I once cohabitated a work environment with a diehard CrossFit competitor. This guy wasn’t just stupidly fit. He looked like fitness. Seriously, he made the rest of us look like we’d never stepped inside a gym. Nice guy, too.
But once he started training clients, we saw what was beneath that awesome surface. And it was … a diehard CrossFit competitor.
He knew one thing, and that’s what he used for his clients’ workouts. There were no assessments, no concept of progressive overload, no consideration of skill development. Just annihilation by repetition against time.
Now, it can be argued that some folks just want a great workout, something to kick their tail and soak them in sweat. But it can’t be argued that this is appropriate for someone who’s 60, has a metal plate in his leg, and carries an extra 30 pounds of bad weight. And yet, on day one, this trainer had that client doing box jumps, deadlifts, and medicine-ball slams.
The client, thankfully, bowed out after just one round of this insane workout, and soon found another trainer.
It’s not just CrossFitters, of course. In my 10 years as a trainer and educator, including my current role working with entry-level fitness pros, I’ve seen countless men and women who’ve had success in one type of training and want to use those methods with clients.
The problem is obvious to anyone who’s been doing this a while:
The average client doesn’t want to be a bodybuilder, or a powerlifter, or a CrossFit competitor, or an obstacle-course racer, or anything else the trainer may be passionate about. She wants to work out two or three times a week, maybe take a class or two, with the goal of losing a few pounds and learning not to hate all things that involve movement.
Sometimes a client comes to you with specific goals and a solid routine, but you’re more likely to encounter someone who’s deconditioned, or injured, or has arthritis or chronic pain or another medical condition that requires a program that’s nothing like your own. The ability to adapt to your clients’ needs is what turns a trainer into a coach.
A Quick Disclaimer
Now, before you hit me with your righteous Internet rage, let me state that it’s fine to steal methods from any system that can help your clients get leaner and stronger, move better, and build some muscle mass.
My point is that, as the saying goes, a client who wants to learn how to ride a horse doesn’t need the entire ranch.
It’s a problem known as the law of instrument, described memorably by psychologist Abraham Maslow:
“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”
I learned this lesson early on when, as a teenage baseball player, I was frustrated by my inability to turn on a baseball and give it a ride. Then I saw an interview with Albert Pujols and decided to adopt his approach to hitting, wide stance and all. I was soon pounding the ball—ripping it down the line past the third baseman, splitting the outfielders, and even putting a couple over the fence.
What I’d done is called modeling—the act of imitating what we aspire to become. And because it worked for me, I assumed it would work for my friends and teammates. But it didn’t. For some, it screwed with their timing, and they saw their averages drop.
With that confession out of the way, let’s look at how the law of instrument plays out in our business, and how we can do better for our clients.
Bodybuilding-style training works for bodybuilders because of volume and specificity. You apply a high volume of stress to specific muscle groups, and then give them time to recover while you attack different muscle groups in subsequent workouts. A typical three-day split might see you training chest and back the first day, followed by legs and abs, and finishing with shoulders and arms. Then you’d rest a day and repeat.
Most of us incorporate aspects of bodybuilding into our own workouts, and that’s fine.
But there’s a reason we don’t prescribe it, at least not wholesale, for the general-population client. Several reasons, in fact:
- It doesn’t take into account the quality of the foundation on which you’re building muscle.
- It doesn’t emphasize movement quality.
- It puts repetitive stress on the shoulders.
In other words, by prioritizing the size and appearance of skeletal muscles over all else, it completely ignores the needs, functions, and vulnerabilities of the human body. It also makes clients a lot more sore than they want to be.
And yet, many, if not most, of the young fitness pros I’m responsible for training come in with the idea that their clients are aspiring bodybuilders. Their programs use body-part splits, with multiple bench-press variations and lots of exercises for the delts, biceps, triceps, and calves—the body’s smallest muscles.
And that’s just one example of the law of instrument that I see.
I have a lot of respect for powerlifters. They eschew vanity in favor of mastery, working methodically toward one PR after another. The three powerlifts—squat, bench press, deadlift—are based on fundamental human movements and, subsequently, develop functional strength for everyone from elite athletes to rehab clients.
Similar to bodybuilding, I’d wager that almost everyone reading this uses powerlifting exercises and methodology in your own workouts. You know they work because you’ve gotten strong enough to lift some impressively heavy weights.
The problems begin when you train your clients as if they’re powerlifters. Very few of them ever need to squat with a barbell, much less with a low bar position. Bench press? Maybe a handful of your male clients worry about how much they can bench, but how many of them should do it with a barbell? As for the deadlift, the most important question isn’t whether they should pull sumo or conventional, but whether they have any business pulling from the floor at all.
Then there’s the toll the three powerlifts take on the joints, and the rapid rise in blood pressure from heavy squats and deadlifts—all unnecessary, considering the many alternative exercises that work the same movement patterns with less risk.
I currently train someone who was brought to tears by her last trainer. After she ran out of gas on a WOD that involved heavy squats after a half-mile run and two minutes of hitting a heavy bag, he told her she would always be “fat and useless” unless she could finish the workout he wanted her to do.
Yes, I know all CrossFit trainers aren’t like that guy. I know CrossFit has been a piñata for fitness pros over the past decade or so, with reputable strength coaches taking their swings, the media having its fun, and an across-the-board decline in the number of people giving unsolicited CrossFit testimonials to perfect strangers.
But even with all that, it’s still pretty amazing to witness the myopia of CrossFit’s true believers, especially fitness pros who should know better.
My problems with CrossFit are the same as everyone else’s. By crushing its trainees every hour on the hour, it doesn’t prioritize development over time. Supersetting burpees with heavy deadlifts, without any consideration of whether the client can even do a proper hip hinge or push-up, is stupid. Only the fear of being called quitters keeps many of them coming back for more. We know how that story ends.
No trainer should take pride in breaking your clients. It’s not cool, it’s not responsible, and it’s not what they’re paying you to do. Your clients aren’t contestants in Survivor: Gold’s Gym. If your programs don’t project at least six weeks into the future, with incremental improvements toward a meaningful goal, you simply aren’t doing your job.
One-size-fits-all might work in baseball hats, but not in personal training. Especially when we know a better way to do it.
Fundamental movement patterns should be the building blocks of every program for every client, at every level. This is how I rank them in order of importance and value:
- Hip hinge (deadlift, swing)
- Core stability (anti-extension, anti-lateral flexion, anti-rotation, anti-flexion)
- Horizontal pull (row)
- Knee-dominant (squat, lunge)
- Rotation (chops, throws)
- Gait (walk, run, sprint, crawl)
- Vertical pull (pulldown, pull-up)
- Vertical push (overhead press)
- Horizontal push (push-up, chest press)
- Integrated movement (squat to press, single-leg Romanian deadlift to row) *
* Once a client shows proficiency in all of the individual movement patterns, I combine them as integrated movements and work those into my programs.
My goal is to make sure I cover each movement pattern with each client every week. For clients who only train twice to three times a week, there’s no time for exercises that isolate small muscles like the biceps and triceps. Instead, my workouts focus on putting together patterns that complement each other and allow for an overall improvement in the clients’ movement skills.
This is my favorite template for clients who work with me three days a week:
A Few Notes on Priorities
You may wonder (as my editor did) why I begin each workout with gait exercises, even though I rank them as the sixth-most-important movement pattern. My reasoning:
1. They’re uniquely complex
What I call “gait” includes:
- Walking, running, and sprinting
- Crawling and getting up
So while a press is a press and a squat is a squat, there’s no single exercise that covers the entire spectrum of human locomotion. We walk forward, backward, sideways; sometimes fast, sometimes slow, sometimes at a dead sprint to catch a train. We move up and down stairs, we get up and down from the floor, and we often do those movements while carrying things.
2. They’re uniquely suited for the beginning of a workout
Whether I’m training an older client to walk with better foot positioning or helping an athlete improve her sprinting stride, I want to do it first. That’s when the body is most open to learning new techniques. It’s also best to train explosive movements before we’ve fatigued any of the muscles involved.
Conversely, gait exercises produce low residual effects. Even if I have an athlete do five to seven rounds of sprints, it’s not going to limit the volume of that day’s workout, or make her so sore it limits her performance in subsequent workouts.
I rank hip-hinge exercises first because I think it’s the most difficult and yet the most important pattern to master. That’s why they’re usually the first loaded exercise of the week for my clients.
I also put as much distance as I can between hip-hinge and knee-dominant exercises, both of which use the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes in compound movements. The muscles get sore and need extra time to recover, especially with new trainees.
Vertical and Horizontal Pushes
My editor also questioned why I rank vertical pushes ahead of horizontal. From a biomechanics perspective, the end range of motion is the farthest you can get from your base of support with an external resistance. So in a standing shoulder press, the distance between your feet and the weights you’ve locked out overhead turns your body into a tremendously long lever. The challenge of stabilizing your hips, core, and shoulder girdle translates to just about every other movement pattern.
I see four different patterns within this category:
- Anti-extension (plank, dead bug)
- Anti-lateral flexion (side plank, suitcase carry)
- Anti-rotation (Pallof press)
- Anti-flexion (any core-bracing exercise that prevents spinal flexion)
I typically have my clients work two of these patterns per workout. More than that is counterproductive, since movement quality declines rapidly as the deep core muscles become exhausted.
Some exercises do double-duty, if not more. The plank, for example, is listed here as anti-extension, but in reality it fits into all four patterns. Then there’s the shoulder press, which is obviously a vertical push; less obviously, it’s also an anti-extension exercise, since you want all the movement to come from the shoulder girdle while the lumber spine remains neutral.
How to Progress
With a traditional weight-loss client, you have a lot to accomplish simultaneously:
- Improve movement quality
- Increase strength
- Increase muscle mass
- Improve conditioning
The goal is to help the client achieve a more active lifestyle, which means you can’t make the workouts so fatiguing that being active is the last thing on her mind. I mix and match four different but related progression strategies:
- Add load or volume to the compound movements in which your client shows proficiency.
- Install correctives, movement patterning, and activation drills to improve posture, muscle balance, and mobility.
- Integrate core-stability patterns to support the spine, improve posture, and allow for higher loads.
- Build in complementary exercises that boost metabolic rate or contribute to muscle growth.
If you’re doing it right, your client will feel amazing after this workout. Tired, yes, but not defeated. At no point do you want to run the client’s body or psyche into the ground, or to exhaust one part of the body to the point that it impairs function for the next 48 hours. You aren’t overloading them, pushing them to extreme muscle fatigue, or asking them to work at an unhealthy pace.
One way to tell if you’re doing it right: Can you keep your client in motion more often than not, but not force him to move so fast he collapses at the end of the drill?
If you’re a fan of bodybuilding, powerlifting, CrossFit, or any other training system, I hope I’ve convinced you not to push those methods on clients with different abilities and goals. If I haven’t, and you’re about to Google me to see how much I lift or how I look with my shirt off, I’ll save you the trouble: You won’t be blown away.
So I’ll just leave you with this final thought: If an entire training system can be summed up on a T-shirt, it’s probably not a good idea for your clients.