Thursday, May 3, 2012

Are Assessments Over-Rated for the Overweight Population?

With the popularity of assessments, many trainers are finding a wealth of information in textbooks, but are unclear as to how to apply them. Made popular by the NASM and more recently the Functional Movement Screens (FMS) from Gray Cook, assessments are great to add value to a trainer's services and assist in designing the appropriate exercise program. But more and more trainers are finding them to be complex, confusing, and in some cases with the sedentary population--downright overkill. 

Not to thwart trainers from assessing their clients, but the information that is contained in many of the screening curriculum can be comprehensive to a newly crowned personal trainer. Most students go from learning textbook anatomy--which most simply memorize articulations and systems--and then find themselves trying to understand functional anatomy with things like how the glute medius muscle can lead to knee pain or how the lower trapezius is under-utilized. I equate this to having a teen play in a cockpit simulator at the local science center and then throwing him into a real cockpit ready for take-off. 

I receive many messages via Facebook and email from new trainers that are really unsure how to begin a session with their new clients. Here is one I received:

"I feel so lost when it comes to assessments. It seems that NASM places emphasis on this. ACSM/NSCA touch on strength, endurance, and ROM assessments. They don't really go into muscle imbalances and things of this nature. I feel like I am missing the boat. Should I go for yet another certification (NASM) or should I start studying things like Gray Cook's Functional Movement Screen? Do any of our advanced/experienced trainers have any recommendations? I train women mainly. No athletes. Thanks for any advice. If you know of any good books, dvds, or workshops please post them."

Livia, New Hampshire

If you are training mainly general population, your first assessment begins with normal observation. Period. As you watch your potential client walk into your facility or towards you, note the way that they walk. Can you balance a cup of water on both of their shoulders as they walk without spilling? Do they carry alot of excess weight that looks like its been sitting their for some time? Most overweight people are not "newly crowned" overweight; so there is dietary and lifestyle components that must be addressed.  

With most of the general population, you can get by with regular ROM assessments. I think spotting muscle imbalances can get a bit too frivolous and trainers without the proper understanding start concluding "client x has x muscle weak and x muscle tight". As trainers, we try to know a little about everything and this "spread" becomes our downfall. There is nothing wrong in specializing in certain areas with certain clients and referring out to other professionals when you do not have an answer. 

Always keep it simple. The last thing a man who is overweight by 60 pounds needs is glute bridges and planks. Not to say those kinds of exercises don't have a place in an exercise program with an overweight client, but not right off the bat.

What your general population client that has a BMI greater than 30 needs is real simple. It's movement. Exercise in the form of circuits, intervals, or conditioning are perfect for anyone that is chained to their desk, sofa, or bed. Simplicity rules: keep caloric intake low and expenditure high. Nothing rocket-science here. 

As the weight begins to melt off, than assessments are due. The problem with most trainers is they feel that if they are not assessing in the beginning of a program (at session #1),  they are setting themselves up for failure. This assumption couldn't be further from the truth. Assessments are a more effective tool once some of the excess weight is shed and some mobility is gained.

By the way, I take my assessment pretty seriously as you can see by this post :)

Implanted at the right time into a exercise program--and that means for some clients it will be at the start, for some possibly 4-6 weeks later--in my opinion, will make you a very effective trainer.


  1. Good post. As a new trainer, I'll keep this in mind when doing assessments and dealing with obese clients.

  2. This is a really interesting perspective John! Thank you for sharing!

    I think my point of view (in terms of what exercises to do with the clients) is a little different though as I find that circuits of "corrective/activation" exercises are a fantastic way to kick a beginner's butt in a really safe way (especially someone who is overweight). In fact, I often joke about how a circuit of glute bridges, planks or walk-outs, and wall slides will 'smoke' a beginner. Of course that's not all we have them do... within the first couple of weeks (depending on the client of course) we teach them how to box squat (our progression is usually body weight box squat, goblet box squat, then goblet free squat), we also try to teach them how to hinge with a broomstick RDL, and we try to teach them what it feels like to have their scapulae glide over their ribcage using different drills/exercises... just teaching them basic movement patterns.

    If you don't recommend movements like planks and glute bridges for that population, what movements would you have them do?

    Thanks for your time and for the article!

    P.S. And I totally agree that overwhelming them with information in the beginning is not always best. I have a tendency to do this and should probably reign myself in a bit! =)

    - Molly Galbraith

  3. Hi John! I just want to say that I totally admire you and your work and am really inspired by the quality of the information you are sharing with us here. I am just about to begin my journey as a personal trainer and I was wondering if you would mind sharing what a typical session might look like in the beginning with a very obese client. The interesting thing is that in school this was never even addressed(odd now that I think of it with the obesity rates climbing the way they are) and training this population was not really expanded on. I love your passion for helping people and I would love to see how you would handle this. I thank you for helping me to be a better trainer!:)

  4. Great article John! I totally agree with the things you pointed out in this post. Thanks for sharing these helpful tips, fitness trainers will surely benefit from this.

    I look forward to reading your blog.

    Rick Kaselj
    Exercises For Injuries


Thanks for checking out the blog and commenting!