When people first get their certification to become a personal trainer, their fantasies run wild: they imagine they would be doling out exercises like candy and counting the reps as fat miraculously melts off their client’s bodies. It’s all theory, squats, and deadlifts like clockwork–a machine even.
Eventually, though, this trainer learns an important lesson that is never taught in any certification course, but is rather gained from experience training real people.
In time, this trainer learns that he is human, and so, too, are his clients.
It’s a significant revelation, really. Realizing you are training another human being, complete with quirks and aspirations, is a huge step toward better success as a trainer. This sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised by how many trainers seem to be slow on the uptake. It takes time and significant experience to develop the coaching skills that go well beyond the science from textbooks and the tricks of the trade that are passed throughout the profession.
These are the skills that your personal trainer certification can’t guarantee you’ll have. If you want to improve your service, you have to keep this “human element” top of mind and learn these skills.
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1. Personalize the program, but humanize the implementation.
A well thought-out program is non-negotiable for a trainer. You need to be able to figure out how to help clients get to their goals with science and a personalized vision that fit the individual’s abilities.
That means you shouldn’t only provide cookie-cutter programs for every one of your clients, every session. In fact, the best coaches in the business are the ones who have intricate plans and equally sophisticated variations if client requires an adaptation. Do not get yourself stuck in the “Well, the program says it is heavy pulls and hamstring work“ attitude. Be ready to adapt according to how the client feels.
Sometimes a client is going to show up for their workout and be bothered by some sort of mental, physical, or even emotional burden. It could be as simple as a long day at the office, or as complex as a marital dispute. Regardless, during days like this it is imperative to assess how much the client is impacted by their circumstances and act accordingly.
Look for ways to adjust the program’s intensity, complexity, or length based upon the client’s needs. An exhausted client who might’ve just gotten off a 12-hour flight shouldn’t be attempting a max deadlift, no matter what the program says.
Being human means being malleable. We are shaped by the people and the world around us. Don’t be so stiff with your programs that you can’t be a human to your clients. You’ve had good and bad days, too!
2. Talk to clients in their language.
Many clients come to a trainer because they genuinely do not have any idea of how to get themselves into better physical shape. A successful trainer knows they need to simplify the language they use when speaking to their client in order to increase adherence and success.
So, telling them to contract their transverse abdominis, abduct their femurs, and put their hips into an anterior tilt, while flexing their knees to ninety degrees is not an effective way to coach a squat pattern.
As a trainer, you need to understand the knowledge base and interests of each individual client. That means speaking in the simple terms they can understand and visualize. Focus on what’s needed to successfully complete a movement without injury. Talking to them as though you are reading off a kinesiology textbook might seem condescending.
They might leave the session thinking, “Great, I’m out of shape and I’m stupid.”
Don’t pollute your session with vocabulary terms and theories. Focus on what they need to know in order to successfully complete a movement without injury and nothing more. If they express an interest in knowing more, then you may want to dive into the science behind your practice.
For example, if you have a client back squatting, tell them to, “Spread the floor with your feet,” and “Pull the bar into a frowning face on your back.”
If they’re doing a chest press, tell them to “Press down with your heels,” “Hold a dollar bill with your butt and your shoulder blades,” and “Pull the bar to your chest and bend it around you before pushing yourself away from it.”
And so on.
Coaching movements and offering helpful cues need to be as unique to the individual and the individuals themselves. Don’t just stare blankly at your clients because they don’t understand how to fire their glute minor and abductor complex; or bitch at them to pull their psoas tighter. These statements aren’t going to make them perform better. In fact, it’s going to lose them and cost you credibility.
3. Really listen to and understand the client.
To truly elevate yourself amongst your competition, you need to commit to more than just learning the hard sciences and mastering coaching cues, movement patterns, program design, and all the other necessities of the vocation.
The most important (and arguably underrated) ability is being able to listen with the intent to understand. That means taking a genuine interest in how they’re doing, what’s going on in their lives, and how you can help. A supportive, non-judgmental atmosphere is key here. When the client talks, encourage him or her to keep going into detail, saying things like, “Please explain.” or “Go on…”
Doing so can allow a coach to discover, manage, and rewire behavioral patterns. It is imperative to know the difference between talking to your clients and talking with them. Are you simply speaking science to sound smart, or do you find yourself asking about their experiences and feelings? The latter is the human aspect of being a personal trainer.
Once the conversation switches from the former to the latter, the client can flourish–and as will you.
4. Understand that changes to a client’s body begin with changes to a client’s behavior.
Real change occurs at a behavioral level.
This is why you must listen to begin to understand why your client thinks or behaves the way he does. Some questions to ask here are What have you tried so far to make progress towards your goal? and What do you think has held you back from your goal? These questions can start to help you paint a better picture of how to get your client to change at the behavioral level.
For example, understanding why your client is overweight, why they struggle when they are out with friends, and why they feel trapped at home with an equally unhealthy but disinterested spouse can reveal that this client isn’t “lazy”, or inadequate. Perhaps this person does not have a quality support system in their lives that is conducive to long-term success.
If so, you should introduce them to a network of people who are on the same path and have already walked said path (perhaps to some of your other clients); or if they’re beyond your abilities, you can introduce them to fellow experts in the field of psychology, kinesiology, and dietetics within your network.
All clients with a variety of goals will benefit from being better understood. The toughest soldier, the finest athlete, and the quiet yogi will all benefit from your desire to understand their purpose, intention, and fears.
A professional trainer requires more than just certifications, degrees, and a pretty fit body to be successful. Those are easy to obtain. It is the little things, such as proper listening, coaching, and programming that truly separate the best from the rest. The good news though is that they are already inside of you; they’re part of being human.
Other trainers found these articles helpful:
- Successful Cues for Personal Trainers by Jarred English
- 8 Coaching Techniques You Should Use to Help Your Clients Succeed by Travis Pollen
- 8 Non-Verbal Cues to Effectively Build a Client’s Trust by Ryan Yurista