5 program design tricks that work

As career trainers, we all gather a few best practices as we go along. Whether it’s learning from your peers, attending a conference, or basic trial and error, you’ve definitely picked up a thing or two that’s made your coaching better. But what about program design? 

You could come up with the best program on paper, but on the gym floor it’s a different story. What if your client decides to skip every third session? What if they struggle getting up off of the floor? Surprises happen to the best of us. So rather than send you to the drawing board solo, I’ve collected five program design tricks for you that actually work. 

Program design trick #1: Make their first session success a priority

I know you’ve put together a weight loss program that’s battle-tested to drop pounds and increase mobility. And it will – if you can keep them around. 

The first session for clients is terrifying. They probably don’t like exercise, or at least don’t have positive associations with the gym. Your primary job during that first session is to encourage and keep them safe. Keep them moving enough so they break a little sweat, sure. But try not to absolutely destroy them, and guide them through progressions they can do comfortably.

Program design trick #2: Fit each individual session into the big picture

A session is only good if it fits in the big picture. What are their long-term goals? Nothing occurs overnight – not pain relief, longevity or wellness, weight loss, strength, nor muscle mass. Find the lead domino and keep the focus there. 

It might not even be gym-related. Your crazy hard session might actually be detrimental to their stress-management, diet, or sleep. It could cause them to have a crappy week, fall back on old comforts, and skip out on the next session. Instead, when designing a program, make sure sessions build upon each other over the course of weeks, months, and years.

Program design trick #3 – Say one thing, make sure they get it, then move on 

The amount you have to cue directly relates to exercise selection. Of course, you’re going to correct a thing or two with each new movement. But if you see way too many things to correct, you probably chose the wrong exercise in the first place. Don’t be afraid to regress and reassess just because you wrote something else down. Coaching involves a delicate balance of guidance and exploration. You’ve only got an hour or so with them. How can you keep them safe, challenged, and moving throughout? Spending 30 minutes cueing and correcting isn’t it. 

Program design trick #4 – Avoid treating your clients’ programs as a mirror

As trainers, we have to realize we’re at a different level than most. Our lives are spent in a gym, so 25 sets of eight different lower body movements might be a normal Tuesday. For them, however, 3-4 sets of one leg exercise equals barely being able to walk. Think of your clients’ activity level and lifestyle, and work up from there. If they’ve sat around for most of their lives, any movement will be taxing. Of course, as they get fitter or their goals change, you can adapt their programming. But don’t train yourself – train your clients. 

Program design trick #5 – Keep the goal the goal

That being said, soreness might not even indicate progress. It might mean you’re building up their strength when they really just want to lose a few pounds. Novel exercises will cause soreness. Eccentric movements will leave them aching for days. They might “feel” it, but are your tempo rear-foot elevated goblet squats really helping them lose fat?

Whatever their goal is, program around that. Sure, we all want our clients to move better. We all know the benefits of corrective exercise. Pepper those in here and there to keep them healthy, but don’t lose sight of the real goal. Clients don’t care if their lower traps are firing. If they aren’t seeing the results they want, they won’t come back, and you lose the opportunity to truly help someone. 

 

Detric Smith, NSCA CSCS, ACSM EP-C, Pn-1 is the owner of Results Performance Training (www.resultsperformancetraining.com) in Williamsburg, VA. He has a BS in Kinesiology from Virginia Commonwealth University and specializes in Sports Performance Training and Fat Loss Transformations. For over 15 years he has gained experience at various sports performance centers and personal training studios, as well as coaching and teaching physical education from elementary school to high school.  

 

3 ways to fix your group sessions

I do a lot of group and semi-private training, and it’s come to my attention that a few tweaks go a long way. In an industry that’s increasingly leaving the “personal” out of personal training, good coaches are doing the opposite. Injecting individual attention back into group sessions fosters accelerated results. You’re happier, the clients are happier, and the entire team benefits off of that success. 

Some of these tricks are so simple, they take almost no time at all. To get started, here are three quick tips to fix your group sessions right now.

Tip #1: Don’t let other members become the personal trainer

In every group class, there’s that well-intentioned veteran who wants to help out. They’ve been around this class for years, and see a first-timer struggling. While it’s great to encourage camaraderie, don’t let your members step in to the role of a personal trainer. If they have to, you’re probably overlooking something. 

As the coach, you need command of the room. Not only for safety and efficiency, but to send a consistent message. You give the tips you give for a reason. If John or Susan steps in with their two (or fifty) cents every time, that poor first-timer becomes overwhelmed. They’re too busy thinking about avoiding embarrassment than actually working out. 

As a trainer, you know whether or not that slight shift in toe angle will really affect their session. Encourage community, but talk to your vets ahead of time about limiting the noise. Let them know a streamlined message from you is the best way to get everyone working hard, and they’re welcome to encourage all they want.

Tip #2: Adopt multiple coaching styles

One coach serving multiple people means you’re going to need a few hats. Not only will experience across the room vary, but so will personality type. A loud energetic approach might turn some people off, but others feed off of that vibe. So how do you know? During the session, pick up on body language and have a grasp of which times are more intense. You can also actually talk to them. Ask them how they feel. Do they want more of a drill sergeant approach? Or do they need reassurance and a soft hand? Work on your emotional and energetic agility to rotate from instructor to cheerleader, and back again. You’ll get more out of your clients, and you’ll become a better coach.

Tip #3: Ask more questions

I don’t know why this imaginary veil exists between the front of the room and group classes. Plenty of group sessions operate with one-way communication. It’s instruction, not conversation, and members just get on with it. Which means they probably aren’t telling you if something hurts. 

If you don’t ask them “does this bother you?”, they’ll remain silent. Both due to that imaginary wall and a desire to seem tough amongst their peers. No one wants to offer up the fact that they’re struggling. But it’s your duty to keep them safe, so ask! Chances are, there’s more than one person going through the same thing. You’ll help them avoid injury and get a better workout at the same time. And that’s a win-win for all. 

 

Detric Smith, NSCA CSCS, ACSM EP-C, Pn-1 is the owner of Results Performance Training (www.resultsperformancetraining.com) in Williamsburg, VA. He has a BS in Kinesiology from Virginia Commonwealth University and specializes in Sports Performance Training and Fat Loss Transformations. For over 15 years he has gained experience at various sports performance centers and personal training studios, as well as coaching and teaching physical education from elementary school to high school.  

Factors to consider before designing a high school S&C program

If you’re just starting with a local high school team, that’s incredible. We need more people like you in the trenches for great long-term athlete development. I have no doubt your knowledge and training will provide immense value, but I also get that it can be intimidating. Teenagers are wild cards on their own. Not only that – working within the school system means balancing your expertise with funding constraints and the head coach’s vision. It can be a lot. 

In order to pare down all of the noise, I’ve put together a few key factors to consider before designing a high school strength and conditioning program. They range from broad to specific, and tackle some of the most pressing questions high school strength coaches face.

First and foremost, consider the demands of the sport 

A basketball game requires a different fitness level than, say, a wrestling match. Cheerleaders and distance runners don’t train the same way. Obviously, you won’t design the exact same program for every sport. Whether it’s injury considerations or energy systems, always program from the game backwards. 

However, most high school athletes face the same struggles – overtraining in multiple sports combined with sitting for 6 hours in class. Fundamental movement patterns get lost in repetitive action. When tight, weak muscles are consistently asked to do the same high-speed movements, they reach a breaking point. Teaching teenagers how to control their bodies through instability goes a long way. And by that I mean landing safely from a jump or changing levels on one leg – not some crazy circus trick.

Make sure they can master the big rocks – quad dominant movements, hip hinge, push, pull, carry, and rotation – before moving to anything else. Your programming should develop proficiency in athletic movements first and foremost. Not only will it prevent injury, but it’ll enhance performance. Getting a kid to develop total body strength translates to total body power, which translates to speed and dominance in the game. 

What’s the practice and game schedule?

Your average gen pop client can train whenever, however during the week, as long as it works towards their long-term goals. High school athletes, on the other hand, need to perform on game day. Not only that, but they still need to practice their sport. You can’t expect to hold four gym sessions per week if they interfere with practice times. 

Before beginning, sit down with the head coach. Ask them about their training week, and how much time the team can commit to strength and conditioning. Learn about playoffs, mid-season breaks, or any pre-season camps they hold. These basic details not only provide you with a weekly outline, but they help identify key progressions and peaking points. If you want more details, read my article about questions to ask the head coach – you’ll find it very helpful when designing a program.

Don’t forget about individual player needs

When writing a program for the whole team, you want to include everyone. High schoolers in particular run the gamut of experience and readiness. Write for the freshman who’s never seen a gym, the guy coming off of injury, and the senior who took up powerlifting two summers ago. How can you do that? A few ways:

  1. Set up tiers 

For example, for a main exercise, write “squat variation – 5×5” instead of “cambered bar box squat”. Set targets for certain “tiers” to ease sorting. Maybe you’ve the new ones on goblet squats, others on landmine squats, and the most advanced on front squats. But what about those coming off of a knee injury? You really do have to think about each individual player.

2. Injury history

Before you write anything, get a quick injury history of each player. Not only will it help your programming, but you don’t want to be surprised by a bad shoulder when it’s too late. Have adjustments at the ready for common injuries, even if they haven’t shown up yet. You know basketball comes with risk of ankle or knee injury, so when your point guard sprains his ankle during the big game, be prepared.

3. Individual load

Another big consideration is playing time. Here’s where the coach can help you out. Every team has athletes who play almost every minute. Who are they? How can you manage their total workload compared to someone who rarely sees the field? In general, athletes who tend to be practice players can be on a more off-season-style program. The kids who didn’t play at all might need a little extra conditioning after game day, while your starters are doing active recovery. 

Are there any seniors prepping for college ball? It’s your job to help them prepare. Connect with their college’s S&C coach so you’re on the same page. If they’re going to be thrust in to heavy weightlifting on day one, build a strong foundation in those movements. 

Furthermore, most high school athletes play other sports. If they’re not, they’re probably going to practice at AAU or another club outside of school. Add that to other extracurriculars, homework and studying, their weekend jobs, and everything else they’ve got going on – and it’s enough to give you a headache. Sometimes, less is more for these kids. It’s a mistake to program in isolation. If they had four hours of practice yesterday, are with you for two hours today, and have a game tomorrow, don’t run them ragged. They’ll get more out of light activity that revitalizes their systems than your 5/3/1 squat program. 

The bottom line here is to simply get to know your athletes. Work closely with the head coach to individualize the team program as much as possible, and the results will follow.

Now to the good stuff – The actual program design

After all of that, you’re probably facing a realization – there’s not a lot of time to truly train your athletes in season. If you can get them during the off-season, that’s a different story. But most fill that time with other sports and commitments. 

Therefore, when writing a high school strength program, answer one simple question – what provides the biggest return in our short time together?

Step 1: I cannot stress this enough. For high school athletes, the answer should always ALWAYS be movement quality first. Help them move well, and you’ll make a huge impact.

It might not be cool or super fun to work on dynamic hip stability. Teaching them to control a body weight sprinter step up goes way further than wasting time on a barbell hang snatch before they’re ready for it. Sports happen in unstable, unpredictable conditions. Landing safely, avoiding knee valgus, and basic scapular positioning are invaluable tools. Teach technique first, progress through rep ranges, and prevent injury. 

As far as the exercises go, program around the following categories first: 

  1. push 
  2. pull
  3. quad dominant
  4. hip hinge 
  5. single leg work 
  6. carry/rotation 

Cover those bases, and you’ll be grand. It doesn’t take anything fancy. Remember, always build a strength foundation first.

Step 2: Follow up with injury prevention and prehab

After the basics, throw in core work and sport-specific accessories. Add in preventive exercises for common injuries as well, such as banded shoulder work for baseball. These can be incorporated between the main lifts. Banded ankle inversion/eversion won’t ruin subsequent sets of pull ups, but it sure saves time. 

On the other hand, you could spend 30 minutes at the beginning on an entire prehab routine. But good luck having time left for anything else. Injury prevention is important, so don’t completely neglect it. Just program it around your big rocks to maximum efficiency.

Step 3: Carefully add explosive movements and conditioning

It’s no secret that athletes need power development and fitness. It’s kind of crucial to sports performance, so why am I putting it last?

Answer: they’re already doing it.

Practices, games, pick-up, other teams they play for – all of these are opportunities to develop explosive speed. Their growing bodies are already pounding the pavement for hours each day. They probably don’t even realize how much “conditioning” they do in a game. If they have two games per week, do they really need more high-intensity work with you?

Schedule these exercises and their total workload around the demands of the season. Minimize joint impact in any plyos or conditioning you do with them. Their bones, muscles, and joints are actively growing underneath the season’s demands, and you risk injury by adding more. Medicine ball throws are awesome low-impact plyometric options. Sled pushes or bike races create a bit of competition without risking stress fracture. 

Use these interventions wisely. Push them a bit during pre-season or bye weeks while they’re fresh. Talk to the head coach about the running they do in practice. Manage their well-being through constant communication and on-the-spot adjustments, and you’ll be on the right track to success.

 

Detric Smith, NSCA CSCS, ACSM EP-C, Pn-1 is the owner of Results Performance Training (www.resultsperformancetraining.com) in Williamsburg, VA. He has a BS in Kinesiology from Virginia Commonwealth University and specializes in Sports Performance Training and Fat Loss Transformations. For over 15 years he has gained experience at various sports performance centers and personal training studios, as well as coaching and teaching physical education from elementary school to high school.

Questions to ask the coaching staff when starting a high school strength program

High school strength coaches play a massive role in long-term athlete development. Teenagers are in their formative years, many embarking on a college playing career or a lifetime of fitness. Plus, coaches are among some of the most influential mentors and figures in our lives. That’s why it’s so important to get on the same page with a united message.

We all have a former coach who inspired us to grow, challenged us in new ways, or provided a listening ear during tough times. Until recently, however, that was only the role of the sport coach. Strength and conditioning coaches were limited to select high school football programs. Often, the head coach and strength coach were one in the same. As high school athletic departments come around to the idea, more and more strength coaches are joining the staff. It’s important to understand, however, that high school sports are a different game. These athletes stay constantly busy despite still developing. Programs operate along tight schedules, and coaches foster individual styles of play. 

In order to pull the best out of each athlete, the head coach and S&C coach need open communication. Here are a few questions to get answered before you start. 

Question #1: How much time can your team devote to strength training?

Each sport operates off of their own schedule. Some teams have ten players, others have 60+. Although a lot can be accomplished in a little amount of time, it’s important to block off a specific section for S&C. 

We know it’s easier to align ten people’s schedules than thirty. Can you split the team into groups, with some training in the morning, some before practice, and some on the weekends? If the coach can commit two hours total, would one longer session be best, or could they donate 30 minutes of practice across four days? 

Under tight schedules, no one wants to give up their time. Therefore, it’s important to align with the strength coach on the benefits of strength training. Show that you can take away 15 minutes of their regular warm up by working with players in the gym before. Or explain how targeted strength and conditioning helps athletes recover faster and prevents injury. 

Whatever you come up with – be realistic. It doesn’t do any good to write a five-day, multi-hour strength program when you get two hours a week with the athletes. 

Question #2 – What’s your practice and game schedule like?

Programs should be designed around performance. It’s hard to sell an athletic department on strength training if it impedes their win/loss record. Therefore, you want to avoid placing your hardest sessions the day before a game. It might be common sense, but if you don’t have that conversation, how will you know?

Does their sport play once per week, such as football? Or do they have multiple game nights, like basketball? Do they have to travel far and wide for competition and practice, cutting into strength training time? Do they have the luxury of an off-day after a game, or is it always a quick turn-around? Asking these questions not only helps you program effectively, but it shows that you’re invested in the team-first, not your bottom line. 

Finally, figure out when to peak the program. When’s their championship season, and when’s the off-season? Are there weeks where there’s an “easier” match-up, or more important ones featuring the hometown rival? Know these details intimately. On easier weeks, maybe you run them a bit harder. On rival week, maybe you up the competition in the weight room. Little intricacies like these make more difference than a blanket, one-size-fits-all program. 

Question #3 – What’s your style of play?

Coaches love to outsmart opponents. To do so, each team adopts a certain style of play. Whether it’s structure, pace, or physicality, the chess match of coaching warrants attention. You might have the perfect program to challenge aerobic fitness. You get ready to present it to the coach, only to find they win most games on brute strength alone. That’s not to say a slightly fitter team can’t help, but you don’t want to take away from their style of play. 

Before beginning any high school strength program, talk to the coach about how they want their team to look. Watch old film with them, if you can. Talk about areas he or she focuses on, and areas they’d like to improve. Have they always been a physical team, but graduated their biggest players last year? Can you help their freshmen get stronger? Do they beat teams in transition, but struggle in half-court play? How can your program assure they dominate the defensive boards and win the race down court?

Work with the coach, not against them, to enhance their strengths and improve their weaknesses. 

Question #4: How many players are preparing for college?

How many are in their first year of the sport? And how many players fall somewhere in between? Experience levels not only influence on-field or on-court play. Seniors headed to college in a few months need to prepare for their upcoming challenges. They’ll definitely be in the gym multiple times per week in college. As a high school strength coach, connect with their collegiate S&C coach for a smooth transition. Will they be training barbell squats? Power snatches? While your 14-year-old freshman is learning to jump correctly, you can add the advanced movements for college prep athletes. Align movement patterns and progressions to limit injury and enhance performance. 

On the flip side, newer athletes might need regressions. Push ups instead of bench, inverted rows vs pull-ups… you get the idea. They might even benefit from an entirely separate introduction week. If possible, spend extra time with them going over basic safety, especially if you’re one coach for every 60 athletes. Rather than face a surprise on day 1, meet with the coach and identify the needs of individual athletes. 

Question #5 – What’s the team culture?

Whether you like it or not, you’re going to be the new person. A new face, new coaching style, in possibly a completely new environment. They’re teenagers, and all that comes with it. They’re likely a mix of good friends. Maybe some have bad blood. Many might be wary of change. Before you step foot in that weight room, learn about the team culture. It doesn’t matter if your strength plan took Team USA to the Olympics if your high school team doesn’t buy-in. They won’t get much out of it. 

Ask the head coach who the team leaders are. Maybe it’s the captains, maybe it’s the seniors, or maybe it’s the quiet guy always doing extras. Each team has someone who generates a following. If you can get buy-in from those athletes, the rest will follow. 

Equally as important are the clowns – those players who are always down to goof off. Talk to the coach about how they manage these athletes. Are they hard-workers who just need a little reminder to focus? What motivates them to compete? What tactics or techniques does the head coach use to get them on the same page?

Finally, it’s just cool to be a part of the team culture. Get to know the athletes you’re coaching. Show them respect and investment, and they’ll return the favor. Imagine showing up day one and your coach is playing your season theme song in the weight room. It changes the entire vibe of the session. Start off on the right foot so you can carry that momentum forward.

Conclusion

The most important part of joining a high school coaching staff is constant communication. You might come from a different background as the head coach, so ask questions. The better understanding you have, the better prepared you’ll be. Keep the door open as well – it’s not just one meeting and done. Foster constant back and forth as the season progresses. What’s working? What can we do better? Is the team tired or hungry for more? Stay in touch, stay engaged, and you and the team will grow together. 

 

Detric Smith, NSCA CSCS, ACSM EP-C, Pn-1 is the owner of Results Performance Training (www.resultsperformancetraining.com) in Williamsburg, VA. He has a BS in Kinesiology from Virginia Commonwealth University and specializes in Sports Performance Training and Fat Loss Transformations. For over 15 years he has gained experience at various sports performance centers and personal training studios, as well as coaching and teaching physical education from elementary school to high school. 

5 mistakes trainers will definitely make as they start their career

Mistakes are a part of the learning process, and you’re guaranteed to make them at some point. I know I have, as have many legendary coaches and trainers. What sets you apart is your ability to reflect upon what happened, reassess, and make changes in the future. 

In an effort to jump ahead of the curve, I’ve put together a few common mistakes trainers make in their early years. If you’ve made them, that’s perfectly normal.  Consider this an opportunity to grow. If you haven’t, maybe you can learn something from others that’ll guide you toward your ideal career path. Let’s dive in.

Mistake # 1- Not giving anything away for free

“Why would I give away free stuff? This is my career, and I need to get paid!”

Trust me – they’ll get their free information somewhere. By giving away free stuff, you can make sure they’re getting the right information while also building a connection. The time you give away on a consult will pay for itself when they purchase a long-term package.

After you’ve gotten their contact info (see above!), ask to set up an appointment for a completely free consultation on their schedule. Give them a taste of what a difference you can make, and show you’re not just a sleazy salesperson. Sit down with them and ask real questions. Learn their schedule, their goals, their lifestyle, injury history, and what they like and don’t like to do for exercise. Explain to them in detail how you’ll meet each and every need they have. Be direct and say “I think a 3-day-per-week semi-private group session will work best for your needs because…” They want you to make the decision for them. 

Giving away free stuff can help set you apart as the go-to trainer for something. For example, maybe you’ve positioned yourself as someone who knows all about golf. Every day you share tips for rotational power and hip mobility. You develop an e-book about mental endurance through 18 holes. You even provide a free strength seminar for golfers at the local country club. Eventually, people will understand your value and show up at your door for personal training. 

Mistake #2 – Narrowing your focus too early 

Lots of people start out wanting to work with athletes or train the stars. It’s possible, but you’ve got to spend years setting yourself apart, doing internships, and learning from the best. There are tons of other populations that want and need your expertise. Don’t count them out too early. You might end up working with them more than you think.

By zeroing in on a single population early, you’ve completely negated anyone who doesn’t fit that exact profile. Sure, you might get one or two aspiring athletes or some social media clout, but that’s still a VERY small window. 

Instead, use the start of your career to connect with a wider audience. Young athletes might want to get in better shape and need a nutrition plan. They can still come to you, as can adults searching for weight loss and improved quality of life. Remember – you’re growing a business, and it helps to train everyone at the start while developing your brand.

Mistake #3 – Never narrowing your focus at all

During your first few years, you have to train everyone to figure out your niche. But after you’ve gained some experience, you can start to specialize. 

By then, you should have a grasp around which group fits your style. Who do you most often work with? In which population can you make the biggest difference? Narrowing the focus after you have a long list of success allows you to rise above the crowd. Now, you can truly say you’re the expert in X, and you have the social and experiential proof to back it.

As a trainer, you’re selling a service in a saturated market. There comes a point where being a “Jack of all trades, master of none” offers diminishing returns. 

In order to last, you’ve got to find ways to stand out. Think about your competitors and who they’re already going to get. How can you redirect potential clients toward your services? Unless you plan to be the Wal-Mart of trainers, narrowing your focus provides a superior product for attracting your niche clientele.

Mistake # 4 – Missing opportunities to network

Never stop learning! Get out to live events and connect with other people in our field. You’re on the right track by reading this article, but nothing beats a face-to-face conversation. Pick their brain about anything from dealing with tough clients to starting a business. The day-to-day grind of training clients leaves little time for business development, but you owe it to yourself to take that time. 

Which brings me to my next point – What gym are you working at? Are you settled in to a gym that aligns with your goals? Do they regularly support your growth and provide continuing education opportunities? Or are you stuck in a gym that’s just using you as a cog in the wheel?

If all else fails, get a mentor. Conferences and other live events are great places to meet like-minded people. But it can also just be your boss, if you admire their drive and career path.

Success is a hustle and grind, but there’s always a little bit of luck and who you know involved. Outworking everyone for a long time will help you beat them, but let’s not kid ourselves and think a little networking can’t help. 

Mistake # 5 – Believing the online coaching myth

In my opinion, you shouldn’t be training people online within your first year. There’s so much nuance that goes into being physically present with a client – how they move, their temperament, what motivates them, and so much more. Plus, by truly connecting with clients in person, you build trust and social capital that will take you far down the line. 

That being said – do you know how hard it is to get people’s attention now on Facebook and Instagram? Competing in that saturated market during year one is more than an uphill battle. 

The biggest mistake I see social media trainers make is confusing likes with real relationships. Online coaching with meaningful connection is possible, but it all goes back to providing value. If and when you do migrate to virtual training, make sure you have invested fans and followers. 

Detric Smith, CSCS, ACSM EP-C, PN1

Dear trainers: So you want to help people? Here’s the thing…

You’re not helping anyone if you start training people tomorrow without developing your skills. 

You think you are helping, but in reality you are hurting. Think about it – these people come to you at their most vulnerable. Many have pain and injuries they aren’t aware of. Lots have tried everything else and reached near desperation. If you were in that state – physically or mentally – wouldn’t want a doctor or therapist on their first day?

Obviously, everyone has their first day at some point, and I’m not saying you can’t get started.  But expecting to make thousands from top-quality training during your first month is unrealistic. You’re doing the exact same thing you tell your clients not to do – expect overnight results. 

Everyone gets in to this industry thinking it’ll be one thing, and soon finding another. The following are the common assumptions and objections I hear from new trainers. I wanted to share them with you so that you can go forth and build a long-lasting, successful career.

“Plenty of people want to train with me already”

That’s great! How much will they pay you?

Friends, family, and acquaintances might line up for your services, but they’ll likely expect them for free. Even if they agree to pay, will it be more than $10 or $15? That’s going to be tough to make a living off of. 

Even if you have tons of Instagram followers who like your fitness posts, how many of them will give you real money for advice? The ones that do will take it and run. It’s not a recurring source of income. 

“But I want to be an online coach”

Again, back to the above – your social media followers are likely one-offs. You can sell recurring services, like memberships or personal training packages, but how saturated is that market? You have to find a way to stand out from the thousands of cheap (even free) options they have. And you know what stands out? Experience and knowledge. That comes from training in person. If you’ve never learned the nuances of coaching someone through their first squat, learned how to adjust a session on the fly, or know how to intervene when life gets in the way – how will you do so from a distance?

“But I have THE best certification. A few in fact!”

Certifications are great. They’re valuable assets to learning the basics, and requirements to train at almost any gym. They’re valuable steps as the first line of separation between a professional and recreational trainer. But the ability to connect with someone is a million times more important than any certification. 

We work in a human industry, and most of the time it’s connecting to the person behind the weights. If you truly want to help people, basic program design isn’t the way. Real coaches make the people they coach better with individual attention and investment.

“Okay, but I also have a college degree…”

I can’t discount the four years of learning experience that is college. Much like a good certification, it teaches you more than most people on the street. But the people you work with won’t really care. More than likely they don’t know what they don’t know, and they’ll jump around between fads well into their 40s. Why would they listen to someone they don’t know with a college degree, when their two best friends just lost a ton of weight on their juice diet?

People love a shortcut… until they realize there aren’t any. It’s going to be tough to convince people you can help simply based on your college degree. If you have the opportunity to attend conferences – do it. You’ll learn more about actually working in this industry by networking than anything.

“I want to train elite athletes”

Have you ever looked at the statistics at how many athletes actually get to the pros? Even college athletics? They make up like .000000000049% of the population. And they probably won’t appreciate you, as they’ve gotten this far on their own talent. 

But you know who will? The general, typically older population who’s trying to get out of pain and live a healthier lifestyle. Those people a) actually need you, and b) have the money to hire you! They crave real trainers with experience who will actually invest in their quality of life. If you can be that person, you’ve got a client for life.

“Can’t I just train everyone?”

You can’t serve everyone. You think you can, but you have to be a specialist to make a long-term career out of it. Business is built on retention. The things that can’t be taught in a textbook will be your difference maker. By specializing in a certain population, you’ll learn the nuances of working with them.

But in order to become a specialist, you have to train everyone at first. Yes, I know that’s counterintuitive. But it’s the only way you’ll discover what you’re truly great at. Maybe it’s prenatal care, and you develop the ideal progression through the trimesters, learn everything about balancing energy needs with exercise, and what issues to expect during a typical session. That’s something of value. It’ll get you more business than being sort of good at lots of things.

“I want to own my own business”

This one is inspiring – we need good trainers like you running the show in this industry. If you’re taking the time to read this article and develop, I want to help. Here’s a few steps to get there.

Go train people for ten years. Get acquainted with the reality that this isn’t a 9-5 job. Personal training, and especially owning a business, involves showing up before 5 am and staying after 9pm almost every day. You’ve got to get in the trenches to be able to understand what your members want AND how to connect with future staff. 

Do an internship. Get a good mentor. You’ll want to know the business inside and out, from training and equipment management to sales and staff development. It’s impossible to cover everything on your own, so seek out new information. Learn from the best and share ideas. Go to conferences. Read books and continue to foster knowledge. 

Don’t take the easy route in this industry, or you’ll burn out in a few years. Find some work/life balance. Notice it’s work/life – with work first. If you’re 22, working a few hours every day, and on 5 kickball teams, it’s time to work. You have to invest real time in your craft to become the best. However, don’t forget to breathe, take a break when you’ve earned it, and enjoy the process. 

Final thoughts

I’m that old guy now. I accept it. The unfortunate reality of overnight social media trainers exists. It’s easy to collect a few dollars because you look fit, can find the right lighting, and know how to organize a workout. People are attracted to short cuts. But those results will fall off quickly, as will your source of income. 

It’s true that if you want to help people, you have to start somewhere. But there’s a balance between getting your feet wet while learning on the job, and selling a life-changing solution without anything to back it up. Find the balance, and you can actually help people for a long time.

Are you over-correcting your clients? How to optimize cueing in group sessions

Great coaches understand the need for cueing to ensure technique adherence. Especially in a group setting, our clients both appreciate and need a little reminder every once in a while, regardless of experience. But have you ever considered the possibility of over correcting?

As trainers, we often to get an idea of the perfect exercise form – knees tracking toes, feet at an exactly 12 degree angle on squats, elbows next to ears during overhead press, you know. 

And for the most part, we have a good reason. Improper technique can both cause injury and reduce results. But does a singular, perfect technique really exist?

What exactly is perfect technique?

Have you ever seen a MLB pitcher throw a fastball? What about an NBA player take a jump shot? To save you a Google search, here are some pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No one is supposed to move like that. Yet, by doing so, these people have made it to the top of their sport. Try telling them to do anything differently. 

Of course, these elite athletes train all day, every day. And they can still get injured. But there’s plenty to learn here about enforcing the “right” thing in our clients.

Some trainers talk about your knees going past your toes as if your knees will  immediately blow out. Despite “knees never traveling past the toes” being drilled into our heads since the dawn of time, it’s absolutely a myth. Just watch a child squat and come up perfectly fine. 

Sometimes, we have to let our clients feel out what works for them, not what we think it’s supposed to look like. How are you going to tell the six foot 7 guy in your class to squat the same as everyone else? Their body is literally different, and so follows their technique.

To be clear – there are some non-negotiables. Obviously if someone puts their spine at risk under heavy loads, we need to intervene. But there’s a difference between good coaching and over-cueing.

The Top Three Reasons to Stop Over-cueing

Reason One: Anatomical differences 

To carry on with the squat example, consider the anatomy of hip. We all have different pelvic widths and angles. You’ve got your femoral neck at all angles, and the femoral head sitting inside the acetabulum, which can be wide, deep, anteverted or retroverted. Many of us even have differences between sides, not to mention the variations among a group of people.

If you lie 10 different people on their backs and just put them through passive range of motion, you’ll immediately see distinctions. Ask them to stand up and move their body weight against gravity, and the differences compound.

Dean Somerset gives a great speech about anatomical differences which I highly recommend. He also uses athletes as an example, but this time on the same team. Tell me these guys who play the same sport don’t have different requirements.

Your group class is your own team of athletes, and each person has their own ideal technique. Don’t coach them out of it.

Reason Two: Are they doing the exercise wrong, or are you choosing the wrong exercise?

It’s easy to blame it on their lack of technique. After all, it’s highly possible that they’re pretty new to this whole gym thing. But instead of forcing a square peg into a round hole, why not give them a square?

Maybe they need to squat wider due to their anatomy. Maybe their stability limits full depth in a lunge. Maybe their shoulder injury prevents them from pressing bilaterally overhead. Or maybe it’s their first day and they simply fatigue after 10 seconds of a plank, and they literally cannot keep their back from arching during the entire interval. 

Who knows – that’s why you’re a great coach. You have the ability to assess each individual difference and prescribe exercises accordingly. Find the underlying reason why they’re doing the exercise wrong and address that. In the meantime, choose exercises that a) allow them to generate consistent tension safely around joints, b) challenge their existing work capacity just enough, and c) leave room for progressive overload.

Reason Three: Overcorrecting can cause more problems than it fixes

Take a second to think about why your members came to you in the first place. What were their goals? To lose weight? To promote active aging? To get more active so they can enjoy time with their family?

Unless you coach Olympic lifters, I’d be willing to bet it wasn’t so they could execute a snatch perfectly.

They came to you for help! The big rocks that get results – showing up consistently, eating well at home, working large muscle groups, etc. – are more important than the minutiae. When we overcorrect our clients, however, we bring their attention away from their successes and highlight their mistakes. 

Reason Four: Forcing certain postures can actually injure someone

Our body will find a way of doing what we tell it to do. If we need to clear an eight foot wall to run away from a bear, we’ll figure it out or get eaten. But the gym is not life or death. Your members don’t need to throw their back out trying to raise 135 pounds overhead when there are other options.

A good rule of thumb is that if a client can’t do it with their bodyweight, don’t load it. Put someone with their back against the wall, and ask them to touch the wall with the back of their hand. Without arching their back or doing some weird twisty thing with their neck or shoulder. If they can’t get into this “perfect” overhead technique naturally, what do you think is going to happen under load and fatigue?

That’s right – they’ll crank their thoracic spine, load up their traps, and probably leave with some impingement (if they didn’t already have it). 

A large percentage of my clientele never touch anything overhead. Why? Because the population I coach are suffering from injury, and their posture is out of whack.

Does that mean we never train shoulders? Of course not! But we train within their usable range of motion rather than against it. The gyms that did the opposite are why they have a nagging injury in the first place. All you have to do is head back to reason #2.

We utilize a Red Light/Green light system to automatically triage our members in to exercises. Let’s say it’s a press-heavy workout. Our system features options for those with shoulder injury, weakness, inexperience, or what have you. That way, they know when they walk in for training, they just look at the board, select their best option, and get on with the workout. You could do something similar to keep your clients safe, or come up with your own method.

Reason Five: They’re wasting time trying to think

Most people can only process one or two things at a time. Multitasking, despite how great we all claim to be at it, ruins productivity. Research has shown over and over again that switching between tasks that involve executive control costs time. And that’s just when the tasks are predictable.

Add in the time it takes for your members to process new information, take action, and get to that “perfect technique”, and you’ve lost valuable reps. When training groups, that could mean the difference between 10 and 15 reps per station. 

So ask yourself – who got the better workout? The person who raised the med ball a little less than directly overhead 15 times, or the one who spent the entire 30 seconds trying to figure out how to make you happy?

Finding a balance – How to Cue in a Group Setting

Who does your business attract? People who might lack confidence? people who are looking to go hard? people who are injury prone?

I know with us, the majority of our members lack confidence in joining a fitness program. They need encouragement rather than punishment. They came searching for comfort in simply being in a gym environment. And in general, they want to enjoy themselves, not be scolded the entire time.

Yet they also want to be corrected. If they didn’t, they would be at one of those chain gyms, lost in a sea of 35 people in a tiny, windowed room. But they’re not. No one paid attention to them there, and they weren’t making progress. So where is the sweet spot?

Types of cues – Motivational vs Corrective

Much like you wouldn’t just yell “you can do it!” for an hour, not everything you say during a session should be corrective. Each type of cue has a time and place, and members can actually give YOU cues on what they need. It just takes a little attention and emotional intelligence, which all good trainers possess. 

Motivational cues

We’re in the business of helping people, and that involves a little motivation. Whether it’s listening and re-framing their story when they’re struggling, or empowering them to squeeze out one last rep, that’s why they hired us.

Rewarding good behavior goes a long way. According to psychological theory, there are four general ways to induce action, plus a fifth called extinction. They are as follows:

  1. Positive reinforcement
  2. Negative Reinforcement
  3. Positive punishment
  4. Negative punishment

The above are actually a part of operant conditioning, a term coined by B.F. Skinner  back in the mid-20th century. Skinner tested animals’ response to exposure to external stimuli, such as a shock or a treat. As such, he was able to carefully manipulate behavior. 

While we’d like to think humans are more advanced than rats, you only have to look at your clients to know this stuff works. Positive reinforcement involves adding something to increase the likelihood of behavior, such as a leaderboard for hitting PR’s. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, removes something to increase behavior, such as taking away a final set if they can hit a certain amount of reps in 45 seconds. 

Punishment, although it has a negative connotation, can also be an effective means of motivation. Just ask any parent. For example, coaches might use positive punishment when we add push ups if someone is late. Or they can implement negative punishment by taking seconds off of rest periods for half-assed effort. 

Finally, extinction is the equivalent of just ignoring someone. In my opinion, it’s the worst thing a coach can do. People start to learn that what they do doesn’t influence the outcome at all, so they just stop. Please, don’t be that coach. 

So, now that we know that using a well-orchestrated motivational cue has a larger effect than “keep your ribs over your pelvis, is there’s still a place for correctives?

Corrective cues

Language is the way we get our message across. Based off of the words you use, what you intend on relaying may or may not make sense to the recipient. 

Much like motivational cues, there are various ways to correct exercise technique. There’s a big difference between saying “sit back” vs “sit back on a box”. In one, your client might lean forward and just stick their butt out. In the other, they might exhibit a more natural squat. It all depends, so choose wisely.

Internally-focused cues ask your clients to think about how their own body is moving. Sitting back, bracing your core, and knees tracking toes all count as internal cues. External cues involves focusing the outcome of that movement – you end up sitting on a box or squeezing oranges under your armpits. (Yes, they’re largely imaginary.)

Getting these cues right is even more important in the group setting than in personal training. You’re not working with one person for an hour. You’ve got to balance the needs of a room full of eyes. 

Novices respond better to externally-focused cues. New trainees aren’t as in tune with their bodies. They don’t know what muscles to activate to try and break the bar in half. They just know the outcome. 

Expert trainees and coaches like yourself, on the other hand, know that it requires creating tension through external rotation of the shoulder. For those people, a quick reminder to activate the lats or keep the shoulders away from their ears is all they need. 

Now that you understand the types of cues, how do you use them?

How to choose the right cues at the right time

Again, and I can’t stress this enough, get to know your members. Spend time with them individually and see what clicks. Take notes if you need to. But don’t skip out on these little things. Because that’s what makes us all better. 

Tip #1 – Pick up on personality during the assessment

“If you’re not assessing, you’re just guessing”

Let me say it louder for those in the back – you have to do assessments for group training. How you do so might vary, but you need to know them as individuals. Otherwise you won’t make an impact. 

After reading about motivation, you’re likely thinking of a client who responds well to each type of cue. For example, I know athletes that definitely improve their effort if I take away their precious rest for slacking off. But your average mother of three might feel discouraged by that. Maybe she would love to head home to her kids earlier, and she clocks in a PR time when one less set dangles over her head. 

The mental aspect of training is more important than the physical. Based on your assessment, you should know which clients respond to what. Take that information to fire off the right motivational cues during a session. 

Tip #2 Train your staff to have a consistent message across classes

If you run a gym, or someone else coaches your class, it’s important to be consistent. Changing the message and shifting between cues will confuse your clients. Sure, trainers can have their own style. Some are going to be more energetic and lean towards motivational, while others are stronger on the technical side. 

Still, your members need consistency. If you’re programming a class that someone else will lead, make sure to meet with them. Go over “if this… then this…” scenarios. Share your common cues, and be open about which clients prefer what. Gym owners may even hold a weekly overview meeting, or use an app that lets them compare notes. 

You don’t have to be robots, but make sure you’re using similar language to connect with your team. 

Tip #3: Group newcomers and long-term members at the same stations 

This might seem counter-intuitive to some. Why not let the experienced people help the newcomers? Doesn’t it foster community?

Yes, but it also creates chaos. Remember – your members aren’t the coaches. You are. And they’re all there to get a great workout. 

Grouping them together allows you to identify when you’ll likely need to intervene. If, for example, say have one slightly more complex station, like bear crawls. You’ll know which rotation requires you to use corrective cues, such as not letting a bucket spill off of your back, and which you can be more motivational (Come on, Diane, I know you can get back to the start!).

Grouping your members by experience level not only allows you to better focus your attention, but it keeps members pushing each other. The new ones won’t feel discouraged by the guy who’s been here ten years, and your long-term members can feel free to go all out. 

Final thoughts 

The beauty of coaching is that it’s both an art and a science. You’re already a great coach by even considering these factors. Now it’s up to you to be creative! Get to know your members’ wants and needs, and start crafting your master plan. 

Sometimes less is more, and your talent lies in what you don’t say. Knowing when to intervene and when to let your clients figure it out is a masterful skill. So is being able to speak their language. Nobody likes a show off, but everyone can recognize a master at work. 

8 Traps for the Career Trainer

 Welcome to an industry where people with an overnight cert can take your clients and money. Even if it’s unfair, is there anything we can learn from these people?

Those who lack dedication will likely weed themselves out. But some have potential to be great trainers. They just need a little bit of direction. Most quality trainers have great intentions when they start, but get lost in this crazy industry. In this blog post, I provide a few tips that might allow us to keep the good ones. 

A career trainer has to do their job with a purpose of changing lives. Suck it up, buttercup, and see if you like your job enough to work all day long on a training floor.

No one would blame you for falling for one of these 8 traps for the career trainer. Quick, easy money is enticing. But if you really want a lifelong career as a fitness professional, read on to learn how to avoid the minefield. 

Trap #1: Getting promoted too soon 

In theory, it sounds great to become a manager of a gym within your first year. And financially, that might be the best option for you. But are you really prepared for the job?

Getting promoted before you’ve had a chance to learn from your mistakes and mentors can derail your career down the road. If you have aspirations to make fitness a profitable career, spend years on the floor, interacting with clients, perfecting your art of coaching. 

That doesn’t mean you have a turn down a promotion if you’re doing great things. But if you do get promoted, continue to train people and do the smallest of jobs. The best business owners understand their customers by investing their time.

Trap #2: Confusing IG and FB likes with money

Look, no one’s arguing that Instagram and Facebook are great marketing tools. But they’re just that – tools, not a means to make money. Even if you have enough likes to make money off of IG and FB, then you’re not a career trainer. You’re an instagram model. 

For career trainers, judging your success by social media likes can be a huge trap. Instead, focus on turning those likes in to real-life clients. Get emails, interact with them via DMs or your story, and have a product you can sell. 

Trap #3: Not continuing to grow and learn

Graduation and getting a certification doesn’t mean you’ve learned everything. Congrats, but you’re just getting started.

The industry is constantly changing. Your market is constantly changing. Trust me, the people I trained ten years ago are different than the ones I train now. Physiology is important, but no one cares about the Krebs cycle. 

Don’t know what’s left to learn? Study business management, psychology, finance, the art of coaching… anything. Hell, dive into the history of welding if you want. Learning new things keeps you excited, challenges your brain, and helps you become a more creative and compassionate coach.

Trap #4: Unrealistic views of money in the first few years 

Remember, you want to be a career trainer, not just a part-time trainer. No one gets out of undergrad and becomes a “trainer to the stars”, pulling in millions a year. And if they did, they’d likely be SOL once their inadequacies were uncovered. 

This. Industry. Is. Hard. Full stop. 

You’re going to invest lots of time, effort, and probably your own money in to your business for a long time before you’re turning any real profit. You’ll likely be working 12+ hour days, with most hours early in the morning and late in the evening. You’ll probably need a second job to make ends meet. 

If you’re not prepared for that reality, you have an unrealistic view of how things work. However, if you love what you do and want to grind, this industry will reward you in the long-run. You’ll be able to work for yourself, if you want to. You can create your own hours. And yes, you will be making real money. But only if you prove your worth first. 

Trap # 5: Targeting the “wrong” market 

In that same vein, every new trainer wants to train athletes and people who look like them. 20-somethings who are already in relatively good shape have tons of options, and frankly don’t need you. Yes, your friends will want you to train them, but no, they won’t want to pay for it. 

Instead of falling into that trap, target the people who have the time and money to pay and will actually appreciate you. These people are typically Gen Pop over 40-50. Make yourself different by being better than the other young trainers who ignore them. Educate them as to how you can actually make a huge difference in their lives. 

And that being said, educate yourself on how to connect with them.

Trap #6: Sacrificing the true story for a quick buck

Sure, you might get someone in for one or two sessions through a flashy ad, but is that long-term?

Making a sale is about finding a problem you can solve for someone, and then solving it. Understand the story they’re telling themselves. It’s possible they aren’t fully aware of their problem – they just know they want to lose weight, and their knee hurts when they try to run.

Once you connect with them, answer their objection, and show them you’re invested in them. If you can get this right, money won’t be a factor, and they’ll stay long-term. If you can’t solve their problem, let them know. It takes real reflection and self-awareness, but you’ll actually help people. That leads us into our next trap.

Trap #7: Selling a product before it even really exists

The product is you! Take time to intern and intern some more. Get a mentor. Know when you don’t know enough, and don’t be a fraud. Honestly, telling someone “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you or connect you to someone who does” will put you in a position of trust. People make buying decisions, especially with their health, based on trust. Even if you lose a client today, you’ll gain five down the road by earning trust and expanding your expertise in the meantime. 

After gaining that invaluable experience, study business, and build your product. This is your career, after all, not some side gig. Learn from the best about how to grow your self-made company. 

Trap #8: Following the crowd

Everyone is doing it, so I should too! 

…didn’t your mom already tackle this issue with the “if your friends jumped off a bridge…” question?

I know you think that’s where the money is. But it’s a trap. The money may be there, but you’re not going to get enough of it to make a career. Unless you originated something, studied it for decades, and are the top name on a topic, you won’t stand out from the crowd.

Instead, go the opposite direction. Do what no one else is doing. I guarantee you there’s a market somewhere that’s being ignored. Maybe it’s the over-50 crowd who want a safe, effective, team-oriented group training session where they get individual attention. It might be something different.

But when you find them, go all in. 

Final thoughts

I’ve been a trainer since 2001. I’ve seen excitement and trends come and go. And I promise you, they will. You do not want to be a one trick pony in this industry. Invest time in yourself, your career, and the right clientele, and you might just emerge out the other side.