Personal Training Clients for Progress

When you're Personal Training, how do you make sure a client is going to progress? What strategies consistently work?

I am often surprised at how easy it is to get the body to change when you take the right approach.  Here are a few of the puzzle pieces I use and I'm going to write about them in line with a 'beginner exerciser' (someone who hasn't exercised 3 x a week at moderate to high intensity for the last six months) as they make up the majority of the population I work with.

I use a super secret recipe; strength training and interval cardio vascular training.  Wow - bet you've never seen a recipe like that before (lol).  Just like your momma baking a cake though, I do a few subtle things that help get the result.  Here are some general ramblings with numbers next to them so it appears I actually have a strict set of guidelines in place.  I don't, my overarching guidelines are the exercise principles and some common sense (my own brand)

1. Smooth workout volume

I always want to get as much done as possible in the workout but I want the volume to be as smooth as possible throughout. 

Here's what it looks like when it's smooth - on each lift the client has been taken to an RPE of 7.5:

Here's what it looks like when it's lumpy (on the first exercise I was a bit short, on the second exercise eyes were bulging, the client then grunted through the next few exercises and fell into a heap toward the end of the workout as they were spent):

These are just examples to illustrate my point.  You actually achieve more with consistent lift intensity and you can manage this through load, work period (set duration or time under tension) and rest period (between each set).

2. Minimal local fatigue

I'm always aware that a beginner exerciser has only slightly more reasons for exercise (pros) than against (cons).  I'm also aware that pain or discomfort quickly eliminates pros and accentuates the cons.  As such, I avoid local muscle fatigue for the beginner like kids avoid cabbage.  Given I can achieve a big volume smooth workout that my client will enjoy and get results from, I feel no need to introduce unproductive pain and discomfort.


3. Long and gradual warm ups

When I worked as a research technician at a University I did a lot of testing of both athletes and the untrained population.  What I observed in the untrained population is that they take a while to settle in to a stable heart rate and if pushed too hard too early, they can easily cross the lactate threshold and often struggle (due to their limited aerobic oxidative capacity - poor capilarisation / mitochondrial density) to recover.  For that reason I always warm up the 'beginner' longer and more gradually to allow their system to fully gear up for the workout.  I never shorten the warm up or cool down.  My 'standard' warm up which progressed into cardio work would be 8 minutes but for the 'beginner' it sat closer to 12 minutes.

4. Relentless progress

For strength work particularly - the 'beginner' progresses in leaps and bounds early on.  You'll only need to look at one set of strength data to see this.  Their nervous system quickly adapts and begins to refine force control elements of each lift quickly.  Most of these initial gains are out of the way within 6-10 weeks.  For that reason I use big basic exercises and keep at the technique elements every session.  As the client progresses I increase reps from 4 to 8 and then the load once they hit 8 reps to bring them back down to 4 reps.  This allows them to add reps and improve their force control and then increase the load again.  They rarely get addicted to load progression alone (banging more plates on to the detriment of technique) when I take this approach which means we can both focus on quality execution.

5. Little variety (lots of jokes)

You will not find me with a swiss ball and dumbells at any time.  I condition the goal movements by using the goal movement and making adjustments through cueing, manipulation and bio feedback tools (my favourites are the hacky sack, strings/light bands, a marble, mirrors and the cage supports bars).  Regression does not have to mean a different exercise.  Regression can mean no to low loads, cueing, stretching, joint mobilisation etc.  I have found very few clients who need a completely regressed exercise to start with. I do not change the exercises often.  Given the first 6-10 weeks are mostly force control progress there appears no point to me in throwing out that well controlled movement before you get to squeeze out force generation progress which in turn stimulates lean tissue development.  I look at it this way - the fist 6-10 weeks I'm going to burn calories during the workout and afterward due to recovery and repair.  After 10 weeks I'm going to really burn some calories (as efforts are able to be higher within the lifts) and I'm going to get recovery, repair and building of new tissues (hypertrophy).  If my client wants more variety I tell different jokes, play around with work:rest, use alternate supersets, mix lifts with 5 minute bouts of cardio between - virtually anything but change the exercise.  I can also threaten them with a higher frequency of jokes, or a yarn or two if they really ask for it.

6. Specific phase of the warm-up

If a client has movement education requirements and needs mobilisation, better awareness of their position etc, I build it into the specific phase of the warm-up.  By the time they enter the first lifiting phase everything I can do to get joints moving well, muscles awake and the nervous system ready for controlling that particular gross pattern, has been done.  I want to lead into the lifts not go 'surprise' to the body and ask it to do something that has had no systematic introduction.

7. Workouts with an objective

Okay, this probably should be number 1.  Before I design any workout I write at the top - what is this workout for.  I did it for all my athletes and I do it for the untrained too.  Be specific.  For an athlete it may be 'improve low and long lunging quality building depth and speed with the torso in correct alignment to help with court speed after volleying'.  For the untrained it might be 'develop the push, pull and squat pattern so that all ranges of the movement have correct alignment and control at the turn is smooth'.  It may be as simple as 'increase loading on two major lifts by 2.5kg'


8. Let them recover properly

This falls out of the principles of exercise and GAS (general adaptation syndrome).  If you do a solid lifting workout with a client then there will be recovery requirements for 72 hours or more for the muscle groups involved.  I don't like to train clients too hard too often.  I made the mistake for a while of training clients three times a week and bashing them into shape.  Essentially I was wasting some of their efforts by pushing them too hard, too often.  Clients need good recovery pracitises and the time for them to occur.  That's not to say they can't train every day or every other day - it's simply that the stimulus needs to be properly managed and prescribed to get the most progress for the client.

9. little plates are your friend

You know those really small weight plates, they look like a saucer with a hole in the middle and weigh about the same.  Use them.  Recently I've been exposed to some arithmetic (holidays are desperate times for my brain).  If you take any % increase over a period of time and divide it in to 70 you will get the doubling of that number.  Example; 5% increase per month = 70/5 = 14 months.  So, with 5% increase per month a 80kg bench could double to 160kg in 14 months.  What you say - 160kg!  Correct but likely not realistic as there are other rate limiting factors that will come into play.  However, let's look at this same example at just 2% increase.  Suppose my client has topped out at 80kg in terms of the intial 10 weeks of training on the bench.  This plateau to me is representative of all the easy wins we made from the nervous system getting smarter at the lift and controlling the lift.  So the table to the left is what 2% increase per month would do; 80kg to 128kg over 24 months of training.

You'll note that the steps are so small each month that the 1.25 kg plates must be your friend.





10. Total workout volume and work rate matters

For a long time I've been an advocate for progressing the total intensity in workouts by doing more in the same time or doing the same work in less time.  Either way, the intensity increases.    Intensity is more important than duration.  You'll see this factor in 'tapering' research which has shown you can take out 67% of the duration and by maintaining the intensity you will still maintain the physiological adaptations.  To me, that means intensity is twice as important as duration.  Think of it like this; the body doesn't need much of a reminder to hang on to it's fitness - but that reminder is intensity based.  When I think about the body's bias toward intensity it makes sense as when we were evolving any 'intensity' would be a stressor telling us we weren't coping with the environment as it was.  Rapid physiological adaptation would have been life preserving.  The bigger the 'intensity' the more we were out of whack with our surroundings and the demands we were experiencing.  Therefore, the more we needed to adapt.  So, to change someone you just need to use intensity (keep it smooth and sensible though) to continuously remind them 'they're not there yet' - as a result they will continue to change. 


11. What you don't know really matters

Most of us know quite a bit about physical conditioning - so that shouldn't be a problem.  What we don't know about our clients, and the training adaptations that are occuring as they train, are the biggest limitations to us getting results.  My approach is to always know my client extremely well - both physically and mentally.  I get right alongside as early as possible and dig up everything I might need to know.  From that platform training can grow.  The next thing is to keep to a plan and continually focus on workouts that fit the overall goal.  This is where you can really mess things up - as I have a few times.  If I don't have a clear exercise plan for my client I can't have clear objectives for workouts and therefore programme design becomes difficult.  If I don't have good design, then my implementation - even if perfect - may not cause the result.  I need to tick all the 'detail boxes' throughout the process.  Finally, I must measure workout volume.  That means I must record week to week what volumes I'm getting from my client as they workout.  If I don't know workout volume, then how do I know that progress is occuring.  This is another reason I don't change workouts too often.  Not only do I want the progress that happens after movement learning has occured, I also want to be able to adequately monitor the changes.  I sometimes see clients changing from flat bench to pec flyes to incline bench to incl dumbbell flyes to decline bench to dips within six months (not my clients).  How that trainer knows that the push pattern is developing at an acceptable rate is a mystery to me and they'd need to be a physicyst to calculate workout volume.  Each of those exercises has a necessary learning curve, a new loading profile, a different set of risk factors, and different sticking points.  Fine if you are a body builder doing massive sets and reps and using continuous tension training to cause hypertrophy but not fine if you are virtually anyone else (except Lance Armstrong - I'm pretty sure he can do anything he wants and Oprah will get him off somehow.. ;)


I have other tips but that's my top 11 (awkward).  Hope it helps you keep your training head clearer for 'beginners' in 2013.  If you have any tips for other PTs around this area please pop them in the comments below.

Kyle says:
Jan 21, 2013 06:33 PM

I like this, of course, it brings to mind a lot of clients I've had, the different approaches - or lack of approach - I had with each. I think it could benefit from a Part II (Examples), past real or fictional clients and how things would progress in the first 6 weeks, with a sketch of things beyond that.

As an example, I have a 65yo client JW. He's healthy but deconditioned. When he started he couldn't do a below parallel bodyweight squat. Since everyone prefers to go to the toilet unaided and do their own shopping and left as he was doing this ten years from now would be a problem, he needs to squat.

I began him with squatting to a bench for sets of 8, doing a 45 degree leg press for sets of 10-20, and planks of 5 seconds. In every workout he did bench squats, leg press and planks, building up the reps, weights and time. When he could do 20 squats to the bench, leg press 60kg for 20 reps, and hold a plank for 45 seconds, he was able to do an unloaded squat. So now we put a dumbbell in his hands... and so on. This took 10 sessions at twice a week.

I'm sure you can think of better examples.

TM Fitness
TM Fitness says:
Jan 23, 2013 11:04 PM

Thanks for this, it makes some very interesting reading. I tend to start deconditioned clients off on movement mechanics, I'll do a functional movement screen and then train the imbalances. The next phase is usually core stability, without a strong foundation of stability through the core all skill based movements suffer. Once there core is stable and the movements more natural I'll progress to improving cardio fitness and gradually introduce more strength work. Like the gut above says, most clients can't even perform squat correctly so it's important to work on those movement patterns, muscle activation and the relationship between mind and body. For teaching parallel squats the client needs to learn which muscles to activate, so hip mobility exercises are needed before moving on to squat technique and then I usually start their squat at the bottom, most people can crouch down, so if they can do that then they just need to stand up, once they can stand from crouching then you can progress to squatting down froma standing position.