NASM update {What I Learned in Personal Trainer School Series}

by Kim on August 8, 2013

Hey friends! Many of you have asked how my personal training stuff is going, so I’m here with an update! (In case you missed the news: I’m working on my PT certification through NASM, hoping to take the test somewhere in the October/November range.)


First, I’ll talk a little about what studying has been like for me, and then I’m going to share a few things I’ve learned so far. Hopefully you find it as interesting as I did!

HOW I’m Studying

(I’m including this for those of you who are currently in the same program, or for any future NASM PTs who might make their way to this post for studying advice. If that’s not you, you’re welcome to skip down to the goods in the next section!)

So far, studying is going great. I started out following NASM’s 75-day planner, but have strayed a little bit from it as I’ve learned what works best for me. I’m a very, very visual learner (to the point where I’ll envision specific pages and where the information is on that page during tests), so I find that the best way for me to absorb information is to look at it as much as possible (as opposed to hearing it).

NASM’s planner suggests watching the online presentations for each chapter first, but I found that I was having a hard time following the presentations without any prior knowledge/context. Plus, I just wanted to read.

My personalized approach to studying looks something like this:

Step 1: Read a chapter, highlighting important concepts and terms as I go.

Step 2: Add those key concepts and terms to a Study Guide document I’m working on, which I’ll eventually use for a final review pre-test.

Step 3: Write flash cards.

Step 4: Watch online presentations and take quizzes.

My current plan is to plow through the whole book doing just steps 1 and 2, and then to go back over every chapter with steps 3 and 4. At first, I was doing all 4 steps at once, but it was feeling a little too repetitive (not in an I’m-really-solidifying-this way, but in a I’m-no-longer-paying-attention way.) Plus, the idea that I’ll get to revisit each chapter in a big way before the test takes the pressure off having to memorize every little thing I read the first time I read it.

With my new approach, the online stuff will be more of a review tool, and something that’ll hopefully give me a better idea of the kinds of details NASM wants us to know for the test. Plus, I’ll obviously go through my flash cards, stare at my study guide (literally, just stare at it), and take the practice test before going into the real thing.

WOW, you’re so bored right now. Sorry. Let’s move on to the fun stuff!

WHAT I’m Studying

I’ve decided to start a little series called What I Learned in Personal Trainer School, so I can share some of the interesting things I’m learning. For anyone considering pursuing their PT certification, maybe this will help solidify your decision. For everyone else, here’s some random exercise-related info you might like!

What I Learned in PT School

Why personal trainers are so obsessed with stability balls.

I used to always wonder about this. I understood that stability exercises helped work tiny little muscles you might not otherwise use, but what bothered me is that I never felt like I was working that hard whenever there was stability involved.

So why are stability exercises so great?

When we think of the word “deconditioned,” most of us think of someone who’s cardiovascularly out of shape or overweight. But being deconditioned means you might also have muscle imbalances, decreased flexibility, and a lack or core/joint stability—all one-way tickets to injury city. Plus, until you correct these imbalances and improve your flexibility/stability, you could unknowingly be doing other exercises with poor posture/technique and making the problems worse.

NASM’s training model is based on the fact that society, in general, has more structural imbalances and susceptibility to injury than ever before (thanks to our desk jobs, slouchy postures, and largely sedentary lifestyles). The program involves three levels of training: stabilization, strength, and power. (Think: lunge, weighted squat, jump squat.) The goal of the stabilization level is to challenge the internal balance and stabilization mechanisms of the body, to train the body to better stabilize joints and maintain posture during future exercises.


Of course, we all want to skip this step because stabilization is boring. We’d rather jump right into strength, where we can feel our muscles burning. But the idea is that unless you spend time on stabilization, your body won’t know how to properly control those muscles you’re building, leading to too much joint and soft tissue stress (and, eventually, pain and injury).

Throwing in a stability component is also a way that NASM cranks up the difficulty on a basic exercise like a push up. Whenever you want to quickly kick things up a notch, you can almost always work in a stability ball or some other way to challenge your balance. NASM calls this a “controlled, unstable” environment. Haha.

Why it takes awhile to “get into” a workout (biologically speaking).

You know how, in those first few minutes of a run, you sometimes feel like you’re running through mud? And then you eventually get your “second wind”? There’s actually a biological explanation for that. (The same goes for any workout.)

Our bodies use three different systems to generate energy. During exercise, they pick the right system to use depending on the intensity and duration of the workout.

The first two systems are reserved for high-intensity, shorter-duration work, like running up a flight up stairs. These systems don’t rely on oxygen, which makes them both quickly accessible and unsustainable. For “longer” workouts (aka anything over like 60 seconds), our bodies have to switch to the system that uses oxygen.

When you first start a workout, you might feel a little slow because your body is relying on those anaerobic processes to provide you energy, but it wants to move over to the aerobic (oxygenated) one as soon as possible. Once it switches over, your body’s no longer suffering from a perceived oxygen deficit, and you start to feel more comfortable.

This image from the book helped me a lot:


This is showing what happens during steady-state exercise. During the first few minutes, your body’s suffering from an oxygen deficit and has to rely on the inefficient anaerobic systems. Once it’s able to switch to the oxygenated system, it’s able to relax a little. Notice, too, how the oxygen consumption stays up for a little bit into recovery (the “after burn”).

With something like high-intensity interval training, the same process happens every time there’s a change in work requirement—meaning that these lines are constantly going up and down, the oxygen consumption level never really plateaus, and you never really hit that “comfortable” feeling. Dang HIIT!

–Why the myth of the fat-burning zone is a myth.

You might have heard that this “fat-burning zone” business, which you’ll find all over workout equipment, is bogus. Well, it is, and I can finally explain why.

The idea is that if you work out a lower intensity, you burn more fat. This is based on a very true biological fact that your body uses different amounts of carbohydrates and fats for energy, and that the more intense your workout is, the more your body needs to employ carbs (instead of fats) to keep you going.

The reality, though, is that if you up the intensity of your workout, your body needs both more fat and more carbs. So even though, technically, the percentage of carbs goes up and the percentage of fats goes down during high-intensity exercise, the total amount of each is higher. In other words, you’re burning way more calories from both carbs and fat.

(You knew it was too good to be true, right?)


Sorry if a lot of this sounds like gibberish—I’m just in the biology-heavy chapters right now. Future editions of the What I Learned series will hopefully be less technical.

I also happen to be a huge closeted nerd, so I’ve been really getting into these scientific details, and it’s hard to rein in my nerdy side when I talk about them.

nerd on

Stay tuned for future What I Learned posts!!


{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

saim November 26, 2016 at 1:55 am

The very first point you described here is what happened between me and my Coach until I too explained to him that I see our sessions as a time when I switch off from my personal life. And that I enjoy it more if we talk about sport and exercise. Since then we clicked on this level 🙂


Tarabooch September 19, 2016 at 5:06 pm

This is awesome, so glad to have found you! I’m geek ingredients out right now 😁


char eats greens August 9, 2013 at 11:32 am

We would be AMAZING study partners because I’m a very visual learner too. I’d be all “GAH!! it’s highlighted in blue at the bottom of that page – but what did it say?!?!” Plus, I love flashcards. Good thing I’ll be back in school in less than a month to get using them again…not!
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Lindsay @ Health Foragers August 8, 2013 at 8:00 pm

Thanks, Kim. I am doing it right there with you and this was a nice review of what I have been reading. I am working on the studying in a similar way – I follow the NASM study plan for what chapter to read but on the first day I read half the chapter and watch half of the videos and activities. Then the next day I read the rest of the chapter and then finish the online presentations. Then the third day I take notes. It seems to be working great but I am taking a short break right now to work on studying the muscles – phew, there are a lot!
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Kim August 8, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Ugh, I know! I wish I knew how much we really need to know from that crazy appendix D. I can barely understand a word of that stuff!


Giselle@myhealthyhappyhome August 8, 2013 at 6:48 pm

Ooh I’m so going to be looking forward to these posts! I love this type of stuff and still think about getting my PT certification too but am not 100% sure yet. So in the meantime, I’ll live vicariously through you :-) Thanks for sharing!
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Kim August 8, 2013 at 9:16 pm

I’m glad you enjoyed it! It was probably way too much boring science info for a lot of people, but I couldn’t help myself. :)

You would be such a fabulous PT. That pretty much goes without saying. :)


Jessica @ Prayers and Apples August 8, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Loved this post so much!! I felt like I was having a lil review session :) I made a little arrow on my “Goals” board (I think you can see it in one of the pictures from my meal planning post) and then as I read 20-page sections, I add a colored portion on top of the arrow. Once the arrow’s all filled, the book’s finished! :) I can already tell you’re going to do amazing! You’re so organized and have a really good grasp on the material :)


Kim August 8, 2013 at 9:14 pm

Cool idea! I can’t wait to hear how your test goes and maybe get a few tips from you! :)


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