If you’ve been training for a while, you know how easy it can be to fall into a rut with your clients’ workouts. I know I’m guilty of this now and then, especially with my long-term clients. Many times, I don’t even realize I’m in a rut until something triggers my memory bank of exercises and I have one of those, “Oh, I forgot about that exercise!” moments, which, in turn, nudges a bunch of other exercises out of my brain that have been tucked away for far too long.

How do you know you may be stuck in a rut? 

  • Your clients no longer show up to their sessions eager to work out and may find reasons to not show up at all.
  • Your clients are not seeing results.
  • You and/or your clients seem bored with the workouts and just go through the motions on autopilot.
  • You feel burned out with your work. 

“You always want to keep your clients progressing forward and engaged in their workouts,” says Kathy Schottke, owner of GYMGUYZ Fort Lauderdale in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “If they know exactly what they will be doing every session, not only will their bodies adapt and stop progressing forward, but they will become bored and may look for other options to achieve their goals.”

Take It Outside 

Schottke suggests switching up workout locations if possible. “On nice days, you may be able to train at a park or at the beach. Switching up the scenery can make things more interesting.”

There are many good reasons to exercise outdoors in addition to busting boredom—and there’s plenty of research to prove it. For example, a systematic review of the literature performed by a research team at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry concluded that, "Compared with exercising indoors, exercising in natural environments was associated with greater feelings of revitalization, increased energy and positive engagement, together with decreases in tension, confusion, anger and depression. Participants also reported greater enjoyment and satisfaction with outdoor activity and stated that they were more likely to repeat the activity at a later date.”

Variety Is the Spice of Success 

“Ruts are often created by lack of variety,” explains Josh Crosby, ACE Certified Professional, co-creator of rowing-based fitness programs Indo-Row and Shockwave, and rowing advisor for Orangetheory Fitness. “Every athlete, every client needs their muscles and minds moved and pushed in different ways. So as a coach and trainer, I really try to keep myself educated in different formats and skills.”

Crosby credits gaining new skill sets by going to fitness conventions, reading trade articles and watching instructional videos. “But the most effective way for me to get out of a rut,” he adds, “has been through experience—getting out there and trying new activities, classes and sports. For example, after an amazing season of racing stand-up paddleboards, I now get my clients on the water with me to challenge them in new ways. They love it and the variety is key to keeping my clients engaged and progressing.” 

See Things from a Different Angle 

There are several more ways to add variety. Mark Sherwood, N.D., author of The Quest for Wellness, suggests mixing it up by manipulating the variables, including lifting tempo, rest periods between sets, resistance load, repetitions and number of sets. “This will prevent boredom on the part of both trainer and client, and [encourage] continued improvement.” 

You might also consider how an exercise can be performed from a different angle. For instance, pectoral work can be performed in incline and decline positions. Lateral raises can be executed while leaning sideways. To get into this position, have clients either kneel and lean sideways on an incline bench or hold onto a post of the cable crossover machine and lean away from it. In both cases, one arm is worked at a time. 

Another possibility to consider is to ask yourself if you’re incorporating all the planes of motion into your clients’ workouts. It can be easy to get stuck performing linear exercises, but how often in everyday activities do we move only linearly? Diagonal and rotational movements, which are common in real life, are often neglected during workouts. 

Also, look for ways to fuse exercises together. Definitely think outside the box with this, as there is an infinite number of ways exercises can be combined. Here are just a few examples: 

  • Bent-over row with triceps kickbacks
  • Squats with biceps curls and overhead presses
  • Lunges with rear leg lifts
  • Walking lunges with lateral raises
  • Plank with leg lifts

Another good approach is to look for inspiration from sports, says Derek Mikulski, creator of the ActivMotion Bar. “Athletes move differently in different sports,” he explains, “and this creates different demands on the body’s muscles and energy pathways. Look at some of the fundamental patterns involved in various sports, and replicate movements based on those patterns. This can often be fun for clients, as they are exposed to new ways of moving and new challenges.” 

Recovery Is Also Part of the Package 

Do you stretch your clients out at the end of their workouts? Do you offer modalities, such as trigger-point therapy or myofascial release? As personal trainers, we get stuck in the mindset that the entire session needs to be exercise. But offering these “extras” can provide increased value to the sessions, making your clients feel rewarded for their effort and hard work. It can also help them during the recovery period between workouts.

When you feel you're stuck in a training rut, consider the following: 

  • Look around you. What pieces of equipment have you not used lately?
  • Change the angle of the exercises. This provides a new and interesting challenge for your clients, and recruits different muscle fibers.
  • Fuse two or more exercises together. This is also a great tactic to give you more time at the end of the session to stretch or do myofascial or trigger point
  • Change up the environment. Take your clients’ workouts outdoors, in the water, on the trail—take advantage of the options available to you.
  • Change how the sets are done. Are you doing multiple sets of the same exercises? How about performing one set of different exercises for the same muscle groups (e.g., push-ups, bench press and cable flyes for the pectoral muscles). Incorporate super sets or pyramids.
  • Change the rest period between sets. You can make rest periods longer or shorter. If adding more time between sets of the same exercises, incorporate a set of an exercise for a different muscle group. Or add a stretch for the working muscle groups between sets.
  • Vary the speed at which the repetitions are performed. Slow them down or speed them up.
  • Set up a full-body circuit that your clients can repeat once or twice. Or do the workout in mini-circuits by combining exercises into groups of two to four mini-circuits. Do each mini-circuit two to four times before moving on to the next mini-circuit.
  • Look to others for inspiration. Attend other pros’ classes, get caught up on reading your fitness journals, peruse online fitness videos, or go to a workshop or convention. Put yourself in the role of student and expand both your knowledge and your offerings.
  • Ask your clients about their hobbies and other interests. You can design programs or incorporate exercises that will improve these other areas of their lives.

Remember, You're a Personal Trainer 

When you're stuck in a rut, you may find that you’ve falling into a habit of using the same exercises for many of your clients, especially those with the same or similar goals. 

“[Your] programming must be personalized for each individual and his or her goals,” says Schottke. “Training should not be a one-size-fits-all approach. Take the time to get to know your clients, as well as their goals and weaknesses, so you can design programs to help them feel successful.” 

And while each client may not like every exercise you’re asking them to do, one of your goals as a health and fitness professional should be to move them toward enjoying movement, which will help increase their motivation to move when they’re not with you. This means incorporating activities that you may not include in your typical gym workout, such as yoga or water activities. Or how about hitting a trail and doing a trail run or workout using stumps and rocks? Local parks and playgrounds offer all sorts of options, too. 

Change Your Mindset, Bust the Rut

Essentially, all the tips offered here come down to one thing: Change your mindset regarding your work. Think outside the box when it comes to your clients’ workouts and avoid limiting yourself to what you currently know. 

“Get out of your comfort zone,” concludes Crosby. “Whether it means trying new modalities, finding better ways to recover—myofascial release is my favorite—or just going a little harder, change it up.”

Is there something you’ve been wanting to try with your clients, but none of the other trainers are doing it, so you’re not sure if it’s acceptable? Give it a try and don’t be afraid of failing. Take the feedback and tweak it or try the next thing on your list. Be the daring trainer who offers your clients an experience, not just a workout.