This article is brought to you by ISSA (International Sports Sciences Association) 

As certified personal trainers, we have an obligation to our clients—to encourage them, to make them better, to push them beyond their limits, and to keep them safe while doing it.

What makes us as fitness professionals different from the rank and file fitness enthusiast trying to help their friends is the knowledge and education we work so hard to keep up to date. And, that extensive knowledge of exercise science should be reflected in each exercise program we make for our clients. But all too often, we end up seeing the same techniques employed across the board, regardless of the individual fitness goals of the client in question. What we're going to do today is go over a method for optimizing your program to ensure you aren't just giving them the same old program they could get anywhere online.

You are the secret sauce. Equipped with the fitness tools you learned when getting your personal training certification, you stand in the unique position to affect positive change in the lives of your clients. And that's a special responsibility. Sometimes, though, even the best of us run out of creative juices. So, what do you do when you feel tapped out in terms of piecing together a unique program for each individual? The answer comes down to your process.

Making Artwork with a Fitness Program

For professional artists like musicians, illustrators, writers, etc., their ability to earn a living often comes down to having a process in place for creating. We can learn from this when structuring personal training sessions for our clients. Whether the workout program consists mainly of strength training, conditioning, balance training, or anything in between, it's important to remember that these concepts are the end result of the process, not the beginning.

Looking at each client as a blank canvas is an important component to putting a proper process in place. Whereas you can have a basic template to start with for a workout plan, the template should be more about analyzing where your client is and what their goals are, as opposed to having pre-planned workouts and the like as a "basic" or beginner section. Even those who are new to health and fitness will still be unique.

So, we're going to approach developing a personal training program from that perspective—the blank canvas. This is what will make your training sessions, and eventually your overall training program, so much more effective.

To Start, It's All About Listening

Anyone can go online and find a program for working out. What clients get from you that they can't get from random articles is your expertise, knowledge, and experience. Whether you're trying to be the rockstar trainer at your gym or trying to make your own personal training business succeed, everything begins with listening.

What are their goals? What is their motivation? Have they tried to achieve these goals before? What about injuries or health conditions? This might seem obvious, and many trainers ask these questions, but unfortunately, many are only passively listening, just waiting for their opportunity to get in their pitch as opposed to learning about what their clients need.

Some would say that you should begin with a fitness assessment right out of the gate. But, what's the good of a standard fitness test if the client can't perform some of the exercises within your assessment? Furthermore, being a trainer isn't only about doling out workout routines. It's also about being your clients' source of accountability.

So, pay attention to what they tell you. Try to investigate their triggers. Where are they vulnerable? What causes them to eat off their nutrition plan? What makes them skip workouts? What workouts do they hate and thus avoid? And what are some strategies they can employ to push through these moments?

Most clients end up terminating their relationship because they fail to get results or because they feel stagnant. Learning about them and what can make them successful will allow you to nip issues in the bud long before they get to this point. Focus on maximizing their health and well-being. Listen well, and you'll be well on your way to a positive beginning.

Start with a Plan

Like with the artists, you need to develop a process. Whereas your programming shouldn't be templated, your process very much can be. Once you've listened to your client and learned about their goals and needs, you can start with the physical aspect of fitness training. From their goals, needs, and preferences, you can start developing a workout program that will be the winner.

Overall, a successful process, or plan, will usually look something like this:

  1. Listen to their goals and needs.
  2. Determine exercise metrics in alignment with their goals.
  3. Put those exercise metrics together into a fitness assessment.
  4. Based on performance in the assessment, develop programming targeted to improvement.
  5. Re-test them at regular intervals.
  6. Adapt your programming based on performance.
  7. Repeat as their fitness level improves.

Furthermore, you want to incorporate elements of their life in the plan.

  • Do they spend eight hours a day sitting? See what you can do to encourage them to move throughout the day.
  • Do they already take their dogs for walks? Try to get them to stretch that out a little bit, getting every bit of physical activity you can out of them when they aren't with you.

Make sure you are targeting your approach to their day-to-day lives as well as what they're doing in the gym. This type of customization is the nature of what makes your training certification so valuable. Give them in your sessions what they can't get anywhere else.

Finding the Right Fitness Metrics

Standard fitness assessments test for things like target heart rate, physical strength, balance, and endurance. These elements are all great in generalized fitness, but ultimately, what is your client's goal? This will allow you to develop your own fitness assessments that are targeted toward your client seeing the improvements they want to see.

Now, sometimes, you have to push back a little bit. If you're dealing with someone who only wants to bulk muscle, yet hasn't ever really performed proper strength training, they're going to need to start with something much more basic. One way to handle this is to show them the road map. Let them know that in order to get into the type of training they're asking for, they're going to need to start with the basics. Otherwise, there could be a serious risk of injury. Make sure they're heard, but also make sure to manage their expectations.

So, if you have a client who is looking to lose body fat, you know the exercise route to this is going to involve increasing their basal metabolic rate via resistance training. As such, think of exercises that are resistance-based and easily performed at regular intervals. This could be push-ups or squats if they've never touched a weight before, or if they have more experience, it could include some more advanced strength and conditioning exercises. The important part is that it should be tailored to what they're seeking, not a generic assignment of sets and reps.

Don't ignore the basics of what the fitness assessment is also tracking. In this technique, we're just recommending that you adjust what you do to make it as relevant as possible to your client's goals. This will help to ensure the client understands you have heard them and are working with them towards their specific, unique goals.

Programming for Success and Communication

Again, this comes down to a process. You don't exactly have a blank canvas now, with the fitness assessment you've conducted, you now know where they stand. And this should guide your programming from day one. Every aspect of the fitness assessment should be targeted and improved, but you should also direct more attention to the elements of the fitness assessment to which they performed worst.

Make sure that, in each step of the process, you're explaining to them what you're doing and why. Demystifying the personal training experience for them will make them more confident in your abilities and will make your process easier for the client to understand, increasing the likelihood of their adoption and success.

The fitness industry has a problem with common "rinse, recycle, repeat" where everything is a one-size-fits-all template. This might work for larger group training systems, health clubs, and other such businesses, but they're targeting a more general consumer. When someone opts to use a personal trainer's services, they're looking for your unique style. Imagine how you would feel paying more for a service and still just getting the status quo. Show them your attention to detail in what they're wanting. Demonstrate your expertise by tailoring their program to their life.

Just remember, at the end of the day, follow the process. Re-administer the fitness assessment at the right periods, every six weeks or so. This is a great way to see where clients are improving, as well as to see where you need to adjust your programming to meet their goals.

If they're strengthening in one area and staying stagnant in another, it's time to tweak your exercises to whatever will improve that performance. This process is involved, but it's going to give your clients a practical way to not only see their improvement but to feel it as well.

Coach Clients to Success

Fitness coaching is such an important element of what we do as personal trainers. Coaching is where the programming meets the real world. They will likely be sore in ways they haven't been before. Do not forget to incorporate techniques for proper recovery. This way, they will get both the results they're looking for as well as the energy to take on your next session.

And don't forget that you can find clients for anything fitness related. Often, runners will think that they don't need to spend time in the gym to improve their personal record or to make a difference on their 10k run time. This is where you can use your knowledge and expertise to show them that time with you can make that difference happen.

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