A Stronger Industry

The fitness industry needs to pull its head out of its ass. Did I get your attention? Excellent.

Now, I will be the first to say that this can be one of the most gracious and supportive professional communities going. I’m talking about the side of the industry that opened its arms to me in a way that helped me get up to speed on the “state of the art” in about a year-and-a-half.

Along with my own study of important books (Anatomy Trains, Netter’s, everything Pavel), the meat of my learning was made up of the incredibly rich websites of Tony, Eric, Bret, Dan, Wil, KStar and his project, Dr. Berardi, Dean, ToddShon, T-Nation (useful, despite its ridiculous pictures and jokes), Mike, Dan, all the incredible ladies out of Girls Gone Strong and a dozen others that fit in around the edges.

I feel beyond grateful for what these people--most of whom I will never meet--gave me, willingly and for free. The intention obvious in those folks’ collective gesture is to pay forward your knowledge so that we might all prosper. You won’t catch me badmouthing that for a second.

But what I’m talking about is how most trainers, even as they draw from the same excellent body of knowledge, screw up the moment of integration with the rest of the world. The vast majority of people, the so-called general population (gen-pop for short), that the vast majority of trainers see deserve better.

I think the problem is three-fold:

- Industry folks are skewed by their own passion! Weird, I know.

- Fitness sees itself as the center of the universe. Understandable, but still not cool.

- The industry buys into, and therefore sells itself as, a luxurious habit that each of us should pay for. Fuck that.

So first, I think the very thing that makes so many trainers charismatic, motivated and useful to their clients alienates them from a huge number of people. Someone who thinks about and lives for fitness, their own and other people’s, every day will have a hard time understanding the situation that most non-trainers are in, almost just by definition.

Obviously, being an expert is important, and that should involve serious immersion. But if you’re committed to making this person’s life better, a significant amount of effort must also be paid toward how your ideal programming is going to interact with that client. Can they execute? Will the habit stick? Will they like it? Why or why not? That shouldn't be the only dictating influence by any means, but it should be part of our planning!  Humans are not just a bunch of blood and collagen and levers.

But the part that really gets missed, and that spurned this post in the first place, is the critical moment when a trainer has learned enough. They have studied and worked long enough to know more than their clients--they have achieved the minimum. At this point, most trainers take one of two paths. 1.) They stop studying, and become annoying lumps on the log of fitness-industry-wastefulness, or 2.) they keep studying, but about the finest minutae of percentages and accommodating resistance and optimal timing of supplementation L-carnitine.

For maybe 10% of the whole population of gen-pop, this second group has something extra to offer in terms of knowledge. But for everyone else (9 out of 10 people), those little bits of knowledge are useless--but in the hands of Eager-Trainer McSmartypants they become dangerous tools of distraction, leading folks away from what is most important.

Many, many people have written about this using terminology taken from the field of economics. I’m talking about the Pareto Principle, here, which states, roughly, that 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Now, while most days you’d hear me rambling about that 20% group of causes (the “big rocks”: squatting, deadlifting, pressing, etc.), I think it’s also important to remember that there is a flip-side to Pareto.

Another way of saying the principle is that there is a segment of causes (80%) that contribute only 20% of the effects. That means, if you keep looking for effects after working hard on those “big rocks,” you are now in fine-tuning territory. And if you are a competitive athlete, or a professional model, or military special forces, than you should be working on the minutae.

But what happens too often is that a trainer, fashioning themselves to be athletes, begins thinking and reading about those “little rocks,” and is excited at the possibility of extracting that final 20% of effects out of their bodies. And then they bring those ideas straight to their clients who have never touched a barbell, let alone flung said barbell overhead 2.78 times per minute.

This sort of dysfunction very easily morphs into my second point: the fitness industry is self-centered. While many of the passionate, intelligent trainers and coaches out there are doing their best to help, even the best ones seem to forget that many folks who train don’t want to become the world’s strongest woman or sexiest man. Usually, these folks merely want to be healthier--they want to feel better, and keep up with their grandkids, and maybe slim down a few pounds.

This is not to say that Strength & Conditioning can’t help them--in fact, I would say just the opposite. But those people invest a lot of time and energy into their own field or career, and we as fitness professionals should respect that. We should respect it by training them in them most efficient and effective way that we know--with the “big rocks”--and leave “little rocks” (the 80%, the minutae, etc.) on the shelf. And we should respect it by working to fit that great training into their lives, and not demand that it is the other way around.

I can hear the salient disagreement now: most gen-pop folks just plain don't put enough stock in their own health! And it’s true that most of the time we as trainers are trying to convince people to take their wellness more seriously, by eating better and sleeping more and lifting heavy shit on a regular basis. But along with that convincing is a mega-dose of selling.

And this brings me to my final point. The way I see it, we can’t as an industry keep saying that fitness is an integral part of any life and then sell training and gyms generally as a luxury item. It is disingenuous, and ultimately destructive to the premise that would really help people get to where they are trying to go with their fitness. It recalls for me many conversations I have had with manual therapists about the fractured way that massage operates today: clients come for a massage because they see it as a luxury, feel-good session, and therapists feel compelled to give that session. In reality, though, a more effective approach would almost always be less-comfortable--and the client would leave unsatisfied. This is broken.

But of course, revenue is important in this capitalist society. However, back to fitness, I have to believe that money will flow when previously unsatisfied individuals are getting trained in a satisfying way. Being effective (“big rocks”) is one part of creating this flow, obviously, but so is being honest, and portraying fitness as a luxury expense destroys that honesty.

I love this industry, and I think that it offers a way for everyone involved to get ahead: clients improve, trainers make a living, and collective knowledge carries everyone forward. But unless we also work on making the system better in it’s integration with the rest of the world, we will always be stuck either preaching to the choir or deluging the public with big-font marketing. Let’s make fitness something more real than that.