Have you ever had a client who seemed like a transformation story ready to happen?
Maybe he was once in great shape and wants to get back to it. Maybe he’s getting into it for the first time.
Either way, he’s detrained, but his motivation is sky-high, and his first few training sessions are pure fire. There’s nothing you can throw at him that he won’t happily agree to, in or out of the gym.
And then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, his consistency drops off. His workouts go from fire to mud. And, most distressing, the guy who once hung on your every word now seems to tune you out.
The change leaves you confused and dismayed, and it’s hard not to take it personally.
I know, because I’ve experienced it a few times. Based on the complaints I see on social media, so have lots of trainers.
Here’s the problem, as I see it:
A client who comes to you with high motivation has even higher expectations, with an equally high chance of burnout, frustration, and/or injury.
To succeed, you have to navigate all these risks. And to navigate them, you first have to understand what is and isn’t under your control.
I put those variables into the following four buckets. Some of it applies to all your detrained clients, but it’s most helpful when you’re training that client who at first seems too good to be true.
Bucket 1: Things you can control
1. Where you start your client
She’s ready to sprint out of the gate, but her body isn’t. Your goal is to choose exercises she can master quickly, maximizing her sense of competency.
Which exercises? That’s where training is both an art and a linguistic challenge. You need to buy yourself some time to become fluent in each other’s languages.
It’s also possible she has the hardware to squat beautifully but has never been assessed or coached. Or she’s been coached, but never in language she could understand and respond to.
If that’s the case, you could yell “knees out!” until your future self becomes known as “Knout.” But it won’t do any good until you figure out what the problem is, and how your client responds to instructions and cues.
For example, knee valgus is common with people who overpronate their feet. You can address this by teaching her how to find pressure through the base of her pinky toe and the lateral part of her heel.
Once she understands what you mean, and how to do the movement correctly, your next goal is to refine your cues down to the simplest language and the fewest syllables. In the example of the overpronator, you should be able to yell “feet!” from across the room, and she’ll immediately correct her form.
This common language you develop, and the shorthand version in your cues, will be vital when it’s time to push the client through more challenging sessions.
2. How you manage training load
Sudden spikes in training volume and intensity are a surefire way to create muscle soreness, and possibly injuries too. That’s why you need to inoculate your highly motivated client with a shorter, easier workout before you let him jump into the deep end.
My trainers and I do it with reverse periodization:
Rather than increasing the volume and intensity for two or three weeks, followed by a deload, we start with the deload, and ramp up the challenges from there. (You’ll see an example at the end of this article.)
In exchange for a fast start out of the gate, we get precision, using lighter, more technical sessions to focus on technique. If we’ve overshot on exercise selection, we have a window to figure it out and scale back.
3. Where to end your sessions
Your client may want to end each session with you scraping him off the floor. It’s admirable, but not recommended. Your task is to figure out how much he can do without compromising the quality of his performance and effort in subsequent workouts.
To some degree this applies to all your clients, but it’s especially important with the gung-ho novice who has no idea what his body can do and how much recovery he’ll need afterward.
How do you assess exercise recovery?
Even though I’m an analog guy most of the time, I like to use the readouts on cardio machines. Peak wattage is a good proxy for either readiness at the beginning of a session or fatigue at the end. For example, if someone who consistently hits a peak of 1,000 watts on an Assault bike struggles to hit 700, there’s a good chance her recovery is compromised.
You might wonder if this has more to do with lifestyle or sleep than the training program. And you’d be right. But those aren’t things we can control, as I’ll discuss in a moment. I’ll just say this for now: If a client is buried at work, you can pile on even more stress in his training, or you can give him workouts he can recover from, and adapt to.
Again, this applies to all your clients, from beginners to pro athletes. Performance is always the goal; your workouts are a means to that end, not the end itself.
Think of it this way: The more secure the client’s job is, the more secure yours will be.
What’s not in this bucket?
If a client’s ready to make big changes in her diet, okay, she’s ready. But most aren’t. For now, focus on the incremental progress you can achieve in your training sessions.
Bucket 2: Things you can’t control, but can influence
One of our biggest challenges is to temper reality against the inflated expectations our clients get from fitness media. It’s bad enough when a client who’s absolutely crushing it feels like a failure when she compares herself to someone else. It’s even worse if that person is a fiction.
We have to help our clients understand what the process looks like. And not the textbook process, but their process.
Your first step is to clarify how much the client is willing to change. His goals may well be achievable if he cuts out booze and desserts and gets eight hours of sleep every single night. But that might not be the lifestyle he wants.
And that’s fine. He’s not a bad person. He’s a grownup whose priorities are different from yours or mine.
Once you’ve established what he is and isn’t willing to do outside the gym, you need to make sure he understands how those priorities will affect his results. You’re there to help him navigate the hurdles, but you can’t make the hurdles disappear.
Similarly, a subset of deconditioned clients will overestimate their abilities. It’s understandable, especially if they were in great shape at some point in the past. So how do you rein them in without coming right out and saying, “Hold on, hoss, you’re not as ready as you think you are”?
Explain that you’re excited to see what they can do, but first you have to collect some preliminary data. You’re not judging them as unready for real workouts. You’re merely performing due diligence.
If they can’t respect that, your relationship may be in trouble before it begins.
Fitness pros imagine that we have more control over our clients’ diets than we do, especially when one of them comes in and basically says, “Tell me what to eat.”
The problem isn’t a lack of information or guidance. Clients know what’s good for them, and what isn’t. Their real challenges are time, lifestyle, habit, and, more than anything else, stress management.
Food is often a crutch for dealing with stress or anxiety. The last thing you do with a crutch is kick it out from under someone. Your goal is to help your client build a different kind of support.
Most of us start off by talking about nutrition basics. But, as I said, knowledge isn’t really the problem. And, because they know what they’re supposed to do, they may just say what they think you want to hear.
A better tactic is to find the gap between what they’ll say and what they actually do. It can be as simple as asking if they consistently shop for groceries. If they don’t, there’s no way on earth they can follow a detailed meal plan.
That brings us back to stress management. You serve your client best by making nutrition as simple as possible. Protein and a big glass of water at every meal. Grilled fish and vegetables when you eat out. Or, instead of adding rules, take some away. (If she thinks she can only have an apple if it’s organic, locally sourced, non-GMO, and microaggression-free, start there.) Reduce the complexity and you reduce the stress.
As with nutrition, your clients know what they’re supposed to do. If they’re not doing it, it’s probably for emotionally complex reasons. Whether they share a bed with a partner, a baby, a pet, the Dark Web, or some combination, there’s only so much you can ask them to change.
While some of your entry-level clients need more encouragement out of the gate, you have the opposite challenge with someone who’s highly motivated but deconditioned. You may need to slow her down during the initial weeks.
Your best tool, as I noted earlier, is to manage her training load in a way that maximizes progress and minimizes the risk of injury or burnout. If you take nothing else away from this article, take that.
5. Honesty and transparency
A new client wants to impress you. He’s afraid that if he tells you an exercise hurts, or that you’re pushing him so hard he’s practically comatose for the next 24 hours, you’ll think less of him, and be less invested in his success.
Make it easier to be honest by normalizing their experiences. “What did you think of those Bulgarian split squats? I know I still get sore if I haven’t done them in a while. How did you feel?”
People tend to take down their defenses when you’re open and honest, and come across as a fallible, relatable human (who just happens to be in fantastic shape).
Bucket 3: Things you can’t control or influence, but can at least monitor
1. Work stress
When a client tells you he wants to overhaul his entire life, you need to take him seriously—he knows he’s on the wrong track, and wants to do things better—but not literally.
Start by asking about his current work situation. At least half the time, a client will say he’s up to his eyeballs. That tells me the best way forward is a gentle ramp-up. Build him up without overwhelming him. When his work demands drop, he’ll be ready to go harder.
The inimitable Dan John describes this configuration as bus bench vs. park bench workouts. A bus bench workout is when you expect results to arrive on time, and get upset when they don’t. A park bench workout isn’t bound by a schedule or timetable. It can be enjoyable and intuitive, and leave you feeling refreshed. You had no expectations when you chose to sit on that bench, so it never feels like a wasted hour.
There are times for both. Just remember that your client doesn’t know which is best for him; it’s up to you to make the right choice.
READ ALSO: Dan John: Ten Skills for Any True Coach
2. Relationship stress
It’s not your job to solve your client’s relationship problems, or even to give advice. The best and only therapies you can provide are movement and complete focus on the task at hand.
3. Your client’s historical relationship with exercise
It might be great, or it might be complex and riddled with terrible experiences and anxieties. You can’t change the past. All you can do is respect who the client is now, and shape the relationship into a positive one going forward.
4. Emotional self-regulation
Clients may consistently undermine themselves, catastrophize relatively minor issues, and struggle to bounce back from challenges. No question this makes things more challenging for you because you have little to no influence over it in the short-term.
But you know what’s a great way to help someone feel more empowered? Progressive resistance. By giving your clients challenges that you’ve set them up to surmount, you demonstrate a process to manage anxiety and fear, one set at a time.
Bucket 4: Things you can’t control, influence, or even monitor because you simply don’t know about them
Ever have that feeling that something about a client is … off? Something he hasn’t told you, and you’re tempted to ask about?
Don’t even think about it.
Unless whatever he’s doing shows up on the evening news, your job is to work with the information you have, and focus on those things you can control, influence, or at least monitor.
Get it right and you’ll have a loyal, enthusiastic client for life, one with an amazing story to tell.
Sample Entry-Level Workout
Here’s how I start a training program for a new client who’s highly motivated but detrained. This is one of two or three workouts we’ll do that first week.
Week 1, Day 1
|1A) Goblet squat (1×8, 1×12-15, 1×6)|
|1B) High-angle inverted row (3×10)|
|1C) Lying straight-arm cable pullover with bent hips and knees (3×5)|
|2A) Pallof press from split stance (3×30 seconds/side)|
|2B) Push-up to yoga block (3×30 seconds)|
|2C) Side bridge on knees (3×30 seconds/side)|
1A: You’ll do all three sets with the same weight. The first set is a warm-up to practice the movement. The second is to let the client work hard, to get to that deep level of fatigue he wants. The third is a ramp-down set. We aren’t seeking more fatigue here; we just want the client to practice the movement one more time with a few reps that he can easily handle.
1B: I usually start with a high angle so the client gets a feel for the movement. Then I lower it as needed.
1C: The client is supine on the floor or a bench, with his head toward the cable stack, hips and knees bent 90 degrees. The goal is to start with a good stretch in the lats, and activate the anterior core on the movement. (Mike Robertson has a terrific explanation of how coaches can provide superior core training)
2A: As you’ll see in a moment, I use this Pallof variation to prepare a client for split squats.
2B: This is a modified-range-of-motion push-up, using a yoga block positioned under the client’s chest to give him a natural stopping point. (It’s like a quarter-squat without all the emotional baggage.)
Why? Well, consider how many deconditioned clients can do a good push-up with the traditional range of motion. Have you ever had a single one? Modifying the movement allows the client to have immediate success with an exercise that would otherwise be a struggle.
Notice that we’re also tracking time instead of counting reps. The shorter the range of motion, the faster the client will want to knock them out. Time is the great equalizer; since faster reps won’t end the set any sooner, it’s easier to get the client to focus on slow, controlled movements.
2C: Shortening the lever gives you an opportunity to cue the client, and allows for a fast progression.
Week 2, Day 1
|1A) Goblet squat (3×12)|
|1B) Inverted row (3×10)|
|1C) Lying straight-arm cable pullover with bent hips and knees (3×5 breaths)|
|2A) Split squat (1×8, 1×12-15, 1×6)|
|2B) Push-up to yoga block (3×30 seconds)|
|2C) Side bridge on knees (3×5 breaths/side)|
1A: From this workout on, we’ll progress the load the traditional way.
1B: Same with the inverted row; we’ll lower the angle when we can.
1C: This time, the client holds the position that’s most challenging and takes five deep, diaphragmatic breaths. The slower she breathes, the more she’ll feel her core working, and the faster she’ll learn the brace that’s essential for more advanced strength exercises.
2A: It’s the same rep scheme we used for the goblet squat in the first workout, with the same goals.
2B: We can progress the push-up by using a lower block or adding a two-second pause on each rep. Once again, we’re using time instead of reps.
2C: Instead of tracking time, we count the client’s breaths, as we now do with the pullover.