Sometimes I joke around that my PhD was almost worthless. Heck, a few weeks ago, I even mentioned the idea in a PTontheNet article, 7 Personal Training Insights That Rocked My World.
In that article, I tell the story of how I first realized that exercise doesn’t do much for body transformation; which is a real problem since 100% of my clients (and yours) actually need a transformation of some kind.
I also talk about another discovery: the realization that nutrition isn’t just important in the personal training environment, it’s everything.
So today, I’d like to focus on the nutrition education part. In other words, once you realize that you absolutely need to incorporate nutrition coaching into what you’re doing as a fitness professional, where do learn that coaching?
Well, for me, when I first decided to build my nutrition toolset, I quickly realized that there was almost no place to go. In my search, there were basically three options, each with some pros and a lot of cons.
Here’s what I found:
Option #1: Weekend Nutrition Certification.
In my search, I saw hundreds of nutrition “certifications.” Most of these consisted of some kind of weekend seminar you attend. And an exam at the end of the seminar. (Unfortunately, some don’t even go as far as using an exam.) Of course, there are pros and cons to this approach.
- Pros: With this option, I could have marketed myself as a nutritionist, or something to that effect. Also, it would have been inexpensive. And it would have been easy.
- Cons: Let’s face it; this option is basically a merit-less rubber stamp. I wouldn’t have really been much better for having taken the course. And that was the whole point. Not to get “certified.” But to get better. Because I had (and still have) lots of room to grow.
For my part, I opted not to do this sort of cert, because I felt like it was far too basic. Again, I didn’t just want a piece of paper. I legitimately wanted to learn everything I could to master the science and application of nutrition. And I wanted to do this for two reasons: so I’d be better, and so my clients would get better results.
Option #2: Become a Registered Dietitian (RD).
I also thought briefly about becoming an RD, which entails a bachelor's degree, doing a series of clinical internships, passing an exam, and doing continuing education to stay registered. There are pros and cons to this approach as well:
- Pros: An RD is a relatively well-known and respected accreditation. It’s a noble profession, requiring intensive study. And there’s a fairly rigorous process for earning the accreditation.
- Cons: This type of training is largely about disease management and medical nutrition therapy. There’s relatively little about sport and exercise nutrition. And I felt like if I spent 4-5 years doing an RD, I’d end up without much progress toward my goal of mastering sport and exercise nutrition.
I opted not to do this either, because I knew that I didn’t want to do medical nutrition or work from a hospital. Not all RDs do, but it’s still the focus. I knew, from the very beginning, that I wanted to work with athletes and exercising populations, and the RD didn’t seem like the best way to go about learning how.
Option #3: Become a researcher/professor (PhD).
There isn’t really a sport nutrition PhD, per se. However, once you make it to the master’s and PhD levels, after a 4-year undergraduate degree, you have a lot more flexibility in planning your own studies.
I never really wanted to become a tenured professor (although I’m now an adjunct professor and teach graduate level courses from time to time). It’s just not my thing.
What I did love about the graduate work, however, was the research. I figured that doing a PhD would afford me the time to delve into all the existing research on sport and exercising nutrition, and the ability to actually conduct and publish studies myself.
- Pros: With graduate studies, there’s a lot of freedom to study whatever you want in depth, including sport and exercise nutrition, in a demanding and scientifically rigorous environment. Plus, there’s an extremely challenging process for earning graduate degrees. You have to pass comprehensive examinations and have to defend your research to a committee of senior professors.
- Cons: There’s an inordinate amount of studying (4 years of college, plus typically 2-3 years working on your master's and 4-5 more years working on your PhD). There’s a huge cost (both from tuition, room & board, etc. AND from the lost employment income you could have been earning instead.) And the focus is research, which isn’t exactly coaching.
In the end, I chose this route. It seemed like the best option available to learn everything I could about sport and exercise nutrition. So, I went to study in the Exercise and Nutrition Lab at the University of Western Ontario, and wrapped up my grad work focusing on Exercise Physiology and Nutrient Biochemistry.
It was an awesome experience and I learned so much. However, even after 11 years of post-secondary education, the funny thing is this: I never really learned what I set out to learn — exercise and sport nutrition coaching. Sure, I learned the exercise and sport nutrition part. But the coaching part, not so much.
Learning about coaching
Out of school and back into coaching, I realized quickly that my new exercise and nutrition skills were hugely beneficial. The clients that followed exactly what I said got unbelievable results. Plus, I was getting all kinds of new clients because the PhD gave me lots of credibility.
But I kept butting up against the same problem: only a small percentage of my clients did exactly what I said. And those that didn’t, well, they didn’t achieve to their potential. At first, I’d get mad at them. Then I realized that getting mad at my clients was pointless. If I wanted to help them, I had to take responsibility for both their adherence and their results.
If a client was doing exactly what I said, and wasn’t getting results, I damn sure did my best to troubleshoot the program. I’d tweak anything and everything until they got the results they were after.
But did I do the same thing for those that were having problems following my advice? Was I altering my coaching style until they got the results they were after? No, not really. And although part of it was laziness. Most of the problem was that I didn’t actually know how to alter my coaching style.
You see I was trained in physiology. And coaching is part physiology and part psychology. I was missing the psychology part.
So, I’ve spent the last 10 years figuring out the psychology side of the equation. In fact, if you’d like to explore the psychology part yourself, check out my article: The Top 7 Books for Becoming a Better Trainer and Coach.
This exploration into the psychology has made possible what I do today. I’ve tested out more nutrition and coaching theories than I care to remember. First with athletes, and then, through my online coaching programs, with the general population.
In fact, my company, Precision Nutrition, has grown into a huge body transformation research project, in which we test our ideas with real clients every day; the amount of data we collect is, to my knowledge, unprecedented in this field.
And my work combining physiology and psychology has led to something really cool.
The next step in sports and exercise nutrition
In March of 2010, Precision Nutrition launched a comprehensive nutrition education program for elite fitness professionals called The Precision Nutrition Certification Program.
It’s based on a graduate level sport and exercise nutrition coaching course I teach at Eastern Michigan University. And, to my knowledge, it’s the first certification and mentorship program designed for, and meant to be used in, a personal training or strength coaching setting.
In the end, there’s no other educational program with that focus. I can tell you that, because if there was, I would have taken it myself – instead of spending 11 years in school and 10 more years learning about coaching.
So, maybe my PhD wasn’t so bad after all.
It didn’t really teach me everything I needed to know as a fitness professional. But it did help me recognize what’s been missing from the exercise and nutrition coaching game. And that led to the Precision Nutrition Certification. So I guess it was worth the effort.