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To Prevent Injury and Meet Strength Goals, Even Athletes Need Trainers

By L. K. Regan

As every weekend warrior painfully learns, a major benefit of regular exercise is reduced injury. Daily exercise actually prevents injury by building basic strength. But if you really want to reduce sports injury and increase performance, your best bet is to work with a trainer rather than on your own. According to ongoing research out of Sweden, unsupervised workouts lead to far more injuries in athletes than do supervised ones, even as they produce substantially fewer strength gains. If you're on the fence about hiring a personal trainer, this is news you might want to consider.

Intuition Confirmed
Volleyball is a high-intensity, injury-prone sport that is popular in Sweden and played there at a high level. So for the first part of this project, researchers at the University of Gothenburg sent a questionnaire to all members of Swedish elite-level volleyball teams—near the end of the season, when players are feeling the pains of months of competition. The questionnaire was returned by 158 players, about half of whom had been injured at least once during the season (the majority of injuries were in the ankle, knee or back). Almost all of the players (96 percent) reported that they spent time on additional workouts intended to prevent injury (specialized strength training in particular), but most also said that they did so without any supervision.

That fact alone perplexed the researchers, who expected elite athletes to be accessing the benefits of good training. "This is surprising since it is well-known that the training is much more effective if a coach or a physiotherapist develops an individualised programme and is present during the training sessions," says study author Sofia Augustsson, a physiotherapist. In a second section of her research recently completed, Augustsson followed up on her original study by attempting to determine just how much of an edge a good trainer can provide for a competitive athlete. So, she gave two groups of volleyball players different workout programs. One group had physiotherapists design and supervise personalized workouts; the second group had a general workout to perform on their own. The supervised athletes had a 50 percent improvement in performance on strength tests, and fewer injuries as well.

Anyone who has ever worked with a trainer can imagine how this effect is achieved—though athletes may, paradoxically, be particularly inclined to slack off in the gym. Says Augustsson, "I have a feeling that more athletes really stick to the programme and focus on the task if there is a coach present. Many players may feel that the strength and conditioning training is the boring part of their sport, which makes it tempting to 'cheat' when nobody is watching." And that cheating results not only in fewer strength gains, but also in a body that gives in to injury under pressure—precisely because base strength is not sufficiently developed.

Find a Trainer
All of this got us thinking about the importance of personal trainers to meeting fitness goals in a safe way. If you think you might be interested in working with a trainer, here are a few tips, courtesy of our regular fitness experts.

For Diakadi's Billy Polson, certifications really matter. He recommends looking for a trainer with a certification from NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine), ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), NATA (National Athletic Trainers Assoc), or NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Assoc). He advises sticking with trainers who have at least three years of experience, so that they have some practice solving a variety of problems. He also counsels caution in working with trainers who are on staff at training facilities, as this is often where junior trainers cut their teeth—a more experienced trainer is likely to work independently in a gym (rather than on staff) or work in a facility where all members work with trainers. Finally, he suggests making sure that you get an assessment of where you're beginning, so you can track your progress. "Good and experienced trainers will always carry every client through a very detailed assessment of their bodies—including strengths, weaknesses, posture issues, body measurements, and so on," he says. "And all of that is before starting any type of workout program."

University of California, Berkeley Fitness Operations Director Devin Wicks has some further things he likes to see in a trainer. He suggests meeting with a trainer and giving him a job interview before you hire him. Ask any questions you think are important, but also listen to your gut. "Training by its nature is a very personal kind of relationship," he points out. "This is someone you’re going to need to spend a lot of time with, and whom you need to be able to trust. So you need to feel out that relationship." Your trainer should be engaged and attentive, and remember what you tell him. And he should not, Wicks says, "talk over your head or make you feel stupid." He also suggests, in addition to checking certifications, that you look for a basic degree of professionalism in your trainer. "Your time with a trainer is just that—yours. So your trainer should not be wearing hot-pants and looking around the gym at the eye candy. He should be totally focused on you, professionally dressed, and completely present —cellphone off and eyes on you."

Now that you know the importance of working with a trainer, get on out there and find one!