I don’t like to identify myself as a personal trainer. It’s what I do, of course; for the past 10 years I’ve logged more than 100 training sessions per month in a commercial facility in the heart of Washington, D.C.
In that time, I’ve worked with hundreds of entry-level personal trainers, young men and women who walk in the door as classic rep-counters. Some of them become fitness coaches. There’s a difference. Clients of a fitness coach get better results, with fewer injuries, and are more likely to make lasting lifestyle changes.
Every personal trainer should aspire to become a fitness coach. It’s better for your clients, better for your career, and better for our profession. But how do you get from here to there?
Let’s start with some definitions.
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What is a personal trainer?
A personal trainer …
1. Understands enough about the human body to get a result
That is, you know how to impose a level of stress that helps a client lose fat, increase strength, or improve in something that matters to the client.
2. Typically starts with just one tool in the bag.
If you’re a powerlifter, you have all your clients work with a barbell. If you’re a CrossFitter, all your clients are going to do box jumps and kettlebell swings. If you’re a bodybuilder, your clients will get lots of muscle-isolation work with dumbbells and machines.
3. Talks nonstop.
You count every rep aloud, verbally correct every part of every exercise, and throw science around like a tennis ball. Most of all you encourage. Because everything is “awesome,” words like “good” or even “great” lose their value. The session becomes a giant word salad, confusing and distracting the client and diminishing the value of your own cues.
What is a fitness coach?
A fitness coach, more than anything else, understands the difference between what a client wants and what that client needs. She identifies the underlying issues that prevent a client from achieving her stated goals, and knows how to solve those problems.
The most effectives coaches do that in three important ways.
Fitness coaching key #1: Say more by saying less
In my early days, I never passed up a chance to give a client a motivational speech, or to launch into an explanation of energy systems.
Sometimes it worked. Some clients needed that extra shot of inspiration to get their juices flowing. Some wanted to know what was going on beneath the hood, and why we were doing something one way instead of another way.
More often, the response was confusion. I got a lot of blank stares back then. And I’m sure I responded with blank stares of my own. Like, how could they not get fired up by my “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” pep talk? How are they not fascinated by my masterful lecture on exercise science?
But then I noticed something: When I stopped talking, clients paid attention. They assumed I wanted to say something, and the longer I held off saying it, the more important it must be.
Now I may not say anything while a client works. I’ll wait until the end of the set, when I’ll compliment something specific (“I like the way you generated power through the hips on those last two reps”) and offer a simple cue for the next set (“this time we’re going to lift the chest a little higher and tuck those shoulder blades into your back pockets”).
I’m not suggesting you take a vow of silence. That would be weird. But I am making these points:
· The fewer compliments you give, the more excited your clients will be to receive them.
· The fewer cues you offer, the harder your clients will work to implement them.
· If you wait for a client to ask for an explanation, the client is more likely to appreciate and perhaps even be impressed by your answer.
Or, to put it more simply, the less you say, the more value it will have.
Fitness coaching key #2: Notice what other trainers miss
When a personal trainer watches a client squat, it’s usually from one angle, focusing on one aspect of the movement. Does the back stay flat? Are the knees staying over the toes?
If he sees a problem, that’s what he cues: “Knees out.” “Back flat.”
A fitness coach, meanwhile, figures out why the client’s form is off, or why certain movements might be painful. That doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of studying anatomy and physiology, reading textbooks until your eyes bleed and your brain turns to slush. And then watching the client’s entire movement chain, rather than assuming a problem begins and ends in the joint where you happen to observe it, or where the client feels pain.
Suppose I see the client’s knee slip into valgus, for example. I’ll look at his ankle, see it wobble, and cue the client to push through the heel instead of his big toe.
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Fitness coaching key #3: Listen to what the clients want, but give them what they need
Let’s say a client comes to the gym with the classic goal of losing weight.
If you’re a personal trainer, your first instinct is to attack the goal head-on. You’ll work the client in a way that burns as many calories as possible in the time you have together. And you’ll probably speed up the weight loss by giving her the most restrictive diet she can handle.
It could very well work. For a while. But it’s only a matter of time before the client’s willpower wears down, or she gets hurt, or she just gets tired of being so tired after every workout.
The fitness coach, meanwhile, understands that the better a client moves, the more she’ll enjoy moving. That’s why the coach focuses on strength and skill acquisition. Instead of turning the client into a quivering puddle of sweat workout after workout, week after week, the coach begins with competence in the fundamental movement patterns. Then she increases the client’s strength on exercises within each movement pattern.
Finally, she changes the client’s mental approach to nutrition. Instead of focusing on what not to eat if she wants to lose weight, the coach encourages her to think about what she should eat to get the best results from their workouts.
The diet could be exactly the same—more lean protein, more vegetables, fewer highly processed foods with added sugars and fats—but the coach flips the script in the client’s mind. Good food choices are about performance and function, not about restriction or punishment.
You know it’s working when your weight-loss client shows up on Monday talking about how much she enjoyed the hike she took over the weekend. How strong she felt on the trail, even while climbing hills or scrambling over rocks. And how good she felt afterwards, without the knee pain she used to experience if she walked up a flight of stairs.
Now she isn’t someone who merely endures exercise. She enjoys it. A client who enjoys movement will reward you with compliance, and with compliance you get results.
How to become a fitness coach
I hope I’ve made the case for why you should strive to become a fitness coach. Now let’s talk about how to do it. As I see it, there’s a four-step process.
Step 1: Learn from experts
If you’re an entry-level trainer, I hope you start with an internship at a respected facility, or by shadowing an experienced coach.
And everyone should attend fitness events like Perform Better. Listen to the top experts. Attend the hands-on sessions. Learn new exercises, new equipment, new approaches to old problems.
Step 2: Use the new exercises and tools in your own workouts
If something is uncomfortable or awkward for you, it probably won’t help your clients. If it does work for you, and you think it’s a good idea for your clients, make sure you groove the movement before you try to teach it.
Step 3: Make observations and adjustments
A personal trainer assumes the client can do anything the trainer can do, and is caught by surprise when the client struggles. A fitness coach understands that each client has unique limb lengths, movement skills, and restrictions. She isn’t caught by surprise when the client’s form doesn’t look anything like the coach’s.
She watches carefully, and figures out what will help the client do it successfully. Maybe that means using better cues. Maybe it means regressing to a simpler variation. Maybe it means scrapping the new exercise altogether.
Step 4: Get comfortable with trial and error
While a personal trainer sticks with what works, a fitness coach understands that you don’t know what works best until you try a lot of things.
It may seem irresponsible to talk about coaching the way we talk about pasta—throw it against the wall and see what sticks. But as long as you aren’t putting clients at risk, you owe it to yourself and to them to find the right combination of movements and methods for their needs.
You’ll make some mistakes and run into some dead ends. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. You can’t run a successful trial without the occasional error.
Final thought: Chase your weaknesses
One of my first clients had multiple sclerosis, something I’d never encountered and didn’t understand. I was both nervous and excited. Here was someone who didn’t care what his abs looked like, and just wanted to get through the day with fewer complications.
I talked to my manager about how to work with a physically challenged client. I met with the client’s doctor. I dove into the research on exercise and MS. And I did the best I could for the client, learning as we went along.
That brings me to one final distinction between personal trainers and fitness coaches:
A trainer is someone who wants fast, simple solutions to problems. That’s why he stays inside his lane, the better to emphasize his strengths.
A coach willingly goes outside his comfort zone to shore up his weaknesses. He understands it can be a lengthy process. But that’s okay. He’s in the fitness industry for the long term, and is willing to accept bigger challenges now, with the goal of helping more people down the road.
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