The following is a guest post by Bret Contreras.
Over the past six months as a personal trainer, I’ve really stepped up my game. As a result, I’m seeing better progress than ever before, and my clients are thrilled. How did I do it? It’s all about the program design.
Don’t get me wrong, there are many ways to be effective as a personal trainer. I have friends who plan all of their clients’ training sessions out for months on end, and other friends who wing every workout, never knowing what they’re going to do with the client until he or she walks through the door.
I’ve always had good success as a trainer by adopting a flexible approach that allowed for autoregulation, but recently I moved to a more structured approach.
Let me tell you a bit more about this approach. I feel that this system will help you improve the results you get with your clients. How do I know? Because I recently used this same system on myself to help me break the 600-lb deadlift barrier (it took me 6 years to get there). In addition, my clients’ strength catapulted when I implemented this plan, with every single lifter setting major PRs in all of their main lifts.
To follow this plan, all you’ll need to do is follow three simple steps.
Step One: Maximal Effort Lift
Pick a big lift.
My favorites include back squats, front squats, deadlifts, block pulls, bench press, military press, close grip bench, and floor press, but many options can work, and these lifts will depend on the client. There’s certainly nothing wrong with putting Bulgarian split squats, goblet squats, Romanian deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts, barbell hip thrusts, chin ups, dumbbell bench press, or push press into this category.
After the dynamic warm-up, have the client perform one of these lifts. Have them perform a few progressively heavier warm-up sets before their work sets. You are going to keep track of their personal records (PRs), and you will have them perform three total working sets. The caveat is that you will keep track of a variety of set-and-rep schemes in order to give the client plenty of opportunities to set a PR. I like 3 sets of 5 reps, 3 sets of 3 reps, and 3 sets of 1 rep for my favorite set and rep schemes, but many more will work.
These PRs are your clients’ indicators of progress. What can they front squat for 3 sets of 3? What can then close grip bench for 3 sets of 5 reps? What can they deadlift for 3 maximal singles? You want to hone in on these numbers and get the clients to be interested in them, as the stronger they get, the better their physiques will look (assuming their nutrition is on point). I have a chart that I made on Word that tracks these PRs, and I review it with the client regularly.
Step Two: Submaximal Effort Lift
After they’ve performed their maximal effort work for the day, you’re going to move onto submaximal effort work.
The point of submaximal work is to use lighter loading and stay far away from muscular failure. This is your chance to really groove technique and get in some extra volume without compromising recovery.
Pick a different lift from the same exercises mentioned above. Then pick a submaximal effort method. My personal favorite is the super-strict method, whereby the lifter executes the rep with impeccable form and utilizes a smooth tempo, thereby effectively making a lighter load “feel” challenging. I also love pause reps, where you pause for 3 seconds and then finish the rep. In this case, you’ll pause at strategic positions, such as at the chest for bench, an inch above the ground for deadlifts, and at parallel for squats. Finally, you have explosive reps, whereby you perform the lifts with maximum acceleration.
No matter which of the three submaximal methods you choose, you’re going to utilize the same loading parameters. Load up the bar to between 60% and 80% of your client’s 1RM. Now have them perform 3 sets of 1-5 reps, and remember, they’re going to use perfect form here. You might be thinking to yourself, “this seems too light to produce results.” Think again. Many top powerlifters such as Fred Hatfield, Andy Bolton, Sam Byrd, and Mike Tuscherer have utilized these submaximal methods with incredible success. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!
Step Three: Accessory Lifts
At this point, you’re going to have your clients perform their accessory lifts for the day.
Good options here include posterior chain movements, single leg movements, isolation movements, and core stability exercises.
Pick three exercises and have the client perform 2-3 sets of 8-20 reps for each movement. The goal is not so much to set PRs on these lifts, but rather to maximally feel the right muscles doing the job. You want the clients to feel the burn and obtain a pump, so keep the reps fairly high and the rest times fairly low. You might choose a barbell glute bridge, seated row, and Pallof press for one session, a dumbbell back extension, dumbbell curl, and band tricep extension for another session, and a reverse lunge, lateral raise, and RKC plank for another session. Many options will fit the bill here.
I’ll list two examples to help clarify any conclusion:
Back squat 3 x 5 (maximal effort)
Block pull 3 x 3 (super-strict method)
Single leg hip thrust 3 x 10
Chin up 3 x 6
Side plank 2 x 30 sec
Military press 3 x 1 (maximal effort)
Front squat 3 x 5 (pause reps)
Kettlebell swing 3 x 10
Dumbbell bench press 2 x 10
Seated row 2 x 10
Simple, but Effective
I’ve found that four sessions per week in this manner elicits the best results. Of course, you’ll need to plan the sessions so that they allow for full recovery and so that they hit the entire body over the course of the week, but that part is pretty easy. Focus on setting PRs and building strength for 6 straight weeks, then plan for a deload week and repeat. Give the system a try and see what you and your clients think!