Strategies for Training Overweight and Obese Clients (Part 1 - Size Sensitivity)
When working with overweight clients, fitness professionals must embrace a size-sensitive approach to create a positive experience for both parties. Being size sensitive means seeing beyond the fat, anticipating the physical and emotional challenges that often come with being overweight, and designing movement that creates a pleasurable experience.
It's Not About the Clothes (But it Is…)
When it comes to advising your clients about what to wear, be mindful of a few key issues. Allow them to wear whatever is comfortable, provided the clothing is not too cumbersome and doesn't promote overheating. Letting a client feel comfortable in his or her own clothes, which are typically non-form-fitting, helps ease some of the tension he or she may feel about the exercise experience. Advise clients to wear sneakers and, at a later date, review the sneakers for stability and appropriate toe-box width. Also, check the feet of your clients regularly, particularly at the end of a workout during the cool-down. Individuals with diabetes may not always be aware of changes or cuts on their feet.
As sessions continue and trust is established, check the receptivity of making clothing suggestions. For women, advise on appropriate sports bras to improve breast support and comfort. Junonia and Just My Size offer many good options. For both men and women, chafing thighs may cause exercise to be so uncomfortable that clients may be tempted to ditch their programs. Fortunately, wearing bike shorts underneath workout clothes can often alleviate chaffing.
The Anatomical Approach
Viewing the larger body from a place of alignment rather than focusing solely on burning fat will help the client feel immediately more connected to his or her body. By using an anatomical approach, you can help create in your clients a sense of pride in standing tall.
Muscles that may need to be strengthened on the larger body include the rhomboids, core muscles, adductors and anterior tibialis. Likewise, muscles that may need to be stretched on the larger body include the pecs, quadratus lumborum and psoas. Breathing exercises can help the client reclaim diaphragmatic breathing before being able to engage in a successful core-strengthening program. Since the pelvis is generally in an anterior pelvic tilt, stretching the psoas may help relieve lower-back discomfort, while strengthening the anterior tibialis can help the client avoid a fall or recover more quickly from tripping. Giving clients clear reasons for performing specific exercises—relieving pain or reducing fall risk, for example—will likely increase both their confidence and motivation for continuing with the program. Furthermore, it is important to realize that many overweight clients live in fear of falling, largely because they are unsure that, due to their larger size, someone will be able to help them up. Apply this knowledge directly to the client’s daily activities so that they can immediately begin practicing anatomical awareness.
Less is More
Help clients create movement that is pleasurable, accessible and achievable. There is nothing more beautiful or inspiring than watching a client connect to authentic movement. Your clients should leave each session feeling, "That was it?" or "That wasn't so bad." For some, this may seem counterintuitive to our culture and the fitness community. Instead of pushing these clients to their limits, your challenge is to create an experience that leaves the client feeling they want more. Too often the client is in such pain or the schedule is so rigorous (especially after a lifetime of inactivity) that once a client misses one session, he or she may spiral into a cycle of failure and you may lose that client forever. There is shame in the idea that a client may be considered lazy, unmotivated and unable to commit to a healthy lifestyle. More often not, the reality is that the workout may have been too intense, the trainer may not have energetically connected with the client or the schedule was too much of a commitment for an already full life. Be clear with goals and intentions, but do not promise weight loss. The art of the work is to go slow and establish a deep sense of trust. The trust will allow the client to experience movement as joyful, productive and accomplished.
I began specializing with this population in 1995. I would tell my clients to come in clothes that made them comfortable. Sandy arrived in sandals. Knowing the movement would not create an injury, I created a program that allowed Sandy to exercise primarily from a seated position. Sandy went on to become an ACE-certified Group Fitness Instructor and committed to her first pair of sneakers. Her life had changed forever.
Be open in your thoughts and commit to engaging your client in pleasurable activity. You have the power to not only change your clients’ perceptions of exercise, but also introduce them to the pleasures of living an active, healthy lifestyle as well.
To learn more on how to empower clients to make long-term healthy changes and meet meaningful goals, attend our “Effective Strategies for Training Obese and Overweight Clients” workshop in a location near you!