You enter the gym, choose a machine, set the weight, and do your thing. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And then you stop and wonder, "Have I been working out properly? Am I moving my body the right way? Am I optimizing it to its full potential?"
Fitness experts and Merritt Clubs Fort Avenue trainers Tony Strittmatter and James Rehak sat down with us to talk about the importance of knowing the intricacies of your body, of moving correctly, and fixing bad patterns.
What made you get into personal training and how long have you been with Merritt Clubs?
Tony Strittmatter: I’ve been with Merritt for about five and a half years now. I got into personal training because I wanted to be a strength and conditioning coach. But I didn’t have any experience, not enough experience that I thought was worth getting into the field yet so I wanted to do personal training to get experience for that.
But I’ve since realized I like working with individuals a lot better than teams of people. I like corrective exercise, basically. With twenty people you can’t do that too well. One-on-one, one-on-two, it’s a lot easier for that. So that’s why I got into it.
James Rehak: I started training at a young age, probably 11 or 12. I played a lot of sports growing up - baseball, wrestling, football, lacrosse, rugby - on top of many other outdoor activities. I was always interested in improving on the field through off-field training, outside of the actual sport itself. So learning from a bunch of different mentors in gyms and working with different coaches.
I got into personal training specifically when I went to Salisbury University as an Exercise Science major and football player. I ended up transitioning to rugby 2 years in and I still play today. I started training the athletic teams at Salisbury University as an intern with the Strength and Conditioning program as well as friends who were interested in strength training.
When I graduated from Salisbury, I knew there were some Salisbury alums who were working at Merritt Clubs so I applied and got the job in 2010.
What are your specializations?
JR: I’ve always had more of an athletic, movement-oriented, style of training. A lot of corrective exercises and real world applicable training. Build you better before making you stronger kind of a thing. I just generally enjoy helping people.
A big part of my training and kind of what I am known for is working with people who are recovering from injuries or hindrances by improving movement patterns and strengthening weak areas of the body and reducing/removing pain.
Focusing a lot with body weight movements, kettlebell, barbell, and band work. Basically making sure that person can move well with their anatomy before adding weight to it.
James Rehak demonstrating the kettlebell swing
TS: Movement specialist. I teach you how to move, not sit in a machine and just push a weight or just move to move.
There are a million different ways to get from point A to point B. There’s a good efficient, effective way, and then there are a million other that are not very good and can lead to injury, or just make it harder or less effective to do it no matter what you’re doing. Whether you’re in the weight room or you’re on a sports field or you’re walking to your car in the morning or walking up the stairs, whatever it is.
So I specialize in teaching you how to move, like James said. Teach you how to move before I load your movement through strength based. Basically, corrective movements.
How do you determine what type of movement pattern a client should do?
TS: For the most part, everyone needs to do the same movement patterns. We’re designed to move a certain way. In terms of your lower body, you have a squatting movement pattern or a hinging movement pattern. One’s designed to sit down, one’s designed to pick something up. And there are many different variations of each but we start with the basics.
I teach people how to hinge and then once they know how to do that I teach them how to deadlift. And then I teach people how to properly sit their butt down to squat. Humans are designed to be able to get their butt to the ground, but due to lack of mobility, stability or just patterning, people lost that ability over time. If you look at a baby, they can sit with their butt on the ground, with their feet flat on the ground. Most adults, myself included, can’t.
I essentially try to teach people how to do those two movements and then just upper body pushes and pulls. Pretty generic movement but what’s going on in your body as you push something or pull something or as you sit down and try to pick something up. And that’s basically your 4 basic movement patterns.
JR: I do a series of testing and questionnaires when I first meet with a client to determine our game plan for the personalized program I write out for each client. Specifically the Functional Movement Screen, or FMS, which is a really cool and simple way to look at how you move with your anatomy, the limitations we might have to work on, previous injuries, so we can figure out where to start.
I try to be as informative and helpful as possible with clients. My phone and email is always nearby and I encourage everyone to ask as many questions as possible. You should learn more about yourself and training in general opposed to me just kicking your butt. I write out 6 to 8-week programs for my clients that is scrutinized at the end of each cycle to determine if we are moving in the right direction or not.
More common issues as far as movement patterning goes is, people tend to have very tight shoulders and hips nowadays. Generally because of the way that we sit pretty much everyday doing everything. We sit when we drive, we sit when we eat, we sit when we’re at our computers, you know, everywhere. Sitting is pretty much one of the worst things that could happen to a human body and most people tend to do it for way more than is necessary during the day.
So a lot of things start to happen. Your hip flexors tighten up and shorten, you tend to roll your shoulders over as your pec minor shortens, reaching overhead comfortably becomes an issue, just squatting becomes an issue. Most of these issues become very obvious during the Functional Movement Screen and I have many corrective exercises to improve and fix these issues.
What would you suggest for somebody who sits in the office all day and drive everyday?
JR: I would suggest getting up and moving away from the chair as often as possible. In a perfect world everyone would have a standing desk and actually utilize it. Besides that the best options would be to be as mobile as possible when you are away from work. Walk, jog, do yoga, hike, be outside, find a hobby. Do something every day that makes you out of breath and happy!
What is corrective exercise and what are the benefits?
TS: I’ve been kind of alluding to it the entire time but corrective exercise is the basic movement, fundamental movement patterns that you, as a human being, go through every day. No one moves perfectly. Myself included, James included. So you analyze the movement, like [James] was just talking about, and then you figure out what you need to do to correct it.
Tony Strittmatter performing a deadlift
If you’re squatting incorrectly or you’re deadlifting, even just walking or running, they’re all related. You’re doing variations of the basic fundamental movements when you run, when you walk, when you jog, when you go upstairs, when you sit on a chair or sit on a toilet, go in your car, whatever it is. So we look at the movement and we figure out what you’re doing wrong and then essentially we brainstorm ways to help correct, to help fix, to make you move correctly.
And there’s no “one thing fixes everyone”. Everyone’s body is going to be a little bit different and will respond to different things. Two people could be doing the exact same thing wrong but two different things will fix each one of them.
So there’s kind of a lot of trial and error. You have some things that tend to work with a lot of people but you’ve got to find things that might not work for them so you got to play around with it and maybe put a band somewhere else or have them adjust something else or think of something else, some different way to adjust the corrective exercise to get the result you want to make them move better.
JR: A corrective exercise is usually a simple movement pattern reset. If your knees have a valgus collapse and hurt when you squat it could be as simple as cueing you to push your knees out as you're squatting to engage the external rotators of your hip better. Or, if you are recovering from a major injury or surgery, we may have to reteach you how to engage your glutes or reach over your head without discomfort. In these cases the corrective exercise may be a lot more specific to the joint or issue we are dealing with. Most of these correctives are adopted from the physical therapy world and if I encounter an individual that I don't feel comfortable working on due to extreme limitations, I happily get them in touch with a physical therapist that I trust.
Everybody’s a little bit different – what fixes people and what hinders people. Cueing is a big thing. Giving people the proper cues to the point where one cue might work for you but it might not work for someone else.
My favorite one that gets a giggle out of everyone I say it to is “Crush walnuts with your butt cheeks.” Because most people tend to be very disconnected with their glutes and their whole posterior chain, like sitting too much. If I tell them to just squeeze their glute, they kind of look at me like, “I don’t know what that is”. But “Crush walnuts with your butt cheeks,” they squeeze their glutes right away. Being in control of and connected to the largest and strongest muscle group in your body is immensely important. So that’s a silly one, but it works.
How can you tell if you need to implement this to a client’s workout?
TS: If I’m working with you, you need to implement this to your workout (laughs). If you are a person, yeah.
Even my people who move the best, it’s called a reset. Between every set of their strength training, we do some kind of reset to get the movement pattern back. You strength train it, you’re probably not gonna move perfectly, and you’re loading a slightly imperfect movement. But then before that set on the next one we’re just gonna do some kind of like a hip rock or a hinge pattern. Just pattern the movement, weightless or some kind of cue or some kind of band to get whatever I’m really trying to work to activate and then I’ll put you back on the bar again or the kettlebell... whatever our strength lift is.
And it’s kind of in between sets, we reset. And then we do our strength training then we reset. So that’s how I would implement it and it’s with every single person. That’s what I do.
Tony Strittmatter doing a Turkish Get-Up
What advise can you give to someone who is just starting out on their fitness journey?
JR: First of all, put your energy into finding a good coach or trainer. I think a lot of people make the mistake of going to the first person they see who looks like they work out a lot and eventually being disappointed. Most of my clients have worked with trainers in the past and most were unhappy with the experience. I believe that's a direct effect of clients getting bored with machine based training and a lack of challenge both mentally and physically. Clients want to learn and improve to the point where I think a handful of my clients could start training as a side gig and be successful. There’s a lot of education involved. Being sore and sweaty shouldn't be your goal. It should be learning the intricacies of your meat vehicle - your body - and how to optimize its function.
I've spent thousands of dollars on certifications, seminars and hiring coaches. It shows in my training and it shows in my client retention. I have 4 or 5 clients I’ve been training for more than six years and a lot more who have been with me for multiple years.
The most important thing is learn from somebody who has the tools to point you in the right direction. Many Merritt trainers have that ability but some stand out a little more than others because of their own personal continued education.
Work with someone who, first of all, will always put you through a test of some sort first to see what’s going on. That’s probably the most important thing in my mind. If you go with somebody who just kicks your butt the first time they see you without a goal in mind, there’s an issue with that in my opinion.
TS: I’d basically say the same thing. Do some research. Find someone who is qualified and shows the value to it during your first meet. They should be talking more about your fundamental, your basics, not just trying to kick your butt. Anyone can kick your butt. I can tell you to do burpees for half an hour. Your butt’s going to be kicked whether you’re an elite athlete or someone just getting off the couch.
I’d say start with the basics. Make sure you have that good foundation to build on versus trying to be top level exercise, whatever it is. Don’t try to get your butt kicked right away. Try to set a foundation to build on is what I would say.
JR: One of the harder things to work on is re-training a bad pattern. I get that a lot. I get somebody come in who didn’t get the instruction that they should have gotten when they first started out and their entire squat pattern or their hinge or their press or their pull is all over the place. They usually already have some form of injury from doing it a lot and not doing it properly.
I mean I’ve trained Division 1 athletes who can’t do a push up properly - it’s really all across the board. It doesn’t matter where you are, what walk of life. It’s really important to get that proper coaching from the very beginning. And then hopefully you continue with the coaching and learning throughout your life.
It’s really important to always have a second set of eyes. Even when I'm lifting I'll ask another coach “Hey how does this look?” And they give me some feedback. It’s good to have someone else look at what you’re doing just to make sure everything’s working properly.
James Rehak deadlifting
TS: To add to that, we have both had our own personal trainer. We might be good at what we do but you can’t see yourself when you’re working out.
So we both trained at a place down in Columbia and had people who were better than us work with us. And that’s where we probably learn the most, is just doing that. Having a good coach versus getting a certification. I’d think you’d learn a lot more through yourself than through trial and error with that than just getting a certification. Not that those are bad, but, everyone should have a coach if you really want to get to the top level of your individual performance.
So if somebody comes in to Merritt and they’re a new member and they want a coach, how would they find someone that’s perfect for them? Do they ask around?
TS: If they’re a new member [of the Fort Avenue club] they’re going to go through the Results Program, hopefully, and then they’ll get set up with Karen.
And Karen knows everyone’s training style really well and if that‘s what you’re looking for where you’re looking to correct your movement, avoid pain, avoid previous injuries that you keep reoccurring, Karen will point you in the right direction. That’s the whole purpose of the Results Program as far as I know it. So if you go through the chain like we set it up, it should work out.
If you skip your Results Program, your appointment, or you just come in and start doing stuff on your own, you can ask around. You might get good information, you might not. It depends on who you would talk to at that point.
JR: We’re kind of lucky at Fort Avenue in that most of the trainers here have been here for a while and have our own niches so its not hard to find someone who fits your goals.
I have trained a few of the other trainers in some of the corrective exercises and assessments as well as trained with some of the other trainers in styles that I am not well versed in. There’s a lot of good training that goes on here and that tends to be the reason why we have a great retention rate.
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