Counting reps and sets in a personal-training session is standard practice, but sometimes it’s nice to integrate new methods for motivating clients and keeping them fit. Enter task-oriented exercises, which refers to any movement sequence with a fun objective. It could be a game or competitive challenge, but it doesn’t have to be. Playful, purpose-driven exercises can push clients to work especially hard, but with an air of mental levity because they’re so focused on completing the task at hand.

How does it work? Picture this task-oriented drill: The trainer places a grouping of three sandbells and a grouping of three medicine balls about 5 to 25 yards apart from each other, then cues the client to switch each item one at a time by running, jumping, doing walking lunges, etc., to get from one side of the course to the other. At the end of the task, the med balls will all be placed where the sandbells had been and the sandbells will all be where the med balls had been. 

You can see why clients who derive satisfaction from crossing items off a to-do list might be especially inspired by this approach. Are you game? Read on for a discussion of why task-driven exercises work so well, important ground rules to keep in mind, and a round-up of trainer-tested drills you can use in your own training sessions or fitness classes.

Physical Benefits

From a physical standpoint, there are multiple benefits to task-oriented activities. For starters, the movements tend to be highly variable and can occur in multiple planes over the course of the task. Plus, whatever repetitive action the client is doing (such as picking up a piece of equipment) is mitigated by other actions in the sequence (such as running or walking from point A to point B).

“This minimizes repetitive motion stress for clients…while providing a continually changing physical stimulus, which would most likely result in less localized fatigue (i.e., one muscle or group of muscles gets heavily fatigued),” says Jonathan Ross, a personal trainer in Annapolis, Md., author of Abs Revealed and creator of Funtensity, a fitness concept based on combining intensity and fun.  

Getting clients to concentrate on an outward objective distracts their attention away from perceived exertion. As a result, they might end up burning more calories or increasing intensity without really noticing the extra effort.

“When we give our brains a task, the focus is on completing the task, not on the movements required to complete the task,” says Ross. “It puts the movements into ‘background processing,’ removing a focus on technique and allowing the client to get out of their own heads a bit while exercising.”

“When I incorporate these types of drills with my clients, I find they push themselves harder than normal because each rep matters that much more for them to complete the task,” says Jesse Dietrick, an Under Armour-sponsored trainer and sports performance coach at Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, Calif. “Based on how you structure your drill, your clients can have increased physical improvement in metabolic conditioning, strength, coordination, balance, neural plasticity/mind-body connection, agility, you name it.”

Another fitness-related benefit has to do with getting clients to move in patterns that simulate, and therefore help prepare them for, activities of daily living (ADL) or sports-specific patterns, says David Moloney, a personal trainer at Rep1 Fitness in Vancouver, B.C. “This, in turn, helps improve stability, strength, and coordination in multiplanar and multi-functional patterns,” he says.

Psychological Benefits

In addition to physical benefits, matching purpose-driven drills to a client’s ADL or sport-specific pursuits may heighten exercise enjoyment, especially if the task has playful elements.

“The thought process and desire to complete a specific task is much greater than standard gym movements,” says Moloney. “If I can tie in a specific movement drill to a client’s home life or sporting life, and they see the direct benefit, their desire to focus more and push harder is greatly enhanced.”

Even though traditional cardio or standard reps and sets correspond to a purpose for most training clients, that objective is usually long-range and ongoing (e.g., weight loss, strength gains, better endurance). Part of the psychological appeal of task-based exercise involves a distinct and immediate objective, one that starts and finishes in real time and can be easily replicated. This, in turn, provides a motivating backdrop for clients to realize on-the-spot improvements.

“As soon as you put a purpose behind the drill, whether it is to complete a task for time, distance or whatever the case, it gives clients a unique opportunity to do better than they did before,” says Dietrick. With these positive outcomes, you’re in a position to establish newfound motivation, especially with clients who generally dislike working out.

“Give clients two to three attempts with the task,” suggests Moloney. “They will love the fact that they get better at it with each attempt.” For best results with client satisfaction, clearly communicate the task’s rules, goal and ultimate purpose beforehand.

Good Ground Rules

Although task-based exercise is meant to be playful and lighthearted, it still requires serious planning and consideration. Basic ground rules apply, particularly when it comes to matters of movement quality.

“If someone can only move well when they are concentrating on moving well, they don’t truly yet ‘own’ the movement,” says Ross. “Being distracted from the movement while doing it may lead to poor movement quality.” As an analogy, think of someone who is able to ice skate, but still has to concentrate on doing it. “They probably aren’t ready for ice hockey, where you have to ‘forget’ about skating,” says Ross.

The same goes for any exercise you integrate into a task. Ian O’Dwyer is the founder of OD on Movement and the co-founder of SOMA in Noosa Heads, Queensland, Australia. “We need to be able to do the fundamentals feverishly well before we get too complex in challenging clients with task-oriented drills/exercises,” he says.

There’s also the issue of task complexity as it relates to a person’s fitness and abilities. Be sure to strike the right balance.

“If the challenge of the task meets the skill level of the client, these task-based exercises can stimulate states of flow or deep engagement,” says Ryan Glatt, owner of Somatiq in Los Angeles. “If they are too easy, clients could become bored, and if too challenging, clients could become frustrated.”

Also, keep in mind that physical demand plays off mental demand, and vice versa. “There is an inverse relationship between cognitive load (the amount of rules or difficulty of the task) and physical load (the amount of metabolic stress or actual load). If one goes up, the other must go down in order to maintain safety and not frustrate the client,” explains Glatt.

As you would with any exercise selection, take into account a range of client variables. “Every challenge, task or drill should mimic the client level (new or experienced), client style (traditional or functional) and client goal (weight loss, wellness, lean muscle mass, sport-specific),” says O’Dwyer.

And, of course, safety first. Make sure the client is appropriately injury-free and able to meet the challenge.

“In their zealous attempt to complete the tasks, they might not listen to their bodies, overdo it and get injured,” says Moloney. Always consider what best suits the client in physicality and personality. While some might still prefer, or require, a traditional reps-and-sets model, others appreciate innovation. “Many of my clients love when I try new tasks with them,” says Moloney. “It shows a level of care, thoughtfulness and willingness to think outside the box.”

Trainer-tested Task-oriented Exercises

Following the guidelines presented in this article, try any or all of the following task-oriented exercises with your own clients. These drills have been tested and recommended by the experts featured in this article.

Jonathan Ross, creator of Funtensity

Get Up and Go Get It

Have the client sit on a bench or stability ball that won’t roll away when they stand up (e.g., BOSU Ballast Ball). Toss a non-bouncing object—such as a soft handweight, deadweight slam ball or sandbell) onto the floor in the vicinity of the client, but not within arm’s reach. Cue the client to stand up, retrieve the item, return to sitting on the bench/ball, and then toss the object back to you. Repeat this task, randomly tossing the object to the client’s right or left side until the client has performed eight to 12 total reps for time. You should be tracking the number of reps in your head so you know when to stop the timer. In a second round, encourage the client to beat his or her previous time.  

Jesse Dietrick, performance coach at Fitness Quest 10

Walking Lunge Pyramid 

Have the client start anywhere between 50 to 100 yards away from the end point of a hill or clearly marked “finish line.” Moving toward the hill or finish line, the client performs 10 dumbbell walking lunges per leg before setting down the dumbbells and running or sprinting to the top of the hill or finish line. The client jogs back to where he or she left the dumbbells, does 10 more walking lunges per leg, then sets down the dumbbells again. This time, the client will be closer to the top of the hill or finish line than last time. From there, the client sprints to the top of the hill or finish line again. Continue this sequence. The task is complete when the client reaches the top of the hill or finish line with the dumbbells in hand.

Beanbag Bucket Toss

Give your client a beanbag and set up a bucket or hula hoop about 10 to 15 yards away from where the client is standing. Cue the client to throw the beanbag into the bucket or middle of the hula hoop, retrieve it and perform the action again. As the trainer, you call out how the client retrieves the beanbag between each throw; for example, run, hop, skip, crawl, shuffle, lunge, squat jump, etc. The end-goal is to get the beanbag into the bucket or hula hoop 10 times total in the time allotted (e.g., two minutes or less).

David Moloney, personal trainer at Rep1 Fitness

Balance Drill

Place a stack of cones on the floor to the client’s right side. As the client balances on one leg, cue him or her to reach down, lift up the top cone and place it on the opposite side before standing up straight again. When all the cones have been placed to one side, have the client balance on the opposite leg and move the cones back to the other side. The task is complete when the client has had the opportunity to balance on both legs and has moved the whole set of cones from one side to the other and back again. For less stable clients, regress this exercise by putting the stack of cones on a bench, step or table. For the advanced athlete, progress this task by cueing the client to hop laterally between cone stacks, having the client stand on an unstable surface or gently pushing/pulling the client to trigger a greater balance challenge.

Ryan Glatt, owner of Somatiq

Step-and-reach Target

Have your client hold a moderate-load weighted item, such as a ViPR or a medicine ball, at hip height. Establish a central point on the fround, where one of the client’s feet must always remain. Establish your own right or left hand as a target. The task is for the client to gently touch the target with the weighted item. The client might be able to touch the target without moving if you are close enough together, or he or she might need to step out with one foot and reach for the target if you are farther away from each other. For variety, cue the client to only step with the right foot when the right hand is presented or any combination of similar rules. Find the successful “bubble” your client can operate within and incorporate play elements such as coordination, task constraints or safely increased reaction time. The task is complete after a predetermined number of reps (e.g., 15 to 30 total reaches) or an allotted time, adjusting for load/no load or speed (e.g., 1 to 3 minutes).

Ian O’Dwyer, founder of OD on Movement

Sandbell Drill

Holding a sandbell (or similar resistance tool), stand facing your client about 5 feet away. Allow enough space for you to both move laterally in a shuffling pattern (approximately 6 feet). The object of this task is to touch down when you both reach the end of the shuffle, one with the sandbell and the other with just the hands. As you return to the starting position, pass/throw the sandbell to the other person and continue to shuffle. The task is complete at the end of a predetermined time period (e.g., 45 to 60 seconds).