Certifiably Crazy? Why Being a Certified Personal Trainer Matters

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head Trainer, Mid Age Man

There's a bit more alphabet soup to add to Mid Age Man. Head trainer Alex Frew McMillan is now a Certified Personal Trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM-CPT). Here's why that piece of paper shouldn't really matter for those of us looking to get in shape.

Today is the day that I graduated from personal trainer to capital letters: Certified Personal Trainer!

It’s a small but significant distinction. Anybody and their dog can call themselves a personal trainer in Hong Kong, where there’s no licensing of the profession. So the industry has taken it upon itself to administer the standards.

I can now tag some extra letters to the end of my name. NASM-CPT. The folks at the National Academy of Sports Medicine have the good graces to say I can operate under their flag (national being the Stars and Stripes of the United States, but we in the International World will let that slide, will we?!).

Since I worked very hard to get those letters, it feels good to put them in print. In the fitness realm, they can float in the same alphabet soup as my PADI certification as a DM (dive master, not dungeon master, just to clear things up for anyone who played D&D in the 1980s).

Does this matter to others, though? In the long run, no.

People looking to get fit and improve their quality of life don’t really care what piece of paper you’re waving around. They want to know if you can hand-make a program for them that really works, and gets them where they want go. They have goals, and like any kind of coach, your job is to help them score.

Certification most certainly doesn’t = qualification. You qualify as a trainer, truly become proficient as one, based on your expertise, knowledge and hard work. You have to have a passion, a fire in your belly.

Most of all, you need to know how to impart fitness skills to others. To work with what’s working already, and come up with sensible, practical strategies to perfect what needs work. Being fit doesn’t mean you are fit to help others get fit.

I’m already finding that enabling behavior change in others is incredibly hard! I’ve been working with a handful of friends who were happy to work with me before I got certified, just based on the results I’d achieved in my own turnaround. They are making progress. But of course they are not me, so we are on a journey together to produce results.

Can I help them along their fitness journey to where they want to go? I certainly hope so. I believe so.

I do have that passion, that fire in my belly. I’m not particularly religious, more one of those annoying people who calls themselves spiritual. And fitness has somehow become a bit of a following. It helps makes sense of my life. In the intensely physical, I find something transcendent, that gives me a lot of internal and mental strength.

I didn’t even want to become a personal trainer! Fitness came calling for me in December 2016, when I ended up in hospital, in a self-induced stupor, a frankly low part in my life, and decided some changes were in order.

We lose muscle mass as we age, and our metabolism slows, but the process isn’t inevitable – the kind of scientific knowledge base that informs the work of a personal trainer.

When I got out of the hospital, I decided to start to exercise a little bit each day. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I figured I would just try. Bit by bit, I noticed changes in my body, and I surprised myself by getting into a shape that I consider decent shape. It felt like my life had turned around.

People started to ask me what had changed, even whether I was sick or something. So I started reading a lot about fitness, to figure out what was happening to me. Folks were asking, so I better have some answers! Turns out I had invented a circuit-training routine for myself that equated to a High Intensity Interval Training workout.

I also noticed that my metabolism sped up, I felt energetic and enthused, and I shed pounds by the dozen. Only through research did I realize that, after the age of 25, we lose around 4 pounds of muscle every decade. We also see our metabolisms slow down by 2% to 4% every 10 years past that blush of youth.

But, as the sports-nutrition outfit Precision Nutrition points out, “this decline is not inevitable.” Muscle uses up a lot more energy than anything else in our body, even just sitting around doing nothing. So if you keep that 4 pounds of muscle mass, your metabolism doesn’t really slow down.

It was that kind of scientific grounding that I wanted to get before I started spouting off lots of advice to others. One or two voices (not the religious kind!) suggested I start this blog, but it seemed like a good idea to figure out first if it was possible to translate my experience for others.

It is.

One of my clients, Gihan Atapattu, was kind enough to point me in the direction of an article from The New York Times the day after one of our sessions.

We had been talking about the importance of strength training as we age. Sure enough, that article notes we should engage in resistance training to arrest that loss of muscle mass, and even to preserve the quality of our bones. Lifting weights puts a load on your skeleton, and it repairs itself if you load it up and make it work. We think of skeletons and bones as being dead things, but they’re living, just like the rest of us, and we can make our bones fitter along with the muscles we normally think about when we “talk fitness.”

I’ll take a strong skeleton and the ability to walk comfortably up the stairs in my old age over bulging muscles any day. It’s the aim of Mid Age Man to make sure that everyone, if they choose to do so, can extend the middle years of their lives well past what we’ve always been told is “old age.” To improve your quality of life. To make sure we don’t shrivel to little old ladies and men. Age gracefully, and in style.

So I decided to get certified, and get some proper scientific know-how behind me.

There are six main reputable organizations that certify personal trainers. Five are based in the United States, and there’s a Hong Kong option in the form of the Asian Academy for Sports & Fitness Professionals, which allows you to do your coursework in Chinese.

I opted for the National Academy of Sports Medicine, or NASM. It and the American Council on Exercise, or ACE, are the best-known – but when I contacted ACE, it turned out they had absolutely no support in Asia.

A gym in Central, Optimum Performance Studio, or OPS, has cornered the market on NASM certification in Hong Kong. They’re a great team, led by managing director Kevin Rushton and master trainer Wayne David Clark. Coxing the 19-strong crew who rowed through the CPT waters with me was the instructor Adam Menhennett.

Since they’re around to offer personal guidance, and also bring a lot of master instructors into town to instruct us instructors, I opted for OPS as the site of my live training. With ACE, it’s all book learnin’, and it made more sense to work in the flesh if that’s what you’re ultimately going to be handling. Too much flesh, for most of us!

Only after signing up for the NASM program did I learn of its connection to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC is my alma mater, where I got my undergraduate degree in Journalism and English. And it’s also where my certifying organization has set up the NASM Research Institute to come up with even better ways of getting fitness results.

The NASM guys started out in 1987 because they were a little fed up with the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the first group to get together and start setting out standards for fitness trainers. The NSCA’s focus then was on weight training and muscleheads. But the NASM crew wanted to focus more on functional fitness, in other words what we find useful in our day-to-day lives, instead of looking good up on stage in a bodybuilding contest.

Kevin Guskiewicz, as of 2016 the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC, told me about the link over drinks at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong – which was nice. He’s a bone fide genius, having been given a MacArthur Fellowship a.k.a. a Genius Grant, in 2011.

Just don’t call him a genius. The dean is soft-spoken. His award came courtesy of his eminent scholarship in the field of sports concussion and brain trauma. UNC has now set up the foremost center on the study of brain damage caused by repeat sports collisions, the Matthew Gfeller Sport-Related Traumatic Brain Injury Research Center.

If you’re a fan of Will Smith, you may have seen the movie Concussion, which deals with the same topic. Kevin worked at the Pittsburgh Steelers for a spell, whose former player and Hall of Famer, the center Mike Webster, was the first player diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

The UNC connection cemented my link with the NASM. It’s a nice little extra, and somehow it all fits together.

So besides that UNC double major, and the B.A. that came along with it far too many years ago, and that PADI divemaster I got back in ’03, I’ve now got those NASM letters, and the CPT badge that goes with it. A fancy little bit of paper with a gold seal should be winging this way in a few weeks.

Letters, letters, letters. We can write a lot of them.

Now, though, it’s time to produce results. If you like, I can try for you. Or you can do it yourself – unlike what Dean Guskiewicz studies, it’s not brain surgery. Read these blog posts, or look online, and you can get there on your own.

In any case, I feel like, after a lot of thought and study, I can finally get to work.

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About the author

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head trainer at Mid Age Man. Alex believes there are four pillars to being healthy: physical fitness, sensible nutrition, mental strength, and wellbeing for your body and soul.

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