More Fitness. More Knowledge. More Results.

When Should Personal Trainers Spend Time Reading Research?

I just finished reading a great piece on about how much reading personal trainers really should be doing . Jon made some great points so I recommend reading the article here. Initially, a lot of what I learned and practiced came from reading blogs. As I progressed from someone who simply reads information to someone who reads information and then teaches it I began to realize the importance of being able to distinguish fact from fiction. The last thing I would want to do is relay information that is incorrect. So I started paying more attention to understanding how to read research.

Jon made good points about how what you’re reading should be relevant to what you do with your clients.

“Is the content relevant to my business or my day to day activities with my clients?”

Would it be relevant for me to read research on the best techniques for minimally invasive back surgery? No, I would say my time could be better spent. Jon also added this which is a topic I would like to expand on and spend the bulk of the article:

So many blogs are sharing information without any real accountability to any organization, it’s hard to know how much of what you’ve read is fact and what’s misinformation. So for that information to be useful you’d actually need to verify it before you could even consider applying it. If you’re critically evaluating everything as you go along (as a true professional should be) there is no way you could put in the volume of reading that many appear to be doing……………..

At this point you’ll need to do some investigation on the points made in each post to determine whether these are generally scientifically accepted or merely the musings of an internet fitness guru. You’ll need to consult research and reason while discounting logical fallacies to come to a conclusion about whether they are legit.”

How can a personal trainer determine when they should be researching something they read in a blog post? We’ll like so many things it depends but I believe I can shed some light on this by examining a few different scenarios I have came across.



Less than a month ago I was in Kansas City at the Fitness Summit (great time). Tony Gentilcore showed some videos during his talk. He showed one on a band assisted pushup and a pull up progression. Up until this point I was using a smith machine or a bench for my pushup progression, wall pushup-> smith machine pushup-> to regular pushups. After seeing the video on the band technique I realized this is a better approach to what I had been doing.

Then he showed the pull up progression videos. Once again up until that point I was mostly doing jump chins with a controlled eccentric for clients and athletes who couldn’t do a pull up. After seeing his videos I realized I liked this approach much more. In this case I didn’t need a peer reviewed article to make the decision to adopt a new training strategy. I saw something I liked that I believed was more effect than what I had been doing, so I did it.



In fact, I think that looking to peer reviewed articles might be the last place I would look to find new training modalities or exercises. Look no further than to your peers to see what they may be doing with their clients or athletes. One last example before moving on, about two months ago I made a trip down to Elmira to lift with Jim “Smitty” Smith. After some heavy deadlifts we did a ton of volume work including hamstring plate curls with sled back pedals and rows for reps on an incline bench. As soon as I got back to Cortland and had the opportunity to work with athletes I used it!

Screening & Assessing

The screening and assessing protocol that the trainer uses will dictate which exercises the client uses. Should personal trainers spent time researching this area of their practice? I would say yes.

The reason for this is that there are claims attached to these practices. I’ve spent considerable time in the last year researching the postural assessment. Some claims I’ve heard attached to the rational for the postural assessment is that correcting deviations from ‘ideal’ posture reduce the risk of injury. I’ve also heard that postural imbalances are causes by certain muscle imbalances. So here we have it, a claim and an intervention strategy.

Claim: poor posture leads to pain, it’s caused by muscular imbalances, fix these muscular imbalances and decrease the chances of a person (your client) experiencing pain.

Now if we look at the literature we find that this simply isn’t the case. Take a systematic review by Christensen et. al. (however notice the bolded caveat to the review) who concluded that :

“ After systematically reviewing the epidemiological literature associated with sagittal spinal curves in relation to health, we found no evidence that a relationship exists. However, most studies either did not fulfill basic requirements for epidemiological studies or were not prospective in design. We therefore encourage researchers to produce new and better studies to determine the role sagittal spinal curves play in health and disease. At present, it is important for clinicians to know when communicating with patients that sagittal spinal curves do not appear to be associated with health or pain.”


Other evidence exist that calls into question the validity of the postural assessment and pain on the lower body. Moving on to examining evidence of muscle imbalances and lower body posture. One of the strongest studies was conducted by Nourbakhsh et. al. Here’s a quote from a literature review I just finished. If you’re interested in reading it the PDF is here lower body posture


“One hundred and fifty subjects fell into one of four groups, men with low back pain, men without low back pain, women with low back pain and women without low back pain. The size of the lumbar lordosis, extensibility of the back extensor muscles, hip flexors, and hamstrings were measured along with abdominal and gluteal strength. Abdominal and gluteal strength were assessed as well with test whose reliability and validity have already been established. Subjects were identified as either having muscle impairments in the previously mentioned measures and subjects with no muscle impairments were used as controls. The researchers found that subjects in pain had weaker abdominal and gluteal strength. However, they found that there was no significant degree in lumbar lordosis when comparing subjects with muscle impairments to those without any impairment (Nourbakhsh, 2006).”


So it would seem that muscular imbalances are not what are causing the postural deviation, therefore an intervention based on stretching and strengthening alone would most likely be ineffective.

Finally, a test must be reliable. After reviewing the literature I was shocked at how poor the reliability was for visual assessment of lumbar lordosis. Check out the PDF ( lower body posture) and go to the reliability section. Because there are specific claims attached to the postural assessment I believe this is a case where trainers should read the research. Many trainers still base their training protocols off of a postural assessment in an attempt to correct when in fact there may be no problem at all! Furthermore, despite the availability of evidence, the postural assessment is still common practice.



Programming is another major aspect of the personal trainer’s job and there certainly are no shortages of programs out there. Here’s the thing about programming though, if followed to completion almost any plan will help you succeed. In fact, even having no plan will work for beginners to exercise.

If it has a logical means of progression, ie more weight, more reps, more sets, or moving the bar faster, it probably will do something for you or your client.

We run into problems when someone introduces specific claims that their program will help you or your clients get to (insert goal) in the most effective way. For example:

18 inch biceps in 12 weeks!

400 lbs squat in 8 weeks!

Increase your deadlift by 100 pounds in 1 week!

6 minute 6 packs!

If I am to break the message of this post down into one single line it would be this:

Whenever there is a specific claim associated with any training idea or modality I think it is important to investigate that claim especially if an intervention is prescribed.

Personal trainers are responsible for implementing training programs that are safe and effective. If an exercise looks like something you could add to your tool box that might be a good fit for a certain client, get after it! No need for a peer reviewed article here. Looking for the best training program for your client, examine the research and see what other professionals are doing. There so many different programs out there which are all equally effective. Now if someone is making a specific claim that this protocol can prevent injuries, help you drop fat quick, restore health, or (insert other magic bullet claim here) it is the responsibility of the trainer to look into the research.

Our field is relatively young but we have a great opportunity to apply science to practical use. Is a peer reviewed article necessary for everything? Certainly not. I wouldn’t ask you to provide a systematic review as to why you chose chin ups over pull ups for your client. If you’re interested in how to evaluate a claim when you feel it is necessary check out this article I wrote a couple months ago.



Christensen ST, Hartvigsen J. Spinal curves and health: A systematic critical review of the epidemiological literature dealing with associations between sagittal spinal curves and health. J Manipulative Physiol Ther 9: 690-714, 2008.

Nourbakhsh MR, Arabloo AM, and Salavati M. The relationship between pelvic cross syndrome and chronic low back pain. J Back Musculoskelet Rehabil 19: 119-128, 2006.





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