Functional anatomy, biomechanics, exercise physiology, and motor learning are all important scientific elements to know that will help you become a successful coach. But to build successful relationships with clients, you must never forget human element.
This is why I believe coaching is like an art.
There are vague rules and a blank canvas. You bend the rules, mold new ones, and blend them with the science and proven methods to become a successful trainer. I and many others call this the “art of coaching.” When you blend it with the actual science, then you can become the best coach you can be for you and your clients.
Here are some practical examples that you can start using today with your clients.
1. Cater your weekly workout plan to your client’s needs.
We carefully lay a weekly plan with an optimal number of rest, light, and hard days in the name of exercise science. Our clients, however, are not science subjects. They have their own whims and behavioral quirks.
Let’s say you want to do an upper/lower split with a male client. “Scientifically” it would make sense to arrange your week like this:
- Monday: Upper
- Tuesday: Lower
- Wednesday: Rest/light activity
- Thursday: Upper
- Friday: Lower
- Saturday & Sunday: Rest/light activity
You alternate the body parts to avoid having fatigue or soreness interfere with the next training day. Your plan sounds perfect, but a lot of clients might not feel very motivated on Fridays (ever notice the drop in gym attendance from Monday to Friday?)
If your male client doesn’t want to train on Friday, don’t make him.
Instead, meet him halfway and flip the days around so every Friday is upper body day instead of lower body day. That way, he’ll be less likely to miss Friday’s lift. He’ll also less likely feel “too tired to lift” on leg day because in his old schedule he would have always had a day off before a leg day.
As an added bonus, this makes sessions faster in a busy gym because you are doing the opposite of the masses. On Mondays (which as we all know is actually International Chest Day), your client will be able to get a squat rack when every bench in the gym is monopolized.
So, schedule your clients’ most important training sessions on the days that they are most likely to come in and be at their best. At the same time, consider which days they are most likely to miss and make those days damn appealing.
2. Include optional exercises in case of disagreements.
Effective program design is about picking the best exercises for your clients’ needs and goals. At the same time, your client has his or her own ideas on what to do. What they and you want are often not the same thing.
So how do you compromise without forcing someone to adopt your method, while avoiding the whole laissez-faire approach?
Since I don’t want my clients to try to do things completely on their own or lose confidence in me as a coach, I like to include optional exercises in the program. These optional exercises will be what the clients want (extra arm work for a young guy, for example), and I’ll let them do it after their main program. These optional exercises are great because:
- You maintain quality control: You get to pick exercises your clients want without interfering with what you are trying to accomplish in the program. For example, instead of leaving your female client to add crunches, you could give her optional ab wheel roll-outs. This will allow her to maintain good posture and a neutral spine while still getting the sore abs she wants.
- It provides you with an educational opportunity: You have to think about why some exercises are optional while others are not. This allows you to educate your client on the most important things to get to his or her goal.
- It teaches priorities: Inevitably, life will get in the way of training, and there will be times when your client can’t do the full workouts. In these cases, the optional exercises can easily be skipped without guilt and with minimal, if any, impact on results.
- It reduces the risk of overdoing the “nice-to-have” accessories: Your clients will likely overdo the accessories. Instead of adding one core exercise, they may add several. This increases their recovery demand and interferes with your training program.
In short, give your clients what they need to reach their goals by including optional exercises that they’ll like.
3. Be able to sell your client on your program and exercises.
Everything about your program should be tailored to what your client wants to accomplish and what he needs to accomplish. Meanwhile, effective coaching is being able to make your clients understand that what you prescribe will help them reach their goals. To do this, you have to sell your program.
Some things will be easier to sell: a client who wants to improve his deadlift won’t need to be convinced about deadlifts. However, you may have trouble getting him to do the corrective exercises in the warm-up, unless he sees the connection.
One way to sell your program is to beat your client to the objection. If you know the necessary exercise looks a little silly or will be awkward at first, be proactive and up-front about it, like so:
“I know this exercise looks silly, but it is an amazing way to (fill in the blank here with a benefit of the exercise that helps your client reach his/her goal).”
Basically, you just have to learn to “speak client.” This comes from Mike Boyle’s Functional Strength Coach 5-DVD set. In it, I was taught to communicate with my clients in their own language. That way, you create instant connection and buy-in.
For example, let’s say you are introducing a new female client to the hip thrust. Avoid saying, “EMG research shows that the hip thrusts activate the gluteus maximus more directly than any other glute exercise.” Instead, say “Combined with the nutritional recommendations we discussed, this is the single best exercise to firm, shape, and lift your butt.”
4. Use “sweet-spot coaching”.
Proper form is essential for anyone, but especially for a client. As a coach, there are two extremes you must avoid.
The first is under-coaching. You don’t want to be the coach who just stands around or cheers on pitiful form. You also don’t want to over-coach. That is, don’t be the trainer who overanalyzes a client’s technique and nitpicks every little detail. You don’t want to overwhelm your client during his set with complicated cues, or point out everything that’s wrong.
This is simply not good for the client. Too much of “being wrong” too fast can beat your clients down. Plus, your client just came to train, not be drilled mercilessly.
Between these two extremes is the sweet-spot of coaching. It starts with emphasizing and correcting major technique errors (example: rounded back during deadlifting). This way, you focus on what is important for your client at that particular point in time. For example, a beginner learning to bench press needs to focus on keeping the chest and locking the shoulder blades down and back, not trying to figure out leg drive.
If you try to fix everything at once, you will overwhelm your client. Instead, prioritize what needs to be fixed and work on things one at a time. Simply put, optimal coaching requires you to use as few words as possible.
Years ago, I was at the golf driving range with my dad. Unlike my dad, I’m not a good golfer. After watching me spray balls all over the range, he gave me two simple cues. My next drive was straight as an arrow and bounced off the back fence. When I coach my clients, I try to be like my dad and try to figure out simple cues that will fix technical problems.
Here are my recommendations:
- Look for the simple 1-2 word cues that help your clients nail their exercise form.
- When talking to your client between sets, make your recommendations and feedback as short and simple as possible. You can use the “sandwich technique” , which involves saying something positive, suggesting a change, and finishing with something positive again.
- Know when your client has had enough correction for one day. When this happens, don’t sweat the small stuff–you can work on those things soon enough.
Never neglect or lose respect for the science of training. However, also never forget that it must be mixed with the “art of coaching”. By bringing the two together and following these tips you’ll be well on your way to becoming the best coach you can be.
Other trainers found these articles helpful:
- Are Physical Therapists More Helpful Than Strength Coaches? By John Rusin
- Successful Cues For Personal Trainers By Jarred English
- 5 Basic Exercise Principles Every Successful Personal Trainer Must Know By Kevin Mullins