Monday, March 18, 2013

Training Programs: Are They REALLY Unique to the Client?

With the vast onslaught of marketing in personal training, it seems the "shtick" a trainer overuses is the tagline, "we design exercise programs UNIQUE to you!"

I thought about this for a second. Do we really make training programs "unique" to the individual?

Furthermore, do workout programs really NEED to be unique all the time? Think about this...

A strength coach that trains swimmers designs programs that are based on the sport; and each program for each athlete looks 95% the same. 

A strength coach that trains baseball players designs programs that are based on the sport; and each program for each athlete looks 95% the same.

A strength coach that trains basketball players designs program that are based on the sport; and each program for each athlete looks 95% the same. 

The remaining 5% (give or take) reflects unique findings, circumstances or adjustments that need to be made to accommodate the athlete. That 5% makes the program unique to the individual based on past injuries  attitude, focus areas, and positional changes in the sport. 

Most personal trainers DO NOT train athletes. I'll repeat...most trainers do not  train athletes. Just because you make them do things that athletes would do (ex. ladder work)...doesn't make them athletes. Some do...some wish they did, because it looks cool....but the reality is...most personal trainers work with the general population. The general population is defined as individuals that do not have sports related obligations or skills that need to be refined for competitive play. The general population are comprised of individuals that seek assistance in improving their health through physique alteration (lean mass increase or fat loss); or general conditioning to improve cardio-respiratory fitness. These individuals generally want to improve their quality of life in order to function better and increase self-efficacy.  Living longer and avoiding disease are also great incentives. 

There are personal trainers that tend to train the general population client (GPC) as if they are athletes. Although the intent is good---helping people break through self-induced dogmas and realities they imposed on themselves--the truth is, most GPC's do not come to  the gym with bodies that are built for the rigors of vigorous training.

Most GPC's walk into training possessing the same criteria that most athletes have. Instead of having physical skills that need to refined for a specific sport; the GPC will enter training with similar factors that have prohibited their health from reaching optimal levels. These factors include:

1.) Decrease energy levels
2.) Poor time-management skills
3.) Responsibility overload
4.) Family commitments
5.) Injury history
6.) Ignorance to exercise
7.) Poor diet
8.) Postural dysfunctions
9.) Age-related conditions
10.) Financial constraints

This list can easily be increased to 20, 50 or even 100. This is not to say that the general population client is unable to increase their work capacity and strength levels to a pseudo-athletic levels--because they can with the correct programming and approach.  The reality is the GPC comes from a sport of their own. Instead of kicking balls or running around tracks; the GPC's sport involves sitting for long periods, running errands, handling stress, performing functional movements without proper warms ups or preparation; and eating a poor diet that decreases their already lowered work capacity and increases their fat mass.

With that being said, a majority of GPC will demonstrate similar findings after a health status consultation and movement assessment: lowered work capacity, minimal pain threshold, muscle tightness, poor kinesthetic awareness, lower or upper crossed syndrome, poor tissue quality, and possible dehydration.

For example, if you were to take two general population clients--one a truck driver and the other an attorney--would their workouts differ drastically? If you understand many of the factors I've discussed above  that they experience on a daily basis, and correlate it to your findings through the assessment and interview--you should address them in a very similar fashion. Here are key areas I would address with any GPC:

Strengthen the weak-  Isolate weak muscles that inhibit optimal movement such as the glutes, erectors, mid-trapezius muscles, subscapularis, serratus anterior, obliques, and forearm extensors. Reason: Most sedentary individuals execute poor movements that inhibit proper muscular coordination--particularly phasic muscles that should be contributing to particular movements, but do not receive enough stimuli. Synergistic dominance leads to faulty movement pattern injuries in the deconditioned population.

Lengthen the shortened - Stretch after a proper warm up the common overly tight/over-active muscles: hamstrings, mid/upper back, pectorals, abdominals, hip flexors, calves and forearm flexors. Reason: Most sedentary individuals remain in static positions for long periods. Coupled with weakness, poor center of gravity and non-awareness, tonic muscles become shortened and stiff. Symptoms of tight muscles can range from mis-labeling pain for fascia discomfort, lowered energy levels and joint pain (ex. headaches, knee pain, etc).

Mobilize the stiff - Most GPC do not experience massage on a routine basis and therefore, the tissue around joints becomes stiff and lacks proper range of motion. Work on mobility in these areas: ankle joint, hips, neck, and shoulders. Reason: Most sedentary individuals remain in static position for long periods and wear apparel (ex. high heels, outdated shoes, etc) that alter normal ROM of joints (ex. ankle) by inhibiting receptor response and muscle activation. The above mentioned attributes will likely be the cause of this.

General conditioning - For most GPC that are sedentary for most of the day, a walking program that gradually progresses to a more highly intense bout of conditioning (such as stepper, spinning bike, or sprinting) can be implemented and measured for progressive outcomes. As much as sled pushing and tire flipping looks cool--those tools should not be introduced until you see a marked improvement in the areas of muscular strength, flexibility, joint mobility with improved ROM; and lowered heart rate. Reason: Most sedentary individuals have poor blood circulation and oxygen transport that decreases the work output of the cardio-respiratory system. Activities like climbing stairs and parking at a distance are avoided; and replaced with taking elevators and short walks to he water cooler.

Remember, I am speaking about the general population client--your mother, father, uncle, neighbor or co-worker--that needs accountability and direction to reach certain benchmarks in improved health. For the more advanced client that has developed a threshold for vigorous exercise, a more intensity-appropriate program can be performed:

The next time you advertise your training as being unique to the client--and unique to surrounding businesses-remember that the population is the same. The training that you prescribe will be very similar across the board because most of your clientele will fall into the same categories of capability, willingness, and mental standpoint. The ONLY thing really unique that you will bring to your training programs is how they are administered to each person. How each client receives your coaching, instructions, and advice is unique to the individual. The tangibles of training are easy to apply. The intangibles are what make you successful at what you do.


  1. It’s hard to find knowledgeable people on this topic, but you sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks for sharing this with others.

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  2. It sounds like you would be great to workout with. I think it is as difficult to find a personal trainer you mesh with as it is to find a doctor or counselor you can relate to. I would like to workout with an innovative trainer who introduces me to new techniques such as updated machines, sandbag workouts, etc. I like to keep it fresh.

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