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Secrets of a personal trainer: How to keep clients on track

man and woman in the gym

As a personal trainer, one of the first steps you will take with a new client is conducting an initial assessment, determining an appropriate starting point for achieving established goals. 

Such assessments are not one-off events, but should be ongoing – checking in along the way to make sure the client stays on track.

In this post, we explore some of the most important responsibilities of trainers when it comes to ongoing assessment and keeping the client on track. Adapted from Secrets of Successful Program Design.

Ensure safety

One of the top priorities as a coach or trainer is assessing clients’ health, safety and susceptibility to injury. The program designed may be balanced to address any movement limitations or strength deficits found in their initial assessment, but things change and regular assessment is necessary to see if they need to spend more time recovering, doing regeneration sessions, or if they are compensating in a way that could lead to injury.

You should always remain vigilent for any potential signs of injury. However, that said, becoming hypervigilant and paranoid could equally hinder progress as you may be less inclined to push them to get better and progress. By observing their movement quality and response to training, you can continue to increase their training loads and they can gain strength with minimal risk of injury. Be aware that there are times you may need to refer a client who presents with pain to a qualified medical professional; fitness professionals are not typically trained to do rehabilitation and may be crossing a line if they attempt to do so. Obviously, best judgment must be used here as to when to refer out because not all situations require outside intervention.

Fitness professionals should be trained and should be regularly assessing muscular imbalances, faulty movement patterns, and (most importantly) the client’s goals. It would be great to “set it and forget it” but that’s not how the actual art of programming and coaching works. Many times, forces outside of our control will change the direction of the plan that was initially laid out.

Outlined below are some of the regular check-ins to adopt to ensure a client’s safety.

Every workout

At every workout, assess the clients’ movements, paying particular attention if they are compensating in their movement, if they mention pain, or if they start to guard an area that is causing pain. The sooner an issue is addressed, the more likely it won’t turn into a full-blown problem. For example, you should pay attention if a client says a shoulder feels tight or neck feels stiff from sleeping funny. While these don’t seem like major issues, they certainly could be if they keep getting worse.

Every one or two months

Every one to two months (or even more frequently if possible), rescreen your client on any of the tests in the Functional Movement Screen (this can be found in chapter 2 of Secrets of Successful Program Design) below a score of 2. For example, if the client lacked shoulder mobility at the start, check to make sure it has improved. This is also important to show progress, to ensure that your programming is effective, and to guide future exercise progressions and regressions if needed.

Every year

Every year (or sooner if the client has had time off), it’s a good idea to repeat the entire Functional Movement Screen (FMS) to make sure something hasn’t crept up that you need to address. If your programming is smart, the screen should validate it and confirm that you are maintaining or improving the client’s fundamental movement quality. However, if your client is an athlete in a repetitive sport or someone who has gone from an active job to a sedentary job, for example, this lifestyle change could affect mobility and movement. The FMS doesn’t take long and is a great way to audit yourself and your client.

Maintain effectiveness

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Throughout a client’s program you will need to check if it is working. Is your client getting faster, leaner, more powerful and stronger? The more experience you build in designing programs the more you will be able to predict the results with confidence. There is never going to be a time that you shouldn’t check yourself and measure a client’s progress to ensure you are on the right track. Where is your client in regard to goals? How big is the difference? If the goal included fat loss over the last year, how much fat was lost? If the goal was a strength increase, what lifts improved and by how much? If the goal was muscle increase, how many pounds of muscle was gained? Did the client achieve what he or she set out to do?

Here’s some suggested metrics to track and the frequency with which to track them.

Every workout

Check if the client’s loads are increasing and if the client is getting stronger. If the client isn’t progressing, then you aren’t doing your job correctly. If the client has performed a couple of workouts in a row with no increase in load or reps, it’s probably time to change the program or address recovery issues.

Make sure to monitor heart rate during metabolic interval workouts, which is usually one to two times per week for most clients. First, ensure that the client’s max heart rate is set properly using the max heart rate formula (220 − age) as an estimate. A client should be unable to carry on a conversation at 85 percent or so and able to recover to 70 percent or less. Once you have it set properly, heart rate can act as a key indicator to you as a trainer. If a client is fatigued, you’ll know because he or she will be unable to raise heart rate. This is a sign that a day off is needed to recover.

Every month

  • Track body composition. Bioimpedance units are popular as they are noninvasive, give a reasonably accurate estimate of body fat, and are quick and easy to use. The common question that is asked about all body composition measures is, “How accurate is it?” All of the various methods that test body fat are estimates, none of them are 100 percent accurate, and all of them have various pros and cons. Even though this method doesn’t tell you a person’s exact body fat percentage, if you are consistent in its utilization, it does tell you if body fat is going up or down.
  • Monitor weight. You will want to do so more frequently if your client is a weight-class athlete training to be a certain weight. However, for the average client, it’s recommended to use body composition or clothing-fit to measure progress, rather than weight.
  • At the beginning of training ask your client to bring in clothing that is currently too small, but is something that they’d like to fit into. Each month ask your client to try on the clothing so they can see their progress. This shifts the focus away from the scales and can encourage a healthier mindset.
  • Employ specific performance tests. These vary widely depending on the athlete, sport, and goals. There are multiple tests that can be used.

Facilitate communication

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You must communicate regularly with your clients, to provide advice or the knowledge they need to progress while making sure they enjoy the process and stay consistent. You may write the perfect training program but if clients miss workouts, or personal issues start to affect training, things won’t always go as planned. Thus, it is important to have a way to regularly check in and communicate with your clients to assess their readiness to train, their consistency, and their stress levels.

This time can also be used to discuss nutrition, which can make or break results. A bad diet, or one high in inflammatory foods, can often yield chronic aches and pains. As the saying goes, “We can’t out-train a bad diet.” Thus, establishing a way to regularly inquire about nutrition is extremely important. If you are coaching in-person, this check-in occurs more regularly; you get to know your client and can tell when something is off. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, and be open to listening.

Also, what you say to your clients during their training journey can be extremely powerful, and your words will often stay with them. It’s important to take time to listen and say the right things to keep them moving forward. When clients first start training, they are always motivated, focused, and ready to do everything you ask of them. Your job really starts when life inevitably gets in the way, circumstances change, or obstacles arise, and they start to lose the motivation and focus to keep their original commitment. To help keep the lines of communication open, it is recommended to conduct a formal monthly review to ask clients for input on their program and about what is working and what isn’t.

Here are some regular communication checks to use throughout the coaching process.

Every workout

Listed below are a number of checks to conduct at each session.

  • See how well the client is sleeping and if they are getting enough quality sleep. You may be able to tell if the client looks well rested from their ‘facial freshness’. Sleep is important to help our bodies repair and restore.
  • How well is the client eating? You may be able to tell if a client isn’t eating enough as they may be unable to perform a typical workout. It’s important to ensure clients are also eating after a workout to refuel and replenish.
  • How does the client seem today? How are they feeling? At every workout, you should discuss the client’s goals, why you were hired, and try to reignite the fire.

Every month

Each month you will want to consider the questions below:

  • Is the client consistent with training? 
  • Has the client been able to come in and do all of the planned workouts for this past month? 
  • Could the client handle more, or was it too much?
  • Is the client healthy? 
  • Is the client overtraining? 
  • Are there outside stressors?

Every year

Each year when a client renews with you, spend some time reflecting on past training and planning for the year ahead. What went well this past year? What would the client like to do better? Were goals accomplished? What does the client want to accomplish the following year?

Summary

When working with clients it’s important that as a fitness professional, you are always monitoring their progress to ensure they stay on track to meet their goals. They may have been extremely motivated at the beginning of the program, but this enthusiasm may drop off for a number of reasons. It’s your role as a trainer to be vigilant and ensure that clients stay on course, making sure to adapt when needed.

Secrets of Successful Program Design book cover

Adapted from:

Secrets of Successful Program Design

Alwyn Cosgrove and Craig Rasmussen

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