Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Art of Over-Simplification

It's funny how, we as professionals and exercisers alike, tend to equate "harder with better". So many personal trainers and coaches tend to believe that if a client or athlete is not sweating enough, grunting loudly, or shaking erratically enough--that THEY must be doing something wrong. In this age of "beating clients up" or advertising your puke bucket on social networks, we tend to forget the art of simplifying things.Making exercises more difficult is not a complicated thing. In the past--much before the functional craze--we made exercises harder by adding more weight. Back in those days, egos were fed more  with Olympic plates on a bar or a pin placed on the lowest portion of a stack. Nowadays, we laugh at the guy that lifts too much weight and gaze in amazement at the guy that can balance his body on a wobbly ball while juggling in one hand and threading a needle in the other. Of course, then there are those that combine the two (which makes a recipe for disaster).
Maybe we equate complexity with advancement? Truth is, you can look at exercise programming in that sense. We start simple and move towards complexity. When working with the general population client, personal trainers tend to complicate exercise programming. When a client walks into a facility; the first thing a personal trainer should begin to work with is goal setting. Before any assessments are performed, a basic understanding of what the client's goals are should be defined. And this procedure doesn't have to be complex. We are taught to make goals S.M.A.R.T., right? They should be specific, measurable, attainable, and realistic, and time-bound. That is what we are taught in the textbooks. However, just like a 16 year-old obtaining his drivers license for the first time, the rules begin to blur, bend, and sometimes break. 
The art of over-simplifying is front office work. It is what we, as trainers, accomplish when we are building a rapport with new clients and essentially getting a feel for what their commitment level is. Th s face time...or what I deem front office. It is important to simplify a client's approach to exercise. With the abundance of information available at our finger tips, it can be a challenge working with a client that is overloaded with fitness tips, tricks, and gadgets. We have all met the client that has watched or read one too many news reports on fitness and come away with a juggernaut of facts mixed in with some fiction. 

I prefer getting the client to answer three questions with me:
"Where am I?"
"Where do I want to go"
"How do I get there?" are probably thinking is that it? In a nutshell...yes (for starters). A plan of attack begins with the client recognizing where he/she is in proportion to what the goal is. Once the first two questions are answered and clarified, than the plan of attack is designed (question #3). These three simple questions can give the trainer loads of information about a client's mindset. For instance:

1.) Does the client have an idea of what they want to achieve training with you? This is step one. Breaking the goal down into S.M.A.R.T. steps is something that can be performed in the "back-office". Trainers can apply S.M.A.R.T. principles to the information attained from their answers and review them at a later date; or simply accomplish this during the interview process.

2.) Does the client understand what it will take? Sometimes that do, and sometimes they don't. You've heard it before: "If exercise was easy, everyone would be doing it", right? Well, to a degree this is true. However, there are entirely too many people that are overweight and thinking that wearing their new Sketcher sneakers and walking around the block will help them drop 30 pounds. It's simply not going to happen in this lifetime. Training and nutrition really have to reach a level that the client has probably imagined, but could never see themselves conducting it. And this is where effective coaching needs to take place.

3.) What is the client's perception of training right now? You would be surprised, but the Biggest Loser TV show has painted a picture for the general population client to visualize what training with a professional is like. Unfortunately, it is the wrong picture in most cases.

4.) Is the client "over-informed"? This is a concept that I think should be addressed. I have met a handful of clients that come to me with quotes, literature, and research from experts, professionals, or their neighbor's trainer about things that simply do not apply to them. This information overload leaves the client somewhat confused, but they insist that have a sense of direction of where your training should take them.Most often  times than not, a client that recites smart-sounding things is simply looking for clarification, affirmation, and weeding out.

Over-simplification is just another tool in your box. It is not how all initial consultations should be conducted; but it is a helpful way to extract as much information about your regular Joe client as possible.


  1. New site looks fantastic, John. Congrats!

  2. Absolutely John.

    In fact, I find clients need their programmes to be simple and straight forward.

    In general, on a starter programme I will give 3 x exercises per session, plus ONE stretch. That's it for the first few weeks. That's usually plenty to remember for them.

    Nothing fancy, nothing too complicated. But stuff that they will benefit from and notice improvements quickly.

    Personal training courses/providers have alot to answer for. At this stage in my career I would NOT recommend to anyone who wants to be a trainer to start by doing one of these courses. At least here in the UK, they don't prepare you properly for the real world of training - evidence of that can be seen in the statistics. 7 out of 10 trainers drop out of the industry completely within the first year.

    Case in point - you mention the craze for 'beating up clients' so they 'feel' like they've worked hard/must be getting fit. This basically boils down to trainers not fully understanding HOW to get someone fit, maintain compliance, and what are the actual adaptations that are occurring.

    A good example of this is trainers starting de-conditioned clients on interval training. Crazy, but it's very common.

    As to what I'd recommend a wanna be trainer do to break into personal training - go find an established trainer or S&C coach with a good reputation and offer to work for free for 3 x months - you can always do a course part-time around it or afterwards. You'll learn far more by doing so and will be head and shoulders above the rest of those qualifying. Oh, and buy John's book!

  3. Con: Great post and I completely agree! Thanks for reading and thanks for the book plug!

  4. John,
    As always a clearly stated and concise treatise on the need for simplification in an environment far too filled with obfuscation and sesquipedalianism.
    Steve Payne

  5. Awesome post John,

    Not had a look over your blog for a while, and just remembered what i have been missing!



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