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The Aging Athlete Ep 9: Finding The Right Personal Trainer

core exercises

It’s new year’s resolution time and that means that the health clubs will be packed for the next few months. Many people these days find a personal trainer at their new health club or through a friend. The great news is that a trainer can push you much harder than you would usually push yourself, so it’s often easier to see results with a personal trainer than without. However, trainers can also mess people up with injuries or pain, so what can you do?

My Experience with Personal Trainers

Many years ago I began working out with a personal trainer. The great news was that the synergy of him pushing me and me wanting to impress was a great way to make me work twice as hard with the trainer as I ever would alone. However, all of that effort soon lead to several new back and neck injuries, so it always seemed to be two steps forward and one back. After a while, like many people, I gave up on the trainer as I was tired of getting injured.

A Core Stability Checklist

For anyone who has any type of chronic neck or back issue, one of the problems is that almost always there is too little strength in the core muscles. These are the muscles that help stabilize the spine from the neck, through the upper back, and into the lower back. However, most people with this problem have no idea that they have it.

Here are 5 questions to answer to see if you have a core stability issue:

  1. Can bending over to get something off the floor wreck your back?  Y/N
  2. Do you notice that opening a heavy sliding door or turning a heavy shopping cart in a store can aggravate your back? Y/N
  3. Can lifting something overhead whack our your neck or shoulder?  Y/N
  4. Does sleeping the wrong way mess with your neck?  Y/N
  5. Does traveling with carry-on luggage tweak your back or neck?  Y/N

If you answered “Yes” to any of the questions above, you may have a core stability problem. Now let’s try some of these questions:

  1. Can you feel your butt muscles kick in when you rotate your trunk (like when opening a heavy sliding door)?  Y/N
  2. If you’re walking around, can you tighten your abs and feel them come on-line?  Y/N
  3. When you open a heavy door by pulling, do your upper back, abdominal, and butt muscles all engage?

If you answered “No” to any of the questions above you may have a core problem.

Working Out without a Core or How Trainers Wreck Clients

My problems began when my trainer didn’t understand that to push big weights, you need a very strong suite of core muscles all working together. This personal training problem all started about a decade ago when the urban myth began in personal training circles that you needed to bulk people up to boost their fat burning. Meaning bigger muscles burn more calories, so up the weights in your clients to lose fat.

While there may be some truth to that paradigm, the problem is that without working on the core, the trainer is setting up the client for failure. Meaning that for every pound you have to push with your arms or legs, you need equal strength in the core. Hence, forcing someone to push weights without first developing that spinal stability strength is a prescription for an injury.

What Did I Do?

Several years back I was a core wreck. I actually didn’t really know it, but I would have failed my own test above. My thinking was that my spine was messed up enough after being diagnosed with cervical stenosis and a low back spondylolisthesis that I needed to get rid of my HIT routine and substitute that for a limited set of weights and bike that I could do without hurting myself. Meaning I could still do quite a bit, so why do anything else but that type of specific workout that didn’t flare me up?

Then I met my current personal trainer, Kelly Cole. Kelly was convinced I could do more, but he worked with me that first year. carefully listening to what was wrong or in pain on that day. He would steer clear of certain things, all the while working on building my core strength. This wasn’t a fast process, but over that first year or two I began to notice that my “Yes” answers on the first test were gradually turning to “No” answers. I could also begin to feel my core muscles like abs and gluts begin to wake up. For example, when opening the heavy doors in our home I would feel my gluts kick in, which is not something I had noticed in many years.

A Problem of Scale

While I’ve referred several patients to Kelly over the last few years, he’s a Boulder-based trainer and as a result, can’t help many of my patients who live elsewhere. However, for the past year, I have been encouraging him to create an app. Basically a way for my patients and others to access his unique type of core first personal training online.

Just before the holidays, he launched his app, which is available here:

If you can’t get started with Kelly Cole, then you need to make sure your trainer can focus on your core. Here are examples of the core stability exercises that should make up a healthy part of your workout:

  • Trunk rotations
  • Lifting lighter weights with one side only to work the CORE
  • Butt and ab work
  • A focus on perfect form over heavy weights
  • One hand/arm raises on all fours

The upshot? It’s new year’s resolution time, but make sure you don’t get injured. While I’d love the business treating your new injury, the better plan is to work with a trainer who knows how to protect your spine and joints as you get stronger, rather than one that’s a wrecking ball!