Training the Trainer

Exercises

Coaching cues.

So, you’ve passed your training certification. Congratulations.

Chances are, despite your newfound title (“CERTIFIED”—oh yeah!) and position of authority, you have yet to teach one person how to even squat correctly.

Perhaps I’m wrong, maybe you have taught one person how to squat correctly.

But have you taught five people how to squat? What about just two people—one with a left knee injury and one who has been sitting on the couch for the last ten years? What about someone over the age of fifty? A teenager with zero body awareness?

I digress.

My point is that the fitness industry has an extremely low barrier to entry; you can become a “certified” professional trainer having never had any hands-on experience—and this is bad. And wrong. Even “bad-wrong” or “ba-dong” (extra credit if you get that movie reference). But the risks can be mitigated if up-and-coming trainers humble themselves and take proactive steps to improve.

If you are a novice trainer and you happen to have a fixed mindset (read also: fragile ego), you will likely find this article largely offensive. If you genuinely want to become a better trainer and you are willing to admit that you may not know everything there is to know, my advice in this article will, hopefully, help you gain a better understanding of what your path should look like.

Mind you, this overview is extremely general. I could write an article about each individual bullet point here, but this is a start.

So, let’s begin at the beginning.

Do the Research

Do your research. Perpetually. But don’t be a douche about it.

If you can admit that the fitness industry has an extremely low barrier to entry, you should also be able to acknowledge that the exercise science field is relatively new and there is a lot of conflicting information. Most fitness gurus make a name and brand for themselves by endorsing one style or philosophy. Usually obnoxiously so. Moderation does not make for an entertaining Instagram page.

You’re (probably) not an internet guru. You don’t need to “pick a side.” I believe that, when working with the general public, it is your responsibility to weed through the opinions and build your own philosophy based on logic and rationale.

I also have a fun fact for you: you can attend a certification course and not become a zealot for that one method. Yep. You can take some tools—the ones that resonate the most with you—and use them where you’d like (until they no longer serve you), and disregard the rest. It’s allowed.

Additionally, you’ll need to acknowledge that some of the things you say today may possibly be VERY unpopular (or just flat out “wrong”) in three years. While you’re at it, acknowledge that you will most likely differ in opinion from the trainer next to you, and that is OK.

Be prepared to reevaluate your methods, be a proactive learner, and always critically think about information that comes your way. You must teach yourself to operate on information rather than ego.

Now, let’s move on to some more practical tips to consider when working with clients.

Working with a client using their abilities.

Learn How to Listen

This is a big one. As trainers, we hear ourselves talk constantly. We also have a charming tendency to project our fitness and health goals onto others.

“I want to get as yoked as possible and eat twelve eggs a day…Sally must want the same thing.”

“I want to run a marathon before the end of the year. I’m going to make all of my clients join my mandatory running club.”

Have you ever heard the phrase “to be truly wise, you learn from the mistakes of others?” Well, my trainer version is, “To be a quality trainer, you must empathize with and cater to the goals of others.” Listen to what they are telling you in their consultation (BTW, always do some sort of consultation before you begin training someone), ask questions, and build their program around their goals. Not your goals.

Listening intently gives us a few additional opportunities:

  1. You can hear where a person’s pain points are.

    I don’t mean just injuries and lifestyle factors (though these are important) I also mean that you can listen for any signs of body dysmorphia or neuroses. The fitness industry does a great job attracting and promoting various disorders, and while it’s not necessarily your job to do something about this, it is important that you pay attention.

  2. You can make an informed and rational decision about whether or not you are the right fit for that person.

    About five years into my training career, I realized that I did not want to work with competitive types anymore. When someone came to their initial consultation and threw out training percentages and aggressive body composition or performance goals, I almost always referred them elsewhere or had a very candid conversation with them about what I could do for them. The same principle applied when I owned my gym. Acknowledging your expertise (and your interests) isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. Reevaluate this often, and be honest.

  3. When you speak, speak to your audience.

    Remember way back when I said that trainers talk a lot? Well, many times we also happen to talk in ways that our clients don’t understand. So our voices are gone, our clients are moving like crap, and we are generally annoyed and tired. Or we are completely oblivious BUT on the verge of losing business. Or we are offending someone unintentionally. Or a plethora of other ba-dong (ok, I’ll stop) scenarios.

    Here’s how to be a better communicator when training or coaching:

    • First, use language that your client understands and is interested in.
    • Next, please keep it simple. Using fancy anatomical jargon with people that just want to move around for an hour usually doesn’t make you sound smart. It’s also a horrible way to communicate any point you’re trying to make.
    • Also, use language that is common and recognizable to the people in your current audience.

    Here’s a translation for you:

    • Exhibit A: “Push your ischial tuberosities back and engage your erector spinae while you perform this movement; ensure you keep your calcaneus bones on the floor and to help avoid putting unnecessary pressure on your patellar tendons.”
    • Translation: “Push your butt back and keep your chest up. Keep your heels on the ground as well. It’s better for your knees.”

    Voilà.

  4. Use only the level of detail that is necessary and relevant.

    It’s pretty clear when a client wants more information or detail about something (hint: they ask for it). Generally speaking, try to communicate your point in as few words as possible while staying clear. Most of the time, people just need to move safely. If you are working with a more competitive clientele, or you are working with someone that likes a lot of information, by all means, go forth and spread your wisdom. In most cases, however, keep it short and simple.

    Use the following principles to help:

    • When teaching a movement, keep your initial demonstrations to sixty seconds and under.
    • When teaching a movement, focus on no more than three major cues to start with.
    • When giving feedback, correct one issue at a time. Make sure it is fully resolved (cue it again and again if needed), and then move onto the next.
    • Use the principle of triage to dictate your feedback. Which movement flaw is the most dangerous? Correct that one first.
    • Rehearse and practice how you are going to phrase your cues. This last one might seem a little weird but stay with me. One of the main problems new trainers have is that they are trying to communicate concepts that they have never communicated before. This results in really awkward word jumbles that can usually be avoided or greatly attenuated by verbally rehearsing how you’re going to say something. Rehearse it with your friend or roommate and see if they have feedback. Figure out a way to work through the word jumble before you go live with a client. I promise it’s a good idea, and you should do it.

Additional Training Details

At the beginning of each session, consider briefly and concisely outlining what your client is going to do that day and why. When I say “brief,” I mean sixty seconds or less. Some clients don’t care (and in those cases, you can skip this part), but most clients that seek out training services are just a tiny bit Type A, and knowing what to expect can save them some anxiety, and can save you the need to explain or answer unnecessary questions during your session.

For example: “John, today we are going to be doing a strict overhead press for three sets of five. We are going to superset your strict press with some weighted chin up sets. After that we’ve got a 15-minute conditioning workout. We are working your upper body strength and getting your heart rate up in today’s session.”

Easy.

Be prepared to answer the same questions multiple times. People are absolutely terrible at listening. It’s not intentional, nor is it an insult to you. They just suck at it. I tell my trainers in training to be prepared to repeat themselves two to three times in a session on a good day.

Always have at least one scale (modification) and at least one progression (challenge) in mind for every movement. You never know when someone is going to start having a mystery pain or lack the mobility/stability to perform a certain movement.

Have sprints programmed? Keep the rowing machine nearby. Doing pull-ups in a workout? Get the TRX straps or the weight belt ready, depending on your client. People’s bodies don’t do what we want them to sometimes, and other times they do way more than we think they can; roll with it and make adjustments wherever is wise.

Practice. That is all. Let your ego go, apologize when appropriate, and practice often.

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