaptations

Over the course of my career as a trainer, instructor and educator, I've always been amused when I see other trainers use exercises that seem better suited for a circus than a gym because they're trying to create a “challenging” workout for their client or class. The purpose of an exercise program is to apply the variables in a way that results in a desired outcome, not have clients perform silly tricks.

An exercise program doesn’t need to be overly complicated to be effective. Manipulating just a few of the variables, such as intensity, repetitions or rest intervals, can change the demand on the body and produce vastly different outcomes. This blog series will review the principles and variables of program design and discuss how they can be applied to create results for clients. Research can provide some insight into how the human body may adapt to an exercise stimulus but factors responsible for each individual’s specific training outcome include:

1. Gender
2. Age
3. Existing fitness level
4. Training experience
5. Genetic profile
6. The amount of time allotted for rest and recovery after exercise
7. Nutritional intake
8. Hydration
9. Other emotional and physical stressors such as pressures from work or family

The first variable to consider is exercise selection—the specific exercises selected for a program and the order in which they are arranged. There is no “right” way to select and organize exercises. Rather, there are a variety of different exercises and each one can provoke a unique physiological response; considerations include:

1. Each exercise in a program should address an individual’s needs while also being relevant to his or her training goals.

2. Selecting and organizing exercises into a logical sequence based on an individual’s current strength, training experience and movement skill, which makes a pre-exercise assessment essential for long-term success.

3. Creating the program and planning the workout prior to meeting with the client. Having the workout prepared for the client prior to the delivery of the session is an essential part of a professional level of service promised by a personal trainer.  

4. Equipment available to use with a particular client; some in-home clients may have little-to-no exercise equipment, while trainers working in a busy health club setting may be challenged by working at a crowded time, making it difficult to access equipment for a client’s needs. It’s important for a trainer to have a back-up “go-to” exercise for everything in a program to limit the downtime spent thinking about what a client should do next.

For maximal effectiveness, exercises used in a program should be based on integrated movement patterns that involve a number of muscles and joints at the same time. If a program features only isolation exercises, it runs the risk of emphasizing certain muscles over others, thus increasing the likelihood of developing an imbalance that could cause an injury. Another consideration is that movement-based exercises use more muscles, allowing the client to burn more calories during the workout.

There are five basic patterns of human movement: squatting (or bending), lunging (or stepping), pushing, pulling and rotating. Most ground-based exercises for the lower body consist of either a squatting movement with both feet on the ground or a lunging movement involving transitioning from one foot to the other. Upper-body exercises involve either pushing a weight away from the body or pulling a weight closer to the body. Rotational exercises are a combination of pushing and pulling and involve the torso and hips rotating against one another.

Exercise equipment options are constantly evolving and offer an almost limitless amount of choices including free weights (dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls and kettlebells), pulley and cam-based machines, ways to leverage bodyweight (stability balls and suspension devices) and non-traditional equipment (sandbags, water-filled implements and heavy tires).

Each piece of equipment has it’s own unique benefits and limitations. For example:

1. Free weights offer the greatest freedom of movement; however, the limitation is that the resistance changes as the joint angle changes. Free weights are effective at improving inter-muscular coordination because they can recruit a number of muscles to maintain stability in certain body segments while other muscles are working to produce force and create movement. 

2. The benefit of using machines featuring a cam or pulley is that they are designed to place the greatest amount of resistance where a particular muscle is the strongest. However, the limitation is that generally only one muscle group is producing the force, which is not consistent with natural movement where a number of muscles work together simultaneously to initiate and control movement. Because they focus on force production from one muscle or group of muscles at a time, machines develop intramuscular coordination, which is the activation of a number of fibers within a specific muscle, making them extremely effective for improving the size and definition.

When working with a new client just starting a workout program, the initial focus should be on using bodyweight exercises to enhance stability of the knee, lumbar spine and scapulothoracic joints, while also promoting the mobility of the foot/ankle, hip, thoracic spine and glenohumeral joints.

As clients progress to resistance training, they can start with machine-based exercises because the machine controls the path of motion helping to develop strength in specific motor patterns and muscle groups. Once a client develops an initial level of strength on machines, he or she can be progressed to multijoint free-weight exercises based on the five fundamental movement patterns that involve more muscles and increase the caloric expenditure.

After a complete warm-up, multijoint power or strength exercises should be executed toward the beginning of a workout session when a client has the highest levels of energy. If physically demanding exercises are performed later in the workout, the client might experience fatigue, which greatly increases the risk of injury. Assistance exercises focusing on single-joint, isolated movements can be performed later in the workout as a client begins to fatigue.

Early in my career I thought I was a good trainer because I gave my clients a different workout each session. I mistakenly thought this made it more challenging and kept it interesting for them. As I learned about motor-pattern development, movement skill and integrated anatomy, I realized that I was doing my clients a disservice by changing exercises so frequently. Staying consistent with exercise selection is essential for helping clients improve movement skill and coordination. As I started keeping the exercise movements consistent, I would manipulate other variables to create a slightly different workout experience or change the level of difficulty. I noticed clients appreciated the consistency in movements and if I thought a client needed an easier or more difficult workout, I just changed the intensity, number of reps or rest intervals to scale it to his or her needs for that day.

An exercise is a movement and movement is a defined skill that requires mastery. Once clients have developed an initial level of strength on machines, exercise selection should be progressed to movement-based exercises that help enhance movement skill while improving strength and definition. It may be tempting to change exercises frequently; however, consistency with exercise selection can help clients improve coordination, which helps with their self-confidence and adherence to the exercise program. Because they use a number of muscles at the same time, movement-based exercises are more metabolically challenging, helping to burn more calories, which is great for clients with weight-loss goals. As you learn more about exercise, it will become increasingly clear that keeping exercise selection relatively consistent and learning how to manipulate the other variables can help you create programs that are both challenging and effective for clients of all shapes, sizes and skill levels.

Next in the series: Intensity and Repetitions