It’s happened to the best of us; the point in our career where we find ourselves second-guessing our abilities as a trainer and start seriously contemplating a less frustrating line of work such as principal icemaker for the outdoor Egyptian Ice Hockey League.
And just what is the universal source of frustration? In almost every case, it involves dealing with clients who aren’t achieving any meaningful body composition changes, despite putting in many hours of hard work.
Sure we might go back to the drawing boards and dream up new programs involving less rest… more weight… more full body movements… drop sets… rest-pause work… cardio after training… cardio between sets… it really doesn’t matter.
No matter what brilliant programs we dream up, our clients still don’t see any real progress.
So what gives?
What gives is the universal truth:
“You Can’t Out-Train a Bad Diet”
Consider this for a moment: it takes the average human about 30 minutes of jogging on a treadmill to burn 300 calories, whereas it takes only about 30 seconds to replace those calories in the form of a donut.
Simply put, the reason most clients fail to change their bodies is because they don’t work hard their diet sucks. One of the epiphanies we experience as coaches is when we realize that our clients’ success has more to do with how effectively we influence their behaviour in the ~165 hours a week they aren’t with us, rather than the 2-3 hours they are. I can promise you that your clients will quit if you don’t work on the hours they aren’t seeing you.
As someone who has spent the better part of the last 10 years helping hundreds of clients work through significant diet changes, I’ve seen (and made) my fair share of coaching mistakes.
Today, I’d like to highlight 3 of the biggest diet mistakes coaches make, as well as what you need to be doing to separate yourself from the competition!
Personal Trainer Nutrition Guidance 101 #1: Handing your client a “perfect” meal plan and expecting them to follow it.
To all the trainers reading this, let me ask you a very simple question:
Would any of you try to teach a brand new client a barbell snatch in your first session?
Considering we all can accept that attempting to teach someone to snatch when they can’t even execute a body weight squat properly would be a massive exercise in futility, why do we routinely make this mistake when trying to help our clients with nutrition?
Don’t you think that if your clients currently loved eating spinach, egg whites and plain chicken breast they might already be doing so?
Fact of the matter is, the vast majority of clients can’t and won’t follow a rigid meal plan for any length of time. It’s simply too significant a shift in their current eating habits.
On top of being too drastic, many clients will get frustrated with their inability to follow the plan you’ve given them and fall off the wagon entirely.
Personal Trainer Nutrition Guidance 101 Solution 1: Break diet progression into singular, achievable diet goals.
Trying to change 10 diet habits at once is damn near impossible. Changing those 10 habits one at a time over a period of many weeks is much, much more manageable.
By giving clients a single, achievable habit to focus on, they’ll develop a real sense of mastery over their progress, which leads to greater diet compliance over the long-haul.
What I’ve found works best is actually prioritizing diet changes into “bang for your buck” categories and focusing initially only on the foundational change diet habits.
For even better success, I like to have clients select which of the foundational changes they’d like to work on. By involving clients in the decision making process, you’ll start to see their compliance sky-rocket, as they no longer feel as though they are being forced into doing something they aren’t prepared to do.
Involving clients in the decision making process makes compliance skyrocket
Here’s how I lump nutritional habits:
Foundational Change (will benefit almost everyone)
• Increasing protein intake (focusing initially at breakfast, then working on rest of the day)
• Starches/simple sugars predominantly during/after workouts
• Eat a minimum of 5-8 servings of vegetables a day
• Consume only calorie-free beverages
Accelerating Progress (case-by-case scenario)
• Control fruit intake (*amount depends on client’s goals/genetics)
• Control dairy intake (*amount depends on client’s goals/genetics)
• Removing refined grains
• Increase water intake
• Smart supplementation (fish oil, multivitamin/greens powder)
• Weekly calorie cycling/calorie counting
Finishing Touches (only if necessary)
• Limit artificial sweeteners
• Going with organic meats/produce
• Playing with meal frequency
• Controlling caffeine intake
By conceptualizing diet reform in this manner, you start to realize how important it is for clients to master foundational changes before they start obsessing about more advanced strategies that might accelerate their results.
In my experience, very few clients ever have to get to “finishing touches” type of changes to get the results they are looking for.
Personal Trainer Nutrition Guidance take home: don’t get hung up berating a client for their diet coke consumption if they still aren’t eating any vegetables in a day. When it comes to helping a client with their diet, making only 1 meaningful diet change always leads to much greater long-term success than trying, and failing, to change 10 things all at once.
Personal Trainer Nutrition Guidance 101 Mistake #2: Expecting clients to make rationale food choices.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard trainers tell their clients to:
“just consider food as fuel”.
While dispensing this advice to clients makes sense in theory, it’s pretty terrible advice in practice.
The problem we face in North America is not that people don’t understand that spinach is a healthier food choice than chocolate chip cookies; it’s that most humans prefer to eat the cookie.
The problem is not that people don’t know how to eat healthy. It’s that they choose not to
Part of this fact has to do with evolution (the consumption of energy dense foods led to superior survival throughout most of human history), but equally to blame is that calories are all too accessible in today’s society. Not only do we get bombarded with “food” messages everywhere we look, but so many of our social settings (Holidays, lunch meetings, Sunday dinners) revolve around eating.
Compounding the issue is that eating carries a strong emotional influence over many of us, so it’s no surprise that eating for pleasure always trumps eating for survival, no how “rationale” your advice might seem.
Personal Trainer Nutrition Guidance 101 Solution 2: Embrace the power of taste: make healthy food choices appealing.
Until you make healthy food choices as pleasing on the taste buds as processed junk (or at least close enough), most clients will resort to eating processed foods 9 times out of 10.
Therefore, the challenge becomes: how to get clients to eat more vegetables, when so many clients beginning the path to healthy eating are convinced that vegetables aren’t nearly as appetizing as a chocolate chip cookie?
In a situation like this, one of the first coaching tips I give clients is to “consume vegetables with whatever dip or topping you need to get them down”.
Recall my “bang for your buck” list. Consuming more vegetables took precedence over worrying about anything to do with calorie counting.
Do I want my clients to always be dousing their cooked carrots with butter or slathering Caesar salad dressing on their broccoli? No. But by allowing clients to “make vegetables taste good” (in their opinion), I’ve satisfied their hedonistic need for great taste, while appeasing my coaching goal of getting my client to eat more vegetables.
Personal Trainer Nutrition Guidance take home: By breaking down vegetable consumption into a manageable and repeatable behaviour for my client, we’ve accomplished that critical first step of turning their diet around for the better and over time we can work towards a future goal of removing (or limiting) how many excess sauces they use.
Personal Trainer Nutrition Guidance 101 Mistake #3: Believing that food journaling is about calorie counting.
Whereas exercise tracking is straight-forward and also fairly objective (as long as you are standing next to your client, you can count how many reps they perform, how much weight they lift and track visible signs of effort, as well as fatigue), calorie counting is a futile exercise.
Unless you plan on following your clients around to every meal and measuring everything they put into their mouths, you have to accept that nutrition tracking involves taking your client’s word for what they are doing.
Now before anyone gets up worked up by my suggestion that calorie counting is a fool’s errand, consider this:
• Clients will regularly underestimate their caloric intake by 20-30% (unintentionally).
• Food labels often underestimate the true caloric content of that food by anywhere from 10-15%.
• The energy cost to digestion of protein is much higher than that of carbohydrates or fat.
• Calorie counting totally ignores the micronutrient profile of foods, nutrients that are typically necessary to support a healthy metabolism.
• Most clients eyeball servings, as opposed to accurately measuring them with a scale.
Not only is calorie counting an imprecise science at best, I’ve also seen it lead far too many clients into justifying bad food choices because they are “low calorie” .
Personal Trainer Nutrition Guidance 101 Solution 3: Don’t track calories, track adherence to the diet goals outlined above.
Although I consider calorie counting useless for most clients, tracking is an invaluable tool for holding clients accountable. But in order for accountability to have any meaning, it requires that you as a coach effectively communicate expectations as of day 1.
As an added bonus, you’ll find that clients are much more willing to track a single diet goal, as opposed to trying to log every single food item they eat in a day.
Lately, I’ve found myself working with a lot of physique athletes and one of the first things I tell them is that, “I’m not the one who wants to walk across that stage in my underwear. If you lie to me about what you are eating, you are only sabotaging yourself”.
It might sound harsh, but it’s a remarkably effective way of getting clients to realize their role and responsibility in the body transformation process.
Letting clients know that the only way you, as their coach, can help them is if they are both:
b) Regular with their reporting
is something too many coaches overlook.
Personal Trainer Nutrition Guidance take home: Tracking a single client goal and letting your client know that they are the ones who will ultimately suffer will increase adherence. It may seem harsh but is appreciated
Personal trainer nutrition guidance 101 wrap up
Remember, our job as coaches isn’t to force our clients to change. At the end of the day, the only person who ultimately determines a client’s success or failure is the client themselves. However, we do have the responsibility of providing each client an appropriate intervention for their current abilities… and this means helping clients with both exercise AND diet.
So instead of continuing to pull your hair out because of “stubborn” weight loss clients driving you crazy, try implementing these nutrition coaching strategies into your personal training practice today.
Don’t be surprised when your client “success stories” start to dwarf your “client frustrations” by a wide margin!
How do you monitor you clients habits outside of the gym? Comment below with your top 1-2 points and, as always, please share using the buttons below