The Three Rules

Last Friday as I was finishing my workout another trainer who rents from the gym came in with three obese clients. She led them right past the MedX machines, past the barbells and dumbbells, had them pick up sledgehammers, then took them outside behind the building. One of the bay doors was open, so I walked over to get a closer look at what she had them doing. I expected something stupid, but what I saw shocked me.

All three were standing around the same tire swinging sledgehammers at it. Having obese people in obviously poor condition performing hard physical work in the hot sun is stupid. Sledgehammer training is stupid. Having people swing any hard, heavy object while standing as close to one another as they were is really stupid. If one of them lost their grip or balance the situation could have very quickly gone from stupidity to tragedy. If you have three obese people standing outside in the hot sun around the same tire swinging sledgehammers at it you have no business training anyone.

Sledgehammers: great for breaking up concrete or pounding fence posts, NOT for exercise.

Sledgehammers: great for breaking up concrete or pounding fence posts, NOT for exercise.

There are three rules every trainee or personal trainer should follow and this breaks all of them.

1. Do what works best for each individual and their goals

Use the most effective methods and tools available for yours or your clients’ goals. Not what is popular, trendy, or fun. Not what they think they need because their friends or some celebrity, athlete, or television doctor or “trainer” recommends it.  What matters most is whether and how well it works.

Proponents claim sledgehammer training is an effective way to improve metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning, core strength, and grip and forearm strength. However, since it does not provide relatively balanced, continuous loading for any of the muscles involved it is relatively inefficient and ineffective for all of these goals. Chin ups or close, underhand-grip pull downs and deadlifts or trunk extensions and compound rows would be far more effective and allow for more efficient resistance progression.

There is no general factor of functional ability, health, or physical appearance that can’t be improved more effectively by proper training with conventional bodyweight, free weight and machine exercises. If you have some empty floor space and a chin up bar, an adjustable barbell or dumbbells, or a basic line of decent machines, you have no reason to swing sledgehammers or kettlebells, flip tires, drag sleds, throw medicine balls, lift sandbags, wave ropes, do Olympic lifting or plyometrics, balance on Bosu balls or wobble boards, or any similar nonsense.

It makes no sense for that “trainer” to have those people swinging sledgehammers at a tire when there are barbells, dumbbells, and MedX  machines inside the building only a few feet away.

2. Don’t hurt anyone

All else being equal, use the safest methods and tools available.

A major goal of any exercise program should be to improve your long term health and functional ability. Obviously, getting injured or putting a lot of unnecessary wear and tear on your body is counterproductive to this. While any physically demanding activity carries some risk of injury and causes some wear, when done properly and with proper equipment exercise is one of the safest and least damaging things you can do.

To minimize the risk of injury during exercise it is necessary to move in a slow and controlled manner to avoid rapid acceleration and positions where the involved tissues might be excessively stretched or compressed so the force the body encounters stays within safe levels. This means lifting and lowering the weights or your body under strict control, not swinging, flipping, throwing, yanking, jerking, bouncing, etc.

Any exercise that requires a weight or the body to be swung, jerked, etc. should be avoided. Whatever muscles are involved can be trained more safely and effectively with an exercise which can be performed with a strict lifting and lowering movement.

Having people perform any exercise that involves people swinging or throwing any heavy weight within arms reach of another person is almost unbelievably stupid and if you tell people to do this you deserve to be punched in the face.

3. Don’t waste time

All else being equal, use the most efficient methods and tools available.

If you have a choice between different methods and tools which are similarly safe and effective, choose the one that makes the most economical use of your resources. You have a limited amount of time, money, and space, and life is too short and there are too many worthwhile things to do to waste any of them.

If you are a personal trainer, respect your clients’ time and money as well and don’t waste it. Don’t tell them to work out for an hour three or four times a week when they can get the same or better results training less than half an hour once or twice weekly. Don’t charge them for an hour, and have them spend half of that or more doing things they could have done just as well without your supervision or instruction or don’t need or benefit from (like warming up on a “cardio” machine for fifteen minutes or doing fifteen to twenty minutes of “core” work).

Be flexible, but don’t compromise results, safety, or efficiency.

Individual goals, health and functional ability, and response to exercise varies. Constraints like scheduling, space, and available equipment varies. Although the principles of effective exercise are the same for everyone there is a lot of flexibility in how they can and should be applied based on these things. Exercise programming needs to fit the individual, not the other way around. As Ryan Hall put it in his 2005 Indy High Intensity Training Seminar presentation on genetics and individual variability in response to exercise, “…all cookie-cutter programs are null and void”.

This flexibility should exist within an objective framework, though, which in addition to being based on evidence of what does and does not work prioritizes results, safety, and efficiency. Treat everyone as an individual, but use what works best for them and don’t hurt anyone or waste their time.

Update: I forgot to mention although sledgehammers should not be swung for exercise, they are well suited to and can be used safely and effectively for strengthening the grip and forearm in wrist adduction and abduction when lifted and lowered in a slow and controlled manner. Systematic resistance progression in these exercises can be achieved by adjusting the distance of the grip from the head of the hammer, with the distance in inches or centimeters marked along the handle.

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36 Responses to The Three Rules

  1. Matt February 21, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

    Drew,
    This reminds me of a couple years ago when I was living in S. Miami (Coral Gables) and I was walking through Merrick Park and saw Cross Fit in action. I thought I’d investigate the screams I heard and low and behold, someone got hit on the foot with a sledge hammer. I’ve often wondered how often this type of stupidity occurs. I can only assume this wasn’t the exception. I don’t fault the innocent public whom are simply ignorant, but I think it’s malpractice for a trainer to recommend such nonsense. I’m seriously thinking about never referring to myself as a personal trainer again. It’s a term that I find insulting given the frauds that are identified by it.

    Matt

    • Drew Baye February 21, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

      Matt,

      Unfortunately with the increase in popularity of this kind of nonsense these kind of accidents probably happen quite often. If anyone else has examples I’d like to hear them.

      I prefer “exercise instructor” for the same reason but use “personal trainer” for marketing since it is the popular term.

      • Matt February 21, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

        Drew,

        I agree about the terminology – I used to strictly use “exercise professional”, but invariably this leads to confusion so personal training makes my services more relatable to the average person. Another quick story, I worked in a YMCA with a member base of more than 10,000 people and a trainer injured two people simultaneously. She was training two people and had one subject running backwards on a treadmill and the other attempting to stand on a BOSU. The first subject lost her footing on the treadmill and was literally catapulted into the brick wall behind the treadmill. The other became distracted upon witnessing this and fell to the ground striking her head. Both left in ambulances and were seriously injured. To my knowledge, this trainer is still employed by the YMCA and heads up large group exercise classes. I was the “weirdo” because I had people train slowly and to failure – very dangerous!

        • Drew Baye February 21, 2013 at 7:27 pm #

          Matt,

          If the public were better educated about proper exercise people like the YMCA “trainer” you mentioned would be out of work and almost all personal training studios and all of the CrossFit “boxes”, and all the companies producing “functional training” crap would be out of business.

  2. Ben Tucker February 21, 2013 at 6:25 pm #

    Great article, Drew! Spot on!
    That first paragraph was a laugh out loud moment.
    Do these other trainers even know who you are and your contributions to the exercise community?

    It seems Arthur made the most progress towards proper exercise with Nautilus, but it appears as if the exercise industry has fallen even further into the dark ages.
    You’ve been at this for quite some time. Do you ever see it getting better?

    • Drew Baye February 21, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

      Ben,

      No, they have no idea. The owner and I have had a few discussions about exercise and I talked with her about this incident (and she’s going to be talking with the trainer about it) but I try to avoid talking with the other trainers.

      I think eventually it will get better, but it will take a while. Ironically, I think CrossFit might even help in the long run because it is such an extreme example of all the functional training nonsense and so many ridiculous, harmful practices the damage it does in the long term will cause the pendulum to swing in the other direction towards sane, safe, evidence-based exercise.

  3. Matt February 21, 2013 at 7:36 pm #

    Drew,

    Again, a great point. I recognize my responsibility is largely to educate people concerning proper exercise. Fortunately sites like yours promote and dispense valuable information, but they are few are far between. Thanks for furthering my education and understanding regarding HIT.

    Matt

    • Drew Baye February 21, 2013 at 7:41 pm #

      Matt,

      You’re welcome. Hopefully we can prevent a few people from getting their feet smashed with sledgehammers.

  4. Avi Ratica February 21, 2013 at 8:05 pm #

    Drew,After ACL Reconstruction, my whole life seems to be about not hurting myself and I really belive that my one set to failure slowly is the best way for me to excercise and it does not hurt at all. On a trip to Las Vegas about a month ago, I had Markus Rheinhardt take me through a proper whole body workout to know what HIT feels like. I had to spend 20 min sitting down before I could leave but, my joints felt just fine. Every time I go to my Gym it seems like people are really trying to hurt themselves!

    • Drew Baye February 21, 2013 at 8:22 pm #

      Avi,

      The ignorance and stupidity of the “experts” in the fields of exercise science, strength and conditioning, and the fitness and bodybuilding media and the dishonesty of people marketing various bogus training equipment and supplements has resulted in a public severely misinformed about what exercise is and how to do it. Of course, they’re not really trying to hurt themselves, but that’s exactly what will happen when they follow many mainstream exercise recommendations.

  5. randy February 21, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    Maybe this trainer works part-time in a prison, and just lost track.

    • Drew Baye February 21, 2013 at 8:39 pm #

      Randy,

      I think you’d have to be much smarter to guard prisoners doing hard labor.

  6. Steven Turner February 21, 2013 at 9:38 pm #

    Hi Drew,

    The only place you can get away with such stupidity seems to be in the fitness industry imagine if you went into a workplace and took three obeses workers out into the sun and asked them to bang in pegs all day. My understanding is that all fitness courses have modules of OH&S or risk management in them. Or do fitness courses have a module called “stupididty”.

    • Drew Baye February 21, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

      Steven,

      If people handled sledgehammers in a similarly thoughtless manner on a job site they would probably be fined by OSHA for safety violations.

  7. Matt February 21, 2013 at 10:41 pm #

    Drew,

    http://issuu.com/nasmorg/docs/opt_study?mode=window&viewMode=singlePage&backgroundColor=%23222222

    When you get 5 minutes – please look at the above link. Supposedly NASM is the leader in evidence-based training. This goes a long way in explaining why things are so screwed up. This is the kind of misinformation that makes our jobs harder and misleads the public. Arthur talked about studies that never even take place – what a genius he was. These organizations represent the antithesis of HIT and they endorse absurd practices like balancing on balls and swinging heavy objects.

    Matt

    • Drew Baye February 23, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

      Matt,

      I think NASM has confused “evidence-based” with “trend-based”.

  8. Bob Clayson February 22, 2013 at 1:27 am #

    Drew and Company,

    I have read HIT resources and followed mostly HIT protocols for nearly ten years with great success; about 30 lbs of muscle added in that time period. I appreciate the amazing contribution that great people like Drew have added to fitness and health while keeping in mind efficiency and being rigorously intellectually honest.

    However. . . .

    My biggest frustration with most HIT proponents is that they create a set of personal values which they then insist should be applied to everyone else, or they are deemed “stupid” “idiotic” “ignorant” etc.

    While 3 people swinging sledgehammers next to each other is certainly a high risk activity, so are most sports when compared to HIT training. It is interesting to me to see an almost Universal acceptable, and even frequent recommendation, that one can use HIT principles to train for a sport like football, hockey, lacrosse, basketball, or soccer, which are all HIGH RISK activities, not so different from Olympic lifting, Powerlifting, plyometrics, crossfit, or strongman training. Yet those who use these sports as a means for fitness and not just and end unto themselves is deemed bereft of sense.

    The argument of course can be made that you can still minimize risk by training properly with barbells or machines, rather than doubling up on dangerous and gradually degrading activities. I do also think that participants should be made aware of the risks and potential accumulative damage of such activities. But many of these people already know the risks and accept them. It is likely that they have a different value set than most of us HITers, just as most who join the armed forces, become Fire Fighters, or other dangerous professions may knowingly endanger their health because they value something else; excitement, entertainment, glory, honor, etc.

    • Drew Baye February 22, 2013 at 9:50 am #

      Bob,

      Exercise is not sport, or recreation, or public or national service. A certain level of risk is inherent in those activities and by participating you accept them, but it is not necessary for exercise.

      While people do have different values, not all of them are rational, and the more likely explanation is they are ignorant of proper exercise principles.

  9. ad ligtvoet February 22, 2013 at 6:56 am #

    Drew,
    It’s not better here in the netherlands.The hypes in the US will be introduced always with some time lag.Bootcamp is hot , zumba on its return and crossfit starts to become booming.First these things are picked up(internet,magazinez etc.) by the fitness crowd but everytime these hypes become published in a newspaper as the “new method from the US’the general public starts to pick it up and asking for it.Same with tv programms like Obese.A few pre selected obese persons will be followed a year on their road to a healthier body.Strict diet and all the nonsense under the sun regarding activity(I refuse to call it exercise).This under the supervision of some personal trainer who will be afterwards the man to go to for becoming healthier. It’s about time that they could be made responsible for longterm damage (skelleton etc.) done to the objects just as e.g doctors when making mistakes.
    Who knows what the future will bring regarding all this nonsense.With some luck I can convince a construction worker that he should pay me for doing his activities since that will give him more fitness while I psyche him up all the time.
    I see some idiot things everyday since I work at a comercial low budget gym (very hard on the mind but luckely I also have my own facility where I instruct according ‘exercise’principles). Besides the activities I really get nuts when seeing almost everyone spending more time watching their smartphone then actually doing something.And now from inside the fitness industry there is a strong promotion for selling fitness apps.Nobody has to think for a workout programm,just follow what the app sends.
    I just typed this in between so excuses if it reads a bit incoherent.
    ad

  10. marklloyd February 22, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

    Proper exercise isn’t fun. Trainers bear some blame for dangerous methods, but I assume we’re discussing mentally competent adult subjects, who’ve -chosen- novelty over common sense, as many do, in all aspects of their lives, from & diet to romance.

  11. Vanner February 22, 2013 at 6:38 pm #

    It’s funny, because I see this kind of training all over the net and in small box gym near my work. What’s unfortunate is that these folks aren’t even improving the skill of using a sledge hammer. When I was younger, I had a job helping to mark out basements on constructions sites, and it was a very controlled and precise movement to hit a 2×2 stake with a 5lb sledge and not miss or shatter the stake (or your shin). I think the same way about kettle-bells, club-bells, kipping pull-ups, dive-bomber push-ups, ect… these are skill based movements. Unless you compete or have an application of such movements, why would you do them?

    BTW Drew, have you ever posted about the considerations for incorporating HIT with other activities? For example, I Nordic ski twice a week for several hours. The Nordic skiing exhausts my lower body, and lumbar for a few days; however, my upper body does not get the same kind of stimulation for gaining/maintaining strength.

    I’m wondering what kind of considerations I should look at for balancing my HIT exercise with my Nordic skiing, or other fun pursuits such as a 5k race.

    • Drew Baye February 23, 2013 at 12:29 pm #

      Vanner,

      I started writing a post a while back on how a high intensity training program should be structured around athletic training and martial arts due to the length will probably end up publishing it as an e-book when I’m done with other writing projects.

      • Vanner February 25, 2013 at 11:44 am #

        Sounds good – I think there would be a high value in such a book. Good info on the integration of HIT with sports seems to be lacking.

  12. Ben Tucker February 22, 2013 at 8:19 pm #

    Drew,

    Can you tell from a few sessions in if a client is going to quit? I can. It seems after the 3rd or 4th week, when they realize they have to actually work, you can read the writing on the wall.

    I wish I had more successful cases. They get stronger, sure, but most can’t even see their muscles manifest because they simply will not change they’re eating habits. I make it a point to bring out the 90/10 ratio of 90%diet/10% exercise.

    A few implement a calorie deficit and enjoy success. It’s very rewarding.

    Would you mind weighing in on this?

    • Drew Baye February 23, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

      Ben,

      Not always, but it is often obvious within a few weeks whether someone is willing to do what is necessary to get the results they want or whether they will quit and go look for someone else who will tell them what they want to hear rather than what they need to know.

  13. Steven Turner February 23, 2013 at 6:11 am #

    Hi Bob,

    In my time I have engaged in many HIGH RISK activites but most were of my own choice, many things that I would not do again.

    Your right many activites could be precieved as exercise my point was that manual labour work such as banging in pegs with sledge hammers has been replaced with more modern machinery. The reason for this is that repetitive type manual labour work has caused major injuries to many people. I beleive that skeletons have been found that clearly have shown repetitive type manual labour injuries. I believe that we now have much safer ways to exercise.

    I would argue that people know the risk of this type physical activity, I would think that if the PT had informed these people of the high risk they would not be engaging in such activities.

    • Vanner February 25, 2013 at 1:48 pm #

      Sounds about right to me Steven.

      If you needed evidence, you could look at the injury list of x-fitters, or the worn out joints of roofers, or other general contractors who seem to acquire bad backs or knees. Of course this is speculative and based on my personal observations; you can also acquire a bad back by sitting all day (another kind of repetitive stress).

  14. Pete Collins February 24, 2013 at 5:25 pm #

    Watch out, it will get worse with a new episode of Biggest Loser about to start in Australia.
    I think it is important to focus on the process, not so much person.The ultimate responsibility must lie with the leaders of the industry, Fitness First, AFI etc are not leaders they are churn and burn businesses. Their business model is about glorifying personal trainers and these young guys and girls pump themselves up on rubbish training and leadership that is not legislated against. Problem is HIT protocols are not sexy enough in the general public domain, human attitudes are the challenge also, I spoke with a girl the other day who broke her foot doing pump class and has sore hips, her attitude? ‘I don’t care if I am in pain when I get old, I wanna look good now’ I know I can turn her around however it would take much of my time invested but I think you guys know what I mean.

    I once saw a guy on his last rep of heavy dumbell side laterals( he was swinging the weights ), as he failed on the negative stroke, a girl walked under the dumbell, hit her head, blood everywhere, ER job, my safety observation? badly set up gym, too much clutter, music too loud and she was wearing Ipod, man it was like madness in there.

    Cheers, Pete

    • Drew Baye March 6, 2013 at 12:25 pm #

      Pete,

      These kind of accidents would almost never happen if people exercised properly, but I don’t see the situation changing any time soon. I recommend that most people work out at home and avoid all that nonsense.

  15. Steven Turner February 24, 2013 at 6:56 pm #

    Hi Ben,

    If I could add a few points to Drew response inregards to retaining clients and what I have found.

    In the article that Arthur Jones wrote about the Break In Period some clients who are grossly overweight or underweight may need an exteneded break in period at a low elvel of intensity – worth the read it may help.

    Some people just don’t like hard work this may require more time educating the client on the required levels of intensity.

    Also remember that of everyone who joins a gym for the first time withing a few months 4 out of five do not attend the gym again.

    I don’t think whay you have discovered is any thing different to the “norm” with respect to trainees.

    I know that Doug McGuff from BBS said that most trainees who they retain have come from word of mouth from their long term clients.

    Keep at it though and best of luck.

  16. Mike Chambers February 27, 2013 at 11:44 am #

    Hi Drew,

    This is another great article! I guess common sense isn’t all that common. Six weeks ago, I started using a consolidation routine and once a week I do a set of deadlifts, dips and close grip pulldowns to complete failure, along with a Paleo diet. Now most of my T-shirts are getting very tight and I have an extra inch in the waist of my pants. The workouts and diets work if you work them, I will never go back to the old way. Thanks again!

  17. Jake February 27, 2013 at 5:35 pm #

    Great Post Drew! I have a patient that plays college baseball. The trainer had him throwing medicine balls. Well long story short he took a 15lb medicine ball to the head and it knocked him out cold!!! Lucky he didn’t suffer a spinal fracture and steal his dreams of playing pro! It is sad what passes as training for these athletes! They take enough beatings on the field and then have to take one in the gym……. Makes no sense.

    Keep up the great work!!

    • Drew Baye March 3, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

      Jake,

      You’re correct, it doesn’t make any sense. A lot of what is taught as exercise makes no sense from a rational, evidence-based perspective. The problem is most people are not consistently rational and are either uninformed or misinformed where exercise science is concerned.

  18. Brian March 6, 2013 at 1:54 am #

    Excellent article Drew! It made me laugh just thinking of all the things I have seen at my gym. I belong to a franchise gym. The equipment and facility are excellent but they contract with a company for personal trainers. These clowns are all the same – newly minted with some certificate, no real experience and almost always out of shape! How can you dare claim to know what you are doing with no experience and being overweight and out of shape yourself? Seriously…would you hire/trust a 20 year old girl with 40 inch thighs or a 50 yr old man with 10 inch arms and a 50 inch waist?? No…I am not exaggerating either! Don’t even get me started on their horrible techniques!

    The worst of all is a 40 something character I nicknamed ‘Batman’ because he loves to do exercises upside down and he used to wear a gas mask (Really! I swear!) before buying one of those weird O2 elevation training masks. His client training involves getting completely out of shape beginners to go balls to the wall with high volume training – whipping ropes, dragging sleds, those weird dumbbell/plank/row/kickback moves and burpees. Can you imagine that? Making overweight, out of shape, never been off the couch, 30/40/50 somethings do that garbage? No wonder they never come back after their first 2 or 3 sessions! You’re breaking their will and probably giving them tremendous amounts of DOMS to last for months.

    Now, to the casual observer, he looks great. He does have an excellent physique. However, if you pay attention, he wears tons of wrist, elbow and knee wraps/supports and clearly has trouble walking some days! I feel like grabbing him and saying “Geez, buddy, get a clue already.” That high volume crap is grinding him into a nub.

    All I can say is I used to have soreness and achy joints. Since switching to HIT a few years ago, I have not had a single injury or bad day after. I am still learning and perfecting my HIT skills. Just when I think I have it down, I realize how ignorant I am. lol

    PS- some background info on me. I was a certified personal trainer (ACE) in 1990. And honestly, after about 6 months of training people, I knew ACE was almost worthless. I took it upon myself to read, learn and grow an always kept my mind open. But, yes, I was a victim of the Weider machine! I remembering watching Heavy Duty and laughing it off, I read all the Weider articles slamming it and believed in those BS Weider Principles…so much time and energy wasted! So little results! When I backed off on the volume and took more rest (forced to because of all the soreness and injuries) I suddenly got stronger! Then I would fall back into the same trap…working out more, longer, harder. Then I got hurt, had to rest and came back better than ever and made progress. Wash, rinse, repeat! Finally, I got it! HIT saved me.

    • Drew Baye March 6, 2013 at 1:03 pm #

      Brian,

      I started out following the same kind of high volume, high frequency, multi-set routines and it took me a few years to come around as well. Unfortunately that’s what’s popular, and most people will do what they see other people doing or read about in popular magazines and web sites without questioning it. Not everybody has good fortune to be exposed to correct information early on or the critical thinking skills to recognize it when they do. Recognizing our own ignorance in a particular field of knowledge is the first step towards remedying it.

      I’ve had a lot of people contact me about this saying I’ve gone too far calling people “fucking idiots” and that if someone likes to train in a different way I should respect that. It just shows they don’t get it. This is exercise, not recreation or sport. Exercise is not entertainment, it is for stimulating improvements in functional ability and health. Whether something is fun or whether someone likes a particular movement or activity has nothing to do with it. The things you mention – whipping ropes, sled dragging, dumbbell complexes – are objectively less effective, less safe, and less efficient for the purpose of exercise. If a person wants to do those things any way they are either ignorant of proper exercise or doing it for reasons other than physical improvement (recreation, socializing, reinforcing a particular self-image, etc.), or probably both.

      • Brian March 6, 2013 at 2:23 pm #

        EXACTLY! And I feel it is fair game to call them “fucking idiots”! For one simple reason – people expect a trainer to keep them SAFE and INJURY-FREE! If they want to goof off and whip ropes and be less efficient and effective…fine…as long as the client is fully aware of this. But putting someone at risk of injury or harm is inexcusable – ergo, trainers that do it are fucking idiots.

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