One of your clients--let's call her "Mrs. Jones"--has hired you to help her lose weight. So you put her on a solid exercise and nutrition program that she's diligently followed for a month. You re-test her body composition after a month and find that she's lost only 3.5 pounds and 1 percent body fat.
Uh-oh, Mrs. Jones is not happy. She expected more and is questioning whether to continue on. You try to assure her that "weight loss is a journey," but Mrs. Jones doesn't care about that--she wants results. And she wants them yesterday.
We've all been there. There are certainly many reasons a client may not be losing weight as quickly as we think they should. Most of the time these are problems that we can help them identify and address. And in most weight loss cases, it starts with the client's life outside of the gym.
1. Your client's lifestyle outside of the gym is hectic and stressful.
Sure, exercise is great for the mind, body, and soul, but when stress is extremely high--perhaps from work or a bad relationship--the body has a hard time regulating itself for fat loss. Your client's work schedule, a disrupted sleep cycle, or any chronically stressful circumstance can raise cortisol, one of the primary culprits of fat storage. When cortisol is elevated, it initiates a cascade of effects that simply makes any appreciable fat loss progress a lot more difficult.
Not to mention the actual training itself creates an additional stressor on the body, and that's where things get tricky.
While it may feel good emotionally, intense training, coupled with high amounts of stress in other areas of life, is a recipe for failure.
When your client is having trouble losing weight, make sure you ask about medication and significant health issues that may be counteracting your client's efforts. To name a few examples, depression, anxiety, hypothyroidism, polycystic ovary system, even special circumstances like Cushing's syndrome, and other conditions associated with obesity can all hinder fat loss. While it's not your job to medically diagnose anything, this information is good to know.
If these conditions are present and can be resolved over time, now may simply not be the best time for your client to engage in high intensity exercises 3-5 times a week.
Another reason your client may be struggling lies in his or her support network: some friends and surrounding loved ones can help or make it harder for your client to comply with your plan. If that's the case, sit down with them, slowly go over scenarios that they may face on a daily basis, and help guide them to make better choices. For example, if they're having trouble saying "no" to a co-workers' invitation to happy hour, you can advise your client to say something like, "It sounds like fun, but I've made a promise to my trainer to make it to the gym tonight."
It's also important to help your client come up with an action plan and follow-up answers to questions that they are bound to get; and to let them know that not everyone understands the weight loss journey. Another way is to encourage them to write their goals in plain sight so they and everyone else around them can see them.
2. Your client is eating too few calories.
In theory, "calories in" and "calories out" is the universal equation for energy balance and fat loss. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for people to approach diet with the "work more, eat less" approach. Most of us are familiar that this a recipe for burnout and for the body to fight back.
Furthermore, those same people who often work themselves to oblivion end up getting the opposite results and killing their energy. It's not so simple, and it is up to you to educate your clients on why simply "eating less" and "moving more" isn't the way.
Help your client understand that exercise is a small part of the equation: adequate nutrition supports the workouts, their recovery, and their life. Meanwhile, the exercise helps them achieve the body they want. Explain to them that the body typically strives for balance. Tip things too far in one direction than the other, and the body will do what it can to right the balance (usually hold onto weight).
In addition, everyone's base metabolism will be different. We know this as basal metabolic rate (BMR). Some common factors that will affect this include age, previous weight and diet history, daily activity levels, and intensity of training. For your purposes, here is how to calculate the basal metabolic rate, per the Harris Benedict equation.
For moderate exercise 3-5 days a week, multiply BMR by 1.5 for total amount of calories in a day.
BMR calculation for men
BMR = 66.5 + (13.75 x weight in kg) + (5.003 x height in cm) - (6.755 x age in years)
BMR calculation for women
BMR = 655.1 + (9.563 x weight in kg) + (1.850 x height in cm) - (4.676 x age in years)
These calculations offer a good base for establishing guidelines and educating your clients on how weight loss occurs. Make sure they understand that the long-term implications and negative effects of not eating enough go way beyond fat loss. Teaching your clients to be patient with their body and listening to what it needs, rather than starving themselves on a daily basis will help them achieve the results they want.
3. Hormones play a bigger role than you think.
Our imaginary client Mrs. Jones is doing everything by the books, managing calories, and creating a small enough deficit to tap into energy storage, but still is not losing weight. If stress and dietary adherence look fine and everything is checking out, then something else must be going on.
Spend any time reading about fat loss and you'll be aware of how hormones can affect future fat loss efforts. Not all hormones though. Specifically, the literature points to three hormones that may be setting your client back.
Leptin: This is the primary hormone associated with feelings of hunger and satiety. Essentially, it's the hormone that prevents the body from starving to death and indirectly controls the rate of fat loss. During a fat loss program, it is not uncommon for clients to under-eat, which makes the body produce less leptin and slow down fat loss. Leptin is a major reason why it's far better to eat more calories on a consistent basis and train, rather than go into a huge deficit along with burning more through training.
Insulin: The body produces insulin in response to a rise in blood sugar, which can come from eating carbohydrates and sometimes protein. If your client has a history of crash dieting for years, insulin may be especially troublesome.
If you suspect your client is insulin resistant, have them see a doctor. If they do not want to, one of the best things you can do for them is teach them about proper eating habits. Ask them about what type of foods make them tired after they eat or initiate more cravings. It's likely the client doesn't immediately know, so encourage them to keep a food diary and track their foods (if they aren't already) and associated moods for a week. These types of things will give you an idea of how they react to certain foods or even a certain amount of carbohydrates.
Cortisol: Cortisol is a stress hormone. It is vital for life and often mismanaged. When the body produces high amounts of stress, it slows the metabolism down and creates a fat loss nightmare.
This is very important to note because if your client has a crazy hectic work life prior to coming in the gym, hammering them with high-intensity exercises would not be the best thing for them, and only hinder their results.
What should you do if you have a client like Mrs. Jones?
When you first meet someone like Mrs. Jones, it is important to take note of the external stressors that are associated with her life and recommend an easier approach, rather than be aggressive. Pay particular attention to her nutritional, sleep, and stress patterns. What is she eating currently? Does she have "trigger" foods? How much sleep does she get? What keeps her from getting enough sleep? Where in her life is her stress coming from, and is it something she can control?
Your attention to these details is key to creating a successful program.
Although training will help stimulate fat loss, a priority in the program should be heavily placed on nutrition and sleep as they will have a much bigger impact on hormonal management and fat loss. Teach her that "more" is not necessary better, and that stress actually inhibits fat loss.
Keep Mrs. Jones' program simple. She should strength train 2-3 times each week with a mix of density, strength, and conditioning so she doesn't get bored and to facilitate fat loss. Inform her that she will need to do at least 1-2 days of moderate cardio at a slower paced rate. This is great for stress reduction and recovery of the system. The rest of the results will come from good quality sleep and nutritional habits.
It is up to you as a coach to help your clients make a change that they will love and not hate.
More articles for helping your client lose weight and get results:
- Is Cardio or Strength Training Better for Fat Loss? by Nick Tumminello
- How to Create a Meal Plan Your Clients Will Actually Follow by Mike Samuels
- It's Time to Convince Your Clients the Scale Doesn't Matter by Tim Berzins