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NSCA Personal Trainers Conference Review

NSCA Personal Trainers Conference Review by Brad Schoenfeld, March 2013

The 2013 NSCA Personal Trainer Conference was held at the recently renovated Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas. The conference took place over two days: Friday, March 8 and Saturday, March 9. For those who’ve never been to an NSCA event, the quality of speakers and topics is always top notch. I have attended every NSCA Personal Trainer Conference for the past decade; this was without question the best line-up of presenters ever assembled.

The format of the Personal Trainer Conference allows each speaker to present the same topic twice in a given day; once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Four speakers present at any one time, so this affords attendees two opportunities to see a presenter of interest.

The first session I attended on Friday morning was by my good friend and colleague, Alan Aragon. I had the pleasure of introducing Alan here, and noted that he is as knowledgeable about nutrition as anyone in the field. Just as importantly, he understands practical application of nutritional principles to real-world dietary practices. This skill is lacking for many in the field. Alan’s topic was titled, “The Paleo Diet: Claims Versus Evidence.” He systematically took apart all the claims of the diet, discussing logical fallacies and flaws in the interpretation of research. The overriding point was not that there is anything inherently wrong with the diet itself, but rather that it is not the be-all-end-all way to structure a nutritional regimen. Chalk one up for science.

The second session of the day was given by Dr. Len Kravitz, a professor in the Exercise Physiology Department at the University of New Mexico. I have known Len for years and he is without question the most polished speaker on the fitness circuit today. His energy and enthusiasm are contagious, his content superb, and his PowerPoints are unsurpassed. I have often joked that Len could recite the alphabet and make it interesting. In this lecture, he discussed various strategies to enhance metabolism. One area of focus was non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Simply stated, NEAT is every activity you do other than formal exercise, and even includes things such as fidgeting. A take-home point Len made was to incorporate regular “NEAT breaks” where you get up from your chair and just take a walk around. This does not sound like much, but research shows that this alone can burn a significant number of calories. He also discussed performing metabolic circuits for fat loss. These included some novel exercises, demonstrated in video clips by strongman competitor Jonathan Mike. As expected, an overall terrific presentation.

Next up came an eagerly anticipated session: the debate between Alan Aragon and low-carb research expert Jeff Volek titled, “Reconsidering the Role of Carbohydrates: Is Low Carb Dieting Optimal for Improving Body Composition, Health, and Performance? Although both speakers did an excellent job presenting their positions, my take after seeing both the morning and afternoon sessions is that Alan had the clear advantage from an evidence-based standpoint. He was able to refute virtually all of Jeff’s points, and make a strong case that carb intake should be based on individual needs with most doing well with moderate consumption. I’ll also note that I had a chance to speak to Jeff following the presentation. He told me that his primary interest in low carb diets deals with those who are either diabetic or pre-diabetic. He conceded the diet is not ideal for gaining muscle and said he doesn’t feel it confers any advantage over non-ketogenic from a weight loss standpoint. As reflected both in the literature and through experience, optimal nutrition is highly individualized. I predict that nutrigenomics is our future, where diets will be customized based on a cheek swab of a person’s DNA. The technology is already here. It just needs to be perfected. That day is coming, perhaps soon.

The final session before lunch was given by my good friend and frequent collaborator, Bret Contreras. Bret is affectionately known as “The Glute Guy.” And, for good reason. No one, bar none, knows more about the gluteals and their form and function than Bret. Heck, he’s doing his PhD on the topic. Not surprisingly, Bret’s presentation was titled, “The Science of Glute Training.” Despite knowing Bret for years, this was actually the first time I had the privilege to see him speak. He didn’t disappoint. Bret has a unique presentation style. His sense of humor balances high-level technical content. He covered a wide array of topics on the glutes, including their five major roles and the varying torque angles associated with different glute exercises. What I found most interesting were the many tidbits of info Bret provided as to how to train the muscle for optimal strength, power, and muscular development—The perfect blend of science and application.

Following lunch, I stopped to see Joe Dowdell’s presentation, “Structuring the Training Session for Optimal Results.” Joe is one of the top trainers in the industry. His knowledge of programming is vast and backed by years of practical experience. Joe’s session was a “hands-on” presentation where he actively took attendees through his recommendations. This included various warm-up and activation drills, as well as specific exercises designed to enhance improvements in body composition.

The final session of the day was “Benefits and Drawbacks of Using Kettlebells in a Training Program” by Dr. Bill Campbell. Bill is a noted professor and researcher at the University of South Florida in Tampa, FL. As you might expect, his presentation was a research-based analysis on the use of kettlebells. Bill did an excellent job overviewing the peer-reviewed literature investigating kettlebells as a modality. It was a balanced lecture that touched on the implications of using kettlebells to improve body composition, strength/power, metabolism, and low back pain. The evidence is still evolving on the topic, and Bill highlighted directions for future research.

Following Friday’s sessions, there was a social by the pool where all attendees and speakers got to mingle and network. It was an action-packed day. Fortunately, there was still another full day of presentations to come as well as my own lecture.

The first session of the day was presented by Jim Kielbaso, a top-level strength coach who specializes in training athletes. Given Jim’s background, his topic was very apropos: “Should You be Training Your Personal Training Clients Like Athletes?” Jim is a very polished speaker and his lecture was peppered with personal anecdotes from working with numerous players in the NFL and NBA. As Jim noted, most people couldn’t care less about gaining extra few inches on their jump height or decreasing their sprint time by a couple of seconds. All they want is to look better and be healthier. The take-home message here was that you should never inflict your own biases when training a client. In this regard, the fitness goals of a stockbroker, truck driver, and housewife will invariably be different than that of an elite athlete. Accordingly, they will require a different training approach than if you were working with Michael Jordan.

Next up was my session on “The Science of Squatting.” Squatting biomechanics has become one of my fitness hobbyhorses. In 2010, I published an article in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research titled, Squatting kinematics and kinetics and their application to exercise performance< (log in required). The article extensively reviewed the literature on squats, and made practical recommendations for optimal performance. Subsequently, I wrote several articles for NSCA publications on the controversy over deep squats, including a point-counterpoint position statement in a recent issue of the Strength and Conditioning Journal. My lecture at the Personal Training Conference covered a variety of topics. I began by detailing the applied anatomy and kinesiology for each joint involved in the squat, and then delved into an array of performance-related issues including bar placement, gaze, stance, knees-over-toes, and of course, squat depth. A big debt of gratitude to Bret Contreras and Alan Aragon for introducing me–the dual introduction was an NSCA first. I was humbled by their sentiments, as they are two of the people I respect most in the field.

Following my presentation, I went to check out the lecture by Dr. Brent Alvar–one of the world’s leading strength and conditioning researchers–who spoke about evidence-based resistance training. Brent is not only a good friend, but he is also one of my mentors. He serves as the chairperson of my PhD dissertation committee, and has furthered my advancement as a research scholar. I owe him a huge debt of gratitude. In this lecture, Brent focused on training elderly adults as a means to discuss evidence-based practice. What impresses me most about Brent is that he isn’t just a lab geek. Rather, he has held positions as a personal trainer, strength coach, facility operator, and pretty much every other job you can think of in the field. The insight into practical application was readily evident in his presentation. Brent outlined a systematic approach to program design, discussing how to begin with a review of literature and then apply the information to the individual client by using logic and experience. As Brent made clear, a well-designed regimen will always be a blend of science and art; but you can’t be an artist without knowledge of the existing evidence.

The final session I attended was given by Chad Waterbury. Chad’s presentation was titled, “Maximize Motor Unit Recruitment: The Key to Getting Bigger, Leaner and Stronger.” This was the first time I’d heard Chad speak and it’s no wonder he’s such a popular fitness pro. His delivery was smooth and he displayed a clear confidence in the material. He provided definitive opinions on the best methods for maximizing motor recruitment, and discussed how this related to optimizing strength, power, and endurance. He concluded the presentation by explaining ways to incorporate his methods into program design, delving into the specifics of sets, reps, and frequency.

Summing up, this was an incredible conference in every facet. Big thanks to the NSCA for putting on such a well-run event. Looking forward to the National Conference in July…back in Vegas!

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