How to Find the ‘True’ Answer in Fitness? Gurus, Personal Trainers and Science
Living in the information age, there is an absolute abundance of uncited material claiming to be factual and correct. When reading an article, for example, if you attempt to acquire its source and verify its credibility, then the chances are good that you are already much closer to getting correct, quality information. Fitness, in this aspect, is probably one of the most unregulated industries worldwide, and sometimes it can feel daunting to see so many myths circulate that are physiologically impossible, such as spot burning or ‘sweating’ fat away. These myths can end up surviving for a long time, especially with the added complications of the internet, along with the plethora of social media websites. Because of this overabundance of ‘fake news’, it is safe to say that if an article you are reading claims to be based on scientific findings, and has a reference for the information it uses, then it is most likely a reliable source of information.
Fortunately, the medical world of fitness is more regulated, and within this world people’s medical conditions are not treated with homemade remedies garnered from convincing, but ultimately false, articles or advertisements found online. Instead, fitness injuries and associated problems are treated by doctors that have received years of continuous training and education, and who must also pass a series of exams before they can start practicing. For many, it would be a very nerve-wracking situation to find out that a doctor who is treating them is lacking any form of formal education in medicine, and yet unqualified medical advice can often spread far and wide on the internet, in mere hours. Unqualified advice, even from someone who is healthy and perhaps regularly reads up on health related topics, is not advice that should be blindly followed without checking with a qualified doctor or nurse first. The same applies when it comes to personal/fitness trainers – just because someone works out regularly, does not mean that they can safely train others. There are many people living in Kuala Lumpur who live healthy lives and do regular exercise, but these two things alone do not make them qualified, and training with them may even become dangerous if an injury occurs that they do not know how to correctly handle.
While in many Western countries it is a required prerequisite for personal trainers to have some sort of basic personal trainer certificate before they begin working, in Malaysia anyone can become a personal trainer without any form of formal education. With this in mind, if you hire a trainer without double checking their credentials, it is possible that you have hired someone who is perhaps fit and seemingly knowledgeable, but has no formal education in fitness training. This can be somewhat likened to a scenario in which a person is paying medical bills to cure an illness they have, just to be treated by someone who has no medical experience, but happens to be healthy themselves. Although there may be positive examples out there where someone with no valid personal trainer certification helped a customer achieve beneficial results, I still believe that it can be likened to playing Russian Roulette with health, especially when it comes to injuries. So, considering this, does it mean that if someone earns a personal trainer certificate they will be automatically imbued with all knowledge that is required to help any client to achieve any goal, and to provide the ‘true’ information about any fitness related question?
Not necessarily. Just as in the medical field, providing an absolute ‘true’ answer is not always as straight forward as we would hope it to be. I have a client here in Kuala Lumpur who came to me for personal training, wishing mainly to focus on corrective exercises and core strengthening because she had been struggling with lower back pain. This client told me the story behind her injury, detailing how she had showed two different specialists the same MRI image of her back, and received two completely different diagnoses and treatment options. Similar to this situation, where neither treatment option was necessarily wrong and both could be beneficial, there is not always one straight answer when it comes to fitness and personal trainers. Although there are many well-established basic rules and principles when it comes to the science of fitness and exercise, it is still considered to be a very ‘young’ discipline that has just started to emerge. Being aware of the established scientific opinion helps personal trainers and others in the field of fitness to be critical towards sources that claim to provide the absolute, and only, ‘true’ answer to fitness related problems.
One of the most important parts of any research is reading the existing literature about the topic being investigated, and ensuring you are even asking the right research question. Asking the question about whether you should stretch before, or after, doing exercise would probably be too broad to thoroughly investigate and get a definite answer on, and one would most likely find existing research that in some way supports almost every different viewpoint surrounding it. Further dissecting this query, it can be noted that is not clear from the question whether ‘stretching’ is referring to a static, or a dynamic, stretch for example, or which particular muscles they want to stretch before or after what kind of exercise. Further to this, it is not clarified whether they may be stretching muscles that are already lengthened due to postural dysfunction for example, or simply stretching a short muscle. There are seemingly endless questions that can be asked to specify this query – are we talking about before or after a hypertrophy training or a boxing workout? What is the age and gender of the person asking? There are many pieces of research in which the participants are all male college students who do regular exercise – will the results of a study like this be applicable to inactive female office workers who are in their 50s for example? We also need to consider the research method of a study before we use it to answer this question – was the data collected by measuring a muscle’s electrical activity in response to a nerve stimulation by an electromyography (EMG) device, or were the participants simply rating their ‘feeling’ of tightness on a 1 to 10 scale, for example? These are just a few questions that we may need to consider before we draw a conclusion from a single study. Therefore, when you ask a seemingly simple question such as the one we mentioned above about stretching, the answer can often start with ‘it depends on…’. Many personal trainers may see this kind of answer as unknowledgeable, and dislike giving answers starting this way, but in my opinion the ability to keep an open mind in this way is why it is so important that a trainer gets certified. Many of the common personal training course providers (NASM, ACE, NSCA, etc.) put together their curriculum very carefully, based on current scientific research, and update their program regularly. Once earned, these personal training certificates need to be renewed every 2 years, and trainers are required to provide evidence of continuous education by completing accredited courses. This ensures that they consistently further their knowledge in fitness related topics, so that all personal trainers are better prepared to give appropriate and thorough answers to their clients’ questions.
Whenever I face similar questions during my personal training sessions, I prefer to explain to my clients that, according to recent research, there is some evidence indicating that doing certain things will indeed bring certain results (Or I do my homework if I don't know the answer). However, I also believe that neither scientists, nor personal trainers should ever feel that his or her knowledge is 100% valid and conclusive, as this would only open the doors to ignorance. Even some of the best scientists in history, who have made great discoveries that revolutionised the way we think and live, did not claim that they found the ‘ultimate truth’. It therefore surprises me when gurus or personal trainers, without any formal education, advertise their method, program or workshop where they claim to share the ‘true answer’ to weight-loss, exercise, and other fitness-related problems. If the definite truth really existed, and someone came up with a true ‘one-size-fits-all’ method, then such a person would most likely be revered worldwide as the best fitness guru to have ever lived. There are many fantastic and knowledgeable personal trainers out there, not only in Kuala Lumpur but all over the world, and one of the most common reoccurring themes amongst them is the attitude of ‘the more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know’.
Personal trainers in Kuala Lumpur, and everywhere else, should strive to provide you with the best and most up-to-date information, whilst also continuously educating themselves. If you ask two different personal trainers in Kuala Lumpur the same question, you may get two different answers, but this does not mean that either is necessarily wrong. With this in mind, just because an unqualified person is perhaps confident, and claims to be sure of all the answers, it does not mean that they are correct, or even trustworthy. What progresses science forward is the continuous questioning of already established truths, and never becoming too comfortable with the knowledge we already have. This is equally as true when it comes to exercise, so always be careful with gurus who claim to know everything without question, whether they are certified or not.