Most clients are beginners. And with beginners, virtually anything works. For a while.
Your job as a personal trainer isn't just to help those beginners reach their fitness goals. Like I said, that's the easy part. You also need to get them hooked on the training process. If they only care about the results of exercise, and don't enjoy exercise itself, they're going to quit when they reach a plateau.
And sooner or later, everyone hits a plateau.
That's bad for both of you. The client gets no long-term benefit from training with you, and you get no long-term benefit from training the client.
Here are 10 steps you can take to help your clients reach their fitness goals, and to help you build a solid business based on successful, satisfied, and loyal clients.
1. Help them get over their fear of gyms
As fitness professionals, we love the gym. It feels like home to us. But to a client who's new to fitness training, the gym can be a terrifying place.
A great tip I learned from Andre Potvin: Imagine yourself going to the gym naked. Think of how awkward and embarrassing that would be. That's exactly how a beginner might feel the first time in a commercial gym. They feel assessed and exposed, as if everyone can tell they don't belong.
Here are a few simple and practical ways to help them feel more comfortable:
- Give a quick tour.
- Explain the facility rules and basic gym etiquette.
- Teach them enough gym lingo to get started.
- Keep the program simple.
- Consider where you are in the gym; don't teach the hip hinge in front of the cardio theater, or have the client do TRX rows next to the dude squatting with five plates on each side.
2. Explain why
Left on our own, we all gravitate toward the easiest options. Why finish the workout with metabolic conditioning when the recumbent bike is so much more comfortable and relaxing? Why learn to do push-ups, squats, hip hinges, and pull-ups when the machines on the other side of the gym work the same muscles with a fraction of the effort?
You know the answers, but your beginner clients probably don't.
Link everything you do, especially the most uncomfortable and challenging things, to the client's goals. When you introduce a new exercise, or move away from one the client enjoys, draw a line straight back to the results the client wants.
3. Make your client feel smart
Ever been around an expert from a different profession who made you feel stupid? Ever read a fitness article that was so unnecessarily complicated, or so poorly written, that you had to read it twice to get the information you needed?
Think of those moments when you explain a new exercise or concept to a client with no fitness background. Do you really need to use technical terms like "proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation" when you're talking about stretching, or "energy systems" instead of "cardio"?
Look for the simplest ways to convey information you want your client to understand, and let the client tell you when she's ready for a more complex explanation.
And from time to time, turn the tables and have the client explain something to you, something you're interested in that she knows a lot about.
READ ALSO: The Best Books for Personal Trainers
4. Filter information
The internet is simultaneously the best and the worst thing to happen to the fitness industry. You can easily find answers to your questions, while your clients can just as easily fall into rabbit holes of paranoid misinformation.
If you don't know the difference, one looks just as credible as the other.
You can help your clients find the best information from the most reputable sources, and avoid the fringe stuff that will drive them crazy.
Everything they come across will fall into one or more of these categories:
Total scam or gimmick
You know what I'm talking about, but scammers know how to fool people like your clients.
Not appropriate for their goals
It could be a great program for an advanced lifter, but a terrible idea for your middle-aged lawyer with a 40-inch waist.
The new mom trying to get her pre-baby body back has no reason to use a diet created for a physique athlete.
Not appropriate for their level
A client who has yet to reach his first plateau doesn't need a complicated periodization scheme, or a high-volume bodybuilding routine, or a serious strength program designed for someone who's been lifting at least five years.
Help your clients find accurate information that's appropriate for their current level—nothing less, and nothing more.
5. Don't wipe them out
The goal of training isn't to get tired. It's to get better.
If all anyone had to do was chase fatigue—the more, the better—we'd all be out of a job.
To create change, you present the body with a level of stress it needs to adapt to, and then give it time to recover and adapt.
Imposing the right level of stress can be challenging for an advanced client. But it's easy for the beginner. It's like I said at the beginning: If the client wasn't doing anything before he started training with you, just about anything you have the client do will be sufficient stimulus for adaptation.
You don't need to annihilate a beginner client to get great results. You just need to give the client a workout that feels like a workout to him, but that he can easily recover from before your next session. Increase the challenges in a systematic way, and the client will make progress for the foreseeable future.
What's the worst that can happen if you start light? The client complains that she's not working hard enough?
Do what I do: I say to my clients, with a sinister smile, "We can always make it harder."
6. Start with what they need
Most beginners lack the following three things:
- Lifting skill
- Movement quality
And no matter what their goals are, they need all three.
Start your sessions with a warm-up that includes mobility, activation, and movement drills.
Then work on teaching them basic movement patterns. Light weights, perfect form. Avoid fatigue but increase frequency, having them do the same primary exercises every session.
The faster your clients gain competency on the fundamental lifts, the faster they can move into harder and more productive training.
Although the weight is light, we don't just grind out reps. If we're doing a set of 15 reps, I'll split it up into three minisets, with a small break of five to 10 seconds every five reps. (I write it as "5-5-5" in my programs.) The goal is to get more quality reps by avoiding fatigue.
Here's a sample beginner program:
Goblet squat: 1-3 x 5-5-5
One-arm, half-kneeling dumbbell shoulder press: 1-3 x 5-5-5
Lat pulldown or assisted pull-up: 1-3 x 5-5-5
Weighted hip hinge: 1-3 x 5-5-5
Push-up from elevated bar in power rack or Smith machine: 1-3 x 5-5-5
Prone dumbbell row: 1-3 x 5-5-5
You can do these as straight sets, paired sets, or in a circuit.
7. Finish with what they want
The downside to structuring a session the way I just described is that it won't be what your client wants, or match their idea of what a good workout should be.
And because the client begins with little skill and strength, it won't be especially challenging.
That's why you need to finish each session with some or all of the things the client wants to do.
Here are some practical examples:
Direct arm work
Left on their own, most of your male clients, and some of your females, would spend half a training session working their biceps and triceps. They're among the simplest and most intuitive exercises. And unlike push-ups, no coach or gym teacher has ever used dumbbell curls or cable pushdowns as punishment.
You, of course, realize that basic movements like rows, presses, pulldowns, and push-ups give the arm muscles all the stimulus they need at the start of a strength program. But because your clients don't see it that way, there's no harm in letting them do a few sets for the mirror muscles, and leave the gym with a pump.
READ ALSO: A Trainer's Guide to Building Muscle
Core and glute work
Even if you include some stability exercises for the core and hips in your warm-up, many of your female clients won't be satisfied unless you hit the abs and glutes directly. The end of the workout is the perfect time for a few sets of hip thrusts and a core exercise or two. The muscles will feel tighter as they leave the gym, and their impression of you as a trainer will rise accordingly.
READ ALSO: Five Steps to Superior Core Training
Loaded carries and sled work
I'm a huge fan of loaded carries for beginners. In addition to the functional carryover you get by adding load to natural human movements, the exercises are safe, easy to learn, and send your clients home with that coveted "I just had a great workout" feeling."
The only potential problem is that they're easy to overdo. For example, if you have an older, weaker client, their grip muscles might already be fatigued, and a few sets of carries with kettlebells might strain their forearm flexors.
READ ALSO: Functional Training for Older Clients
Think of why your beginner clients haven't gotten into a fitness routine before now, or couldn't find one they could stick with. The repetition might be a deal breaker for some of them.
So offer novelty as a reward for getting better at the most important lifts. Offer one or two unusual exercises each week to satisfy their craving for something new to try. Just make sure the exercises are safe and appropriate for their fitness level. Medicine-ball slams, for example, work pretty well for most clients.
While I'm not a huge fan of traditional cardio, it may be the best option if your gym doesn't have the space or equipment for sled work or loaded carries. Be as creative as you can with the options you have, while also ensuring the client leaves the gym feeling like they just got a good workout.
8. Get as much as you can from linear progression
A beginner might be able to add weight to his goblet squat each workout, three times a week. If he moves up in five-pound increments, he's adding 15 pounds a week, and might be able to keep adding weight for your first month or two of training.
Of course it won't continue like that forever. But why not take the easy gains now, while they're still easy?
9. Save the advanced stuff for when they really need it
The more advanced the client or athlete, the more you need to change things up. That's what you do in your own training, and you probably have some great training techniques you can't wait to try with a client.
The problem with those advanced methods is that they typically have a relatively short lifespan. They work for a few weeks, and then you need to move on.
That's why you need to hold off on using them. Give yourself as long a runway as possible with the simplest progressions. Make sure your client is truly an intermediate before you move on from beginner exercises and programs. As for advanced training methods, keep them in reserve until your client can't make progress without them.
10. Get them excited about what really matters
These days it's easier than ever for your clients to get distracted with the latest fitness fad. Your job is to keep them focused on what really matters: their personal fitness goals. Make sure everything you do supports those goals, and make sure the client knows that's why you're doing them.
Even more important, show the client how much progress they've made toward those goals. Pull out the training logs from the first few weeks, and congratulate them on how far they've come.