Why staying in your lane in the fitness industry is BS
Mike T Nelson, CSCS, CISSN, MSME, PhD
Imagine an eight-lane freeway in Los Angeles that’s bumper-to-bumper with Teslas and SUVs. Everyone’s in a hurry, but nobody can get anywhere until everybody gets somewhere. The ones who try to beat the odds with frantic, occasionally dangerous lane changes are greeted with middle fingers and four-letter words.
In that context, telling people to stay in their lane makes some sense.
Problem is, just about every personal trainer who expresses an opinion on exercise or nutrition is told the same thing: “You need to stay in your lane.”
I’m here to call BS on the concept that each of us has a single, narrow area of expertise from which we can never stray.
By all means, learn as much as you can about nutrition and training. Same goes for rehab, prehab, and functional movement (is there really a nonfunctional movement?).
Most of the big breakthroughs are from the crossing of different disciplines. Remember that in the fitness world, you’re dealing with other humans at a whole/ system level. I doubt a biceps or glute max ever walked into your gym on its own power, unaccompanied by XXX bones, XXX muscles, XX liters of blood, and a massive, glucose-guzzling brain.
Even when Bench Press Billy Bob comes in on Monday to work chest – because Monday is international chest day in Globo gyms everywhere – and you give him a DB Bench Press, he is using his entire body.
I figured this out decades ago, when I found a calf-training program in an old issue of Flex magazine. A bit too eager, I did the routine that afternoon in the gym. For over an hour I did every calf exercise known to man. Toes in, toes out. Heavy and light. Seated for the soleus and standing for the gastrocnemius. I even added some Mike Mentzer stuff to go “beyond failure,” which in retrospect sounds like a football coach telling his players to give 110 percent.
The next day my calves were sore. Very sore.
Two days later I could barely move my feet. I walked into the gym like a penguin with sunburned armpits and a stick up its keester.
My goal was to do exercises that didn’t involve my calf muscles. But I couldn’t find any. Even the bench press required me to activate my lower legs. It was a massive BFO (blinding flash of the obvious) to realize the human body is an elaborate, complex, intricately connected organism.
The more you learn about it, the better a trainer you’ll be. In other words, there are lots of good reasons to change lanes early and often.
I say that, of course, with two caveats.
Caveat 1: Thou Shalt Not Skip the Basics
Basics. You know, those super important things that everyone wants to skip since they are boring and not sexy. Who needs fundamental knowledge and baseline competency when we have glute max pics on Instagram?
Sadly, the fitness industry appears to be driven almost entirely by trends and a lack of the basics. You hear this from clients too. Hey, I want to add this exotic new superfood that was picked by a one-legged Amazonian tribe member only during a blue moon from the most interior part of the rainforest.
To training – bro, you need to do the triple dog drop set of pec deck, incline bench press and decline flies to really hit the muscle from all angles while holding your breath to maximize the production of anabolic triggers. Oh wait, bad idea. Do not hold your breath with weight over your cranium.
To recovery- doooooode- I just got these crazy inflatable pants that really work to help return all the bad blood back to my heart for serious recovery. So sorry to hear you have bad blood, bro – go see a doc.
You get my drift.
Keep the basics in mind. Eat higher protein with sufficient carbs and fat. Sleep – you know- actually go to bed. Train the basic movements with overload. Work to live a sustainable life that does not need 8 cups of butter coffee to keep you upright.
Boring, I know, but it works like magic.
This same idea applies to learning more about your craft. If you didn’t take much exercise physiology in college, go back and learn the basics of it.
Ditto for nutrition and everything else.
How, you ask? Go to Amazon and buy a textbook that’s out of date. If there’s a fourth edition, buy a used copy of the third. You’ll get it dirt cheap, and there’ll be hardly any difference between this one and latest version.
Now open the textbook and read it. Use supplemental materials like videos and online lectures if you get stuck. You’ll be surprised by how much you don’t know.
Caveat 2: Thou Shalt Not Create Dishwater
I have a confession: I hate soup.
My wife tells me there are some really good soups out there. I’ve just never found one.
What I do know about soup is that you can’t just toss stuff in a pot and expect it to taste like it was prepared by a trained chef. As Anatomy Trains author Tom Myers says, “Trying to combine too many things too soon ends up making dishwater rather than soup.”
You need to make sure you’ve mastered the basics and have experience before you combine items.
When I meet a new fitness trainer, I get super nervous when they don’t have an undergraduate degree in a related field, yet have 12 different cert letters after their name. That does not mean certs are bad – hell, I created my own (shameless plug for the Flex Diet Cert here), but only relying on them when they’re spread across different fields is an easy way to end up with dishwater.
The Soup Solution
The solution to combine fields is to get really good at each one first. Shocker!
My internal rule to know when I am “good enough” is twofold:
1) Does anyone pay me to do just X?
For example, I did some hands-on work in the past and then stopped doing it because I wasn’t happy with the results. In hindsight, nobody was paying me to do only hands-on work. I started again 3 years ago using a new system (Be Activated/ Reflexive Performance Reset) in addition to the knowledge I gained during my eight-year break.
That sounds great on paper, but I needed an acid test. I called around to find the most expensive soft-tissue person in my area. They were charging $150 a session. Great. I’m going to charge $200 a session, and each client will pay at the end, but only if they’re happy with the result. If they’re not happy, the session is free. I’ve now done 203 sessions, and every single person has paid me $200 at the end. I don’t expect this streak to continue forever; at some point, someone will decide it wasn’t worth that much. But I think it’s fair to say the market believes the service I provide is valuable.
2) Does anyone pay me to teach it?
Once I became an instructor for the RPR system, I felt I had both the skills and the knowledge to mix it with other things I practice and teach. That integration is another learning process in itself.
Summary (aka – too long, did not read)
By all means, swerve around in your car and change lanes.
Look at new things.
Keep in mind that you’re working with very complex human organisms (aka clients) every day. They will need more than one item to reach their goals.
In the process, though, don’t forget the basics and have metrics for when you are “good enough” in one area to start making your own soup. …
…and stay out of oncoming traffic!