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Personal trainers should display leadership during training sessions

This is an excerpt from NPTI's Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training by Tim Henriques.

The personal trainer has a significant responsibility to the client, not only because he or she has a contractual obligation to the client but also because the client is depending on the personal trainer to reach the goals that were set in the beginning of the program.

The Personal Trainer Is in Charge

With each personal training session at least two people will be involved: the client, who is the one receiving the training, and the personal trainer, the person who is conducting the session. As the personal trainer, you are in charge. You decide when the session starts and ends, what exercises will be performed and in what order, and how much weight and how many reps will be completed. You are in charge of everything from A to Z about the personal training session.

The power dynamic in a personal training session can be complex. On one hand, the client is ultimately in power because he or she has hired you and can fire you anytime. On the other hand, you are the health professional, and the client has hired you to tell him or her how to get in shape and improve health and fitness.

A personal trainer who is confident, knowledgeable, and self-assured will usually not have much problem setting the tone for the session. But if a personal trainer is timid, seems confused, appears weak, or lacks confidence, the client may fill the void and assume the leadership position. This should not happen, and if it does, problems and complications will occur down the road. Personal trainers should avoid saying things such as, "What do you want to work on today?" or "What do you feel like doing?" or "Well, I was thinking we might try to squat today, if that's OK with you." Be confident, have a plan for the day, and follow it (67).

Be Prepared and Start on Time

A personal trainer can help set the tone by being on time for each session, or even a few minutes early. If a session begins at 8:00 a.m., do your best to be ready at 8:00 a.m. sharp. Being ready means being in your uniform, at the appointed meeting place, with the workout created and prepared for that day's session. Ready does not mean walking into the gym at 8:03 a.m., going to the bathroom, getting dressed, combing your hair, slapping together a quick workout on a Post-It note, and emerging at 8:14 a.m. finally prepared for the session. Remember, the client is paying you for a set time, most commonly an hour, at a going rate of usually $60 per hour or more, so the client is in essence paying you a dollar a minute for your services. Showing up 5 or 10 minutes late is unacceptable.

A prepared personal trainer will have the workout designed and written down. You will have referred back to previous workouts and drafted a session that is current, is relevant, and follows the principles of specificity and progressive overload. If the workout requires a stopwatch, cones, foam roller, or anything else, you should ensure that all that equipment is available and ready for use.

Shake Hands to Start and End the Session

To signify the start of a personal training session, approach and greet the client and shake his or her hand. This action indicates that you are in charge of the session, and it signals formally that the training session has begun. A client might be ready 5 or 10 minutes early, but you might need that time for whatever reason, and that is OK. The session doesn't begin when the client is ready; it begins when the personal trainer is ready, which should be exactly on time. Not shaking the client's hand immediately upon arrival lets the client know that you need that time and that the session will begin shortly.

In addition, shaking hands at the end of the session is appropriate. Sometimes it is not clear exactly when the session will end. You do not want your client to finish that last set of crunches just to have you mumble goodbye and walk away. Nor does the session automatically end when the 60 minutes is up; you don't want to abandon your client when he or she is in the middle of a set. Instead, you formally end the session. You might say something like, "That wraps up our workout for today. Great job!" or, "That was the last exercise for today. I'll see you next Monday at 7," and then shake hands to finish the session. This is also a good time to confirm when the next scheduled meeting is and to see whether your client has any questions about the fitness program. Even with long-standing clients, shaking hands at the start and end of each session is a good habit.

Stay Near the Client at All Times

After you are officially on the clock with the client, the client should receive your undivided attention. Part of that attention is simply physically staying near the client nearly all the time, with just a few exceptions. Going to get a towel for the client or setting up the next machine is acceptable, but any time spent away from the client should be short and for a specific purpose. You are responsible for the client's safety at all times during the session, and you can't fulfill that responsibility if you are far away from your client. The gym is a potentially dangerous environment - weights can roll, bars can move, medicine balls can fly, and other members don't always pay attention to what they are doing. If a client is squatting, you should be in spotting position at all times. Even if the weight is easy for the client to lift, a problem could occur if another member accidentally bumps the bar or a dumbbell rolls into the platform (49, 104).

This rule applies to the warm-up as well. The personal trainer should not officially start the session and then send the client off by him- or herself to warm up on the treadmill for five minutes. You should accompany the client to the treadmill, set it up the way you wish, and then use that time to talk to the client. This is a good time to find out how the client is really feeling. Is the client sore from the previous workout? How has the client's nutrition plan been going? Small talk and catching up are OK as well. You want the client to bond with you, and small talk helps create that bond.

Control the Cardio Machine

The personal trainer should set up the cardiovascular machines and be the one who pushes the buttons to set the level, speed, and incline to whatever is appropriate. The only exception to this is if you can't reach or can't access the appropriate the buttons. In this case, you can tell the client what to do.

You want to establish this protocol for two primary reasons. First, if you program the machine, it will always be set at the level you want. If the client sets the treadmill and you then override the plan, negative feelings could develop. Second, you establish that the client does not touch the controls on the machine; therefore, he or she will not alter the intensity in the middle of the workout. Allowing clients to program the machine in the beginning often gives them the idea that they can modify the intensity of the exercise during the routine. In addition, asking clients to program the machine is unrealistic and unfair. Part of what they are paying for is your expertise in setting up anything related to exercise.

Adjust the Equipment Settings

You should lead the client to whatever machine or apparatus is to be used, literally walking in front of the client because the client may not know where you are headed next. In addition, you should properly adjust the equipment for each client. During an equipment orientation, you can explain how and why the machine is set up the way it is, but in a regular personal training session you should just set it up. The client should not be expected to know how to adjust the machine or whether it is properly aligned.

From reviewing previous workouts, which you will have done as part of your preparation, you will know the proper settings and need not waste time recalibrating the alignment for each machine. If the client is new or performing a new exercise, making an adjustment after you see the client perform the movement is OK. Getting it right is paramount, no matter how many tries it takes. After the setting is correct, do yourself a favor and record it for future reference. A good personal trainer should know how to adjust all the equipment in the gym, whether or not he or she regularly uses each piece of equipment (33).

Record the Workout in the Log

The personal trainer should record the workout in its entirety either during or shortly after the session. If you allow too much time to pass after the completion of the session before you record it, you will not remember some of the details of the workout. You want to include everything pertinent in the workout log, from the first minute to the last. The workout log serves several important functions:

  • It keeps an accurate record of what happened during the session.
  • It allows the personal trainer to track the client's progress.
  • It serves as a learning tool by giving the personal trainer an idea of what works and what does not.
  • It serves as a time diary for the workout.
  • It makes creation of future workouts significantly easier.
  • It serves as a legal record of what happened during the workout in the rare instance that the personal trainer is sued.
  • It serves as a resource for billing so that personal trainers and fitness companies know how many personal training sessions were completed each day, week, or month. For that reason among others, clients usually initial or sign their workout log after a session is completed.

The personal trainer does not need to give the workout log to the client, but a client's request for a copy of a specific workout can certainly be accommodated. In addition, in case of a legal dispute, a personal trainer should not give the workout log to a lawyer without first consulting his or her own lawyer.

Choose the Sets, Weight, Rest, and Reps for Each Exercise

Remember that the personal trainer is in charge and dictates how the session proceeds. The personal trainer chooses the appropriate number of warm-up and work sets, the amount of weight, the number of reps, and the duration of rest for each exercise.

After a client completes a set, you should ask yourself how many reps you want the client to perform on the next set. Should the number of reps be the same, higher, or lower than the previous set? Then you should decide how long the client will rest before the next set begins. Shorter rest, of course, means less complete recovery. Then you should ask yourself how hard the previous set was. Only after calculating all that information should you decide what weight is appropriate for the client. In general, use the following guidelines, assuming that the first set was quite challenging.

  • If you want more reps and rest time will be adequate, then usually the weight is lowered. A decrease of 5 to 20 percent is standard, and a 10 percent decrease in weight is the norm. If rest time is very short, then a 20 percent or greater drop is called for (34).
  • If you want an equal number of reps to the previous set and the rest time is adequate, the weight can stay the same. If the rest time is short, the weight is usually dropped by 5 to 10 percent (34).
  • If you want a lower number of reps and the rest time is adequate, the weight should be increased. An increase of 2.5 to 10 percent is standard. If you want a lower number of reps and the rest time is short, the weight generally remains unchanged (34).

Load and Remove the Weights

The personal trainer is responsible for loading the weight on a machine or barbell, both sides if necessary. Think of it as valet personal training; you, as the personal trainer, are there to take care of your client. Most clients will not assist you in loading or unloading the weight, usually because they don't know what you are doing or how to calculate the correct weight. Some clients, especially those more experienced and seasoned in fitness, will assist you, and that is fine if they wish to do so. You should take light dumbbells to the client and then replace them when the client finishes. If you are not working in your own private studio, you are responsible for replacing all weights and unloading all bars as soon as the client is finished working with them. In general, personal trainers should follow the guidelines given to the regular members of the club. If the weight is too heavy for you to move or lift, then you can ask the client to set up and remove that weight.

You are also responsible for making sure that the weight is loaded correctly and evenly, if necessary. Even if the client chooses to help you, it is ultimately your responsibility to set up everything correctly. Miscommunications can occur. If a personal trainer says, "Let's go to 225," does that mean to go to a total weight of 225 pounds or to put two 25-pound plates on each side of the bar? It is a good idea to get in the habit of visually checking and actually feeling the bar before each set to make sure that it is evenly loaded and that the collars are in place.

Do Not Work Out Together Unless Preapproved

Generally, a personal trainer and a client should not work out together. When a personal trainer is working out, his or her focus will likely be directed inward instead of at the client, where it should be. But some personal trainers do enjoy working out with their clients. Being paid to work out is nice, and some clients find exercising with their personal trainers and seeing them in action - walking the walk - to be highly motivating. If you wish to work out alongside your client, first make sure that doing so is an accepted policy with your employer. Second, ask the client in explicit terms whether he or she would like to use a personal training session as a workout session with you. Before the workout has begun, you need to establish clearly whether the client is paying for the session. The client might think that the mutual workout session is free. Even if a client agrees to pay for the session, do not assume in the future that the understanding will always be in place. Each time that you wish to work out with the client, you should clarify that the client will be paying for the session. In addition, for safety reasons the client should lift while you are resting between sets so that you are always able to spot the client and keep him or her safe. When a personal trainer and a client are performing bench presses side by side at the same time, the activity can hardly be called safe and supervised.

Be Professional and Respectful of the Client at All Times

The personal trainer should remain professional and respectful of the client at all times. A friendship may develop, and the environment in the fitness center may create a relaxed atmosphere, but the personal trainer should always remember that the person is a client first and foremost. Even when a particular client might be comfortable with a less professional relationship, keeping things professional and respectful at all times is the best approach.

Becoming too friendly with a client can interfere with normal business operations. For example, if your client who is also a friend cancels on you with little notice, will you feel comfortable charging him or her? Another possibility is that a client might develop feelings for a personal trainer, and a personal trainer who is behaving in a relaxed or unprofessional way might incidentally encourage those feelings to develop. If you do sense that a client is developing an emotional attachment to you, you can try being extremely professional and courteous with the client without opening yourself up to him or her at all. If that does not work or if the client makes unwanted advances toward you, it is usually best to have a direct, sit-down talk with the client and perhaps a supervisor to reestablish the boundaries of the relationship. If you still are unable to resolve the issue, you might think about trading or switching the client to another personal trainer who would be a better fit (82).

Make the Client First Priority

In a busy fitness center, a gym member may ask a personal trainer for help while a personal trainer is conducting a session. This request does not observe proper etiquette, but not all gym goers follow proper etiquette all the time. You can handle each situation case by case, but in general you can respectfully decline to help the gym member because the client is your first priority and is paying for your services. You might handle the situation by saying something like, "I am sorry I can't assist you at the moment, I am working with a client right now. As soon as our session is over, I would be happy to help you out in any way I can." If the request is for a small thing, such as a spot, and you know someone else in the gym - another personal trainer who is free, a gym employee, or perhaps another friendly and qualified gym member - you might suggest that the gym member contact that person. People can sometimes be a little pushy, and allowing someone other than your client to have five minutes of your time during the session is not appropriate. The client is not paying you to help someone else; he or she is paying you for personal attention. In the case of a true emergency that might require a CPR-certified responder or something of a similar nature, those guidelines can be suspended.

Be Timely

A good personal training session is usually managed down to the minute. If you are stopping a session short of the full time, the client is not receiving his or her money's worth and you are not doing everything you can to improve the person's health and fitness. You can always perform another set, complete another minute of cardio, stretch a little bit longer, work on a weak point, improve mobility, perform some conditioning, or any number of other things to fill the time. As you become more established in your profession, you will have back-to-back sessions lined up, so one session will start at 8:00 and end at 8:59, and the next will start at 9:00. Busy personal trainers may literally find themselves shaking the hand of one client to signal the end of a session and then turning around and shaking the hand of another client to signal the beginning of that one.

If you wish to run over the prescribed time with a client, you should do so only if you do not have a client waiting for you and the client is able to exceed the allotted time. Not all clients will be able to run late because they may have scheduled meetings or appointments to make after their usual ending time. If both the personal trainer and the client are able to run late, then the personal trainer can do that. Both parties should understand that the additional time results in no additional fees to the client unless explicitly stated otherwise. Clients often appreciate a few extra minutes of a personal trainer's time because it indicates the personal trainer is genuinely interested in improving the client's health and fitness as opposed to looking to clock out as soon as possible.

A more common scenario is that the client is late. If a client has hired a personal trainer for 60 minutes, the personal trainer is obligated to the client for that time, no more and no less. If a client arrives for a session 15 minutes late, then 15 of the 60 minutes have been used up, and the client has 45 minutes remaining with the personal trainer. If you have another client following that particular session, then the session must end at the regularly scheduled time. If the client is able to extend the workout and you are able and willing to do so, then allowing the session to run long is a possibility. You should be aware that extending the personal training session rewards the client for being late. You should clearly indicate that extending the session might be possible in a particular instance but that it will not always be the case, so the client should arrive on time.

If the client is continually late, you can initiate a conversation about this tardiness and determine whether another arrangement might be better for both the client and you. You should not feel obligated to extend a session or feel guilty about ending a session at the designated time, and you should not inconvenience other clients to accommodate a client who was late.

If you have waited for a long time for a late client, you can assume that the person isn't going to show and that the session is, in effect, canceled. But you should establish a predetermined wait time and have clients agree to it at the signing of the contract. For example, if your policy is that after a client is 20 minutes late to a 60-minute session, the session is canceled, you need to make all clients aware of this policy. An uncomfortable scenario will occur if the client shows up 30 minutes late, flustered but ready to exercise, discovers that you have left the building, and learns then that he or she will still be charged for the session. Industry standard is that the personal trainer will wait half as long as the scheduled session for the client, without notice, before the session is considered canceled and charged to the client.

Accept That Adjustments Can Be Made on the Fly

Earlier in this chapter the importance of being prepared and ready for a personal training session was stressed; being prepared is the mark of a good personal trainer. But no matter how prepared you might try to be, confounding variables will at times conspire against you. The gym might be particularly crowded, a machine might be broken, or the client might show up limping from a pick-up basketball game the night before. Now you need to modify the workout. That is OK. Use the knowledge gained from this text and other resources, make a quick but logical decision, and come up with a substitute plan. Something is always better than nothing. You might change just one little thing, or you might have to change the whole workout. Do what is necessary for your client. The more experienced you become, the easier this will be. But that is not an excuse for an experienced personal trainer to show up for training sessions with no preparation. Just because you can create a good workout in your head in two minutes does not mean that you should. Designing a thoughtful, long-term plan that emphasizes specificity and overload is important to the client's overall progress, and you cannot do this on the fly.

More Excerpts From NPTI's Fundamentals of Fitness and Personal Training



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