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TRAINER SURVIVAL GUIDE

I’ve taught to hundreds of coaches over the years and while I love teaching them about advanced training methods, science and programming, the fact is that most of them would benefit a lot more from some advice on how to be a better coach.

Here are my “survival” advice for new (and not so new) coaches. Applying these will not only make you a more successful coach, but it will also make your life a lot easier and will take out a lot of the stress that comes with the job and that is the reason why so few last long in our field.

1. DON’T BE AFRAID OF FIRING CLIENTS

There are few things as rewarding as taking an out of shape person and helping them lose a lot of extra fat, gain muscle and look awesome… changing their lives in the process.

But the flip side is that few things can be worse for a trainer than a client who fails you …then blame you for their failure.

You know what I’m talking about!

Normally an overweight woman (although I’ve seen some men do the same thing) who just can’t stick to a proper diet/eating plan. They will have dessert almost every day, wine, double their portions, etc. Of course, never telling you when they do. And when they fail to see result they blame you.

These people are (subconsciously or not) hiring a trainer as a protective mechanism: to have someone to blame for their failure. Deep down they know they don’t have the discipline to get the results they want but admitting their own shortcomings would be too hard on their own fragile self-esteem so they hire a trainer with hopes that he has a magic bullet that will make the weight fly off without having to do any effort.

And when they fail, because their own lack of discipline or effort, they refuse to admit that they are to blame.

These clients are amazingly frustrating because they never tell you that they are cheating. They always tell you that they are sticking to the plan. Then you scratch your head trying to find the solution and regardless of what you try it never works because the problem is simply that the client can’t stop eating their pleasure food.

Even worst, when they fail to get results they will blame it on you in front of other gym members. “Yeah, I tried training with Bobby, I didn’t get any results, I was really disappointed. Took my money and I got nothing”.

My advice is to fire the client as soon as you see what kind of person they are.

“Yeah, but I can’t afford to lose the money”.

Well, can you afford to lose the money from all the potential clients loss when she bad mouths you in the gym? Or when other gym members see you training her without any visible results?

Fat loss is simple. But it requires a lot of discipline. Right from the start if your doubt that the potential client doesn’t have the discipline yet do not admit their own shortcomings, you should not waste time with them.

It’s even better if you can spot them even before you take them on as a client. How can you know?

If in the initial evaluation a potential client says something like:

“When is my cheat day?”
“What can I have on my cheat day?”
“I’m normally pretty good during the week but lose it during the weekends”
“I tried everything, nothing worked”
“I don’t want to feel hungry”
“I tried having a personal trainer, it didn’t work, I’m sure he wasn’t as good as you are”
“I need my cup of wine to unwind at the end of the day”

These are all warning signs and if a person is overweight and mentions more than one of these sentences, or something similar, I recommend not taking on that client. Or padding yourself by making them aware of their own biggest obstacle(s) beforehand, make them verbalize why they might fail so that they can’t blame you in the future. More on that in point no. 2

But trust me, no money is worth the trouble of a client that will blame you for their own failure.

2. HAVE YOUR CLIENTS VERBALIZE WHAT THEY PERCEIVE AS THEIR BIGGEST OBSTACLE

Every coach asks a potential client what their goals are, most to it do it wrong (more on that in a moment) but very few ask what will be the greatest obstacles in the achievement on their goals.

And it is even more important than asking them about their goals.

They must be aware of their own potential demons and what will be the potential reasons for their failure. Right off the bat, by asking them that (and including it in their program, more on that in a second) you switch the focus on them instead of you. So those who hire you to have someone to blame will be a lot less likely to do so.

But more importantly, being aware and conscious about what could hold you back will increase your chances of coming out on top.

So ask your potential client: “Now that we’ve discussed your goals, what are the three things that could make it hard for you to achieve these goals. If you ever fail, what would be the most likely reasons?”.

It could be things like:

– I eat out a lot because of my job
– Lots of stress and lack of time because of a big family
– I love to drink wine
– I’m a sugar bug
– When I have a cheat meal it’s almost impossible for me to go back on a diet
– I lack the discipline to stick to a plan
– I’m a “social cheater”; in social situations, I binge out or eat bad things
Etc.

The more introspective and “internal” the better. So if a client only tell you external obstacles like “I don’t have a lot of free time to train”, “I have three kids at home and I don’t like to prepare two different meals”, “My husband eats a crappy diet which makes it hard for me”, etc, try to get them to be a bit more introspective and at least come up with one internal problem like “I’m a sugar bug”, “I eat my emotions”, “I eat for stress relief”,etc.

From experience, the more introspective the client is, the more likely he is to succeed.

When you have the three potential obstacles give the client strategies to deal with them. Also, include these stumbling blocks in their diet/plan. As a reminder of what could make them fail. If they are constantly aware of it, they increase their chance of “winning”.

The act of verbalizing their own potential weaknesses also dramatically decrease the chance that they will blame you in case they fail. Even if we are doing this first and foremost to increase their chances of success and to help them progress as a person, it’s never a bad thing to protect yourself against a potential backlash.

3. HAVE A POTENTIAL CLIENT GIVE YOUR CLEAR AND PRECISE GOALS

Another important thing to ask to a potential client is to verbalize precise short, medium and long-term goals. When I say precise I mean that they must be measurable.

“I want to get stronger”, or “I want to lose fat” or “I want to put on some muscle” are not precise goals. The clients need to give you a number to shoot for.

A question I teach my coaches to ask a client is this:

Project yourself three months in the future. How much ________ (strength, fat, muscle) do you need to have lost/gained to be satisfied by our relationship?”.

Of course, if they tell you something like “I want to gain 30lbs of muscle and lose 6% body fat in the next 3 months” it’s your duty to explain to them what a realistic goal is in 3 months.

Once they verbalize their realistic and precise goal you have them write it down in their journal (or their training program). Why is that important?

Were you ever satisfied with the progress you made in the gym? Regardless of how much muscle or strength you gained or how much fat you lost you likely are never satisfied.

If you are in your office with your client, three months after you started and you are talking about renewing your partnership; when you ask them “are you satisfied with my services?” you can now compare the actual progression with the ultimate goal of the client.

“You mentioned that if you gained 8lbs of muscle in 3 months and added 10% to your bog lifts you would be satisfied, well you gained just a little bit over 8lbs and increased your strength by as much as 15% on some lifts, it’s going awesome wouldn’t you say so? What should we shoot for next?”

When you put it like that it’s kinda hard for the client to say that they are not pleased with your services. But if they don’t have precise and measurable goals established from the start they can always say that they are not satisfied and want out.

Furthermore from their perspective, having something to shoot for will improve training focus and intensity. And reaching a goal will reinforce their resolve and motivation.

But it’s also important for the goal to be realistic. Otherwise, they’ll never achieve it and it will have the opposite effect.

The problem is that because of social media a lot of people have an unrealistic perception of what can be achieved. A lot of the before/after transformation pictures posted by trainers were achieved with the help of drugs or were the “exceptional” results they got (1 out of 10 or 20 clients).

While these can serve as motivation, they can also kill it. Let’s say that a client “only” gains 7lbs of muscle and loses 4% of fat in 3 months, which is a very solid result (bordering awesome) instead of feeling great they will compare themselves to people with unrealistic transformations and feel like failures.

To quote Jim Wendler: “Progress in the weight room, no matter how small, is still progress. Anyone who complains when they’re making progress, even if it’s small, is simply a chump with a suck attitude

So what exactly is “realistic”. For fat loss, it is pretty straight forward. A lost of 1% of your body weight is a realistic gain of fat loss. So if you are 200lbs, losing 2lbs per week is achievable over the long run. If you are 300lbs a 3lbs drop per week is the right target. Sure you can lose more than that but I’m talking about sustainable fat loss without having negative health effects.

Note that obese individuals can lose at a higher rate, especially at first.

Muscle gain potential is a bit trickier because it depends on a lot of factors including your level of daily physical activity (physical job for example), your stress level, natural anabolic hormones and experience level to name a few.

If we look at the norm (not the exceptions) a man can potentially ad 30-40lbs of dry muscle weight over his career (if he doesn’t use anabolic support). When you include the added water, glycogen and other non-contractile elements this can go up to 35-50lbs of “lean mass” over what would have been his normal adult weight.

If a client already packed on 20lbs of lean mass in his “career” his growth potential is obviously lower than a bigger. As such what the first guy can achieve over 3, 4, 6, 12 months will be lower than what the second guy can gain.

But as a rule of thumb, passed the beginner stage, a natural (not using anabolic drugs) man can gain 0.25 – 0.5lbs of muscle per week when things are done right. Of course, you might gain more “weight” but some of it will be water, fat, glycogen, etc. And on some weeks you might gain more while you will gain less on some other weeks. But this is a solid average.

So over a period of 3 months the maximum amount of muscle a non-beginner, not using steroids and not a genetic freak, will be around 6lbs which can yield a lean mass gain of 8lbs or so. If some fat is gained in the process the scale will obviously go up more than that.

For women, you can take all of these numbers and put them at 60% of the men’s values.

Strength is another animal. Strength can be gained quickly via neurological adaptations or more slowly via muscle growth. People who are far away from their genetic potential will gain it faster than those who already achieved elite level. But for the average, non-beginner (but not advanced either) client a gain of 10-15% of the big lifts over a 12 weeks period is realistic.

These could help you help a potential client come up with realistic gains to formulate.

4. BUILD A BRAND AND STICK WITH IT

Here is one that most of you will have a problem with. For two reasons:

– We are passionate about training and we love to learn new things, new methods, new approaches. And we like to experiment them with our clients.
– We think that by not having one specific specialty/brand, it makes us better at serving a wider range of clients.

But one thing I learned is that the most successful trainers are those who have a solid brand and stick with it. Oh sure, they might have to “scale down” their programs when working with beginners or sedentary clients, but they still keep using the same principles.

Think of all the best known “experts” you know. They all have an easy to observe brand.

Here are some examples:

Jim Wendler: 531, simple, basic, no bullshit hardcore training
John Meadows: maximum pump and mind-muscle connection
Greg Nuckols : scientific strength training
Mike Tuchscherer: autoregulatory strength training
Martin Berkhan: intermittent fasting
Louie Simmons: conjugate training
Glenn Pendlay: Olympic lifts
Mark Rippetoe: starting strength, linear progression on the big basic lifts
Mike Israetel & Brad Shoenfeld: scientific muscle building
John Rusin: moving better via high performance
Chris Duffin: high frequency of heavy lifting, velocity-based autoregulation
Joe DeFranco: combining conjugate training and Parisi school of speed training
Brandon Lilly: Cube training
Etc.

You get the idea… if Wendler wrote a bodybuilding program with cable or machine exercises, doing supersets, pump stuff and no heavy lifting you would likely go WTF!

Same thing if John Meadows was doing a program based on the Olympic lifts.

And I also believe that the best trainers are those who build a solid brand, a set of principles they abide to, a training system that will be the foundation of the training of all of their clients.

While the program can change depending on the capacities and individual differences of the client, you should stick to one style. What you will find is that you will actually get better results because you are coaching what you believe in. Your passion will come out more and it will motivate your clients. Also, your clients will have a clear idea of what to expect when they hire you.

A good example is a friend of mine named Patrick Lemieux who is a great trainer in my hometown. Pat is a former strongman/powerlifter. His father was a member of the national Olympic lifting team in 1982 and a former Canadian record holder in the clean & jerk (192.5kg in the old 82.5kg class). He grew up doing heavy strength work and he learned a lot from Louie Simmons.

I remember when the first Westside material was starting to come out on the internet around 1999. Pat and I would read all that we could find, build out own sleds, etc. Pat designed his own variation of the conjugate system (also using Olympic lifts). That was 18 years ago. I recently saw him again and he is using the same system. He has refined it and added new stuff but his approach is the same.

You’d think that he would have problems getting clients because that type of training is mostly for performance. Quite the contrary! He has tons of regular guys and gals who want to be stronger. And they know what to expect when they go to see him.

Being capable of adapting is a useful skill in coaching. But you must change within the boundaries of your own brand/style. If you have no brand, you have nothing. Jack of all trades, master of none.

5. DON’T TEACH WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW

This is a big pet peeve of mine. I’ve been in gyms all around the world and I’ve seen thousands of coaches at work. And nothing pisses me off more than seeing a coach use a training approach they do not master with their clients.

The best example is the use of the Olympic lifts. Because of Crossfit, the clean and snatch are now “in”. As a result, you have coaches around the world who start using these movements with their clients even If they, themselves, have very limited knowledge of these exercises.

The Olympic lifts are complex and while they do carry a good potential for power improvements, they also have a higher risk factor than more other lifting exercises due to their mix of complexity, timing, high speed, and high force.

A coach doesn’t have to be an international weightlifting coach to teach the Olympic lifts. But at the very least they should have a very solid technique, years of practice and a solid understanding of the teaching progression. You cannot earn the right to teach Olympic lifts to your clients by taking a weekend course, even if it’s from a skilled coach.

It might be enough to get you started but until you have accumulated a lot of experience with these movements and studied them, you have no business using them with clients. You will do more harm than good.

And this is not limited to the Olympic lifts. Plyometrics, kettlebells, loaded carries, chains, bands, gymnastic work, to name a few, all are abused and misused by coaches who want to look knowledgeable.

I have a lot more respect for a coach who uses fewer methods and tools but is a master at teaching them than one who uses everything in the book but badly.

If guys like Wendler, Rippetoe and many others can become world class coaches by focusing solely on the squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, chin-ups and rows, you don’t have to come up with all kind of crazy shit when training an average Joe with 1 year of training experience!

6. YOU ARE YOUR FIRST CLIENT

This one is going to be more controversial. I believe that if you are a coach you must be in decent shape.

We all have different genetics and when you are a full-time coach it is often hard to fit your workout in. Not to mention that when you spend 10 hours a day in a gym, you might not want to stay there any longer than necessary and from time to time your workout might suffer.

We also have weird schedules that might interfere with proper eating.

While this might be a good reason why you don’t develop a world-class physique, it is no excuse for not being at least in decent shape.

You are your first client. Which means that you are using your own body to demonstrate to potential clients what you can help them accomplish. Which is also why “being in shape” is relative to your brand; if your brand is that of training like an athlete to look fit, well you better look and perform like an athlete yourself.

If your brand is a hardcore heavy lifter then you have more leeway when it comes to your degree of leanness because as long as you look thick, solid and not obese, and are strong it will respect the brand.  

If you market yourself as a fat loss specialist though, you must be lean yourself. You don’t have to be shredded (although it can’t hurt) but being fat is a no-no with the average Joe client. How credible is it to be a ‘fat” trainer, being harsh on their client for not being able to follow their diet?

See, the most important thing for the client result is for him to thrust the coach 100% and be motivated by his program. Like it or not, “looking the part” will go a long way toward earning the thrust of your client.

Sure there are several great coaches who don’t look the part. But oftentimes these guys built a solid reputation by getting results and when they first started out and built that reputation, they were in solid shape and now they are in a position to gain the confidence of their clients because of the results they are getting with clients and they don’t need a great physical appearance anymore.

But when you are a personal trainer, trying to make it in a competitive market, you likely can’t use the same strategy and the way you look is your best business card.

7. DON’T TEST/ASSESS IF YOU ARE NOT GOING TO USE THE RESULTS

That’s another pet peeve of mine. Coaches who over assess. They do the FMS screen, Klatt test, structural balance test, body fat measurement, my neurotyping questionnaire (which will be online in January), lifestyle assessment, etc.  Then they give the client one of their template programs.

Dude, any test that you do not use to decide how to design your program or evaluate progress is a waste of time.

If you run a test/assessment it is to gather information on which exercises to use, which method to select or how to design the program. If you do all of these tests then give your client a template program that is not personalized, why are you running the tests in the first place?

The only other reason to run tests is to measure progression. Yet I rarely see trainers re-doing the assessment at the end of the training phase.

Let me be clear. Assessment serves two purposes:

1) To see what are the limitations of the individual to better design the plan. Addressing the weaknesses and selecting exercises that will not cause harm.

2) To see if the training program was effective at improving problematic areas.

So if you test but don’t use the results to individualized the plan, or do not re-test at the end of the phase to see if the program worked, you are just wasting your client’s type. But a lot of coaches do that. Why? Because it makes them look “scientific” or professional.

But to me, they are just pretenders.

Assessment is fine if you use it to design better programs. Period.

8. EVERY REP IS AN ASSESSMENT

Speaking of assessment. A lot of coaches ask me what are my favorite tests.

My answer is simple: “I watch my clients train”.

To me, every repetition of every exercise is an assessment. I learn a lot more from the last 2 reps of a squat set than from any lower body mobility tests.

True muscle imbalances/weaknesses will come out when you are performing under load. This is where a good coach can know what you need to emphasize in training.

Where is the sticking point in a big lift? What happens to the body when you reach the sticking point? Are there compensatory mechanisms? Is the repetition technique changes under fatigue/heavy loads? You can learn a lot more about muscle strength and weaknesses by looking at someone lift than doing all the muscle tests you want.

That’s why I always say that a great coach sucks at counting reps. Because if you are focused on analyzing every repetition, you cannot keep count properly in your head.

Beware of rep counters.

9. START WITH THE SKELETON DRILL

When I played an coached football we did what we called a “skeleton drill”. Which is essentially a full-contact drill with all the skill players on offense and their defensive counterparts. QB, running backs, receivers versus linebackers and defensive backs.

It was called the skeleton drill because we only used the minimal number of offensive players while still being able to run all the passing plays of the offense.

When designing a program you should always first design the skeleton program. The skeleton program is the smallest number of exercises/volume you can use while getting most of the results you seek.

I teach young trainers/coaches to challenge themselves to design a program that will give them at least 90% of the desired results with the smallest amount of work possible.

Can you design an effective program with 4 exercises per workout? Most good trainers can.

How about in 3 exercises per session? If you really know what you are doing you likely can.

Two movements? Maybe, especially if your goal is strength and power rather than size or fat loss.

Building your skeleton program is a very good educational drill. See most coaches use the “easy” solution when it comes to hitting everything: they just add more stuff. They make program design quantitative rather than qualitative.

The problem is that few people can tolerate a large amount of volume and progress optimally.

I learned this the hard way myself. See I had the opposite career path as most trainers. I actually started out training pro and high-level amateur athletes. At 20 I was already training pro athletes and international amateur athletes. It is only after around 10 years of training athletes that I branched out to training bodybuilders. And eventually working with the average Joe and Jane.

Right off the bat, I started working with people with great genetics and who basically devoted their life to training. So they could handle a lot of volume (in most cases).

Then I trained pro and high-level bodybuilders, who were obviously using steroids so they could also handle tons of volume and grow.

At that point, I honestly believed that the more volume you did, the more you would progress. And you can’t blame me: everybody I trained could handle a lot of volume.

But when I started working with regular people, they just were not progressing. At first, I blamed genetics. But it wasn’t long until I realized that excess workload was the culprit. And when I lowered their volume they started progressing faster.

Start with your skeleton program. And gradually add volume but only the amount that the client can recover and progress from. It thus has to be a gradual process and over time it will need to be adjusted as they will likely be able to tolerate more volume as they gain experience.

One guy who does this awesomely well is Jim Wendler with his 5/3/1 program. His “skeleton” program is only the main lift of the day done with the 5/3/1 progression model. He then advises people how to add assistance work.

Build your own skeleton program: what is the least amount of work you will give to a client and still stimulate progress. And only add extra work as needed and if the client can tolerate it.

CONCLUSION

These only scratch the surface but if you apply them all you will find yourself to be a lot better off in a few months. Of course, in some cases, it can mean a little bit less business for a month or so, but it will mean better results overall and it will not be long until those better results yield a lot more clients. These tips will also greatly reduce the stress that can come from our job.

So if you want to be successful, happy and stick with it over the long run without feeling like killing yourself I highly recommend applying them.

– CT

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…