Dr. Erin Nitschke by Dr. Erin Nitschke

As a health and exercise professional, you are undoubtedly aware of the multifaceted nature of exercise program design, yet it can be easy to overlook certain aspects. In fact, a well-intended program can be aligned with your client’s goals, have a solid structure, include a variety of exercises and modalities, and be thoughtfully periodized, yet still be missing key characteristics that would fully balance the program and boost client success.

Avoid these common mistakes when designing exercise programs for your clients. Doing so will enhance the program’s value and optimize client results.

1. The Mistake: Having a limited grasp of human anatomy. Having a limited understanding of functional anatomy will handicap your exercise-programming design skills. Let's look at the gluteus maximus, for example. This muscle has three sets of fibers that together extend, abduct and externally rotate the hip. That said, the middle and lower fibers do a little more external rotation than the upper set of fibers. The following table details the differences in attachment sites.

Fiber Set





Posterior superior iliac spine (PSIS)

IT Band




IT Band

External Rotation



Gluteal Tuberosity

External Rotation

A robust knowledge of functional anatomy informs your exercise selections and allows you to target the entire muscle group more effectively.

"Knowledge of muscle attachments and biomechanics enables fitness instructors to break functional movements down into their isolated parts," explains Beverly Hosford, M.A., an ACE Certified Personal Trainer and fitness entrepreneur. "This is essential to address faulty movement patterns, design individualized corrective exercises and enhance body awareness. The more knowledge a trainer has about anatomy and biomechanics the more precise he or she can be when instructing and cueing. This leads to decreased risk of injury, better results, and more business." Hosford teaches anatomy in a unique way with a skeleton named Andy, balloons, play-doh, guided visualizations and corrective exercises.

The Fix: Regularly integrate anatomy classes into your continuing education efforts. Make flashcards and study in between sessions. Practice. In short, never stop being a student of the human body.

2. The Mistake: Training clients the same way you train yourself. It is necessary to push clients. Asking clients to do two more reps or 10 more seconds is positive encouragement. However, encouragement can quickly shift to unrealistic expectations if we don’t remain mindful of client limitations in movement patterns. When writing an exercise program, prepare to challenge clients, but not necessarily in the same ways you would push yourself or an advanced client.

The Fix: Train all clients from each client’s unique perspective. Part of building up to more advanced movements is helping the client develop confidence and self-efficacy. A lunge, for example, may seem easy to execute, but for a client who lacks experience and core strength, this will be perceived as an advanced move. To avoid pushing a client too hard too fast, incorporate a varied mix of movements and be sure you can demonstrate all moves with proper form. Once a client has mastered a move, increase the difficulty.

3. The Mistake: Not training in all planes of motion. The body is meant to move in all directions, and joints are structured to allow for movement in specific or multiple planes. An exercise program that includes all planes of motion is better balanced than one that only includes flexion and extension.

 The Fix: Evaluate your exercise programs to determine if they include rotation, abduction, adduction, flexion and extension. If one of the planes of motion is limited or missing, add in more variety to challenge your client’s body mechanics.

4. The Mistake: Not preparing exercise modifications. Until you have a client in a session, you won’t know for certain which exercises he or she can execute with proper form and which exercises may be more challenging to perform properly. The best programs are armed with modifications that will either make the exercise less intense or increase the intensity for a client who is more advanced.

The Fix. Develop an exercise library with multilevel modifications that you can pull from, when necessary. For each common exercise, include three modifications (when possible): One modification to decrease the intensity or difficulty, a second to notch up the difficulty from the basic movement, and a third to provide a more sophisticated challenge. Employ modifications according to client abilities and fitness levels.

5. The Mistake: Not assigning take-home exercises to clients. How do we know what types of exercises clients do when they aren’t training with us? To gauge a client’s outside activities, we rely on self-reporting and weekly check-ins (or other forms of communication). Both are effective strategies for gathering information, but some clients struggle to remain active without our direct daily influence.

The Fix. Develop take-home exercise handouts for clients to perform during "off days." This could include a morning yoga routine, before-bed stretches, a light cardio circuit, desk workouts, etc. Get creative and keep these workouts simple and easy to accomplish.

Exercise programming is challenging. It doesn't matter how many years of experience a trainer has, we can still overlook something or be “too close” to the program to see a potential weakness. Avoiding these five missteps is a win-win for you and your clients. You will enrich your competency as a health and exercise professional and your clients will reach their goals.

Learn how to create expert exercise programs as an ACE certified personal trainer

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