Exposure Training: What’s YOUR Exposure?

Anthony Carey | 01 Mar 2012
Young clients exposed to the Fitness First rock garden

Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, wrote “no man ever steps in the same river twice.” He was referring to the ever-changing world around us and the variability that is constant in nature. This same variability is present today in the way we physiologically, biomechanically, neurologically, cognitively and emotionally interact with the world around us all day, every day.

To better help my personal training clients negotiate this variability, I began to formulate a strategic programming concept called “exposure training.” Exposure training in its traditional context has been used in various fields to create positive adaptation to a variable. In the realm of human performance, probably the most common form of exposure training is increased exposure to heat or cold in preparation for activity in that climate. Exposure training is also commonly used to help people cognitively adapt to stressful situations and still perform under pressure.

In those examples and most other applications like them, the exposure is typically limited to just one input. As trainers, we should consider how exposure might help our clients adapt to, or at least prepare for, the constant change they encounter every day. A single input alone (i.e. cold) could never accomplish this. Acute injury – be it to an athlete or an auntie – does not occur in the movement zone that is trained week in and week out; it occurs in the zone the individual has not been exposed to. Repetitive injuries, on the other hand, occur due to lack of exposure to variety in the movement zone.

Repetition may be the mother of skill, but it is not the brother of preparation. We could lunge into Heraclitus’ river 3 sets of 15, 3 times a week for 6 weeks. But it’s never the same river.

Exposure training is a strategy that works cooperatively with the principles of differential learning. With differential learning, variability of input creates fluctuations in execution. These fluctuations are intrinsic to the system and a critical component to adaptation.

My clients are often surprised by how challenged they are by new exercises that at first glance seem easy. My response to them is, “You’re not going to be given exercises you’re good at.” Progressing them through movements that they are good at does not expose them to the variability they need to learn and prepare.

In an article I wrote for PTontheNet that will be published later this month, I address how minimalist shoes are consistently worn on man-made surfaces. This is a great example of how our clients hide from more natural surfaces, instead of exposing themselves to them.

As a trainer, exposure also applies to your training paradigm. Consider the limitations placed on the client whose entire understanding and direction for what is physically good for them is filtered through the very narrow lens of a health and fitness professional with limited exposure. If you’re like me, you've been frustrated by medical doctors giving patients the choice of drugs or surgery. Nothing else. These providers have never been exposed to the power of a strategic exercise or nutrition program. If we are not exposing our clients to the variability they need, then are we hiding them from it? In my book The Pain-Free Program: A Proven Method to Relieve Back, Neck, Shoulder and Joint Pain, I wrote that if therapists or doctors suggest you have plateaued and will not get any better, they are basing that opinion solely on the options they have been exposed to. That is not a health provider. That is a technician.

At the upcoming FitPro Convention at Loughborough University in England, listening and sharing ideas with brilliant minds from around the world will be an exercise in intellectual exposure. Such exposure enriches me professionally and personally, giving me more ideas and options to use with my clients. And my clients are grateful for that.

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Anthony Carey

About the author: Anthony Carey

Anthony Carey M.A., CSCS, MES is PFP Magazine’s 2009 Personal Trainer of the Year and owner of Function First in San Diego, California and an international presenter on biomechanics, corrective exercise, functional anatomy and motor control and their relationships to pain and function. Anthony has developed the Pain Free Movement Specialist certification and is the inventor of the Core-Tex®.

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