If you ask a personal trainer why they chose their profession they will undoubtedly say "to help people." They mean it too. Their goal is to get you to reach your goals and hopefully have fun doing it.
In spite of the best intentions, a huge chunk of the coaches in the fitness industry inadvertently sets their clients up for failure due to unreasonable training expectations.
This isn't for lack of trying on the trainer's part. It's due to the lack of effective coach training in the industry. There are several fundamental problems with how new coaches are taught to evaluate and program for their clients.
Over my years of helping an incredibly wide array of clients meet their goals, I now understand why mainstream fitness coaching is broken - and how to fix it.
Young trainers, this is a good post for you to read too.
FITNESS ISN'T THE #1 PRIORITY OF MOST PEOPLE
And that's ok! It shouldn't be unless you're a professional athlete or a model.
The average client has a combination of priorities that fall into the basic categories of survival and quality of life. A spouse, kids, jobs, bills, friends, hobbies, and a host of more uniquely varied priorities for the single and childless crowd.
It is unfair and unrealistic for any trainer to wave a magic stopwatch in a client's face and say "Now fitness is your #1 priority."
Trainers (especially new ones) tend to build overly idealistic programs. A 40 year old man wants to build muscle? Cool. He's going to do 2 workouts per day, 6 days per week. A classic bodybuilding split with tons of volume and a separate cardio session to keep the body fat down while eating in a calorie surplus. Speaking of eating, he's going to meal prep on weekends, eat 6 meals per day, track all his intake, and eat an insane amount of protein. Then he'll sleep 8-10 hours each night to recover properly. If he can't stick to the program he's weak, uncommitted, and just doesn't want it that bad. That's how Chris Hemsworth turned into the God of Thunder! So we know it works!
No way in hell. That client has a full-time job and 2 kids. He won't skip work or family time 2+ hours per day to hit the gym. He has nowhere near enough time or control to do anything close to that program. Over time he'll get discouraged because he can't keep up with the plan. He'll think there is no other way to reach his goals. He decides he won't ever be buffer, thanks to bad programming and "tough-love" coaching.
Instead, with flexible nutrition strategies and a couple good workouts per week, this client can make great progress! He won't look like Thor in 6 months, but he doesn't care. He's going to look and feel significantly better in that time and won't have to burnout or sacrifice time with his kids. That's sustainable progress and a huge win for the client!
Spoiler alert for any young trainers reading this: fitness will never be your client's #1 focus. Your job is to help them see results anyway.
ASKING ABOUT GOALS FIRST
Unpopular opinion: to me, your goal is not the most important factor in your exercise programming. Your lifestyle is.
What is your schedule like? What are your priorities? How do you spend your time now? When do you already have the time to workout and for how long? What fitness programs have you tried before? How will you feel/what will improve if you reach your goal?
This is more important to me as a coach than simply knowing your goal. This tells me what habits you already have - good and bad. It tells me what you'd skip a workout for. It tells me if I need to manage progress expectations due to hectic schedules. It tells me why you're really trying to get fit.
These kinds of questions help me get to know you as a person. Clients aren't just puzzles to solve or recruits to whip into shape. You are a unique individual with a life just as complex and important as mine. You want to add fitness to it, not sacrifice something meaningful to make room for fitness.
Once I have an understanding of who you are and why you want to start working out with me, then we talk about your goal. That's where exercise science and nutrition kicks in and these applications are fairly universal. Each individual has a small amount of unique factors but overall this is the structured part. I just have to make the science fit the available time.
It's not helpful to ask about your goal and let it exist in a fitness vacuum. It's critical that I put your goal into context.
MAKE A BUNCH OF TIME FOR THE GYM
A trainer is kidding themself by asking a new client to suddenly pull 3-4 hours per week out of their ass to commit to exercise.
To a certain degree, time must be made. However, taking it slow while building up the total weekly exercise time is very important to the sustainability of the exercise habit.
As human beings, every minute of every day is spent doing something that you enjoy on some level. If you spend 2 hours per night watching Disney+, it's because you like to do that, even if you say you don't. When a person really doesn't enjoy an activity they simply don't participate in it.
This is not the same as a person disliking an activity in theory. I don't love that my wife and I watch The Office for at least an hour every night before bed. But, while I'm not a fan of the habit, I do enjoy the show itself. It's hard for me to trade reading a book for watching Jim prank Dwight. Maybe if someone put my remote in Jello it'd make the transition easier.
Trading some of that Disney+ time for the gym may seem like a no brainer - but it's an existing habit that has to be broken or redirected. That takes some work. This is true for every repetitive use of time in a client's life.
The most successful approach is to use the time the client already has available, even if it's only 15-30 minutes a few times per week. Start there, then explore their calendar to see if there is an opportunity for more gym time.
My biggest professional pet peeve is hearing a trainer tell a client "that's just an excuse."
I adamantly believe there is no such thing as an excuse.
If my client didn't complete something they were supposed to there is a legitimate reason. I've decided this reason is real because it kept my client from doing something that is good for them. I listen to the reasons things didn't go as planned and help solve the problem. Reasons for failure can be beat with planning.
Calling it an excuse is dismissive. Even worse, excuses can only be beat with will power. If that didn't work the first time, it probably won't the next time.
Young coaches: show some respect for your client. They are doing difficult work. They didn't pay a trainer to not follow their advice. Don't scold them. Help them.
ONLY COACHING DURING A SESSION
If you don't have any habit building homework, extra solo workouts, or nutrition reminders between sessions, you don't have a coach - you have an expensive rep counter.
In fairness, you may only want workouts written and executed by a pro without coaching away from the gym. Usually, you just don't know that more help is even an option.
The majority of clients could benefit from this kind of service between sessions, but don't know to ask for it if their coach doesn't offer.
HOW I BUILD EFFECTIVE PROGRAMS
My approach starts with understanding each client as a person and working within the confines of their lifestyle. Honestly, this part is where I ask the vast majority of my questions. It takes collecting a ton a very unique information. It is also by far the most interesting and fun part of the process. I get to learn about someone and understand where their goal fits in their life.
Then, I help them build sustainable habits that address their specific weak points in the 3 main areas of health: State Management, Nutrition, and Physical Activity. We plan to introduce one habit at a time until everything runs more or less on autopilot.
From then on, we act as a team to keep focused on the plan. We take each step together and tackle problems as they come. Life changes quickly. No plan goes perfectly. My job is to be there to help each client figure out their process for dealing with the curveballs life throws their way.
I've been fortunate to have a handful of clients have been with me for years and haven't gotten sick of my puns and comic book references yet. Still, my approach to their program doesn't change.
The goal is not to make a you need me forever. The goal is to educate you on how to reach your results and keep them. If you feel unable to maintain your results on your own, I haven't done my job.
By ignoring the broken industry standard of "state your goal, here's your plan" I help you build fitness habits that suit your life so you can sustain them.
Articles filled with actionable information to improve your approach to the 4 pillars of fitness.