Sometimes personal trainers do things that may seem like a good idea in the moment but can easily have potentially negative outcomes beyond the experience provided in a single session.
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Sometimes personal trainers do things that may seem like a good idea in the moment but can easily have potentially negative outcomes beyond the experience provided in a single session. Here are five things that fall into that category:
1. Putting on a show during a session. It might seem like a good idea to loudly clap and cheer every big effort by a client. And for some people, it may be exactly what they need. But for many other clients, it can be a mistake. Most trainers that do this in all of their sessions do it for themselves, not the client. This is a subtle way to call attention to yourself and get everyone in the gym looking over to “see what’s going on over there.” There are many types of people with different goals—and different personalities. Some clients prefer less attention during workouts. The type of client that likely prefers to do their work with you, stay focused on the one-on-one experience and go about their business may not appreciate all of the noise you make during their sessions.
A more thoughtful, sophisticated approach to training involves learning the personality of each client and knowing who benefits from the noise, who doesn’t and everyone in between. You could even simply ask a client how you can best provide encouragement and motivation instead of assuming that this is best achieved by being loud. If all you bring is your default personality, then all you have is a single tool in a world that needs many.
Peter Twist, president of Twist Conditioning, requires trainers and coaches to use active rather than passive coaching. He describes this as follows: “Inactive or passive coaching includes sitting down (low energy/interest/attention), standing arms crossed (disinterested/disconnected); checking smartphones (disrespectful, unfocused); eating food; and reverting too frequently to just counting reps and rah-rahing. With active coaching, clipboards are down, we are on our feet, visually aware, head on a swivel, [and offering] purposely sequential instruction that guides movement, A to Z, [during] each rep.”
2. Using a cool new exercise just because it is a cool, new exercise. Any true professional has a solid reason for everything they do. Recently, I witnessed a trainer putting a client through an exercise where you squat while standing with both feet on a medicine ball. For the overwhelming majority of the population, this is a poor exercise choice. For that one person who may need to do that in a circus, it is perhaps okay. For everyone else, there is nothing smart about that exercise. The feet turning aggressively outward, the knees bowing out so far that the legs look like a diamond—to say nothing of the inherent risk involved if balance is not maintained—all make this exercise an unwise choice. Trainers naturally often want to share new exercises that we learn or that we create. However, novelty for the sake of novelty or just because it is a “killer” exercise is unprofessional at best and potentially injurious at worst.
The exercise used in this example is just the most recent example of an ongoing trend I have witnessed. Fraser Quelch, director of education for TRX, once told me that when he was a trainer at a club, the staff had a rule that at any point during a session, another trainer could walk by and whisper “Why?” into a trainer’s ear when doing an exercise with a client. Later, that trainer leading the exercise had to tell the trainer who asked “why” what the rationale was for that exercise. This develops a sense of thoughtfulness and accountability for exercise choice. Conduct yourself as if someone could whisper “why” into your ear at any moment and have a reason that is connected directly to a client’s goal(s) for every exercise you choose.
3. Premature intensification. In an effort to justify the expense and investment a client has made in training, some trainers make sure to deliver a hard workout at the first session, especially if they are doing so as part of a free introductory session that a new member receives as part of his or her membership. Intensity without intelligence is a recipe for short-term failure of a client and for long-term lack of credibility in our industry. You can’t push someone hard until you know what hard is for that person—and no one can know that a few minutes after meeting someone or even in a first session. More importantly, unless you know the general movement ability of an individual, it is impossible for you to choose the correct movements at the correct intensity. It can be tempting to push someone right away as that is often part of what they want in a trainer, but letting professional insecurity allow you to rush into doing that instead of respecting the physical journey of the client that has brought them to you in that moment can backfire. Not only is there an obvious potential for injury, there also is the long-term potential for negative perceptions to develop in the client about exercise in general and about personal trainers in particular.
Chris McGrath, an ACE consultant and owner of Movement First, has a terrific explanation of this and a great solution. “Introducing an advanced exercise, either in intensity or dynamic needs, at its pinnacle version is a sure-fire way to scare off many clients,” explains McGrath. “Not only can this be physically harmful to the clients, [but] it can be very damaging to one’s ego, scare them away from you and worse, scare them away from exercise forever.”
Instead, McGrath recommends that you learn to ‘build your exercises, especially the more dynamic ones. For example, before training a newbie with a physio-ball-single-arm-dumbbell-chest-press, make sure the client can perform a ball-bridge. Then make sure they can properly execute a two-arm dumbbell press in a stable environment (bench press). Perhaps then they will be prepared to perform more advanced levels of exercises.”
4. Lying to clients to get them to work harder. “Just give me one more…now one more…now one more.” A favorite of the TV trainers, using repeating “one more” statements is lying to clients and erodes trust even if we do it in the interest of getting people to work harder than they thought possible. The ends do not justify the means. Be honest when you ask for big efforts, and if clients know they can trust you, they will give it. If they can’t trust you, they will hold back (without telling you) for fear that you will extend the effort beyond what you said you were asking for. If they cannot trust you, you cannot help them.
This technique is a favorite of some trainers whether it is asking for one more rep five times in a row or sneaking five extra seconds into a work interval. Every once in a great while, this can be an effective way to get clients to believe that they can overcome limits. This approach will only work, however, if you explain why you did what you did in a way that convinces the client it was appropriate to be dishonest in that moment. But to use this technique on an ongoing basis will erode trust, which should be avoided at all costs. The personal nature of the trainer-client relationship cannot be an effective one without trust.
5. Varying the workout every session. Some clients just want you to kick their butt, and in the interest of doing so, many trainers mistakenly take it as a source of pride that they never give the same workout twice or change things up every single workout. This approach is seriously flawed. First, if you constantly change things, no one will ever get better anything. In first grade, children learn the alphabet by repeating it over and over. They don’t learn it one day, and never come back to it again until a month later. Sound fundamentals in movement mean there must be some repetition of movements and workouts.
Second, Nick Tumminello, author of the upcoming book "Strength Training for Fat Loss" and owner of Performance University, explains that “clients sometimes learn the lessons you don’t know you are teaching. And if you model through your training sessions that constant variety is the secret to high levels of fitness, they may perceive your services to have less value when you invariably repeat a movement you have used with them previously.” Tumminello also points out that too much variety can have the opposite effect from what is intended. “Varying workouts each time also takes away from the quality of the workout, as you have to spend more time coaching up movements when your client isn’t familiar with them or has yet to do anything similar.”
A better approach, says Tumminello, is to “vary without changing.” Meaning, you can still perform a row or a squat, for example, but vary the hand or foot position. In this fashion, the individual performs the familiar movement pattern but does so in a novel way. This adds some variety, while reducing the need for the client to perform an entirely new movement skill.
Surprise your clients by doing things that are unexpected. Many of these tactics that backfire are attributes of the stereotypical trainer. I’ve never met a trainer who wants to be typical or ordinary. The world needs you to be excellent and that means no matter how long you have been doing what you do, you examine things to seek more effective methods. What works for one person will not work for another, and this applies to all aspects of workout program design and delivery.
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Jonathan Ross is the two-time recipient of Personal Trainer of the Year awards (2010 IDEA & 2006 ACE), has served as Discovery Health Fitness Expert and hosted the Discovery Health series “Everyday Fitness.” His book, Abs Revealed, delivers a modern, intelligent approach to ab training, and his business, Aion Fitness, delivers exceptional fitness training,speaking and writing services. Ross is a master trainer for TRX and has shared his renowned thought-leadership philosophy at many conferences and in the media.