Trainers Who Think They’re Physios

by Carl Raghavan, SSC | March 17, 2021

physiophrenia victim of a trainer who thinks they are a physical therapist

Trainers, get your clients off the floor and under a barbell. Focus on what you’re trained to do, not on specialized exercises for issues you’re not trained to diagnose. Last I checked, your certification didn’t come with a year’s supply of creatine and a physiotherapy degree (unless you actually have a physiotherapy degree as well, in which case this article does not apply to you). You’re not a “physio,” as we Brits call them – Physical Therapists in the US. You’re not a chiropractor or an osteopath. You’re not even a masseuse who gives happy endings (wink wink). So don’t act like one.

Let’s say a client has hired you at a gym with a weight room. A weight room is a place where plates, platforms, barbells and squat racks live, so the client justifiably assumes that the trainers who work there are competent to teach people how to use these timeless, useful, and powerful pieces of equipment. That training will involve lifting. Your client didn’t meet you shirtless in a massage room for a postural assessment. You weren’t asked for your views on prehab, muscle imbalances, or whether your client’s left nut hangs lower than his right one. (“Do I need to train and isolate each one separately for nut postural balance?” “No.”) Your lifters hire you to make them stronger and therefore better versions of themselves. So get them off the floor where all they’re going to do is roll around doing stupid shit, and put them under a barbell. (Unless you’re worried they might get stronger than you? Believe me, I’ve seen that before.)

There’s a whole cottage industry of DIY physiotherapy out there on the internet, and it’s concerning. As a trainer, it can be very tempting to incorporate some of it into your work with clients, especially if you’re not sure what else to do with them. Resist. Just because you saw Chris Duffin using his “boomstick” on YouTube (yes, that’s a real thing and not a porn thing, I swear on my life – look it up), or Kelly Starrett telling you to do exploration work on your hip capsule, it doesn’t mean you have to follow suit.

Sidenote: exploration work? Is stretching somehow like an archaeological dig now? Cue David Attenborough: “And here we have homo sapiens. A rare sighting of this ritual – part dance, part posture – designed to catch the attention of a potential mate. Generally occurring in the evenings around 6pm, the ritual displays the mammal’s supple and ...” Pffff. Bitch, please.

You have a choice. You don’t have to listen to the relentless noise. There will always be people trying to sell you new bullshitology, but you don’t need them. You already know the right thing to do. Pay your taxes, help old people with their groceries, and teach your clients to lift heavy weights. Don’t let the babble of voices cloud your better judgement.

Stick to what you’re qualified to do. Maybe I skipped that session in personal-training school, but I don’t recall any questions on my exam about what to do if a client has an actual injury.

I do, however, know the answer. Let’s see if you do too. Do you:

A) Lie and tell them, “Rub some dirt on it and you’ll be fine.” 

B) Scream, “Stop being a bitch! Walk it off, you pussy!”

C) Impersonate a physio and take a wild stab at what the injury might be. 


D) Refer them. Send them to a real physiotherapist or other qualified medical professional.

Congratulations, it’s D! We are paid to teach our clients how to train, moving intelligently and logically towards a particular goal. Yet for some trainers, this doesn’t seem to be good enough.

The truth is, there’s no shame in referring someone. When you’re out of your element, it’s okay to pass the baton. I’m not saying you should stay ignorant and never learn about sports injuries, rehab or physiotherapy. Just don’t act like you’re a qualified professional and go, “Hold my beer. I got this.” No, you fucking don’t got this. Slap yourself in the face for even thinking that. People are paying hard-earned money to train with you instead of spending time on other hobbies, work, or with friends or loved-ones, so don’t do your clients a disservice and disrespect their time by wriggling them around on the floor talking about their “glute-meeds,” VMOs, or whatever other muscle-firing bollocks you have no business waffling on about, because there may actually be nothing wrong. Just do your job. We are personal trainers – and some of us are even strength coaches. Let your clients lift weights, please.

As I said, this doesn’t mean staying deliberately ignorant. One thing I would always recommend is gathering advice from physios who actually lift. This is because there’s a difference between a book-smart physio and one with practical experience with lifting. When injuries occur, we want our clients to get back under the barbell as soon as possible, and specialized physios know how to do this. Try to find some trusted physiotherapists you can ask for advice and refer clients to.

I’m not saying trainers who try to rehab/prehab/otherwise diagnose their clients aren’t well-meaning. I know most of them think they’re going above and beyond the scope of their field to give their clients the best possible results. They want to stand out from the ranks of other trainers in the industry. It’s a laudable aim, but play-acting as a physiotherapist is a misguided way of going about it. The real answer is strength. This is what helps clients the most, not just because of its health benefits but because it’s so widely applicable in so many different situations.

Think about it: in any given situation, would you rather be strong or weak? Like if you got into a car crash, or you got really sick and were bedridden, or you were fired or lost your business, or you were stranded in a swamp in Panama and had to help a dude carry his ATV up a very steep muddy hill (true story), or – my favorite – you got into a staring match with some hipster for even thinking about stealing your favorite barista-made poached eggs with avocado on rye? In any of these situations, would you rather be strong or weak? Most people are unlikely to say they’d like to be weak or frail or as supple as a snake, or whatever. No: they want to be as strong as a silverback gorilla! And as for abs – don’t believe the hype. They’re overrated. Who are you trying to impress? The opposite sex? They don’t care about your abs. Not the “useful” ones, anyway, as Rip puts it.

Another common issue is that trainers themselves are inexperienced lifters and are thus not confident about training clients to do complex lifts. Of course, you always need to be aware of the potential for injury, but in most cases weight training does far more good than harm – physically as well as mentally. Lifting helps your mind as well as your body. If your clients are also eating better and making more sensible lifestyle choices because they train with you, then you can be sure you’ve made a positive impact that goes well beyond the 90 minutes they spend with you at the gym. And you didn’t even need a broomstick to do it.

Clients want results, and strength is the most efficient way of getting them there. Fiddly exercises involving mats and bosu balls may sound intriguing, but the truth is actually pretty simple. Squat, press, deadlift, bench press, and power clean: the basics will get you where you want to go. Starting Strength has hacked away all the unnecessary bullshit, and yet that’s not enough for some people. Having a simple answer feels like an anti-climax. It’s just too simple, it’s just too easy to follow. They tell themselves they must be missing something. There must be more secrets, some mysterious Hogwarts-style dark arts performed at Wichita Falls Athletic Club. Otherwise how did their athletes get so strong? The big five done three times per week can’t be all you need. But for most of you reading this, it is.

Make sure your clients get enough food and sleep. That’s the only dark magic involved. I know from my own experience that making clients stronger can have a massive impact on their lives – often more than you realize. You should not deny them this privilege, even if you mean well. Don’t block their gains, don’t waste their time, and don’t diagnose them with problems they may or may not have. This can actually cause way more damage, especially if you successfully convince them there’s something “wrong” with them when there isn’t. If they legitimately need a physiotherapist, send them to a real one. To do anything else is a disservice to your practice and your trade.

So let me ask you again: you’re not a qualified physio, right? So why is your client on the floor and not under a barbell? Enough said.

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