Form vs Function. Choosing The Best Plan For Fitness

I’m wondering if we in the fitness industry have overdone the whole ‘squats and deadlifts’ thing.

Sure, they are great functional, strength and flexibility building exercises that attempt to unravel a lifetime of sitting, but with close to half the Canadian population planted firmly in the overweight category, I not sure if these highly technical exercises are moving the needle on the health scale.

Simply put, are we making a difference in peoples lives or preaching to a microcosm of the exercise market?

For several years, I conducted seminars at various conferences where I tasked trainers to prescribe a routine for ‘Karen’, an exercise-adverse forty-year-old looking to lose weight and tighten up for an upcoming trip.

During the session, trainers would try to convince members of their small group that their exercise prescription was the most appropriate for Karen. The small group would then agree on a single group prescription and present to larger group for voting. The end game was to arrive at consensus.

In some cases, I would bring a willing subject to the sessions to make the experience more realistic and interactive.

During one workshop, a trainer asked our subject, who was nervous and wearing a sundress, to perform a squat in front of the group of 60 trainers so that he could assess her form.

Karen looked to me for direction as she was visibly uncomfortable. I asked her if she could share her discomfort with the group to which she expressed embarrassment and unease. The trainer replied, ‘well if you aren’t going to squat then I can’t help you’.

I’ve repeated this exercise many times to well over 300 trainers from the East Coast all the way to Alberta and learned many interesting things.

First, without fail, if there are 50 trainers in the room, there will be 50 very different perspectives ranging from yoga to CrossFit to bodybuilding. Each dogma comes with its own set of rigid beliefs and rules that shape the trainer’s prescription.

Second, few trainers were interested in actively listening to Karen. Aside from screening for pre-existing injuries, many of them already had their answer with little interest in delving deeper into the complexity of the situation or reading some pretty obvious ques.

Third, the trainers were focused on the technical aspects of exercise prescription ignoring the many psychological barriers that lead to Karen’s present situation. Too often Karen was overprescribed with complex movements, multiple sets and dozens of stretches.

Finally, most trainers were mired in a staunch position unwilling to listen to others. The few trainers in the room who supported an empathetic, inquisitive approach were simply overruled by their more technical and vocal colleagues.

Before I continue, it must be said that most modalities recommended by trainers had their merits. No doubt, if performed correctly, each routine would enhance Karen’s health in some way.

The missing link in all of this was that no one took the time to understand Karen.

If Karen is too overwhelmed to squat in a relatively safe room of trainers, she is not going to squat in an intimidating fitness centre on her own. Comments such as, ‘Karen should try harder’ and ‘Karen needs to be more motivated’ were common. (Karen confirmed that this type of prodding wasn’t helpful or motivating).

Frankly, quick weight loss and conditioning is straight forward – especially for the clients who are motivated and committed. There’s no magic formula just variations. These are our dream clients. Any trainer can be successful working with the wide-eyed keener who shows up early, chomping at the bit.

The best fat burning HIIT program in the world however falls on deaf ears if the subject doesn’t feel empowered and engaged - and this takes time and patience. The magic formula here is connection.

The dilemma isn’t whether trainers should prescribe squats and deadlifts its when. What a client is prepared to do should determine the content and progression of each routine.

In the end the fruitful trainer-client relationship hinges on trust and tolerance. In most cases the client who has moved through a series of graduated successes will turn up the heat on their own. It doesn’t take screaming and growling.

I will leave you with this. A new client shared that she left her former trainer because he was disappointed with her performance. Seems backwards doesn’t it? Who’s the customer here?

There are only so many keeners out there revving and raring to go. Let’s figure out how to help the rest.


Paul Robinson has enjoyed 28 years as an executive, speaker, trainer and consultant in the fitness industry. He owns Kneifel Robinson (KR) Personal Training, with his partner Monica Kneifel Robinson, serving St. Albert & Edmonton. You can reach them at info@krpersonaltraining.com; http://www.krpersonaltraining.com