Writing Effective Training Programs- Your first plan never works

You’ve meticulously planned your client’s program for the next six weeks and included exercises and training methods that will help them reach their desired goal.

You’re chomping at the bit to get started and then you spot your client struggling as they enter the door. Uh-oh, this doesn’t look good.

“ Coach, I threw my back out again while helping my wife with laundry. You know I’ve done this a million times before so I didn’t want to cancel. Anyway, we can work around it today?”

Then your head starts spinning because you’ve got no idea what to do next.

Mike Tyson once said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

This is a trainer’s punch in the mouth.

What separates the good from the great trainers is the ability to think on your feet to solve a client’s problem. You don’t just teach exercise you need to be a professional problem solver too.  


When You Need A Plan B


There are a couple of situations where you need to go off-script to keep the training session flowing and to keep your paying client happy. They are:


1.     All the Equipment is Taken- If you planned bench presses on a Monday, you might be out of luck. There is not much time to wait for equipment when your client’s session is between 30-60 minutes.


2.     Client has an injury, or an exercise variation hurts- working around an injury or pain requires you know regressions and training methods to reduce the discomfort so the client gets a training effect.


Let’s look at these two scenarios so the next time your client or the busy gym throws you a curveball, you’ll be ready.


Lack of Equipment

Let’s look at the two most popular pieces of equipment and what to do when they are not available.

Problem All the benches are taken on national chest day, otherwise known as Monday.  

Walk into any gym on a Monday and you’re probably wishing for an empty bench. We use benches for bench presses and other upper body exercises like rows, pullovers, and seated shoulder presses too

Don’t let the lack of a bench hold you back. Instead of you and your client waiting for a bench to become available do these bench-free exercises.


Barbell Floor Press



Unilateral Dumbbell Floor Press



Dumbbell Z Press



Dumbbell Pullover on Floor



Wall One Arm Row



The advantages of these exercises are

  • More core engagement
  • Don’t require a bench
  • Safer for sore shoulders
  • The floor provides the client and trainer with feedback on technique



All the barbells are taken or there is no space to train with one.

Having exercise variations that train the muscles and movements of the squat, hinge, and bench without the barbell is handy to have in your back pocket when you and your client haven’t the time to wait for a barbell. For example


Dumbbell Squat Variations



Band Elevated Split Squat



Mechanical Advantage Dumbbell Bench Press Drop Set



Decline Dumbbell Floor Press With Glute Bridge



Staggered-Stance Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift



The advantages of these exercises are

  • Trains the same muscles and movements of the squat, press, and hinge Unilateral variations help strengthen strength imbalances between sides
  • Improved core strength
  • Dumbbells are easier on the joints than barbells


The client has an injury or an exercise that hurts

Training through pain is a no-no. We are not doctors or Physical Therapists and only they can diagnose something. Although we can make guesses on the causes of their pain, we can’t make a diagnosis.  What we can do is make exercise modifications so the client can train pain-free.

Let’s look at some exercises and training methods to train around the discomfort of the knees, hips/lower back, and shoulder region.


Training Methods When Pain Is An Issue

When an exercise hurts, or the client has a non-serious injury there are three methods to use as your plan B. 


1.     Exercise Regressions


When form or technique isn’t part of the problem, dialing down a movement by reducing intensity, increasing stability, or bringing the weight closer to the working muscle can help.

For example, if a Goblet squat hurts their back/hips/knees then bringing the weight closer to their legs (Sumo squat) may solve the problem while still training the squat.

Other examples of regressing an exercise while still maintaining a training effect are

Note- this isn’t an exhaustive list, and you need to use your best judgment. The exercises below start from difficult to less difficult.




Barbell back squat-Barbell Front Squat-Dumbbell Front Squat-Goblet squat- Sumo Squat


Bulgarian Split Squats- Walking Forward lunges- Forward lunges- Reverse lunge- Splits Squats-Assisted split squats


Barbell Deadlift- Trap bar Deadlift- Rack Pulls- RDL’s- Single-Leg Deadlift- Pull Throughs- Banded Hip Thrust


Bench Press- Unilateral Dumbbell bench press- Dumbbell Bench Press-Floor press- Weighted Push Ups- Bodyweight Push Ups- Incline Push Ups


2.     Reducing Range of Motion


The process of pain is complicated, but in simple terms when the brain senses a threat (real or perceived) pain happens. And by reducing the range of motion to a pain-free one, you cut the threat and you still get to strengthen the muscles around the joint.

Hopefully, by reducing the threat, you can strengthen the muscles around the joint while reducing the client’s pain while maintaining a training effect. This proves to your client what they can do and not what they can’t.

Here are some examples


Box squats (adjust the height of the box to a pain-free range of motion)



Rack pulls (above or below the knee)



 Dumbbell Floor Press




3.     Isometrics


Isometric exercises are muscle contractions without movement. There is more to isometric exercises than just planks. These exercises help to strengthen the muscles around the painful joint without the joint having to move. Plus, isometric exercises have been shown to give short-term pain relief also. (1)

Start at 30 seconds and then work into the 1-2 minutes range depending on the client’s ability.  

Iso squat



Iso Split squats



Iso Push Ups



Iso Chin Up Hold



Iso Single Leg Hip Extension



Wrapping Up

Safety of the client and keeping the personal training session flowing is your utmost priority. There are times when you need to go off-script due to injury, lack of equipment, or your client’s stress levels. Having plan B in your pocket reinforces your expert status and keeps your clients happy.



1. Physiother Res Int. 2018 Oct;23. Effects of isometric, eccentric, or heavy slow resistance exercises on pain and function in individuals with patellar tendinopathy: A systematic review.  Lim HY1,2, Wong SH.