Mostly, days pass from one to the next with little to no fanfare. But not January 1. When the clock strikes midnight, it signals more than the transition to a new day or year. It weighs on us. It pressures us to do better—to quit smoking, save more money, go back to school, lose weight, and finally get in shape.
We all know change doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a process. That’s why I wrote Day by Day: The Personal Trainer’s Blueprint to Achieving Ultimate Success. (With an amazing foreword by Jonathan Goodman.) I put my tips into a calendar format to help you improve your career the same way you encourage your clients to improve their health and fitness: one day at a time.
Let’s talk about those optimistic new clients.
Far too many enter the new year with old ideas. They still believe fitness myths that were probably debunked before you entered the profession. The following 10 misconceptions linger because their friends and coworkers and family members continue to endorse them. Science is no match for your client’s sister’s boyfriend.
It’s your job to offer better-informed guidance while giving your client the kind of results that prove your points.
1. “Lifting weights makes you bulky”
To be fair, the industry has come a long way in dispelling this one. But you’ll still get a client who believes three-pound weights will give her a willowy body like Gwyneth Paltrow’s, while anything heavier will turn her into a tree stump.
Debunk it: It’s not just unprofessional to go right after your client’s beliefs, it’s unproductive. Start with a simple acknowledgment that you understand a lot of people share her fear of unintentional mass-building. Then share some of the mountains of science-backed benefits linked to resistance training, like improvements in strength, mood, and metabolism. Mention the anti-aging effects.
Your client will come around, as long as you don’t throw her under a loaded barbell on the first day. Your programs should always meet your clients where they are, not where you wish they were. It might take 20 sessions or more before she’s ready for the big lifts.
2. “The key to results: Eat a lot less and exercise a lot more”
This one is so widespread that even some trainers buy into it. It’s convincing because it’s partly true: Your clients do need to stop eating so much. And they do need to exercise more frequently and intensely. The trick is not to tackle both at the same time, especially not at full speed.
Debunk it: Focus on the most urgent need first. Is your client’s diet out of control? Is he struggling to exercise consistently? Decide which is the greater need and start there. When your client shows progress in that area, you can expand your focus. Keep moving forward incrementally until your client achieves his goals and gains a sense of self-control.
3. “Keto is the best diet for weight loss”
Another year, another diet. Just in the low-carb category, we’ve gone from Atkins to South Beach to paleo and now to keto. We could create separate timelines for everything from low-fat to vegetarian to fasts and cleanses. With each new fad, we learn yet again that no single diet is right for everyone, while some aren’t a good idea for anyone.
Debunk it: Chances are, your client doesn’t completely understand the challenges of keto, or any other fad diet he’s interested in. It’s on you to explain the pros and cons—tactfully.
First ask what he likes about the diet. This not only keeps him off the defensive, it gives you valuable intel about what he’s looking for in a nutrition plan. Then dig into your client’s lifestyle. What are his habits? What does he like to eat, and when does he like to eat it? It not only shows respect but also helps him realize what is or isn’t practical.
From there the two of you can proceed as partners working toward a mutual goal: figuring out the best diet for him.
READ ALSO: Five Ways to Help Clients Lose Weight
4. “A good workout burns a ton of calories”
To some clients, all that matters is how many calories they burn. The goal of every workout is to fry fat, shred their muscles, and ultimately look good naked—form and function be damned. You, however, understand that movement quality is paramount. As Gray Cook says, “First move well, then move often.”
Debunk it: Expand your knowledge of functional anatomy, kinesiology, physiology, biomechanics, fascial slings, and unloaded movement disciplines. (Anatomy Trains is a must-read for every trainer, and my digital book on program design is pretty great too, in my admittedly biased opinion.)
A good coach should be able to improve a client’s mobility, neuromuscular awareness, strength, and cardiovascular fitness in the same workout, or even in the same quad-set. All while giving the client the satisfaction of burning a lot of calories.
5. “Cardio is the only way to lose weight”
Visit any gym on any day in January and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an open treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike, or stairclimber. It’s a sure sign that the general public still believes cardiovascular exercise is the premier way to drop pounds. After all, a cardio machine keeps a running count of the calories you’ve burned, like exercise is a video game and the goal is to get the highest score.
Debunk it: Of course endurance exercise burns a lot of calories. But there’s a catch: You have to do a lot of it. Your body easily compensates for smaller calorie deficits.
You can get around those compensatory mechanisms by focusing on excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC. An hour of steady-state cardio yields a relatively low EPOC, while a well-designed weight-lifting session can lead to an EPOC that lasts for 24 hours or more. Over time, the muscle your client builds will increase his basal metabolic rate (the number of calories burned at rest).
To boost the effects even more, encourage your client to try yoga, Pilates, or Animal Flow on the days he isn’t training with you. They’ll help improve movement skills, reduce stress, and improve sleep quality, all of which should contribute to weight loss.
READ ALSO: The Myth of Fat-Burning Workouts
6. “Stretching will loosen tight muscles”
Humans evolved to move, not spend long hours sitting. We sit at our desks at work, on our couches at home, and in cars, buses, or subways in between. No wonder every new client approaches you with the same terrible posture and tight muscles. They may ask you to stretch them. But that’s probably not what they need.
Debunk it: The problem with traditional stretching is that it only pulls on a given muscle, with no consideration for the mobility or stability of the joints surrounding it. A more practical approach: Introduce corrective exercises that improve range of motion and joint function.
Check out the Kinstretch system or the aforementioned Animal Flow. Combinations like this one for the hips or these crab reaches may be too advanced for most clients, but there are lots of intermediate movements you can use.
Once the client has adequate range of motion, you can include strength exercises that work the muscles at full length—for example, a Romanian deadlift with toes elevated on weight plates.
The final intervention is self-myofascial release to improve blood flow.
The combination of corrective exercises, strengthening muscles at full length, and foam rolling will do more to alleviate tightness than stretching ever could.
7. “Big muscles are built with big weights”
I started off with clients who’re scared of bulking up. These clients are at the opposite end of the spectrum. They just want more muscle mass, and believe the only way to achieve that goal is to lift the heaviest weights possible, as often as possible.
To be fair, it makes intuitive sense. Bigger muscles are typically stronger, and stronger muscles are typically bigger. But the science of muscular hypertrophy is actually more nuanced.
Debunk it: Yes, your client needs to train heavy sometimes. But load is just one of the major drivers of hypertrophy. You also need time under tension, which is achieved with moderate to high rep ranges and controlled movements, and volume. The more total sets and reps, the greater the training effect.
And don’t forget about protein. You can’t make muscles out of air.
8. “Every workout needs to be all-out”
Many new clients judge the quality of every workout by how fast their heart is racing and how much they sweat. You know this isn’t true, of course. To quote Confucius’s trainer: “If all your workouts are high-intensity workouts, is any intensity actually ‘high’?”
Debunk it: Ask your client to give you the first 15 minutes of every session to improve function and movement, and the next 15 for strength. Then promise to devote the last 30 minutes to what they love best, even if it’s pure annihilation. It’s a win for both of you.
9. “Deadlifting hurts your back, and squatting is bad for your knees”
The squat and hip hinge movement patterns are vital for health and performance. The best training programs include multiple examples of both. But that doesn’t mean each individual client can do them pain-free, especially if they to come to you with a history of back or knee injuries.
Debunk it: No great trainer ever subscribed to a workout of the day. Every part of your program has to fit the individual client. You can’t know what a client can do until you perform a full assessment. One client may be ready for goblet squats to a bench while another needs a suspension trainer to defer some body weight and improve hip depth.
Same with hip hinges. Take the time to learn and consider each client’s individual abilities, and her back and knees should be just fine.
10. “Hiring a personal trainer will fix everything”
For so many, contracting a personal trainer is a get-out-of-jail-free card. It means they can cheat on their diets, skip workouts, do whatever they want. After all, they hired you, and that should be enough, right?
Debunk it: Yes, you need to stress the importance of following the plan, but you can also urge your client to surround himself with supportive people. Warn him that the process of getting in shape will at times be uncomfortable. And challenge any negativity or unrealistic expectations he might have. Encourage your client to take ownership of his own fitness journey, rather than putting it all on you.
At the same time, you have to make sure you don’t put it all on you. Clients will come to you seeking physical change, but there’s often emotional work to be done too. Rejection, overwork, pain, heartbreak—every client has a different story and a different reason for wanting to get in shape.
You can help him change, but only he can make it happen. And as long as you both come prepared, it will.