I don’t like to identify myself as a personal trainer. It’s what I do, of course “” I regularly log 100-plus training sessions per month in a commercial facility in the heart of Washington D.C.
Yet as a co-worker of mine has said on numerous occasions,
“we are coaches at this level; you train a dog, you can train a dolphin, but we coach.”
I like that attitude. It creates rank, file, and order in an industry that lacks it.
Now, there are thousands of “trainers” in this world that are capable of safely executing an exercise program that leads to some sort of desired result for the paying client.
Yet often these individuals don’t problem solve well, are easily swayed by parlor tricks and new equipment, and aren’t capable of providing the 360 degree support that many clients often require. They’re not coaches.
For exercise physiology or physical therapy you need to be accepted into advanced education programs and perform years of studying, research, and clinical application before you can earn the title.
Becoming a professional fitness coach, however, is a bit more abstract. Sure you can become a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, or Certified Functional Strength Coach, or even intern at EXOS. Those are all top personal training certifications.
But those are just letters after your name and not a representation of your ability level.
Here are three traits or actions that will help you reach your true professional fitness coaching potential.
1. Say More by Saying Less
Working in a commercial facility I’m often meeting new trainers who are eager beavers with wide eyes. New certification, new uniform, and tablet (clipboard) in hand they take their new client to the floor. They do everything they are *supposed* to do:
- Vocally count every repetition
- Use every variation of good, great, and awesome that exists
- Throw science around like a tennis ball.
Add in the motivational phrases, and “this is your moment to change your life” speeches and you found yourself a trainer.
I love the enthusiasm. I remember being that guy myself. I remember always explaining energy systems because I felt people needed to understand why it was important to lift slow and heavy, sprint hard and fast, and everything in between.
I also remember having those blank stares being sent back at me, and the feeling of confusion when they weren’t as excited as I was. I also remember being called “mini-Ray Lewis” for all my speeches.
Then one day you learn that you accomplish much more by silently observing your client while they move, speaking only when necessary and appropriate.
You focus less on filling the space with numbers, words, and random cues. Instead, you coach external applications such as “push the floor away” or “bend the bar around you” when the client needs reminding.
I’ve gotten to a point now where I quickly rehash the major cues within the ten seconds before they perform their next set, if necessary.
Let’s say I have one of my girls deadlifting in sumo stance:
Post set – Great job on that last one, good horsepower with your hips. Next set, let’s keep the back long and strong though, ok?
Pre-next-set – Ok, remember chest up, shoulders into your pockets, and squeeze those elbows into each other. Long spine, chin-to-chest, big air, and drive that floor away from you. Slam those hips to the bar and control to the floor.
I won’t count every rep out loud, or motivate them to “capture that moment”. I simply let them work. If I’ve done my job to teach them the exercise, they don’t need my voice booming into their skull.
I save the motivation for the days they might actually need it. I keep the science to myself unless they ask for my reasoning. I don’t congratulate them on every repetition, rather saving an emphatic response for when they crush one, set a PR, or demonstrate excellence.
Take Home Point: It’s about putting value in what you say, and not how much you say!
2. Ask Questions with the Intent to Listen
Let’s be honest. We can all do better in all facets of our lives by being better listeners. When working with clients it’s very easy to assume you already have the answers to their questions. A trainer thinks there this a singular answer to the problem presented, while a coach seeks to find behaviors to implement that lead to permanent change.
A client might say “I’ve struggled to lose weight since college; I work late, and don’t always make the best choices”.
All a trainer hears is: “I need you to tell me what to eat, because I don’t know what I’m doing”.
A coach asks a follow up question like: “Do you have healthy foods in the house, or do you usually eat out? Or “What foods do you typically eat”?
The difference is paramount when creating value, and most importantly, developing a trust-based rapport with a client. No one likes to be lectured to about their mistakes, and no one likes to be told about how badly they’ve screwed up to this point. This fact is even more critical with the weight-loss client due to the weight of social, psychological, and emotional stressors that can contribute or result from obesity.
Take home point: You can’t coach anyone when you know every answer. Ask follow up questions and actually listen. There are implications to every conversation you will ever have, so don’t let the most valuable ones be treated as anything less than critical.
From Jon: Listening is the most important oft-ignored skill for a trainer to develop. Below is a TED talk from noise-expert Julian Treasure I strongly encourage you to listen to and apply.
Afterwards, learn the RASA method and use it in your daily practice.
3. Master Every Movement Pattern
It is imperative to master movement patterns if you want to be considered a coach. You can provide a thoughtful, client-first service that is unrivaled in its passion and heart, but if you can’t adequately coach exercises, then you still are still a trainer.
Numerous coaches have pointed out that there are 7 movement patterns that all human beings should master. These movements are the foundation of our existence in and out of the gym, and serve as the building blocks for almost every variation of every exercise that exists. They are:
- Gait (Walk, run)
These movement patterns include all variations that would fit under them. Thus, push includes vertical and horizontal, incline and decline. Hinge is a basic foundation for all deadlifts, kettlebell swings, or any other exercise that involves bending forward towards the floor.
You can always tell a trainer apart from a coach when they’re working a similar exercise. The trainer will likely get frustrated, talk about squeezing a muscle, and may even tell their client to “just stop” when they can’t communicate with them. Hopefully they don’t just let them keep going and risk injury.
A coach, however, will speak in terms of actions like “push your knees apart, crack a peanut with your shoulder blades, or “bend-and-snap”. They will regress exercises into their basic foundations when necessary, and implement adaptations to increase the probability of success in the session.
Understanding how to adequately teach, coach, and troubleshoot the major movements will allow you to spot errors from a mile away. You’ll also feel more comfortable with a wider range of movements, increasing your depth of programming.
It’s crucial to note though, that knowing how to troubleshoot the exercises doesn’t infer that you know how to fix all the problems that may occur. A client with underactive glutes may just need to do some bridges, band-walks, and some myofascial release in the dominant tissues. There could, however, be an issue that only a therapist can diagnose and treat. It is critical to know the difference.
Take home point: Have something to actually coach and coach effectively.
Being a trainer in the eyes of the general public is one thing, but in the small circle of fitness professionals it can be quite easy to discern a coach from a trainer. And if you want to elevate yourself, your business, and your impact in the world, then you have to become a coach.
But becoming a coach isn’t just about science, exercise, and playing scrabble behind your name. It is about being able to listen better, speak efficiently, relate when appropriate, and show empathy instead of sympathy.
Now, go change someone’s life today!