A question came up about the muscles shaking during a workout. Many of us have had our muscles shudder and quiver while lifting very heavy weights or working against a lot of external resistance. But one of the answers to this question about muscle shakiness caught my eye. The person answering said that their personal trainer observed their muscles shaking during squats and, in response, the trainer told them their calcium was low and that the trainee should start taking a supplement before their next workout.
Now, this person thinks that everytime they experience their muscles shaking during a workout it is a signal of low calcium so they start popping calcium pills.
Should I get into the muscle shakiness thing? It’s not really the point but, it’s harmless if it only happens during the intense effort and goes away afterward. A calcium deficiency can cause muscle cramps and spasms, but a doctor would never diagnose one based only on these symptoms. They would do so by checking blood levels. So, what of this trainer?
Trainers Should NEVER Diagnose Nutrient Deficiencies or Any Other Medical Problems
What this trainer did was highly inappropriate. A personal trainer should never attempt to diagnose you with any kind of nutrient deficiency, be it minerals, vitamins, or anything else. They especially should not attempt to do so based on one superficial observation. If a trainer suspects that you have deficiencies, they should advise you to see your doctor for blood tests.
While it is appropriate for a personal trainer to give you general nutrition advise, “prescribing” dietary supplements to you is beyond their scope. Vitamin and mineral supplements seem to be risk-free and many of us take them for granted, but excess vitamins and minerals are not always beneficial and can be harmful. If you were actually diagnosed with a deficiency by a doctor, then a high-dose supplement may be appropriate to quickly bring your levels of that nutrient to normal levels, but this is not a call a trainer should make.
Realize that your nutrient status is influenced by your diet over the long-term. In other words, fluctuations in your diet for a few days or a week will not cause you to develop a severe nutrient deficiency. However, the trainer in this scenario knew nothing of her client’s actual dietary habits or overall long-term intake. Now, this person thinks that every time they experience a muscle shake they have a calcium deficiency. For this to happen often, they would have to have severe fluctuations in diet over longer periods of time, or, have some other underlying problem that influenced their calcium status. Such a problem could be quite serious and should be evaluated by a doctor. But this person simply self-treats based on one perceived “symptom.” It is unlikely there is any real danger here but, if there were, do you see the harm this trainer may have caused?
General Nutrition and Supplement Use
It is, however, appropriate for a trainer to help you go over your diet and supplement use and to instruct you on nutrition principles and even the potential effects of deficiencies or excesses of certain nutrients.
What you have to realize is the difference between general recommendations and what happened in the scenario above. The trainer was not giving general nutrition advice such as “calcium is essential for..” Instead, she told her client to take a calcium supplement in order to treat a perceived physical problem. In this case, it was a mild complaint rather than a specific ailment, but such advise, whether a recommendation or an insistence, can open up a trainer to legal trouble! This person was, in effect, practicing dietetics without a license. If this were the United States, depending on the state, this could be outright illegal. Regardless, she could be held liable for any bad outcome.
Also, recognize the difference between a personal recommendation and advice. If your trainer said to you “I really like X brand of multivitamin” then they are simply giving you their opinion of a good brand of supplement. It is their personal opinion about a brand they trust and, as such, there is nothing inappropriate about it. But, if they say, “I see you are experiencing X, so you need to take this brand of multivitamin” they have crossed the line from personal opinion to prescribing supplements to you.
Sports, Bodybuilding, and Performance Supplements
With such a vast array of dietary supplements on the market that go way beyond vitamins and minerals, it may be difficult to know what is appropriate or not for trainers to discuss.
This is not so daunting once you categorize these supplements. Some products marketed as supplements, such as meal replacements, protein powders and bars, and carbohydrate sources such as gels, depending on added ingredients, can simply be convenient sources of extra macronutrients for those on the go. But even then, a trainer should give individualized advice. If your trainer tells you, “I tell all my clients to use whey protein,” they have demonstrated that they should not be taken seriously.
On the other hand, if your goal is muscle building or strength, or other performance pursuits, a trainer may recommend a certain level of protein in your diet. If you were to tell them that you are having trouble getting that much protein into your daily diet, they might suggest a protein supplement. Still, they may just as well give you ideas for getting more protein into your diet without supplements.
People often question the use of pre-workout supplements. These should definitely not be placed into the same category as protein powders or meal replacements. Many pre-workout powders contain unnecessary ingredients such as so-called nootropic herbs or mega-doses certain vitamins (which will not immediately enhance your level of energy) and when combine with further doses of these vitamins in other supplements, could present a toxicity hazard. People often are surprised that I use a pre-workout supplement. Much depends on your intentions for taking such a supplement. I do not use a pre-workout, necessarily, to enhance my performance or give me prolonged energy. I use it to shorten the time interval between “just getting started” and “being ready to go.” It simply makes for a quicker warmup and less of a transition between warming-up and actively lifting. However, I would never wholesale recommend a pre-workout supplement, especially considered the vast array of choices and difficulty in knowing what a certain person may choose. Trainers should not recommend such supplements without a frank discussion of benefits and risks. I used to stick to Optimum Nutrition Pre-Workout but I am now using Legion Pulse Pre Workout, as this is the only brand I have been able to find that contains only the ingredients I want and no ineffective fillers.
This should not be taken as legal advice for trainers or clients. It is up to you to assess the legalities where you live. Some of the practices that I discuss may actually be legally permissible in certain areas, but they still may be inappropriate and, as well, may still open up legal liabilities. While I would hope that simple nutrition or supplement advise would not be so dangerous, the supplement market has gone way beyond simple supplements of vitamins or minerals and many can contain quite harmful ingredients in very large amounts. Recently, a popular herbal supplement called kratom, with 3 to 5 million users in the U.S., was found to contain opioids.