You’ve lifted. You’ve studied. You’ve gotten yourself certified as a personal trainer. And now you’re about to conduct your very first training session with your very first client.
You’re excited … and you’re terrified. This could be the start of a brilliant career as a personal trainer. But there are so many things that could go wrong.
I’ll address four of them here:
- What if the workout I designed is too challenging for the client?
- What if the workout isn’t challenging enough?
- What if the gym is too crowded for the workout I designed?
- What if the workout is too short, and I have to fill the time?
But before we get into the specifics, let’s talk about how to avoid most of these problems in the first place.
How to assess your first client
Your initial client will very likely be a beginner—a first-time lifter working with a first-time trainer.
A great workout for a novice would probably last 30 to 40 minutes. That’s all the time you’d need for a warm-up and one or two sets of six to eight basic exercises.
But most gyms sell your time in one-hour increments. Which means, before you’ve even started, you have a lot of time to fill.
That’s why you should start that first session with a series of questions, based on what you know from the health history questionnaire your gym had the client fill out.
Let’s say the client noted that his knees feel pretty good, and he’s never had a back problem. But there was a shoulder injury a few years ago that required surgery. Some follow-up questions:
- What was the injury?
- How invasive was the operation?
- Does your shoulder still bug you?
- Is that pain you described pretty much all the time, or only with particular motions?
- When you raise your arms above your head, where exactly does it hurt? Can you pinpoint it?
So now you know you can’t have the client do shoulder presses. Lat pulldowns might also be contraindicated, if the client can’t get into the starting position without some pain or discomfort.
On the plus side, because his knees and back are fine, he shouldn’t have problems with squats and hip hinges. Rows should also be okay. As for push-ups and horizontal presses, you’ll have to try a few variations to see how they feel for the client.
Now it’s time to begin the actual workout.
The best warm-up for your client’s first workout
You should spend at least five minutes getting the client warmed up. (In subsequent workouts you probably want to increase that to about 10 minutes, based on what you learned about the client in your first session.)
One goal of a warm-up, as you know from the name, is to raise the client’s core temperature, however slightly.
But the bigger purpose is to prepare the joints—to make the fluid within the joints, if you’ll pardon the scientific terminology, less gloppy and more runny. This will help the client move better, with less risk of injury.
You probably want to keep it simple your first time out, with perhaps five minutes on a treadmill or stationary bike. In future workouts you can skip the cardio machine and do up to 10 minutes of mobility and stability exercises, corrective movements, and/or stretches and foam rolling, depending on your client’s needs and goals.
The best strength routine for your client’s first workout
If somebody is new to lifting, I’ll most likely start with just one set of six to eight exercises, with the option to add more sets and/or exercises if needed. (I explain why and how below.)
You may think that six to eight sets can’t possibly fill the bulk of a training session. But the first one is unique in several ways:
First, it takes a little trial and error to figure out a good starting weight for the client, one that allows at least 10 reps with reasonable form. Obviously, that takes more time than a single set normally would.
Second, you’ll need to coach the client through the lift—again, a time-consuming process.
Third, I like to explain the “why” of each lift as I coach them through it. I say what muscles it works and where they should be feeling it, and then explain the functional reason to include that particular movement.
If the client is a golfer, for example, I’ll say the hip hinge trains the glutes, and the glutes generate the power behind their swing. In my experience, a client who understands the reason for an exercise, especially one with a learning curve like the hip hinge, will be more motivated to master the movement, and work harder to get the benefits it offers.
I’ll add more sets in subsequent workouts, for the simple reason that more sets are better for both strength and hypertrophy. As James Krieger explained in this article, for each additional weekly set, muscle size increases by 0.38 percent for the muscle group being trained.
But in that first workout, one set is enough to introduce them to the exercises and give you an idea of the client’s abilities and limitations.
You may think there’s no creativity involved in exercise selection for a first-time lifter. But creativity does indeed come in when you need to work around a client’s limitations. You can’t just go with a cookie-cutter list of “beginner” exercises. Some clients won’t be able to do some of them safely and without pain.
These are the exercises I usually start with. Most clients can do them with minimal coaching.
Kettlebell goblet squat
I’ll typically have a new client squat to a bench, but by no means do you have to use a bench. I mainly work with older clients, and it works for them. It would probably be too easy for younger clients.
I transition away from the bench when a client has a feel for the movement pattern and built up some strength.
For a client with knee pain, you can replace squats with a hip-dominant movement, like glute bridges.
This one has a lot going for it:
- It’s a compound movement, working lots of muscles from the major ones in the middle and upper back to smaller ones in the shoulders and arms.
- I rarely have clients who feel pain during the movement, or for some reason can’t do it with good form.
- It’s simple to explain the benefits—a stronger back, wider shoulders, better posture.
- It’s easy to coach, although you sometimes have to remind clients (especially older women) to pull the bar to the chest, not the lap.
Kettlebell or dumbbell one-arm row
Similar to pulldowns, it’s simple to explain and relatively easy to coach. And even if the gym is busy, you can usually find a bench to use.
If I have a choice, I prefer to use a kettlebell with new clients. There’s just a “cool” factor here, for a couple of reasons. First is the novelty of it, since many of them have never touched a kettlebell. It also looks and feels like a “real” weight, not some candy-colored dumbbell.
The only coaching challenge is to keep the client’s shoulders square to the floor. Their instinct is to rotate the torso. So I explain the importance of training the core muscles to prevent rotation, and how a strong, stable core protects the lower back from injury.
Here’s another exercise that’s easy for you to coach and for beginner clients to understand and execute. It helps that they can feel the targeted muscles in action, which isn’t the case with the compound movements.
At my facility, I rarely see anybody who can do traditional push-ups right off the bat. So I know I’ll need to use a push-up variation with virtually every client. The open question is which one.
For the most deconditioned, it might be a wall push-up. Others will be able to do push-ups from their knees, or with their hands elevated on a bench, box, or the bar of a Smith machine.
The biggest challenge is when there’s a mismatch between their upper-body strength and core stability. You may need to use a dumbbell press to challenge their muscles while also working on core stability with plank variations.
It can’t get much simpler than this: You grab two (relatively) heavy dumbbells or kettlebells, and you carry them. You’ll need to coach them on posture, but most clients will quickly get the hang of it.
The only ones who can’t are those with balance issues, a wobbly or unstable gait, or weakness or fatigue in their gripping muscles.
Just about every client I see wants to strengthen their core. They describe it different ways (“toning,” “tightening,” “firming up” …), but they all want the same thing, and they understand this exercise will help them accomplish it.
That doesn’t mean every client is ready to do traditional planks. I’ll use the push-up hold for the ones who struggle with it. If they struggle with that, I’ll try it with their hands elevated to a bench or box.
Once we’ve found the right variation, I’ll typically have a client do two sets, holding as long as possible. If that’s less than 30 seconds, we’ll do three sets.
These are just fun, and my clients love them. We don’t go crazy with load or range of motion. If they struggle with the traditional version, I’ll have them sit on a bench while keeping their feet on the floor.
READ ALSO: Functional Training for Older Clients
Troubleshooting the first workout
Sometimes everything goes according to plan. The client can do all the exercises in your program, and you finish the last one with a few minutes to spare, which you can easily fill.
But chances are, that first client will throw you at least one curve, and you’ll have to adjust. The following four are the most likely surprises you’ll face.
What if the workout I designed is too challenging for the client?
Maybe the client forgot to tell you about his knee replacements, or his fused vertebrae, or the fact he gets dizzy when he gets up and down from the floor.
Whatever it is, your workout is effectively detonated, and you have to change things up. Lower-back trouble? Substitute pull-throughs for a deadlift variation. Potential dizziness? Have him do push-ups with his hands elevated on a barbell in a squat rack or Smith machine.
Sometimes the client is adamant about focusing on specific muscles, despite an injury. For example, a client with elbow problems might insist on working the triceps. The solution might be exercises he can do without bending and straightening his elbows—pullovers, straight-arm pulldowns, or band pull-aparts.
There’s always a way to get around it, as long as you understand basic anatomy and kinesiology and have a deep repertoire of exercises.
If the client can’t do an entire movement pattern like squats, hip hinges, or chest or shoulder presses, your best options could be mobility and stability exercises.
READ ALSO: Here’s What a Good Core Workout Looks Like
What if the workout isn’t challenging enough?
Let’s say the client is a middle-aged woman. She tells you she has no experience in the gym and wants to lose a substantial amount of weight. Your program is simple and beginner friendly.
But the client moves better than you expected, and after each exercise she says, “Well, that was easy.” Turns out, she lifts heavy things all day at her job, or around the house on weekends, and she’s a lot stronger than you expected.
Out of all the problems you might face, this is the easiest to remedy.
- Increase the volume
- Increase the weight
- Decrease rest
- Choose a more challenging variation
Just be cautious with movements like squats and chest presses. Because the range of motion is novel for a non-lifter, too much load or volume will likely make them sore the next few days. Giving your client excruciating DOMS is a bad look for a first-time trainer.
What if the gym is too crowded for the workout I designed?
This is the second-most annoying problem you’ll encounter. (The most annoying is when another trainer second-guesses you in front of your client, as Tony Gentilcore describes here.)
I’ve learned to keep my head on a swivel, monitoring the next couple of stations I plan to use and then adjusting the client’s workout in my head if I don’t think I’ll have the space or equipment I need.
Even then, I never know when someone will plop down on the leg press or grab the only available cable station just when we’re about to use it
It’s not just the sequence of exercises that’s affected. It’s the entire program. A good workout typically begins with the most complex and challenging exercises, like squats and hip hinges, and then continues to the ones that require the least focus and coordination.
For future reference, you can figure out which spaces and equipment are least likely to be in use when you train this client, and then revise the workout accordingly.
But for now, you have two choices:
- Change the order of exercises. The client won’t notice, and it won’t affect her long-term results.
- Find an alternative exercise for the same movement pattern. It could be a machine instead of free weights, free weights instead of a machine, or a body-weight variation in place of either.
What if the workout is too short, and I have to fill the time?
If you’ve done any public speaking, this problem will feel familiar. No matter how many times you rehearse that 45-minute presentation, there’s a good chance you’ll get to your last slide with time to spare.
The difference is, if your workout comes up short, you can’t fill the time with questions from the audience. Especially when you’re 30 minutes into a 60-minute session and you’ve already completed everything you wanted the client to do.
You have a few options:
Add more exercises
For some clients, six to eight exercises are enough the first time out. But if the client breezes through your first few exercises with minimal coaching required, and few questions for you to answer, start thinking of what you can add.
Transition to mobility and/or stability work
I already mentioned this in the context of the client who’s more limited than you expected. But it’s also useful for the client who can handle more work.
You can easily fill 10 minutes with core exercises, simultaneously testing the client’s abilities while also providing a solid training challenge.
With mobility exercises, you can assess the client’s current range of motion to give you an idea of what to work on in future sessions.
Have the client cool down with light cardio
Don’t feel as if you’re ripping the client off by spending the final minutes on a cardio machine, even if that’s the way you started the workout. As long as you use a different machine, you’re still providing value to the client by showing them how to operate another piece of equipment, which they’ll be able to use on days they don’t train with you.
And it’s not like you’re putting them on a machine and walking away. You can use that time to review the workout and preview the next one, answer any questions they have, or even talk about nutrition.
Diet can be a rabbit hole, especially if the client has firm convictions that aren’t entirely fact-based.
The safest path is to discuss nutrition in the context of getting the best results from their new training program. If they show interest, offer to share more information.
“Fake it till you make it” is bad advice in most professions, including ours. If you don’t know how to train a client, you shouldn’t call yourself a personal trainer, must less charge for your services.
Even if you do know enough to get started, there’s no excuse for being unprepared, especially for your first client. You wouldn’t pay a painter who forgot his brushes, or a carpenter who asks if he can borrow your saw.
But still, it is your first time, and nobody starts at the top. You can’t expect yourself to know what only comes with experience.
The best advice I can give a first-time trainer: Don’t panic if something goes wrong. Keep a cool head. Act like a pro, even if you don’t feel like one in the moment.
You know you’re doing it right if the client doesn’t realize the session isn’t going the way you planned. They’ll have confidence in you, and you’ll develop confidence in yourself.
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