It was my first day, and I stood in my new boss’s office staring at a list of personal trainers on staff taped to the wall. They were listed in order according to how many sessions they had in a pay period. The trainer who sold the most and had the most business was at the top of the list, and management used it to keep competition alive among the staff. Competition? I loved it!
I stood there quietly and confidently, assuring myself that I’d be on the top of that list within a few months. Why shouldn’t I? Not only did I have experience working as a personal trainer in college, but I had the experience of interning under a former NFL strength and conditioning coach. These other trainers hadn’t coached high-level athletes or learned advanced methods of programming like I had.
Despite my initial confidence, months went by and to say that I wasn’t “on top” was an understatement. How could this be? I had something these other trainers didn’t have.
I came to realize that maybe what I had to offer wasn’t as useful as I first thought. The prospective clients that I had approached didn’t want or need to be trained like high-level athletes. They didn’t need advanced methods. These were business men and women who needed someone to teach them how to improve in basic movements and exercises and increase their baseline of fitness, not someone who could take them to the next level of athletics.
Learning the difference
After some time and success at the health club, I got the chance to go back to my first love and become a full-time strength and conditioning coach. So I can safely say that I’ve lived in both worlds, seen the good and bad of both, and made mistakes in both.
There are two faulty lines of thinking. Both are bad ideas, and I see more of one in the industry than I care to comment on. The first is trying to apply concepts and methods to one world that are meant exclusively for the other (this is the one I see more of in this industry). The other is not realizing what ideas can be taken from working in fitness and applied to training athletes. I’ll go over two mistakes in applying concepts to fitness clients that are meant exclusively for athletes when there are better alternatives.
Mistake #1: Not knowing your role
Personal trainers need to understand that they aren’t strength and conditioning coaches. This included me when I started working at the health club. Fitness clients don’t have the exercise background and sound movement patterns that experienced athletes do. Most young male trainers start out saying that they would love to train athletes, but most never get to that point—and there isn’t anything wrong with that. However, there is something wrong with pretending that your general population clients are well-conditioned athletes.
When I got my first client at the health club, I was ecstatic and quickly went to work on a program that I thought would quickly establish my dominance in the gym as the big, hairy chested, alpha male of the trainers. It involved using the max effort method complete with a percentage progression. There was only one hole in the program—the man I wrote it for couldn’t even do one freaking body weight squat. There I stood, five minutes into the first session, having completely forgotten everything I did with clients before I worked with athletes, dumbfounded that the entire workout I wrote was utterly useless. He likely hadn’t squatted past the depth of toilet seat in twenty years, and here I was with a percentage-based squat workout based on a 1RM that didn’t exist and certainly couldn’t be tested.
Just as I did, many personal trainers need to learn that most fitness clients need to learn fundamental movements most of the time, and it’s their job to teach this. Most, although not all, experienced athletes have enough body awareness and mobility to sit back into a squat more when you tell them to. Fifty-year-old desk jockeys whose physical activity has consisted of standing up from their desks and walking to the water cooler don’t have this. Try telling a guy like this to squat or bend his hips and he won’t understand what you’re asking of him. No amount of verbal cuing or telling him to keep his chest up is going to help if he physically can’t because of mobility, stability, and coordination limitations.
Do this instead:
Before I even wrote up my squat program, I should have taken a step back to look at my client’s basic movement patterns. Most trainers assume that a new client who looks like he’s in shape is proficient in movement when in reality he may have the body awareness of a toddler.
After it’s established that the client can even squat, design a simple progressive overload type workout where he sticks with the same couple basic lifts (yes, I said it). This allows you to easily track progress and show the client how well he’s doing and establish a baseline of strength by establishing a baseline in the lifts/exercises. Trust me—I love the science and art behind programming as much as the next meathead geek, but fitness clients don’t need advanced programming. Believe it or not, it’s about them, not you.
Sticking with the same lifts doesn’t mean doing them for a couple workouts and then rotating to others. After three weeks of practicing a movement pattern, the client will finally have enough experience in it to establish a baseline of strength and you can implement a program to have him progress from there. That’s just the beginning though. This is where you’ll need to get the client to buy into the program.
The general population has been confused with the idea that changing exercises and workouts every week keeps your body guessing, whatever the heck that means. People are attracted to this like cats are attracted to shiny things, but new trainees only need to be exposed to the bare minimum amount of stimulus to elicit supercompensation. Believe it or not, it’s much less than most think. Body part splits where every muscle is exposed to various angles of force and stress is excessive for the beginner. A couple of quality compound full-body movements learned to mastery can be progressed a long way before other more advanced means of training need to be implemented. The trainee gradually exposed to stimuli and various training means will actually progress for a longer time and will enjoy more future success than the trainee exposed to isolation exercises too early.
Mistake #2: Not understanding perspective
In most cases, motivating the general population is much different than motivating competitive athletes. When I left the strength and conditioning world after college to work in fitness, I took for granted how competitive college athletes are. Any excuse to compete against himself or others causes a switch to flip in his head. Nothing else matters but winning and being better in that moment.
Unfortunately, many fitness clients don’t share the same passion for physical improvement and competition. The fitness clients I was training competed in business rather than in physical feats, and I found out quickly that poking fun at them and calling them “little girls” to try to get them to work harder wasn’t the most sound business and marketing decision for me. They just didn’t respond well to it. Who would’ve thought?
Do this instead:
After some eye-opening experiences, I realized that trying to motivate fitness clients is a little overrated. Trying to create motivation in someone who hasn’t made a clear unequivocal decision to change is fighting a losing battle. Trust me—just because someone hires you as a personal trainer doesn’t mean he has had his “moment” of change.
I figured out a better way. Tracking everything from the increased weight used during a cycle of training to positive nutrition habits introduced one at a time is very tangible for the client. The small successes that he can see with his own eyes is what will keep him wanting more. Success begets more success, and if you make your client’s progress easy to track, he’ll begin to create his own internal motivation without you.
Taking what you’ve learned
While it’s unwise to apply training methods intended for athletes to general population clients, there are things learned as a personal trainer that you can take with you to make yourself a better coach if you’re an aspiring strength and conditioning coach. You just have to learn the lessons like I did.
Lesson # 1: Don’t treat athletes like expert lifters.
It should never be assumed that athletes at any level know how to lift properly and don’t have some God awful movement pattern deficiencies. Just because an athlete looks great on the field doesn’t mean that he isn’t relying on really strong global muscles (the ones that move the limbs) while his stabilizing muscles (sometimes also called local muscles that stabilize the spine and prevent injury) function very poorly. Once you put that athlete under a bar, he may still get hurt if you don’t watch for signs of compensations and instability.
He can’t get any stronger in the weight room until his deficiencies are identified and addressed and proper form is encouraged and practiced. The mastery of a select group of lifts to establish a baseline before implementing advanced programming is just as important as it was with the fitness client.
Lesson # 2: Athletes need to be “sold,” too.
A very smart man once said that “the best training program is the one you believe in.” Provided you don’t suck, of course, this couldn’t be more true when implementing a program and training your athletes as a strength and conditioning coach.
In the health clubs, I learned how to find out what the prospective client truly wanted and got him to tell me why he needed me. I realized that after he “bought” into the idea that I could help him save or change his life, he would listen to everything I said and I could really help him see great changes. When I realized that I was doing him a service, not a disservice, I pushed harder to get more clients and help more people. Toward the end, I became pretty good at making people see the value in training with me, and I promptly forgot all about it when I became a strength coach.
Fortunately, I remembered the idea when I first got some friction from an athlete. In most college sports, the head coach of a team requires his athletes to come to workouts, so they don’t have much of a choice as to whether or not they do my program. The problem with training large teams is that you only have two eyes. Those athletes who don’t “buy” into the idea that your program will make them better on the field will take shortcuts and skip as much of it as they can get away with.
If you have a well-planned program where training sessions build on themselves, it will seem like the athlete isn’t improving. The athlete might claim that it’s the program when in reality it’s his own fault. This is when you need to have the presence of mind to “sell” your program to the athlete instead of shoving it down his throat. Sometimes all the athlete needs is to understand that you care and realize exactly “how” this will help him in terms that he understands. Then, presto! He “buys in” and makes great strides. The belief that the program will make him better along with his positive thoughts will translate to hard work and results.
I’m not giving away gold training tips here. I’m trying to instead warn against the idea that everything works for everyone. Learn from me and realize that you have to do what’s best for your specific client or athlete, not just what interests you. Ideas can be taken from each world, but you need to be careful in how you apply them.