My own clients have taught me a lot. I’ve been coaching for 10 years; first off as a football coach for my football team’s youth teams and now as what most would refer to as a ‘Personal Trainer’.
I’ve travelled the length and breadth of the UK learning from some of the most influential figures in fitness education, but reckon that the lessons I’ve learned over the years from my own clients have been more valuable.
Rather than boasting about who I’ve spent time with and what they’ve taught me, here’s a list of 7 things I’ve learned from my own clients.
1. Clients have taught me: Not everyone can squat and/or deadlift
You know squats and deadlifts are the best exercises for building muscle and strength. You know that adding muscle to a human’s frame increases their metabolism. You want everyone to squat and deadlift.
Except, it’s not cool.
Some people have got very little chance of ever deadlifting from the floor with a straight bar or back squatting with a straight bar.
I learned early on that you have to be able to progress and regress exercises based on people’s strength and fitness levels and their joint mobility.
Sure, everyone can do a squat variation.
But one person may be doing a heels elevated kettlebell goblet squat to a box, whilst the next may be back squatting 1.5x bodyweight.
Those are two very different programs, for essentially the same movement.
2. Sometimes listening is more important than coaching
Training athletes is generally as simple as:
“This is what you’re doing today…
Particularly once you’ve laid the foundations of their strength levels and coached them effective technique. I find myself to be merely a time-keeper/rep-counter.
With the ‘general population’, training has to be a little more personal.
I’d say that stress relief is one of the primary objectives, if not thee primary objective, that the majority of people desire to obtain through exercise/training.
Oftentimes this means ranting about their day, how much they hate their boss or how they just can’t wait for the school holidays to finish so that they can ‘get rid of the kids’ and get back into their routine.
Being a good listening is probably the most important part of any trainer’s arsenal.
Be careful when you interrupt someone mid-rant to tell them to get a set done. They may not be coming to see you to do sets, they may simply want an outlet for their stress.
3. Everyone wants to feel as if they’re ‘good at it’
Most people are terrified of gyms.
They get the fear even thinking about going to one. So when they do eventually show up and stand next to their trainer (who may exacerbate their ‘fear’ by being devilishly handsome and athletic…sorry ‘bout that) the last thing they want to do is feel even worse.
I learned not to start my clients off with the hardest progression of an exercise and, instead, attempted to ‘build them up’ by slowly progressing the difficulty.
For example, if I’ve programmed a trap bar deadlift as the first movement in a workout, I’ll include hip hinge movements in the warm up; i.e. glute bridges and good mornings.
Once my client is warm and mobile, I’ll have them complete a few sets of rack pulls to further drill the movement pattern into them before they start their first working set.
From there I’ll have them trap bar deadlift a weight I know they’re going to be more than comfortable with and slowly creep the weight up, whilst celebrating how easy they’re making it look.
Once we get to their ‘working weight’, their form should be good, their confidence should be high and they should perform well.
Taking someone from a treadmill into their first working set is a disaster that’ll most likely demotivate your client as moving backwards along the continuum of ‘hard’ to ‘easy’ is a lot more demoralising than moving forward from ‘easy’ to ‘hard’.
4. Diet plans are, largely, a waste of time
Structure is great, and an example food day can be an excellent tool.
But for the majority of people I’ve coached over the years all a diet plan does is further the ‘on it/off it’ mindset.
If they’re ‘on’ the plan, things are good. They’re feeling positive and they’re working towards their goals. As soon as they have something that’s not on the plan, they feel like they’ve failed. They’re off the wagon and they’ll more-often-than-not binge.
Educating people clients about nutrition, giving them a little bit of structure and empowering them to clean up their habits is a lot more powerful than simply placing a spreadsheet with: Breakfast, Snack, Lunch, Snack, Dinner on it.
5. Keep program periodisation simple
I started out as an intern with the Scottish Institute of Sport.
I’d follow the coaches around like a bad smell, hang around the athletes and essentially just help out wherever and whenever I could.
I learned a lot about effective technique and programming back then and I thought that’s what’d set me apart when I ventured into the world of Personal Training.
How wrong I was.
I’d program deloads, try to work out their program based on percentages of their perceived max lifts and generally just got too damn technical for my own good.
Once I started training the general public, I realised that a far looser approach to programming is superior.
Have a plan, but make it flexible.
What if your 3x per week client cancels a session and can’t re-schedule it?
What happens when someone ends up sitting in a meeting all day and comes in with screaming tight hip-flexors/lower back and you’ve got a 1RM back squat in store for them.
It’s just not going to happen.
There’s many geeky ways to periodise a program, but with the general population KISS is the most effective method…keep it simple, stupid.
6. No one wants to feel like they’ve failed
“I want you to hit 10 reps.”
*Client fails at 8 and is in a bad mood for the rest of the session*
This happens wayyyyyyy more than you’d expect. Clients want to achieve their goals, whether that’s weight loss, strength gain or simply completing the number of reps you prescribed for them within a set.
I’ve found that using rep-ranges are far more effective than giving an exact number of reps.
“I want you to get between 8 and 10 reps. Eight’s your minimum and anything after that is a bonus.”
This leads to far happier clients who feel like they’ve achieved the ‘full set’ once they get to 8 reps. If they get 10 reps, they feel like they’ve done extra.
Far more effective for the moral of the client and for the general mood during the session.
7. Being human is a far more admirable character trait than being a superhero
When I first started, I thought I had to be shredded. I thought I was only allowed to eat out of tupperware and was doomed to a life of teetotalism.
I’d panic when I was at a bar drinking beer “in case anyone saw me”. I’d sneak cookies into my shopping trolly “in case I bumped into a client” and I generally just tried to life the life of a squeaky clean superhero trainer.
However, I actually found I developed stronger bonds with my clients when the chinks in my armour finally began to become apparent and I started opening up about how normal I actually am.
Nowadays I’m very open about how I eat cake most days, enjoy a few beers at the weekend and train 2-4 times per week.
Strangely, I get a ridiculously higher number of enquiries about my services nowadays than I did when I was the super-ripped athlete who only ate chicken and broccoli.
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