An Athletic Trainer Shares Fitness Strategies

Truth be told, I’ve always been more of a “class person”, when it comes to the gym. I suppose that is, in part, because I don’t have to decide what to do next. The instructor moves, I follow suit.

Earlier this year, I decided to break out of my comfort zone to expand my weight lifting repertoire. When I was trying to decide which trainer to work with (there was no way I was going to figure it all out on my own), I noticed TJ Kuster was very friendly and approachable. He also clearly loves, and lives, his work.

What really clinched the deal for me was that TJ has one of the best handstands (one hand or two) that I have ever seen. That was the icing on the cake, since I’ve decided to reclaim lost abilities from my childhood. It’s all part of my “growing older but feeling younger” strategy (at this point, it’s just a matter of time before I release a photograph, or video, of me doing a spectacular handstand on Instagram!)

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Who is TJ Kuster?

TJ is a certified athletic trainer (ATC), certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), certified personal trainer through the NCSF, and is a certified Parisi Performance Coach. 

TJ specializes in mobility and injury prevention, something he has known he would do since he broke his femur in the 6th grade. He has had rehabilitation following multiple sports related injuries throughout his life. Because he knows what it’s like to be injured, TJ focuses on keeping his clients safe while providing awesome exercise programs that cater to their unique goals.

Meeting with TJ to discuss what he considers when creating programs, advice for beginners, and the importance of various types of movements was eye-opening and thought-provoking.

Q & A

Chris: What is your recommendation for someone who is walking into fitness, or wants to increase their level of fitness?

TJ: If you want to increase your level of fitness, my number one go to would be some sort of resistance training.

I feel like, especially in regard to weight loss, people think, “I just have to do a lot of cardio” or “I have to take up running” or, something like that. When in reality, for most individuals, that could be one of the most harmful ways to go about trying to lose weight and keep it off. They may end up putting a lot of pressure on their joints or not have proper form when running.

Resistance training (also called strength training or weight lifting) is a great place to begin, because it takes the body through a full range of motion. Then, I would follow that up with some low impact High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT. For HIIT, someone could do biking, rowing, elliptical machines, or swimming. You’ll want to elevate your heart rate for twenty seconds, then let it come back down for twenty seconds. This will rev up your metabolism without constantly hammering the joints.

Chris: While someone’s doing the HIIT training, would you recommend they use a heart monitor?

TJ: You can train to heart rate, but with beginners, I like to keep it as simple as possible. I have them work until they are out of breath, and then rest until they can talk again.

Chis: So, someone walks into the gym, ready to do some resistance training, where should they start?

TJ: Every workout should begin with an active, dynamic warm-up! I prefer to break a warm-up into three phases:

General Warm-Up

This phase involves some sort of low impact cardio. I might have someone use an elliptical machine, the VersaClimber, or push the sled. Other options include the stationary bike or rower. The goal is to raise the heart rate, elevate core body temperature, and get the blood flowing.

Muscle Activation

Any time you go to lift weights or work out, your vulnerable areas are going to be your shoulders, lower back, and knees. So, during the muscle activation phase of the warm up, I target the upper back, to bring the shoulders into proper alignment. I also target the core, to protect the spine. Finally, I target the hips, which is going to activate the glutes.

Dynamic Stretching

It is important to do a variety of stretches, to use a full range of motion.

Chris: What challenges might someone face who is new to resistance training?

TJ: Great question! If you’re new to weight training, I always recommend working with somebody who knows what to look for, can point you in the right direction. That’s always a good place to start, not that you need a personal trainer for the rest of your life, but to help in the beginning.

During the workout, again, continue until you feel your heart elevated, rest until it comes down. I like the saying,

Push till you can’t, rest until you can.”

Chris: Is variety necessary and beneficial? If so, how much variety is needed when someone begins training?

TJ: For people taking up exercise for the first time, I would recommend working out three days a week. Three whole body strength training days, with a very brief bout of conditioning after each.

I like to do a whole-body workout for beginners, because if you’re trying to go to the gym five or six days a week, to start off with, you’re probably going to burn out quickly. But, if you can realistically make it in three days a week, that’s going to be a habit that you can stick with. However, if you’re only going three days a week, you’re going to want to pick the most beneficial exercises. If you go in, and get on an elliptical for thirty minutes, and you’re just kind of hanging out and watching tv while you do it, you’re probably not going to burn a lot of calories.

Chris: What should beginners do with that precious time?

TJ: There are six basic body movements I take people through.

The first is a squat. It might be a back, front, or goblet squat. I also have people do lunges or curtsey lunges.

The second movement is a hinge. Kettlebell swings, straight bar deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and trap bar deadlifts (basically all the deadlifts), are hinge movements.

The third movement is a vertical press. One example of this movement is the dumbbell shoulder press.

Pull-ups and lat pulldowns are examples of vertical pulls, the fourth movement.

The fifth movement is the horizontal press. Push-ups and the flat dumbbell bench press are examples.

The sixth, and final movement, is the horizontal pull. Rowing movements are horizontal pulls, including: TRX rows, suspension rows, and dumbbell rows.

Chris: People often come into the gym with the best of intentions, but don’t stick with it. What are some of the barriers that prevent success when starting a fitness program?

TJ: The intimidation factor is one of the biggest barriers for beginners, which gets back to the importance of having someone show you the ropes. This is vital, even if it’s just for a couple sessions, because once you feel comfortable, you’re going to keep going.

Someone who is walking in, for the first time, may see someone grunting and squatting four hundred pounds. They may have no idea what they’re looking at, or what to do. They may have no clue how to set up a routine. This is really intimidating.

If you have someone who can give you an idea of what to do, introduce you to other people in the gym, and start you with a simple routine, the intimidation barrier disappears. In the end, it’s the community that’s going to keep people coming back.

Chris: How do you help bring people into the community when you’re working with them?

TJ: It’s all about the interaction with them as people, not just clients. I love the saying,

“People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.”

You can be absolutely brilliant with respect to exercise prescription, form, technique, and everything. But if you can’t make a connection with someone as a human being, you’re not very useful as a coach.

I would much rather have a coach working for me who can only design an exercise program “pretty well”, but is personable. Someone who, when taking people through stuff, makes them feel comfortable. This is better than having someone who is brilliant, but doesn’t have those soft skills.

Chris: I imagine that how a trainer corrects someone, and also how often a trainer corrects someone, is important...

TJ: Yes! For me, I’m cautious when it comes to form. But, correction should mainly point out what you’re doing well, versus what you’re doing wrong. If every time somebody were trying something new, I stopped them right away to said “No,” that would very quickly become a negative session. They would possibly feel disturbed. And that’s not what we’re about, we’re about trying to get people to enjoy movement.

Chris: What are some of the greatest benefits of regular physical activity?  

TJ: There’s a ton! Mentally, working out takes the mind off things, it relieves stress, and releases “feel good” hormones. Physically, it helps people maintain a healthy weight and regulates blood pressure.

If you would like to continue to “pick TJ’s brain” for valuable information about working out, check out one or more of the numerous articles he has written for T Nation.

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Published by Chris Dove

Writer, presenter, consultant, sociologist, optimist, aspiring minimalist, recovering perfectionist, pathfinder, human (post coffee)

8 thoughts on “An Athletic Trainer Shares Fitness Strategies

  1. This was really interesting and informative for me. I get really gun-shy when it comes to fitness, so stuff like this i like to read because it helps motivate me.

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