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The Best Way to Instruct Resistance Training Exercises to your Personal Training Clients - The Fundamentals

Your personal training clients only achieve great results when they actually exercise, they'll achieve nothing (other than boredom and frustration) if they have to spend the majority of their personal training session(s) listening to you providing '101 technique do's and don’ts for every single exercise you instruct. And you know what? The more time you're talking the more time your client will be wondering 'what am I paying this personal trainer for?'

Every time you instruct an exercise you must achieve the following three things:

1. Your client must learn how to perform the exercise correctly.  This doesn't mean they need to perform it exactly as 'the textbook' says, its means that they must learn how to perform the exercise effectively, and safely.  For example; the textbook might say that squats need to be performed witht the feet shoulder width apart.  Now that might be fine for some clients, however some clients might be more comfortable with feet wider apart than this, and a wider foot positioning might enable your client to safely squat deeper than with a narrower stance.  As a personal trainer it will be up to you to determine what is optimal for each client - but the client must perform the exercise safely and effectively.

2. Your client must develop a sense of 'mastery' through your instruction.  Once you have instructed an exercise your client should be thinking 'I can do it - bring on the next one'.  Its not your clients fault if they can't develop this sense of mastery quickly - its your fault.  Accept this and learn from it.  More often than not it's because you've selected an exercise for them that was too complex for them in the first place (i.e. you instructed them on the barbell back squat rather than the body-weight squat on their first ever gym session)

3. Buy more time to focus on motivating clients and ensuring your sessions hit their 'sweet spot'.  When you instruct correctly you don't actually need to show clients what not to do, and you don't need to provide anymore than three or four (maximum) technique points to remember.  If you find that you need to instruct heaps of technique points (to protect your client from injury) then again you've probably selected an exercise that is to complex for them.  Your time is much better spent motivating and ecouraging your clients, helping them plan extra sessions and tailoring the session to suit their need for either; enjoyment, escapism, aesthetics and/or education (The specifics of great session delivery are covered in detail at PT Direct).


When you are instructing resistance exercises there are four fundamental process you must perfect, these are;


1. Feature-Benefit-Feel (FBF)

A 'feature' is simply something about the exercise (E.g. 'Bob, this is the squat, it works the muscles on the front of your thigh, the back of your thigh, your bum and some of your upper body muscles as well), whereas a benefit is is the 'whats in it for me' statement that a client absolutely must hear (E.g. 'Bob, because the squat works all those muscle groups it is by far THE BEST exercise for burning calories and ensuring you trim trim that waistline in the quickest possible time).  Sadly personal trainers often focus on the features of the exercise in the mistaken idea that the more features an exercise has then the more value it has.  You must understand this point very clearly - features, while important, equate to little more than 'noise' for most clients.  Clients want to know whats in it for them, why they should do it, how it will benefit them.  And they need a little convincing as well...If you've chosen the best exercise for your client (which I hope you have) then you must 'sell it' to them, if you want them to do it time and time again.  You do this simply by making the benefits very very clear.  And to 'seal the deal', use 'feel'.  'Feel' is the emotional link statement which gets your client into the head space to really invest their effort in performing the exercise (E.g. 'Bob, you're going to feel great when you notice your belt getting loser and loser).  Now if you've selected the most effective and appropriate exercise for your personal training client then 'FBT' should be easy.  If you struggle to explain FBT to your clients then I'd firstly suggest you check whether or not you've selected the most appropriate exercise for them.

2. Show-Tell-Do (STD)

The first part of instructing requires you to show the client how to perform the exercise (E.g. 'Okay Bob, I'm just going to show you how to do the squat first and then we'll get you to have a go').  By showing your client how to do the exercise first you insert an image into their brain of what the exercise looks like when its performed correctly (so make sure you know how to perform the exercises correctly yourself!).  Most humans learn very well just by seeing and doing.  While you're showing the exercise try to avoid telling the client what to do at the same time.  This requires them to use visual and listening skills at the same time, and we're trying to make instruction as simple as possible.  And avoid like the plague the temptation to show and tell clients what not to do, because all this does is confuse clients 'what should I do, what shouldn't I do...I cant remember!  And you run the very real risk of your client actually doing exactly what you told them not to do, because that was the last thing that stuck in their head, and more often than not its what you actually emphasise!  Demonstrate 4-5 repetitions of the exercise so the client can learn from your body movements.  Then get them set up to have a go.  This is where you employ 'tell'.  Tell them to get into the start position and help them with anything they don't do automatically.  Give them 2-3 reminders about key parts of the technique (E.g. 'Now Bob, just sit back like you're sitting back into your work chair') and get them to 'do it'.  Initially have the client perform the exercise at a slow, controlled tempo (so make sure this is the tempo you demonstrate) and keep the exercise unloaded until the client gets the movement correct.  You should always remember to cue their breathing as it's amazing how often clients hold their breath when they're concentrating on something else.  And as the client gets the movement right ask questions such as 'where do you feel this working', 'where is the weight on your feet' etc.  This helps to create and strengthen sensory connections between the nervous system and the working muscles.  If you're teaching a new exercise to a new client then be patient - it usually takes 2-3 sets to learn the basics.

3. Commend-Recommend-Commend (CRC)

In-between sets its important to provide feedback to your clients and the 'CRC' process is great to enhance your clients responsiveness, confidence and learning.  It simply involves a 'sandwiching' of feedback.  Initially 'commend' your client - tell them something they did well during the set.  By noticing and reinforcing the good stuff your client will keep repeating it (E.g. 'Bob, your' tempo is perfect and your knees staying perfectly in line with your toes').  Then 'recommend' your client change or adjust the way they are doing something (E.g. 'Bob, on this second set try to remember to keep your eyes focused directly in front of you - this will ensure you don't lose balance and tip forward'), and then when your client makes the necessary adjustment make sure you commend the adjustment so they keep doing it (E.g. 'Great job Bob, your looking directly forward now - do you fell more balanced?').

4. Question-Remind-Summarise (QRS)

Now before you move onto instructing the next exercise there is a final, vital process that needs to completed first.  You must question your client about the exercise they have just performed - ask them what the key points were for the exercise, how the exercise benefitted them and what were the things they needed to 'keep an eye out for'?  Doing this keeps the client focused and when you do it with the first exercise you instruct it sets a very important precedent.  Your client will learn immediately that they will have questions to answer so they'll need to pay attention and listen.  The reality is clients are often wary about whats going on around them in the gym - 'are people looking at me', 'do I look allright doing this'?  Asking your client questions helps to focus them and keep their attention where it needs to be - on learning their exercises.  And another reality is that many of your clients will be performing these exercises on their own at some stage - so you need to know that they'll be able to perform them safely, independently of you.  You should remind them of any key points they miss in response to your questioning, and quickly summarise the 'FBF' again as well as the vital key points.  Then ask the client how the feel about the exercise in order to gain an insight as to whether the client has any fear's or anxieties that you can address (or change the exercise if needs be).  And finally make any notes you consider to be key reminders on your clients exercise programme.  These notes must be short, their function is purely to help jog your clients (and your) memory when repeating the exercise (E.g. 'keep eyes focused directly forward Bob')

O.K. Reading through that it sounds like there's alot to do when instructing exercise eh?  How on earth can you achieve the third objective of 'buying more time for motivating clients and tailoring sessions to their sweet spot if you're having to do 'FBF', 'STD', 'CRC' and 'QRSM' for every exercise that you instruct?  Well the short answer is - it takes time and practice to perfect your exercise instruction, but it is vitally important and when done well is very productive for you and your client.  So the time you invest in practicing, will pay you back 'big time'.  For an example of some great exercise instruction in action check out the blog 'The best way to instruct resistance training exercise - the barbell squat in action'.