Somewhere around the beginning of 2016, I made a half-baked goal for the year ahead: I’d become a certified trainer. I had just found my groove in health and fitness writing and editing, and for the first time ever, developed a consistent fitness routine for myself. I was working out four to five times a week, and I actually really enjoyed doing it. I found classes I loved and and attended week after week (and still do to this day), got into a regular running routine, and started to lift weights for the first time. I felt like my eyes had finally been opened to all the endless possibilities in the fitness world. I wanted to glean a deeper understanding of how exercise works and the incredible things it can do for the human body, and figured that a personal trainer program—which involves studying human anatomy, exercise physiology, and kinesiology (movement)—would help me do just that.
Alas, as many New Year’s resolutions go, I never ended up getting around to it that year, but it was still always on my list of long-term goals. Then, in the spring of 2017, I started covering fitness exclusively. It became my sole job to give people smart, actionable, research-backed information about exercise. I needed to learn as much as I could about the topic to perform my job responsibly and do our readers justice. It was time: I ordered my study materials from American Council on Exercise, and this past September, I took and passed my ACE exam. I’m now an ACE-certified personal trainer. Better late than never, right?
This doesn’t mean I’m suddenly Jillian Michaels. My certification does mean that I have demonstrated a functional understanding of basic human anatomy, proper movement patterns, the physiological impacts of exercise, and how to create individualized fitness programs for people based on their personal fitness goals. This working knowledge is important for my job, and has already helped me dive deeper during interviews with exercise scientists and practicing trainers. However, I’ve never actively trained anyone, and am just experimenting with putting workouts together for myself and my friends before I even think about taking that next step. But I did take in a wealth of knowledge about exercise and how it impacts our bodies—and while I had been reading studies and interviewing experts on these topics for a few years already, there was a lot of new information I learned during my summer of studying.
Here are nine interesting nuggets of info about fitness that I never knew until I studied to become a certified personal trainer.
1. We’re at our least flexible first thing in the morning.
There are a lot of things that impact flexibility, like your age, gender, and past injuries. The one factor I find most fascinating is the time of day. Here’s how it works: We have discs of cartilage in our spines, stacked in between each vertebra. There’s fluid in those discs, and when we’re in a vertical position all day, the fluid slowly squeezes out and the vertebrae compress a bit to fill up that space where the fluid once was. (This also makes our height fluctuate, leaving us a teensy bit shorter at the end of the day—another fun fact.) When we lie horizontally all night, the fluid basically flows back to where it belongs. This means that when we first stand up in the morning, these spinal discs are a bit swollen. Swelling translates to a stiffer back, and consequently a smaller range of motion and greater risk of injury. Bottom line: Get up and move around a little bit before you do any stretching in the morning—a quick warm up is always a good idea, but it’s especially important in the a.m.—and save any serious spinal stretching until the afternoon.
2. Tight ankles can make your squats less effective.
Squatting is considered a compound exercise, which means it involves multiple muscle groups at once. One thing I never really thought about was how my ankles are involved in the move. Turns out, the reason a lot of people lift their heels off the ground during a squat is because they lack ankle mobility and calf flexibility. When your ankles are tight, you can’t lower your butt down as much, since the ankles have to flex in order to squat down. To get the most out of the butt-strengthening move, first work on flexibility, which will then help keep your feet stable as you bend and lift.
3. Shorter limbs make it easier to lift heavier weights.
Like flexibility, there are tons of things that impact a person’s strength and ability to build muscle, like hormones, gender, age, and the different types of muscle fibers you have. Well, the length of your limbs actually plays a role in reaching those strength gains. When the weight you’re lifting is closer to the axis of rotation (for example, the elbow, if you’re doing a bicep curl) you have more leverage. That means you need less muscle force to lift the weight than if the limb were longer. So if two people have the same biceps muscle strength, the person with a shorter forearm will be able to curl a heavier weight.
4. Focusing on hip-hinging during squats and lunges is more important than worrying about if your knees go past your toes.
“Don’t let your knees go past your toes,” during lunges or squats is one of the most common movement cues out there. The truth is that incorrectly hinging at the hips is a bigger risk of injury, and the knees/toes cue may not be relevant for some people. If you have really long limbs, your knees may just need to move further forward to be able to bend at the right angle. In addition, studies have shown that restricting knee movement can seriously stress the hips. The cue is more of an effective direction to err on the safe side in group fitness classes in which a trainer can’t give students one-on-one instruction depending on their own limbs and ranges of motion. But a cue that’s even better is to “begin the movement by pushing the hips backward,” known as the hip hinge. (Think of pushing your butt back as if you’re sitting down in an invisible chair.) By shifting the hips backward, your knees can bend properly and be in alignment—which for some, may end up meaning that the toes come a little forward.
5. Initial increases in strength when you first start lifting weights happen quickly thanks to your nervous system.
When you first start lifting weights for the first time or after a long break, you might notice that you go up in weight with nearly every workout for the first few weeks. There’s a reason for this: The initial strength increases you may notice in the first couple weeks of starting to strength train come mostly from neural adaptations, thanks to a process called motor learning. Basically, doing the same exercises over and over again trains your brain to do the movements more efficiently and activate the proper muscles, and these changes happen very quickly. That’s why you may feel as if you can increase the weight you’re lifting in a short period of time. Sure, some gains come from actual changes in muscle fibers, and as you progress, more and more of the change is from that. But up front? You’re actually training your brain to lift.
6. There’s a physiological link between your muscles and brain when you do mind-body exercises.
Exercises that also ask you to be mindful of your body and breath as you move—like yoga, tai chi, and Pilates—also help make an impact on your body physiologically. That is, the mind-body connection is a real physical thing. In particular, two hormones called CRH and ACTH, which travel from the pituitary gland to parts of the brain (like the hypothalamus), are credited with the impact these mind-body exercises have on cognition and stress. Research also shows that mind-body exercises can help people manage health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and arthritis, and have a positive impact on depression and self-confidence. (This is all information that’s included in the personal trainer manual, but here’s some more info from the Cleveland Clinic.) I’m personally not very good at being mindful, so learning more about how mindful exercise can have a positive impact on both my body and brain has made me see it in a new light.
7. The shoulder joint is the most mobile joint in the body.
That’s a fun fact. The not-so-fun fact is that its wide range of motion also means that it can be easily injured if it’s not stable enough. All of the muscles that cross the ball-and-socket joint need to be balanced (meaning that one isn’t way weaker than the others) so that they can work together to keep the shoulder stable as it moves. Therefore, it’s really important to work on both flexibility and strength in your upper back and shoulders so that the muscles that support this vulnerable joint are healthy and prepared to take on whatever daily life and your workouts ask of it.
8. The traditional formula for maximal heart rate is actually not that accurate.
You may have read that the best way to find your maximum heart rate is by using the formula 220 minus your age. Turns out, that formula has been found to be wildly inaccurate. Standard deviations from 10 to 20 beats per minute (bpm) have been found with the formula—meaning that the estimate may be accurate for some, but for the majority of people, the estimate could be anywhere from 10 to 20 bpm off—a pretty big difference when it comes to staying in a particular heart rate range. Experts suggest instead using one of these formulas: 208 – (0.7 x age) or 206.9 – (0.67 x age), both of which have standard deviations closer to 7. Even still, it’s tough to get a totally accurate max HR reading outside of a lab and because of this, many personal trainers prefer to use a talk test (which is when you notice during your exercise routine if it starts to become difficult to talk, and then when it becomes almost impossible) or ratings of perceived exertion (how hard a workout feels on a scale of 1 to 10) to determine how intense a workout is for a client.
9. The most important factor that determines if you’ll stick to a fitness routine is if you think you can.
I think I read the word “self-efficacy” 100 times in the ACE personal trainer manual. That’s because self-efficacy, or a person’s belief in their ability to succeed, is one of the biggest indicators of whether or not a person will stick to a fitness routine. Research consistently associates greater self-efficacy with higher rates of exercise adherence—if you believe in yourself and your abilities, you’re more likely to continue an exercise program. It makes sense. If you don’t believe you’ll succeed, why would you put yourself through all that work? That’s why it’s so important that we all define what success in a fitness program is for each one of us, and set small, specific, doable goals that’ll make us feel good about how we’re progressing (compounding our self-efficacy) and inspire us to keep going.