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I recently received a questionnaire directed at fitness trainers from a book publisher. The purpose of the questionnaire is for a book that the publisher could distribute to people who may be interested in finding a competent fitness professional. I think it is a good project, and I was happy to take the time out of my schedule to answer the questions.

I thought the questions were well thought out, and I feel it would be of benefit to share the questions…and my answers here.

Without further ado, here we go.

Q. When it comes to nutrition about building muscle, it seems that few experts can agree on what is a healthy diet and what is not. How can people know which advice to take, with all of the contradictory
information out there?

A. Everybody needs to do their own research and do not take the suggestions of the fitness trainer at face value. The truth is that there are many similarities between many of the “good” diets out there. It is these common threads that should be the cornerstone of a healthy eating plan. Beyond that, it is a matter of tweaking the diet to how the person’s body responds the best along with his or her personal eating preference.

Q. It is said that after a workout you should have a meal of proteins or carbs. Is that true? If so why?

A. The prevailing theory is that the body is primed for nutrient absorption right after a hard workout, especially the first two hours afterword. With this, trainers assume that a meal replacement shake will create the optimal muscle building environment. Personally, I do not think ingesting a protein shake right after a workout is all that important. I stumbled on some research suggesting that the body maintains that nutrient absorption “window” for much longer than previously thought…up to 24 hours actually. Imagine that. A good intense workout sends the signal to the body to build muscle, and it will regardless of whether the trainee eats something right after the workout or not. It has plenty of resources to draw on to start the muscle building process. Unless the trainee is an athlete in training and in need of a high calorie diet, I generally recommend restraining eating anything until the trainee feels hungry. The rationale behind this approach is that after an intense workout, the glycogen stores will be empty thus forcing the body to rely on the fat stores for fuel. In essence, it assists in the fat burning process, and the body will still gain muscle. I have been very successful with this approach.

Q. What type of protein powder is best for muscle gain?

A. Most experts will say that whey protein is the best for muscle gain, and that may be true. However, the benefit, in my opinion, is negligible. There are many good protein sources that will do a good job, and I would rather encourage my clients to eat real food with a good amount of protein and healthy fats.

Q. What is the correct way to breathe when working out and how does it help a person when lifting weights?

A. The conventional recommendation for breathing is to breath in during the eccentric portion of the lift (lowering phase), and to breath out while performing the concentric part of the lift (lifting phase). It is assumed that the trainee will be able to accomplish a higher number if reps in this manner as opposed to, say, holding the breath at certain points of the set. I have no disagreements with this strategy, but I much prefer to have my clients use a short/shallow breathing technique accompanied with actually holding the breath briefly at the sticking point. My clients are able to focus much better on the performance of the lift this way, and the holding of the breath for a brief moment during the sticking point actually helps the client finish the rep.

Q. If a particular exercise hurts, is that normal?

A. It depends on the hurt. The burning sensation that someone experiences during a strength training exercise is a good thing. In essence, it means that the muscle is working very hard, which is the stimulus to make it stronger. On the other hand, if the trainee feels a sharp pain, usually close to the joint, then the trainee needs to stop the lift. Working through this kind of pain over a period of time can lead to soft tissue injuries.

Q. What should someone do if they get muscle cramps during a workout? Should they work through it or do something else?

A. Muscle cramps during a workout session is rare, but it is usually a sign of dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance. Stop the exercise routine immediately and get some fluids.

Q. Which are better free weights or machines? Is there a huge difference, if so why?

A. Better for what? Building muscle? The stimulus for building muscle is rather simple: Making the muscle work as hard as possible in a short amount of time. Realizing this, both machines and free weights can accomplish that task remarkably well. Having said that, there are unique benefits to both free weights and machines.


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Machines, for example, are designed to coincide the resistance curve with the strength curve of the muscle. Stated differently, the resistance will either get heavier or lighter during the range of motion to match the changing strength level of the muscle. As an example, the hamstrings will be able to produce more force when the leg is straight, and less force in the fully contracted position. If the machine does not adjust for this, the weight will be just right at the beginning of the lift but very heavy at the end. The machine’s main goal is to keep that tension, if you will, constant throughout so there is no point where the muscle gets a chance to rest, nor too heavy for the muscle to complete the lift. Moreover, machines are designed to isolate a certain muscle group to force that particular muscle to work harder.

However, the strengths I mentioned of machines are also the downfall of machines. By isolating muscle groups to such a degree as machines do, there are many supporting muscles that do not get very much stimulus to get stronger. A good example are the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder joint. The primary purpose of the rotator cuff muscles are to provide stability and support of the shoulder while the chest and back muscles are working (they also create movement as well, for the rotator cuff muscles are the primary muscles used in swinging a tennis racket or throwing a baseball), and a chest press machine has a set groove throughout so the rotator cuff muscles do not have to work very hard to stabilize the shoulder. This can lead to the chest muscles getting stronger than the rotator cuff muscles, creating a muscle imbalance. In theory this imbalance can lead to injury. Free weights, on the other hand, address this shortcoming. When performing a lift with free weights, the trainee has to both lift the weight…and balance it at the same time. The smaller stabilizer muscles work much harder to accomplish this task.

Additionally, free weights offer many more exercise options than machines. Machines usually perform only one function, whereas a dumbbell can be used for many exercises that can work different muscle groups.

There is one final consideration, and that is personal preference. Since both machines and free weights are capable of improving strength, it is better for the trainee to decide what he wants to use. Personally, I prefer to use a combination of free weights and machines.

Q. What advanced techniques should someone use to build muscle?

A. There are many useful advanced techniques one can use to build muscle. Here is a brief list:

  • Forced reps

  • Negative reps

  • Descending sets

  • Super-sets

  • Pre-exhaustion

The first two are considered set extension techniques in that they help the trainee work beyond failure/fatigue on a set. The other three are variations of a combination of sets with very short rest intervals specifically targeting a muscle group such as the legs or chest.

They are very effective protocols to have in the toolbox, but the secret is in using them very sparingly. As an example, when a trainee does a set to fatigue, he may have the spotter help him with two or three more reps after the fact (forced reps) in an attempt to work harder. The truth is that one good rep beyond failure is all the trainee would need because if he knows he will be doing multiple reps after failure, he will hold back a little on the previous reps. This will make the set extension technique less effective. It would be better if he just focused on completing one good rep after failure. The same principle applies to all of the advanced techniques. It is much better to use any one of these techniques once every other workout, and for only one body-part per workout.

Q. What are the basic exercises to do for muscle mass?

A. This is a good question. Compound exercises which are exercises that create movement around two or more joints seem to work the best. Leg presses, barbell squats, and dead-lifts are great for building mass for the legs. Likewise, dumbbell presses or the bench press work very well for building the chest muscles. Isolation exercises such as a leg extension or cable fly do not work as well because one cannot use as heavy of resistance as one can with compound movements.

Q. How can someone tell if their personal trainer’s certification is legitimate?

A. Many, if not all of certifications will give the the aspiring personal trainer a base knowledge of exercise, physiology, anatomy, nutrition and other criteria to be a competent trainer. The truth is that a certification is not what makes an exceptional trainer. I put much more value on a trainer that spent time working as an apprentice under a highly respected fitness trainer or organization through continuing education, mentoring, and studying the latest research. Moreover, testimonials have far more value showing the competency of a fitness trainer than the certifications he may have. To put it simply, getting a certification is the starting point for the fitness trainer, but the true value is garnered through experience in the field.

Q. How can people get motivated to get to the gym?

A. This is a multi layered question and yet unique to every individual. The individual may be motivated to begin an exercise program for many different reasons, which is good, but maintaining the motivation over the long haul is the real challenge. A high percentage of people quit their exercise program after a few months, if not weeks of starting their program. I believe there are three main causes of decreased motivation.

  • Most exercise programs require a big time commitment on a weekly basis.

  • The results do not come along as expected.

  • Burnout.

Most exercise programs will have the trainee in the gym anywhere from 4 to 8 hours a week. The trainee will have no problem committing to this regimen at first, but it will get tiring after a few weeks. Additionally, once life starts getting in the way, say, by needing to take the kids to a play or the boss wanting the fitness enthusiast to stay late on a project, he will start missing workouts. This will throw off his whole routine and he may just give up.

The other problem is that many exercise programs really do not work very well. The trainee can spend several hours a week in the gym for some time and may lose maybe a couple of pounds of fat. The return on investment, if you will, is not very good. This is very demotivating, and the trainee will most likely quit.

The final reason I believe that many people have a hard time staying motivated is from burnout. Spending a large amount of time in the gym working out will lead to over training. The trainee may get injured or he may simply be tired all of the time, and he will quit working out.

It has been my philosophy to streamline the exercise program so that the trainee can see remarkable results with very little time in the gym. I have had great success with client motivation and retention this way. I recommend it for anybody who wants to make a life long commitment to the fitness lifestyle.

Q. What can people do to stay motivated, after they’ve started a workout program?

A. See the above question.

Q. Do most personal trainers yell at people, like drill sergeants, to keep them motivated? What if someone wants to hire a personal trainer without being screamed at?

A. Ha. This question reminds me of a local personal training studio that used anger and insults to motivate the client base. The owner would refer to the women as “fat bearded ladies” and the men as sissies. He would also throw Twinkies at the clients when they were exercising and would put them in cages if they did not work as hard as he thought they should. It was all a gimmick, and he did have some initial success. Moreover, many trainers do use loud screaming and drill sergeant tactics to motivate the clients. Personally, I do not subscribe to this strategy. I think most people have enough negative feedback to deal with in regular life. They certainly do not need it in the gym. I much prefer to use positive reinforcement and good rapport to facilitate my client’s fitness transformation. I do believe that the positive reinforcement strategy does a much better job of helping the client internalize a fitness minded lifestyle.


Gregg Hoffman