Education and Relentless Self-Experimentation for Trainers

Here are some of the key traits I look for in a trainer when I try to get a handle on his capabilities:

  • Does he have a client training philosophy that can be explained in two sentences or less?
  • Can he explain his past, present, and future education plans?
  • Can he demonstrate flexibility in his approach based on differing requirements?
  • Has he experimented on himself in the past and can he explain the goal, method, and outcomes in a coherent manner?


My personal training philosophy is to use any and all available tools that allow me to maintain a strong, flexible, and conditioned body to maximize my health. This philosophy arose as a result of many of my ancestors meeting a premature end from heart disease.

My training philosophy for clients can be summarized as follows: “Helping my clients achieve their goals by assessing their capabilities and developing programs that take them forward.”

The key points of my client training philosophy are:

  • It's all about the client and his or her goals. It has nothing to do with me and my goals.
  • Before working with the client to achieve his goal, irrespective of what that goal is, I need to assess his current capabilities and identify any current issues he has that will impact his achieving those goals.
  • The program must take him toward his goals.

One thing that is absent from my philosophy is any reference to training protocols or tools. I’m not a bodybuilding guy, powerlifting guy, HITT guy, or CrossFit guy. However, these are sports or protocols that I may take elements from in developing programs for clients based on their training goals. I'm not a kettlebell guy, free weights guy, machine guy, or body weight guy. However, again, these are tools of the trade that I can use at the appropriate time for my clients and replace them when another tool becomes more effective.


The education process for trainers is critical—what you have done in the past may not be what you should be doing in the future. Trainers should be relentless consumers of training theories and knowledge. Formal qualifications, training books, and the internet should all be part of your past, present and future knowledge accumulation. Some trainers recommend that you spend at least ten percent of your income on developing your business and training knowledge, and I agree with this recommendation. However, I'll take it a step further and suggest that you should be spending at least six hours per week improving your training knowledge outside of any work you're doing on gaining formal qualifications. You need to invest real time and real money into improving yourself as a trainer and current or prospective business owner. In order to become a better and well-rounded trainer, it's important that you read widely. Don’t limit yourself to things that interest you or that support your mindset and philosophy. Challenge yourself and move outside of your comfort zone. You may just find something that expands your horizons and makes you a better trainer. If you dislike an article or protocol, rationalize why you dislike it. Don’t just drop it and move on.

When studying in this way, keep in mind the immortal words of Bruce Lee: “Absorb what is useful; discard what is useless.” How do you determine what is useful and what is useless? This is the age old question and not one that is easily answered. In assessing usefulness, there are three things that I normally consider:

  1. Is there some peer-reviewed research that supports the key points of the article?
  2. Is the contention being promoted by a reputable source?
  3. Is it something that I can verify for myself?

Research is a double-edged sword when it comings to assessing usefulness, as it is often a lagging indicator of progress rather than a leading indicator. That is, research often proves something to be scientifically valid long after it has become commonly used within the training fraternity. However, research does provide a large dose of credibility if it's used and interpreted correctly. Don’t be afraid to go to the original research quoted in articles and confirm for yourself that it has been correctly interpreted and aligns with the position taken by the author. This is particularly important when research is quoted within the mass media, as often only a single point is taken or a single emphasis is used that represents only a portion of the findings of the research.

Reputable sources can be a difficult area, but track records are important. Articles from Dave Tate and Jim Wendler on strength carry credibility, as these gentlemen have significant time “under the bar” and continue to successfully work with clients in this area. Rehabilitation articles from Mike Robertson and Eric Cressey fall into the same category, as does fat loss information from Alwyn Cosgrove and Lyle McDonald.


How else can you verify the effectiveness of new philosophies or training approaches? Try it yourself! Experiment with yourself before you try things on your clients if it is practical to do so. I assume that most trainers are training themselves and have goals of their own. If some new research relates to your goals, give it a go. If it works on you, try it on your clients and see if they obtain the same results.

However, there are some things to consider when it comes to self-experimentation:

  1. Don’t swap and change constantly. Give the change a chance to work.
  2. Don’t change more than one training variable at a time.
  3. Make sure you establish a baseline from which you can assess your own improvements or losses.

Don't change training variables like you change your underwear (hopefully this is daily, but you never know). In order to determine if something is effective, it must be given an opportunity to work. It should also prove to be sustainable over a longer period. Changing things around on a weekly basis will prove very little and is unlikely to help you achieve your goals. I like to try things for at least three months, particularly nutritional changes, so they get an opportunity to work (or not work, as the case may be). For example, if you want to give 5/3/1 a go, allow yourself at least three months as a trial. This will let you complete three training cycles during which you should achieve measurable gains. If you want to try the 'Warrior Diet' or 'Modified Warrior Diet,' try it for three months and assess the outcomes.

Changing only one variable at a time should be obvious but always bears repeating. Take for example changing both your nutritional program and exercise regime to try and lose body fat. This may mean switching to metabolic resistance training and intermittent fasting.

Assuming you manage to lose body fat during the period, can you reliably determine if it was metabolic resistance training, intermittent fasting, or a combination of the two that caused a reduction in body fat? Which component had the greatest impact on your reduction in body fat? Did you maximize your body fat reduction or did some other factor inhibit it?

Changing only one thing at a time allows you, within reason, to draw some conclusions on its effects and either validate or call into question the premise of the research that drove the change. Bear in mind that just because something didn’t work for you doesn't mean that it doesn’t work for anyone. However, I suggest that you continue to monitor the research with a skeptical eye to see how it advances and determine whether or not you overlooked a key component during your experiment.

Establishing a baseline is critical. If you don’t have a starting point, you can't reliably measure improvement or regression. As the old saying goes, if you aren't assessing, you’re guessing. When selecting your baseline, make sure it is appropriate to the research. Contact the author if necessary to confirm the appropriateness of your measure. Hopefully, the article itself will provide you with the key measures or some clues as to what they may be. If an article promises to increase your bench press by 10 percent, your baseline exercise is the bench press, your current one repetition maximum is the baseline measure, and a 10 percent increase in this number is the stated goal. It should be similar for body fat reductions. What is your current body fat percentage? What is it at the end of the experiment? Did it go down in line with the author’s or researcher's projections?

A final thought on self-experimentation—this is the one time when being old is an advantage. The older you are, the more opportunities you've had to experiment on yourself. My two most recent self-experiments have been with intermittent fasting and the Warrior Diet (Hefmekler Ori. Warrior Diet. Second edition, Blue Snake Books). Both of these have been promoted as effective vehicles for fat loss and both proved to be that way for me. As a result, I have promoted these options to my clients seeking to reduce their body fat levels. I'm quite comfortable doing this because I can talk them through what it has done for me, and I can provide them with some first-hand experience of what to expect. Intermittent fasting (planned fasts of up to 24 hours) can take some getting used to, and I can provide clients with insights into how to cope with perceived hunger based on what worked for me. It's important to note that completing experiments on a regular basis allows you to add tools that make you a better trainer on a continuing basis. Four successful experiments in a year add four new tools to your list of capabilities.

Experimenting on clients isn't my preference, but there are circumstances in which I will make exceptions. Experiments with clients are never done without them being fully informed of the details of the experiment. I also tell them why I believe it will help them achieve their goals and I get their consent. If I'm aware of something but have never tried it and believe it may benefit a client, I will take it to the client and discuss with him whether it's something he should pursue. If he does, we will implement the protocol after taking an appropriate baseline so that results can be measured. A strong relationship must be established with the client to ensure that feedback is obtained on the results, and you must be comfortable in the knowledge that your client is following the prescription and reporting any and all changes as things progress.

Continually build your knowledge, don’t be afraid to try new things, experiment on yourself where practicable, and continue to improve yourself and your clients.