I started out as a personal trainer, some 15-odd years ago.
Based in Miami, I ran a pretty successful training business and worked with clients of all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life. I can’t remember how many people I trained exactly, but I imagine it must have been in the hundreds all told.
Now, on the exercise side of things, I had no problem. Once my clients got in the gym, I knew I could motivate them to do their absolute best. We had amazing workouts that lead to impressive strength and fitness improvements.
Sometimes, however, that just wasn’t enough.
You see, most of my clients came to me because they wanted to lose fat. Often, a lot of it. And despite the butt-kicking workouts, I couldn’t always produce the jaw-dropping body transformations I knew were possible.
To be honest, though, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was missing.
They just weren’t eating right. And no matter what we did during our 3-5 hours together each week, it was the other 160-or-so hours that made all the difference.
So, over the last 10 years, I’ve made it my mission to get very good at the nutrition side of fitness coaching. And, in working with over 50,000 clients, I’ve discovered 7 key insights that I wish I would have known back when I started out.
Insight #1: 90% of clients want to lose fat, 100% of clients need body transformation of some kind
Back when I was in Miami, I realized that having clients who weren’t eating right was a big problem. My back-of-the-napkin stats showed that about 90% of my clients wanted to lose fat, and all of them needed body transformation of some kind.
I also realized that those sorts of changes can’t be done in the gym alone. If they’re spending 3 hours a week with me in the gym training, I thought, and the other 165 hours a week, on their own, eating poorly…then their progress is going to suck.
And unfortunately, in some cases, it did, for that very reason. In other cases, progress was just okay, when it should have been good. In others still, it was good when it should have been great.
That’s when I realized something important about nutrition…
Insight #2: Nutrition is always the limiting factor in body transformation.
The closer I looked, the more I realized that once I got the client in the gym and working out 3 times a week, keeping the intensity as high as they could manage, it didn’t really matter how we trained.
Sure, if I could get them to come in for 1 or 2 more hours a week, well that would change a few things. But given 3 high-intensity workouts a week, which is what most clients were able to do, body comp change (i.e., fat loss, for the most part) was pretty much the same no matter what we did.
What sped things up significantly, however, was nutrition change. And in some cases, it didn’t just speed things up. It made the otherwise impossible, well, possible.
By changing nutrition habits, I was able to help clients reach goals they had long since given up on. We were breaking through plateaus and seeing results even I was surprised by.
That’s when I became fascinated (some might say “obsessed”) with sport nutrition. I had seen first-hand what was possible, and I wanted to immerse myself in it, master it, and figure out how to teach it to all kinds of clients — especially the ones I hadn’t been able to train successfully.
Soon after, I shut down my training business, left Miami and set out to learn everything I could on the subject. But … where to go?
Insight #3: No one is really teaching fitness professionals how to become effective nutrition coaches.
When I set out to learn sport nutrition (and I now say “sport and exercise nutrition” because I wanted to learn how to coach ALL the people I was training, not just the athletes), I quickly realized that there was almost no place to go.
There were weekend certifications, there were registered dietetics programs, and there was graduate school. And none of these options is specifically designed to teach sport and exercise nutrition.
In the end, I did choose the third option – grad school. Ultimately, I went to study in the Exercise and Nutrition Lab at the University of Western Ontario, and wrapped up my PhD work in Exercise Physiology and Nutrient Biochemistry.
But in school, I never learned what I set out to learn — exercise and sport nutrition coaching. However, the PhD did open innumerable doors. And it made possible what I do today.
Nowadays, I run a fitness and nutrition coaching company that changes tens of thousands of lives every year. And I still conduct studies from time to time through my affiliation with the University of Texas and Eastern Michigan University.
And one of those studies forever changed the way I coach…
Insight #4: Exercise alone doesn’t work.
A few years back I worked on a study at the University of Texas. We wanted to test the effects of exercise alone — without any change in diet. Pay close attention here, folks, because the results surprised even me.
The study looked at 100 sedentary participants over the course of 12 weeks. Half of them were told to do nothing but show up for measurement sessions (the control group). The other half were given:
- an intensive 12 week training program, designed by me
- 3 hours/week of weight training, supervised by a strength coach
- 2+ hours/week of group exercise or interval training, supervised by an exercise coach
- no diet change
These individuals, as stated above, did no exercise before the study began. As a result of this sedentary lifestyle, they averaged between 35% and 40% body fat (according to DEXA scans).
Now, it’s important to note that we didn’t alter the participants eating at all. And we did this on purpose. We wanted to test the effects of exercise alone without diet. In other words, the question became:
“Without a dietary intervention, can exercise alone reshape a person’s body?”
At the end of the 12 week study, we got our answer:
Without dietary control, 12 weeks of high intensity training produced a fairly disappointing 1% loss of body fat. In terms of raw data, the participants lost only 1 pound of fat and gained 2 pounds of lean body mass vs. the placebo group.
Frankly, that sucks.
Sure, cynics might argue that the training program was flawed; had it been this way or that way, it would have worked better. But I don’t think so.
Keep in mind, I designed the program and have some experience in this area, having worked with nearly every top coach in the business and being one myself.
Furthermore, each session was supervised by highly qualified coaches, so there was ample quality control.
So ignore this data at your peril, because as we shall see, there’s more of it to come. Here’s the bottom line...
Insight #5: If a client doesn’t change their nutrition, all the effort in the gym is largely wasted.
If a client doesn’t change their nutrition, nothing we as trainers and coaches do in the gym will matter when it comes to body comp change (fat loss, muscle gain). And when 90% of clients want fat loss and nearly 100% require body comp change, that’s a real problem.
Simply put, the last 25 years of published research show that, while exercise alone can promote VERY small changes in body fat and lean mass, those changes are almost negligible. In fact, one published review, a meta-analysis of over 700 previous exercise studies done over 25 years, showed that about 6 months of supervised exercise programming will produce only 9lbs of weight lost.
If we assume 50% of that weight lost is fat (which is a safe assumption, based on the research), that means that clients can expect to lose around 4.5lbs of fat during a 6 month training program.
So, let’s assume a client meets with his/her trainer 4 times per week for $50 per hour. That’s $200 per week, $800 per month, and $4,800 for 6 months. All for 4.5lbs of fat lost?
That’s a cost of just over $1000 per pound of fat lost. After all that time and money spent, would an overweight client even notice a 4.5lb fat loss? Not likely.
Fortunately, there is a better way…
Insight #6: Exercise AND nutrition coaching — together — work even better than clients expect.
The upshot of all of this is that trainers and coaches need to integrate nutrition into their practice. Without it, the results will be consistently disappointing with all but the few driven clients who are changing their diet anyway.
But what happens when you DO integrate training and nutrition?
About 3 years ago, we set out to answer that. And the answer is that when training and nutrition are integrated in the coaching process, body composition change increases by a factor of 3, at the very least. Here’s how I know.
In 2007 we began building what would eventually become something called the Lean Eating Coaching program. And by the end of this year, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 clients will have successfully completed this program.
Because the program is entirely online, we keep data on every relevant domain, and with that data, we constantly test new coaching ideas. It’s a real-world research lab, working with people in their everyday lives. So, in essence, we’re quietly conducting what I believe is the largest body transformation research project of its kind.
So, what have we found?
Well, during the 6 month, online-only Lean Eating program, the average fat loss is around 15lbs. That’s at least 3X what we would expect without nutrition change. Keep in mind, that’s without us ever meeting our clients in person.
If our client also sees a trainer in-person, i.e., they use our exercise and nutrition system while finding a coach to help keep intensity up in the gym, we see closer to 25lbs of fat loss in 6 months.
Of course, these are just the averages. Top end results are even more impressive. Top performers, the real go-getters that coaches love, are losing up to 60lbs in 6 months. It’s quite amazing.
So with 6 months of the right exercise and the right nutrition programming, supervised by a trainer, the cost per pound of fat loss can go down from $1000 per pound to $100 per pound. That’s nearly 10X more fat loss and 10X more cost effectiveness.
And that’s what we should expect: 3-10X better numbers with effective nutrition coaching. The problem is, no one is really teaching this stuff.
Which leads to my final insight…
Insight #7: Someone ought to teach fitness professionals how to deliver effective nutrition coaching
I mean, seriously, what have people been waiting for all these years? It’s clear that training and nutrition belong together. So, why have we kept them separate? Maybe it’s that nutritionists have always felt like food was “their domain.” Trainers always felt like training was “their domain.” And neither group felt like they had the power to integrate the two.
But, guess what…once upon a time, physical therapists and trainers felt the same way. Trainers never used any physical therapy techniques. And physical therapists never used training techniques. But 8 years ago that all changed.
Physical therapy techniques started being incorporated in the personal training environment. So we embraced things like movement screens and corrective exercise. Now, in the gym, we screen our clients, help them with muscle imbalances, and help them avoid injuries.
About 3 years ago, I figured it was time to do the same with nutrition. And, in March of 2010, I launched a comprehensive nutrition education program for elite fitness professionals called The Precision Nutrition Certification Program. It’s designed for, and meant to be used in, a personal training or strength coaching setting.
Trust me, there’s no other educational program of this caliber with that focus. I can tell you that, because if there was, I would have taken it myself. Because when I started out as a trainer in Miami, years ago, that’s exactly what I needed.
So make no mistake, if you’re looking for the future of personal training, look no further. It’s in body transformation. And those fitness professions who’ll excel will be the ones the master the art and science of both training and nutrition coaching.