5 questions with Cody Haun, Ph.D. about online personal training and athlete monitoring

Dr. Cody Haun
Cody Haun, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, LaGrange College

Interviewer Mike Roberts, Ph.D.: Cody, we’ve known each other for around 5 years now and spent a great deal of time in the trenches here at Auburn.  Now, you’re expanding the enterprise in the great state of Georgia at LaGrange College.  We could talk for hours, but today I want to focus on your experience as a scientist while running your consulting business, along with your experience in athlete monitoring.

Q1: You founded Soma Scientific Consulting, LLC  a few years back during Master’s work at East Tennessee State University (ETSU).  A large part of the business is online coaching which has become pretty popular.  What’s nice about Soma versus other online websites providing these services is that you as well as all of the Soma consultants hold legitimate credentials (e.g., PhD or Masters degrees and the NSCA’s CSCS credential).  Can you offer advice to folks looking for these services in terms of what differentiates a good coaching website versus one that may be of “suspect” quality?

CH: I started graduate school at ETSU in 2013 and had to stop personal training as much given my in-person strength coach duties at ETSU, and my academic work.For this reason, I initially started Soma to simply provide legal, for-profit, effective programming and consulting to former personal training clients that I was no longer able to train in person. 

After only a few months of online clients realizing good progress, and after quite the number of inquiries from other individuals (mostly via social media) for online coaching during the same time period, I realized there was a demand for premium online coaching that yielded desired results, and that this type of service was possible to balance with my academic and research pursuits.

It was apparent that a lot of individuals were searching for qualified fitness professionals to provide training, nutrition, and supplementation consultations/programming remotely that they could be confident was based on scientific evidence and offered by an accountable, legal mechanism.

This inspired me to enlist fellow graduate students as consultants with higher education in way of helping to connect people to qualified coaches and to help my fellow graduate students earn some extra income.  

Over the past 5 years, I’ve definitely witnessed others attempt to provide this type of service unsuccessfully and unethically.In fact, some of the programs I’ve had clients share with me from other “coaches” they were working with, or had worked with in the past, were simply criminal. I mean that. Absolutely ridiculous and based on no scientific data. And, in many cases, this resulted in people getting injured, or not seeing the results they’d hoped and paid for.

This is due, at least partly, to the lack of regulation in the fitness industry of who can legitimately provide reasonably safe and effective fitness and nutrition-related services based on proper education and experience. But, it is also due to people not doing their research on folks before agreeing to adhere to a training program or nutrition paradigm.

Thus, I encourage people to take their time and investigate the person or company offering the service before jumping in. I even suggest speaking with former or current clients of the individual or company, or reviewing client testimonials. I’ve been working with Greg Nuckols (Owner of Stronger By Science featured earlier on Auburn KINEversity) for the past 5 years as a Stronger by Science coach as an example of a company I feel is “doing it right.” Some other notable companies that can serve as reputable examples are: Renaissance Periodization, Juggernaut Training Systems, and 3DMJ. More recently, I’ve been serving as the Head Science Consultant for a cool new company called APLYFT. APLYFT is a nifty mobile app that connects interested users to qualified coaches throughout the world, along with allowing the entry and tracking of training process data over time.

Beyond the above information, here are some specific questions I’d recommend for people to answer while searching, and before deciding to work with an online coach:

-How long have they been offering the service?

-Do they have an academic degree in exercise, sport, biological, or nutritional science?

-Do they have legitimate certifications (e.g., NSCA, ACSM)?

-Do they have true experience or specialize in the specific area you’re wanting to focus?

-How much do they charge relative to other coaches?

-How many clients do they currently have?

-How often are they willing to communicate with you?

Q2: Since you’ve lived through the rewards and challenges of starting an online company, do you have any advice for future aspiring students that have good ideas and want to pursue them via an online venture?

CH: 1.) Don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from getting started. You will not enhance your knowledge, improve your craft or service, or realize your dreams without getting started.

With that said, before you get started ensure that you have an appropriate understanding of your area of interest in order to provide a quality service. Don’t rush this step and be willing to put quality preparatory time in. Typically, this means attaining an appropriate level of education. Finding a solid mentor is also a great idea. But, recognize that at some point the only way to realize your vision is to begin taking action. You will never finish what you don’t start.

2.) Make sure you research and verify local, state, and federal regulations on your specific online business and that you possess the appropriate credentials (if applicable) and that you understand tax laws and legal implications relevant to your venture. Make a plan to track this honestly and consistently.  

3.) Continually and diligently pursue knowledge in your area. This will only help you provide a better online service or product.

4.) Be kind and honest.

5.) Strive to “go the extra mile”. This basically means to provide a service or experience for your clients that surpasses their expectation and your requirement.

Q3: At Auburn you were the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the USA Team Handball resident athletes, and at East Tennessee State University you were an Assistant Strength & Conditioning Coach for Olympic Sports. Additionally, you teach a graduate course at LaGrange College called: Athlete Monitoring. Beyond you having to program for athletes, these positions involved athlete monitoring in order to gauge feedback as to whether training was effective.  Briefly, could you provide examples for readers what athlete monitoring entails?

Athlete monitoring in its purest form requires a reliable, valid assessment of both dose and response. This can be challenging give the host of factors that are outside of our control as coaches or sport scientists. However, we should strive to accomplish this as objectively and reasonably as possible. Dr. Chris Bailey posited a definition and aims that I like and use often which I feel summarize the process well. Athlete monitoring can be defined as: the continual process of testing and evaluating an athlete or athletes as objectively as possible. Athlete monitoring primarily aims to:

1.) reduce injury potential and peak at the appropriate time
2.) provide direct feedback of progress to the athlete and coach
3.) identify characteristics indicative of high talent (i.e., talent identification)
4.) identify factors associated with injury, overtraining, or burnout
5.) establish safety to return to play or train
6.) appropriately dose training, recovery, and nutrition-related variables

Q4: We’ve talked about genotyping and the vision of an athlete or trainee providing a saliva sample and getting instantaneous feedback on genetic make-up and other physiological factors. Trainers then could prescribe an exercise program based upon the individual’s unique genotype and phenotype. Now, we’re not there yet in terms of the technology, and some scientists think we may never get to this point (given that large genetic studies yield “significant” genes that still have relatively poor predictive ability for given traits). That aside, are there current methods that you implement with athletes that do provide good information about training strategies?

In my view, the most surefire way to accomplish a biologically plausible goal related to performance or body composition is to use the scientific method and available scientific data. Therefore, I use a data-driven approach to gain a better understanding of the effectiveness of the training process.

As mentioned previously, monitoring both the dose of training and response is key. For resistance training alone, dose can be fairly easy to calculate and monitor. For example, monitoring repetitions and load over time for an exercise with standard technical execution.

Response is a bit more difficult to assess and depends on the aim of the training process (e.g., fat loss, hypertrophy, sport performance). Of course, an easy example is to objectively assess if “performance” improves from a dose of practice or training. Measuring a change in performance associated with training can be difficult for a host of reasons like controlling for other variables and depends on the way in which performance is measured (e.g., objective vs subjective). Thus, selecting an appropriate test and striving to be as objective as possible is important.

Performance, body composition change, and other factors often require more sensitive laboratory methods for confident, objective analysis. However, there are proxies of response that can be assessed practically (e.g., bodyweight, appearance, ability to lift more weight over time, etc.).

Since I can’t go too far down the rabbit hole on that and I can’t share a detailed list of variables or all applicable information in this short interview, some general variables worth monitoring in many contexts are: 

1.) External training load (e.g., work completed, session duration, volume load)

2.) Internal training load (e.g., rating of perceived exertion, heart rate)

2.) Sleep quantity and quality

3.) Perceived soreness, pain, and fatigue

4.) Resting heart rate

5.) Bodyweight

As one of my graduate school faculty members Dr. Williams Sands has stated on numerous occasions and something I try to teach my students, we are looking for a constellation in the monitoring data indicative of time to keep pushing or time to back off. For example, one common indicator of functional overreaching that suggests it may be time to initiate additional recovery strategies is a disturbance in sleep in conjunction with a notable change in resting heart rate, bodyweight, and perceived soreness, pain, or fatigue.

Q5: We’ve asked other folks that have done this Q&A where they see the field of exercise physiology headed.  What are your thoughts here?

It’s a great time to be in our field. I’m continually amazed by the great work being done in our field pushing us toward better prescriptive power and improving our ability to help people live healthier, more enjoyable lives. Something I’ve appreciated of late is the move toward open science and transparency in exercise science research for more trustworthy findings and confident interpretation. I hope that we as a field can move to an open science model where studies are pre-registered and carried out with intent to move closer to the truth as a top priority rather than publication of significant findings alone. I think this is really important, and I was pleased to be a part of a recent paper calling for this in our field, Moving Sport and Exercise Science Forward: A Call for the Adoption of More Transparent Research Practices.

Regarding intriguing areas of study in our field specifically, I think it’s important we continue to strive to better understand individual responses to exercise and nutrition or supplement interventions related to genetic and behavioral factors. Although this isn’t necessarily new, with the innovation in molecular biology techniques and other methodologies, the future looks really bright and I think this area of investigation can truly help people more effectively improve their health, performance, and overall well-being. As we better understand the qualitative and quantitative nature of an individual’s idiosyncratic or characteristic response to specific interventions, we can provide better exercise, nutrition, and supplementation prescriptions. I truly hope my research, teaching, and coaching efforts can help accomplish these things.

I really appreciate the interview, Dr. Roberts. I wish you and the Auburn crew all the best!

Dr. Haun, always a pleasure.  Thanks so much for the time.

Dr. Cody Haun is an Assistant Professor at LaGrange College and the Owner of Soma Scientific Consulting, LLC.  To follow Dr. Haun on social media check out:

Twitter: @drcodyhaun

Instagram: @drcodyhaun

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