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Take a tip from Clint Phillips, a Chicago-based exercise instructor named one of the “Top Personal Trainers in America” by Men’s Journal: “I’ve been training others for years, and yet every month or two, I sign up for a group training class or hire a personal trainer. Most of the time, I don’t even mention that I’m a teacher myself,” Phillips says. “I just want to learn something new.”

Clearly, even an expert can occasionally learn more by becoming a student. If your do-it-yourself fitness plan doesn’t seem to be working, or you’ve hit a plateau in your enthusiasm, a new exercise class or a personal trainer may be just what you need to motivate yourself to the next level – or to correct mistakes that could be holding you back.

If you are already attending an exercise class, are working with a trainer, or are fortunate enough to be going to a gym where training staff are accessible on the cardio and weight-room floors, you stand to gain even more by proactively seeking the advice of the experts in your midst. But to harvest the most educational experience possible, you have to participate in the exchange as an equal partner; you can’t just go along for the ride.

“Many people are pretty passive about their training. They prefer to play follow the leader,” says Cole Maranville, a personal trainer in Lincoln, Neb. “But my most successful clients are the ones who get involved in learning about exercise, so they understand what we’re doing and why.”

Reach Me, Teach Me

If you’re motivated to get smarter about health and fitness matters, it helps to work with a highly qualified trainer or instructor who is equally motivated to teach you. (We’ll get to tips on selecting great training talent and exercise classes in a moment.)

But even if you have the best instructor, you still represent half of the training equation. Although you’ll undoubtedly learn a great deal through firsthand experience and instruction, you can increase your athletic motivation and confidence by doing at least a little independent study.

Whether you choose to read books and magazines, surf the Web, or go straight to your trainer for a mental download, the important thing is that you begin to actively develop your own fitness data bank. For starters, you might want to learn some basics of exercise physiology, namely, the differences between exercising for strength, cardiovascular health, body composition, body shape and flexibility.

Once you understand how the emphases of these approaches differ and overlap, you have a better shot at consulting the right resources and experts for various needs. As you pick up some exercise knowledge and lingo, you’ll also be better able to articulate your questions – and to understand the answers you receive.

One useful strategy for effective learning involves asking four basic questions: what, how, why and when. For example, if you’re working with a trainer and you want to focus on strengthening your abs, you’ll want to start by requesting an appropriate routine (what do I do?). Ask the instructor to demonstrate the exercise, to tell you about the dos and don’ts, and then to correct you as you perform the exercise (how do I do it?).

Next, find out the reasons behind the recommendation (why will this work?) and then ask how often you should perform it (when?). Be sure to inquire about variations or progressions of the movement so you can challenge yourself as you get stronger.

Expand Your Expertise

With the “what, how, why and when” of some common exercises under your belt, you’ll be well on your way to building your exercise expertise. But don’t limit yourself to just a few stock questions. Ask every question that comes to mind, and you’ll be surprised by how much you learn.

For example, if you ask, “Why does exercise X always follow exercise Y in the routine?” you may learn that your instructor or trainer has a strategy to balance the work performed by complementary muscle groups. Inquire why you should keep your tummy tight and you may learn that contracting your abs protects your lower back. Ask why you should exhale on the exertion, and you’ll probably hear that your blood pressure builds during powerful muscular efforts and that your instructor would just as soon avoid having you pass out with the dumbbells over your head.

By asking questions that relate to exercise form and technique, you can also take what you learned in class and apply it to make your solo workout efforts more effective. Invite your exercise instructors to recommend books, fitness videos and exercises you can do at home. Tell them what you’ve been reading in health- or fitness-related magazines and books, and ask what they think about those topics.

You don’t have to take what your instructor or trainer tells you as gospel, of course, but getting access to their opinions can help you refine your own perspectives, and assessing their knowledge base and areas of expertise can help you evaluate whether this is the right instructor for you.

Get the Right Guide

It is a rare trainer or instructor who is expertly skilled and informed across all aspects of health and fitness. For example, a Pilates instructor might be able to give you great pointers on how to improve both your core strength and posture, but she is probably not likely to be able to outline the ultimate fat-burning cardiovascular program. Your personal trainer may or may not be well informed about various aspects of nutrition. Your triathlon coach may know little or nothing about stress-reducing exercise techniques.

So be sure to select your instructors according to your fitness goals, and if you aren’t sure about their qualifications, or if you aren’t entirely clear about the specific purpose or goal of a program in which you’ve already enrolled, ask. Do yourself the favor of working with people who welcome your questions and are capable of answering them.

Whether you’re still hunting for your first fitness mentor or are eager to pull in an additional expert for some extra help on a new goal, consider the following pointers for selecting a teaching-savvy trainer or instructor:

Talk to the staff at your club. Canvass friends and colleagues. Ask for recommendations and collect some trainers’ bios or résumés (if you belong to a club, they should be able to provide these). Check out educational backgrounds and certifications (see sidebar, below). Look for professional and life experience, areas of specialty or advanced professional training that speak to your needs. Every good trainer has a fan club, and most of his or her clients will be happy to tell you what you want to know, including a quick sketch of the instructor’s personality, specialties, strengths and weaknesses.

Ask for a free consultation. You can often tell more about someone’s capability and personality in 10 minutes than you can find out in 10 hours of background research and secondhand stories.

No matter how great a trainer’s reputation or first impression, don’t commit to more sessions than you’re comfortable with. You can sign up for a bigger package once you’ve decided this trainer is right for you.

Before or during your first session, your trainer should ask about your goals, your current level of fitness, and about any medical conditions or injuries. A qualified instructor will gather this information so he or she can provide an effective workout and a safe experience.

Most qualified trainers offer some form of fitness testing. The most common battery of tests includes a skinfold calipers test for body-fat percentage, a cardiovascular fitness assessment, and tests of strength, muscular endurance and flexibility. Such tests provide a starting point for knowing your strengths and weaknesses, which helps you set realistic goals and gauge your progress toward them. The tests also provide information your instructor can use to set precise training targets for individual training sessions.

Look for a stickler. A trainer’s primary job is to watch you and teach you how to exercise correctly, so you want someone who is knowledgeable and at least slightly obsessive about form – someone who will make you feel challenged without pushing you over the edge.

Seek out a fitness strategist, someone who will apply (and ideally teach you about) a concept called “periodization.” This training approach breaks the year into smaller cycles of training that offer your body periods of evolving intensity, balanced by periods of active recovery. A great trainer will help you establish small goals in one- to four-week increments and then tailor ? your training to achieve them. (Check out “Periodization: The Fine Art of Fitness Timing” in our July/August 2003 archives.)

Assess the fun factor. In addition to the information and guidance you get from your one-on-one training experience, you should get some smiles and inspiration, too.

Above all, seek out a trainer or instructor who understands that while you are eager to learn about all sorts of abstract health and fitness concepts, you also want to make plenty of real, practical progress. Great instructors are as invested in your goals as you are. They can make you feel like you are working toward an Olympic medal – even if you can currently bench-press only 30 pounds and don’t know a dumbbell from a dinner bell.

Don’t be shy about admitting that you’re a fitness neophyte (if you are one), or about acknowledging when you’re confused, unsure or in need of more direction. That said, don’t hesitate to say what you do know, either, like what’s working for you, or when you’ve had enough. The best trainers will not only welcome your input and happily answer your questions, they’ll commend your investment in your own learning – and thrive on the progress they help you make.

Standards and Certifications

In the process of looking for a worthy teacher-trainer, you’ll probably come across a wide variety of certifications, and a whole lot of acronyms. Some of them indicate a more robust educational background than others. While a certification in itself can’t tell you precisely what a trainer does or doesn’t know, in the context of a more complete résumé it can help you evaluate how much formal training and educational background a given candidate has.

Many fitness certification agencies exist, including the National Strength and Condition-ing Association (NSCA), the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), the American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP), and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA).

Agencies such as the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) offer group-fitness certification and personal training.

Certifications range from 100 hours to several years of study in exercise science, anatomy, kinesiology, health screening, basic nutrition and instructional methods. Some also require a college degree and a practical exam.

Certified Personal Trainers (CPTs), sanctioned by NASM, provide any form of one-on-one exercise instruction. CPTs have strong backgrounds in human movement, functional anatomy and biomechanics, program design, basic nutrition, exercise technology, and behavior modification. Optimum Performance Training (OPT) is a NASM curriculum. Trainers learn to develop programs based on proven scientific research. They combine flexibility, as well as cardio-respiratory, core, balance, power and strength training to target each individual’s goals.

A Lifestyle and Weight-Management Consultant Certification from ACE requires that consultants demonstrate knowledge and skills in client assessment and successful weight-management-plan development and implementation. Consultants must be certified in another ACE program or have a four-year degree in exercise science or a related field to be eligible.

The Clinical Exercise Specialist Certification is an advanced ACE program that demonstrates a personal trainer’s ability to work with individuals with special needs (including injury and chronic diseases). Specialists must have a four-year degree in exercise science or a related field, or have prior experience as an ACE-certified personal trainer.

The Athletic Training Certification (ATC) is sanctioned by NATA. These trainers provide coaching guidance and strength and conditioning programs. Athletic trainers must complete an accredited training program at a four-year college or university, then pass a certification test. They work with high school, collegiate and professional athletes and have expertise in injury prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.

The Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) program is sanctioned by NSCA. This certification indicates an individual’s knowledge of athletic conditioning suitable for strength-and-exercise program development for sports, but not personal training. A CSCS has a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university, or a degree in chiropractic medicine.

A Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES), certified by NASM, designs individualized and integrated programs for recreational and competitive athletes who are looking to enhance their skills to reach the highest performance level. A PES certification signifies a four-year degree and is the most advanced NASM certification.

Exercise Physiologist Certified (EPC), from ASEP, indicates that the fitness professional has a college degree in exercise science or physiology and a better-than-average grade point in exercise science, kinesiology and sports-nutrition coursework. Exercise physiologists identify the mechanisms behind physical activity and offer advice and services based on an individual’s interests.

A Personal Fitness Training (PFT) degree from Purdue University is the first four-year degree program for personal training in the nation. The program, which was introduced in fall 2005, includes eight clinical-practice experiences in combination with exercise science concepts and techniques.

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