Interview with Tom Purvis

Amy Erickson | 30 Jan 2013

I recently sat down with Tom Purvis, founder of Resistance Training Specialists (RTS) and an educator in the fitness industry for nearly thirty years. We talked about the future of personal training, the education that most personal trainers are lacking, and what every personal trainer needs to know.

Amy: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for fitness workers will exceed average growth and increase at a rate of 24% until 2020 ( That being said, there will be ample opportunities to get into this field. What would you recommend to personal trainers interested in seeking out this profession?

Tom: The same thing was said about physical therapy years ago. Just because the BLS projects these types of opportunities does not necessarily mean that they will exist. For example, the BLS cannot predict that people will have the discretionary income to pay for personal training in 2020, now can they? Look at what happened to our economy in the last five years. Can the same people afford personal training now as compared to five years ago? If people want to be successful in personal training, they need to give their clients several things: 100% of their attention, customized exercises that are specific to joint integrity and specific to a joint’s active range of motion, and muscular tension-generating capabilities. Don’t be a tour guide in the gym and don’t be a rep counter. Here’s your wake-up call: you have to be worth it. You have to live what you want to be.

Amy: As a physical therapist, can you talk about changes in the realm of physical therapy and how such changes could impact the role of a personal trainer?

Tom: There is a tremendous opportunity for personal trainers because insurance and physical therapy are failing people. Patients are being kicked out of physical therapy sooner now that 100% of the cost is taken up by a third party. Insurance companies shortened therapy protocols; not as a result of documented research, but rather cost. For example, rehabilitating an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury used to take six months in a range-limiting brace and up to a year in rehabilitation. Now physical therapists are given six to eight weeks to work with an ACL patient. What does that mean? It means that patients are now purchasing a low level of improved function from their physical therapists and are then released to personal trainers. The problem with being released to a personal trainer is that so many are caught up in this functional and corrective exercise nonsense, or don’t understand that you can’t train everyone like a triathlete. I’ve got news for you: Cross Fit and kettle bells can only be tolerated by a small demographic.

Amy: As a physical therapist, you are considered part of the medical community. Personal trainers, on the other hand, inhabit a kind of no-man's-land. They aren't considered agents for public health, yet many feel called upon to address the significant increase in obesity (37.5% of American adults) and the prevalence of cardiac disease in the United States ( Do you see the personal trainer's role transforming in the future?

Tom: The fact that more Americans are obese and have heart disease makes the job for personal trainers all the more important. A personal trainer’s credo should be “first, do no harm.” And remember, just because someone isn’t obese or hasn’t suffered a cardiac event does not mean they are healthy. People are only categorized “apparently healthy” because those making that determination aren’t looking closely enough. The American College of Sports Medicine doesn’t even consider orthopedic issues when categorizing people as apparently healthy. This is dangerous. Just because someone isn’t going to die, doesn’t mean that they are healthy.

Let’s be honest, just about everyone today is considered part of a special population. A personal trainer has an even greater responsibility in this case because people are orthopedic and biochemical nightmares. Personal trainers have to understand strategic progress and MicroprogressionTM. Instead, most trainers are caught up in a “no pain, no gain” mindset and continue to push their clients excessively because that is all they know. I’m here to tell you that there is simply no value in Just Do It.

Amy: Are you seeing any innovative educational techniques in the industry that you think will be valuable to personal trainers?

Tom: There is not a college or certification out there teaching anything relevant to exercise. When someone completes medical school, they don’t know anything about being a doctor. They graduate, and they now know the science behind it all. They know nothing about what to do with it. It is the same thing with exercise physiology. The majority of people with degrees in exercise physiology or kinesiology still exercise the way they were taught when they were thirteen years old. Most people who take a biomechanics class don’t understand how to apply it to the human body or in the gym. Memorizing definitions and formulas doesn’t mean anything. Can you apply it in a meaningful way for your clients? Can you calculate how much torque will be place on a specific joint when using the leg press as compared to the Smith machine? Do you know how to challenge the body with resistance by manipulating the moment arm?

Certifications and degrees are initially for the piece of paper to make one marketable and secondarily for the few viable things that are taught therein. The real education, knowing how to work with someone, how to implement exercise into someone’s life, what you should and shouldn’t do, what you can and can’t do, only comes after school. A mentor is a great idea, if you can find one. Unfortunately, finding a mentor usually means working with someone doing “functional training” and that is totally inappropriate for the majority of Americans with arthritis or high inflammation. Then there is the “Corrective Exercise” nonsense, which inherently involves diagnosing; something entirely outside the personal trainer’s scope of practice. The only people diagnosing anything should be doctors; not personal trainers.

I created RTS because no one else in the industry is teaching what needs to be taught. Instead of teaching personal trainers about joints, forces and inflammation, most organizations offer paint-by-number, cookie-cutter systems. (This seems at odds with providing unique, personalized programs to clients.) Outside of Muscle Activation TechniquesTM and RTS, there aren’t any certifications or assessments that will tell you about joints and forces.

Amy: I’m glad you brought up assessments. Do you feel that some of these personal training assessments were created to give personal trainers a sense of authority or expertise? Many seem to cling to their assessments and passionately defend them.

Tom: A perfect example of this is postural analysis. You cannot analyze posture. That is nonsense. There is no way of knowing what is causing what is being observed. You don’t know if someone is standing the way they are because of structure, habit, laziness, psychological issues, hormonal imbalances or pathological concerns. This is another paint-by-number approach that falsely empowers personal trainers. If you want to check posture, you should be checking specific strengths and specific ranges of motion; not simply looking at someone or looking at gross ranges of motion.

Another example is the sit and reach test. Gross range of motion is really irrelevant. Perhaps my reach is limited because of my scapulae, my glenohumeral joint, my spine, my hips or perhaps my dorsiflexion. This test doesn’t tell you anything, yet personal trainers continue to use it and most don’t even understand why they should question it.

People don’t want irrelevant assessments or a personal trainer who doesn’t even understand the limitations of such assessments. They want an exercise professional. The problem is that most trainers don’t know how to teach, what to look for, how to break things down, how to monitor, or how to apply the biomechanics they have learned to fit an individual. They have never learned this. These are the skills I have tried to teach in RTS. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly difficult in a culture of useless certifications, gimmickry, and unqualified “professionals” touting their various assessments.

Amy: This is likely the worst economy that any of us have ever experienced. People are more prone to cut personal training sessions from their budgets before cancelling their cable. Knowing that money is an issue for the majority of Americans, how can personal trainers increase their value to clients and avoid being part of a budget cut?

Tom: Most trainers only value is behaving like a tour guide; bringing someone from one exercise to the next. Personal trainers have to learn how to be indispensable and provide experiences that make the client feel better each time. The majority of trainers only provide sessions that encourage clients to push themselves excessively. More and harder are not the only ways to create exercise experiences. Unfortunately, it is the way that the majority of personal trainers conduct sessions. Stay tuned; things are going to change.

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Amy Erickson

About the author: Amy Erickson

Amy Scott Erickson was a strength and conditioning coach at the University of Minnesota, a rowing coach at the University of Texas, and Dean of the Health Fitness Specialist degree programs at Globe University. Amy also writes for

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