Beginner clients will adapt to pretty much anything. This is both good and bad. You need to be careful.
Most clients are beginners. And with beginners, virtually anything works — for a while. Not only do we have the opportunity to help beginners reach their fitness goals, but also to hook them on life-long fitness and set them up for what they’ll need when they reach an inevitable plateau.
Here’s the 10 steps to do it:
1. Help them get over the fear of gyms
As passionate fitness professionals, we love the gym. To us it’s a comfortable, happy place that feels like home. However, to a beginner client who is new to fitness training, the gym can be a terrifying place.
A great tip I learned years ago from Andre Potvin is to imagine yourself going to the gym naked. Think of how awkward and embarrassing that would be. That is exactly how a beginner client can feel when he/she first sets foot in the gym. Therefore, go out of your way to make them feel as comfortable as possible. Here are a few practical ideas:
- Give them a quick tour
- Help the fit in by teaching them the facility rules, gym etiquette, and some basic gym lingo
- Keep the program simple
- Keep the written program chart simple (no fancy charts, terms or abbreviations)
- Consider where you are in the gym. Do not place a beginner learning to Goblet Squat next to an advanced lifter squatting 5 plates a side. Do not teach a client the hip hinge in front of the Cardio Theater.
Editors Note: Jonathan Goodman, in his book Ignite the Fire, advises to spend the time and revisit how you felt when you first stepped foot in the gym. Additionally, a great way to communicate to the client that everybody feels awkward and often fails in new physical endeavors is to tell them a story. More on breaking the ice with clients here: https://www.theptdc.com/2013/05/5-ways-to-break-the-ice-with-clients/
2. Give the “whys”
Left on our own, we all gravitate towards the easier option. Why go through the discomfort of having that rough steel bar digging into your back with squats when there is a comfortable, padded leg extension machine that lets you create a nice burn in your thighs? You know the answer to this, but do your beginner clients? If they don’t, they may decide to make some “minor modifications” to your program.
Move people towards the uncomfortable things they don’t want to do, so they can get the results they’ve always wanted. Once you’ve solidified exactly what the goal is, let it dictate everything you do with your client. Also, every time you introduce a new exercise, lifestyle modification or nutritional habit, draw a line straight back to the goal and help the client make the connection.
Editors Note: Also consider the “real” goal, and not the superficial one. More on emotional goal setting here: https://www.theptdc.com/2012/06/your-smat-goals-are-stupid/
3. Be an effective communicator
Ever been around an “expert” from a different profession who made you feel stupid? Ever read a book about personal training or something fitness-related that was unnecessarily complicated? When you’re engrossed in your profession, it’s easy to talk over people’s heads and confuse those who don’t share your expertise. Rather than trying to impress your clients with impressive sounding academic terms such as proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, look for ways to simplify and present your information in way that someone with no fitness background can understand.
For example, let’s say you have a fat loss client and you decide to do some interval training with. You know the scientific rationale for this is that high-intensity exercise produces massive amount of EPOC (excess, post-exercise oxygen consumption).
However, all your client needs to know is that the harder he/she trains now, the more fat and calories he/she will burn after the session is over and he/she is off doing real life. Make a game out of this and continually look for ways to explain the science of training in simple, easy to understand ways.
4. Filter information for them
The internet is both the best and the worst thing to happen to the fitness industry. In today’s information age, your clients are bombarded with fitness and diet information. As a result, they can put out great effort in the wrong direction or be paralyzed by information-overload.
However, with your knowledge, expertise, wisdom and experience, you can not only provide them with good information, but help them filter the information around them. Everything they have and will learn about fitness will fall into these categories:
- Total scam or gimmick – you know what I’m talking about, but your clients may get fooled;
- Not appropriate for their goals (e.g. appropriate for a competitive bodybuilder, not an athlete);
- Not necessary (e.g. needed for a physique athlete to step on stage shredded, but not needed for a soccer mom trying to lose 10lbs);
- Not appropriate for their level (e.g., a complicated periodization scheme that may help an elite lifter make slow gains instead of no gains, but will slow down progress for a beginner)
Accurate, appropriate information to apply right now is best. Nothing less, and nothing more.
5. Do not smoke them
Training is about getting better, not getting tired. If all you had to do get the body of your dreams was to get tired, then we’re all out of a job. As you know, to create change in the body, you do have to present it with enough stress that the body senses the need to adapt to the stress and give it time to recover from and adapt to this stress.
While creating this overload stress can be challenging for an advanced client, it’s easy to do for the beginner. If a beginner isn’t used to doing anything, then almost anything you do in the gym can initially cause sufficient overload.
A beginner client doesn’t need to be annihilated to get great results. Also, easier workouts are easier to recover from and thus training can be done at a higher frequency. This allows you to repeat this stress & adapt cycle at a rapid rate.
However, if you smoke a beginner client on your first session and he or she can’t walk for the next week, you slow down progress. By starting light and working on the same movements, you can avoid getting your clients sore.
Error on the side of caution – at least to start. I often (and with a sinister smile) tell my clients and athletes, “We can always make it harder!”
6. Start with what they need
Regardless of their fitness goals, most beginners lack the following 3 things:
- movement quality,
- lifting skill,
Start your sessions with these three things in mind. As needed, work on a few key corrective mobility, activation, or movement drills as part of the warm-up. Then, look to teach them basic lifting skills.
The faster your clients can gain competency on some of the fundamental lifts, the faster they can move into harder and more productive training. The quickest way to learn to do a lift well is to avoid fatigue and increase frequency. With beginner clients and athletes, I like them to do the same main movements about 3 times per week.
I start them with a weight light enough that allows them to do perfect form. Also, while high reps are commonly recommended for beginners, I may have them split a set of 15 reps up into 3 mini sets with a small break of 5-10 sec between every 5 reps (I write this as 5-5-5 in my beginner programs). This helps to avoid fatigue and allow for more quality reps which results in faster mastery of the movement.
Here’s a sample of an introductory beginner program:
Goblet Squat: 1-3×5-5-5
1-Arm DB Press from Half Kneel: 1-3×5-5-5
Lat Pulldown or Assisted Pull-Up*: 1-3×5-5-5
Weighted Hip Hinge*: 1-3×5-5-5
Push-Up from Elevated Bar in Power Rack or Smith Machine: 1-3×5-5-5
Prone DB Row: 1-3×5-5-5
*Start with lat pulldowns unless the client is fairly close to being able to do a pull-up.
**Weighted hip hinge is like a Romanian deadlift holding a dumbbell or kettlebell on your stomach. Credit: Dan John. Learning the hip hinge makes for a smooth transition into deadlift variations in the future).
(Note: the above can be done one exercise at a time or in a circuit)
Goal-Specific Finisher (see the next point for details)
7. Finish with what they want
The down side with doing what I just described is that it won’t be what your client thinks he/she wants. Also, because of the initial lack of skill and strength, the above sample workout won’t be that challenging. Therefore, be sure to leave them with something that will help them feel like they had a good workout.
Here are some practical examples:
Male clients who want to gain muscle: for guys, these basic movements will be sufficient to increase arm size for a while before direct arm work is needed. Therefore, if you don’t have time, don’t worry about direct arm training. However, if you have a few extra minutes, finishing the workout with a simple biceps and triceps exercise that will allow him to feel an arm burn and leave with a pump (a.k.a. a satisfied customer).
Female clients: most ladies would like a little extra work for core and glutes. While the above sample routine hits these areas effectively, a few extra sets of hip thrusts and a direct core exercise or two will leave her just a little sore in all the right places and she will be pleased with the session.
Loaded carries: I’m a huge fan of loaded carries for beginners. In addition to the incredible functional carry-over of adding load to a natural human gait pattern, many of these movements are very simple to learn. Take a sled push or pull as an example.
With a few simple cues, your client is ready to work hard and leave with that, “That was a great workout” feeling. Note: the potential problem with these exercises is that they’re easy to over-do, so use caution to make sure that challenging doesn’t turn into puking and passing out.
New stuff: sometimes you get those clients who want something new each time they train. If you can talk them into getting better at the most important lifts, you can appease their desire for newness but adding something new at the end after they have worked on the main lifts.
Cardio: While I’m not a huge fan of traditional cardio, it may be the only thing a beginner can do that’s a bit more challenging – especially if you don’t have some of the loaded carry options (e.g. weighted sleds) at your gym.
8. Milk linear progression
If not pushed too hard, a beginner can take an exercise such as the squat, train it 3 times a week and add 5lbs a workout. This results in a 15-pound gain per week and they can do this for several weeks if not months. Now of course this will not last forever.
There will be a time when you will have to get more complex with your programming. However, while it is working, milk it for all you can and save those cool training methods for down the road when your client really needs them to bust through a stubborn training plateau.
9. Save the advanced stuff for when they really need it
Yyou likely have some great training methods up your sleeve. It’s fun to put the cool stuff into your client’s programs. However, the problem with many advanced training methods is that they can have a relatively short life span. They work for a while and then what?
Beginners can make amazing progress with very simple training. Therefore, when you use these methods early on, you’ll have great results, but you lose the opportunity to have them effectively spark new results down the road when you really need fancy methods to bust through those nasty training plateaus that can plague the intermediate and advanced trainee.
10. Get them excited about what really matters
These days it is easier than ever for our clients to get distracted with the latest fitness fad. Your job is to keep your clients focused on what really matter – their personal fitness goals. Keep bringing everything you’re doing with them back to their training goals and help them make the connection.
After a few weeks, take them back in their training logs and show your clients how far they have come from that first session with you. Celebrate with them when you re-do their goal-relevant assessments and show them their amazing progress!
How to Program Workouts for Beginniners? A full 6-step guide – Jonathan Goodman
10 Tips for Your Advanced Coaching Clients – Andrew Heming
5 Ways to Break the Ice With New Clients – Jonathan Goodman
How to Teach Your Clients Gym Etiquette – Jonathan Goodman