Pete McCall by Pete McCall

Mr. Miyagi, one of the greatest personal trainers of all time, once said, “No such thing as a bad student, only bad teacher. Teacher say, student do.” Okay, admittedly he is a fictional character played by the late Pat Morita, but this clip from the original Karate Kid is the one of the best examples of teaching a movement-based exercise EVER.

Training hard is easy; training smart is the key to helping clients experience long-term results. Using too much weight, trying to perform a challenging exercise or working too hard without being properly conditioned could cause serious injury. Whether you’re working one on one or with a group, your most important role as a health and fitness professional is to teach your clients how to exercise smarter before working harder. Here are seven strategies that can help your clients and students achieve results by promoting safety before intensity. 

1. Make the training session or small-group workout more fun and engaging by playing games.

It’s no secret that those of us working as health and fitness professionals love to exercise. This isn’t always the case for our clients and group participants. Turning exercise into a game can be an effective strategy for helping clients burn calories and build strength without realizing how hard they’re actually working.

2. Do sets for time, not for repetitions.

Instead of counting for a specific number of repetitions, challenge participants to perform as many repetitions as possible in a certain time frame. Record the number of reps done in the first set; after an appropriate rest interval, challenge the client to do more reps during the same time in the next work interval. To be safe, start with 20 seconds and work up from there; as soon as the client loses good form, STOP THE SET.

3. Know when to stop a client from potentially getting hurt.

Challenge your clients to work hard, but STOP as soon as they demonstrate poor form. They may want to keep going, but if you allow them to continue to exercise with poor form they are greatly increasing their risk of injury. This is especially important for trainers and instructors working with groups. Sometimes the most important role we play is helping an individual participant to stay within his or her actual fitness or skill level.

4. Know when and how to REGRESS an exercise.

Often when I see trainers work with a new piece of equipment, they always try to do the hardest exercises first. Several years ago, I spent time with IDEA 2014 Personal Trainer of the Year Douglas Brooks and Peter Twist, a former NHL strength coach and the owner of Twist Conditioning, at a master trainer workshop. They broke down almost every exercise into easier components so they could teach clients how to move properly before increasing intensity. We must understand how to break down exercises into individual steps so we can properly coach a client or student through the progressions. When teaching group workouts, it’s a good idea to have one or two regressions for EVERY exercise you include.

5. Know how to correctly use high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and metabolic conditioning.

HIIT programs are popular because they work; however, they can also significantly increase the risk of injury when done incorrectly. Understanding when and how to apply HIIT can mean the difference between clients celebrating their achievements or mourning their failures. This includes using technology such as heart-rate monitors or fitness trackers to ensure that clients have achieved sufficient recovery from one high-intensity work bout before performing the next.

6. When appropriate, lift heavy.

Studies have shown that many clients do not use enough resistance. Muscles grow in response to the applied stimulus, which can be achieved by lifting heavy or performing repetitions to fatigue. Lifting heavy one to two times a week when working with a trainer can help a client develop the lean muscle he or she wants. It will NOT lead to looking like a bulked-up cartoon superhero. Not using enough weight is like spinning wheels and could keep a client from seeing results. Understand how to use intensity and, more importantly, know how to apply proper progressions. 

7. Teach recovery strategies.

One thing I say at the end of every class or client workout: “Tomorrow’s training session (or workout) begins at the end of today’s session. How you re-hydrate, re-fuel and rest will determine how you train tomorrow.” There’s a reason why the U.S. Olympic Training Center and almost every professional-level sports team have recovery protocols. The workout is when physiological stress is applied, but the post-workout recovery period is when the body actually adapts to that stress. There are a number of different recovery strategies available; learn them so you can provide the appropriate suggestions to help your clients and students properly prepare for tomorrow’s workout. 

One of the most important things I ever learned about fitness came from physical therapist and educator Gary Gray: We want a client or student walking away from EVERY workout feeling successful. It’s important to understand that a properly designed workout can leave an individual feeling a little sore the next day, but it should not put them in pain. Soreness means the body has worked at a level of intensity that can stimulate a physiological adaptation. Pain means something went wrong. I love when someone tells me that after a workout he or she feels fatigued or maybe a little sore, but not in pain. Remember, in our business it’s easy to train our clients hard, but only the top fitness professionals develop smart programs.