Strength Training the General Fitness Client: How to program
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I certainly haven't traveled every corner of the world. But, I can say with certainty that I've never met anyone who wishes they were weaker. There hasn't been a client, a friend, or a professional athlete in a post-game interview that could seriously say, "ya know, I really think my strength is a problem...I wish I was a bit weaker."
Everyone wants to be a little stronger. Some want to be a lot stronger. But still, most just want to feel above adequate and capable in their day-to-day lives.
So, with that obvious truth out of the way let's explore why we are really here.
When training a general fitness client, or if you are one yourself, it is important to approach legitimate strength training in a unique way. You can't take the traditional "grip and rip" approach with individuals who:
A. Possess mobility, stability, and general physical fitness needs GREATER than their need for strength
B. Don't have the time to commit to a long and arduous "Big and Boring" program
C. Have no interest in doing singles, doubles, and foam rolling for six minutes
See, as coaches we need to remember that the overwhelming majority of our clients have absolutely ZERO interest in throwing around loads that make the average human accidentally shit themselves. I mean, seriously, I've had tons of clients stare blankly at me and ask why when they've seen other trainers throwing around some serious poundage.
To the average person just looking to "be in shape" - power lifting is about as appealing as helping their friends move everyday. Think about it - if you aren't accustomed to lifting heavy loads as well as exercise in general, then why in the hell would it excite you to get off your couch and move around big barbells for an hour?
This isn't a "let's trash powerlifting rant". I promise. It's a "let's be smarter about how we introduce heavy, near maximum, loads to our clients (and ourselves)."
Let's be clear - strength training near someone's maximum loads is imperative to their overall success as a fitness enthusiast and healthy human body. All clients without medical reason to avoid heavy lifting should lift heavy. Some individuals cannot be exposed to heavy loads due to issues with their heart, brain, blood pressure, structural disorders, neurological disorders, and some respiratory and G.I. conditions.. There also those individuals dealing with specific injuries that may disallow them from training heavy until they are properly healed.
We just need to understand that it isn't appealing to go from the bench to the lifting platform for the majority of people. Moreover, we need to understand that most people have no passion for the slow, methodical grind that is limit strength training, no matter how effective it may be.
We also need to understand exactly WHAT we are achieving when we choose to train strength aspects. There is so much more going on than just "pick heavy things up, put them down". The amount of metabolic, hormonal, muscular, and even skeletal changes that take place during heavy strength training literally fills the pages of textbooks.
Lastly, we need to discover a method of integrating strength work in the normal flow of a training session so that it doesn't bore us, wear us down, or cause us to overlook other important factors of health and wellness.
The Psychology of Heavy Training
It can be hard to remember weight training before you became strong. Our brain does a tremendous job of removing memories of struggle, pain, and overwhelming discomfort as we age in an effort to ensure our survival. We may have faint memories of past occurrences, but few things every reach the intensity of sensation that was present at the time of the struggle.
Just ask a new mother after she finishes delivering a baby in the hospital if she'd like to do it all again. Chances are you'll hear an emphatic, "NO" followed by a few expletives and a desire for pain relief medication.
Then, a year or so later ask again. This time...over a cup of coffee in a kitchen somewhere you'll find this same mother reminiscing on the feelings of closeness with her unborn child, or how amazing it felt to know she was carrying life inside her. She'll have mostly forgotten the agony and pain she felt during childbirth.
And that is how we survive.
So, for many folks who have fallen in love with heavy lifting, and especially the grind of strength training, it can be hard to remember when heavy lifting sucked.
Our memories are chock full of PR memories, moments on lifting platforms, or the ego that comes from knowing the bar bends when you lift it. And even if we never compete or lift truly impressive weight we still find a way to forget how we felt when we couldn't do much at all.
And so we push our way of life, our mode of thinking, and preferred method of training onto our clients, our friends, and to anyone who is willing to listen. We rationalize it by saying things like, "becoming strong was one of the best accomplishments in their life" or "it is more rewarding to train for strength than for our aesthetics".
And they aren't wrong, per se.
But they are bias towards their own experiences and often forget just how much of an ask it is to introduce a general fitness client to heavy lifting. To the person who needs to lose twenty pounds, be able to run a few miles, and really hates the way their body looks - asking them to focus on the technique required to sumo pull a 1 rep max is frustrating at the very least, and irritating and disrespectful at worst.
The general fitness client isn't interested in throwing down a sick PR on their squat, at least not yet. They are interested in looking better, feeling better, and not sucking at all things physical activity.
So, with that as a reflective point let's consider this:
How does the mind of the individual forced down a strength training programming funnel feel about the trainer, the process, and exercise in general?
Even if they get SO MUCH stronger over a 6 to 8 week limit strength cycle - they won't be truly happy unless they achieve the look better, feel better, move better goal that was there in the very beginning.
So we must do better.
As coaches we must respect the goals our clients have and share with them doses, but not much more, of our passions and beliefs until they express that they've become their own muse. A general fitness client will want to sweat a little, work into the burn, lift some heavy stuff, and maybe run a few miles. As professionals we must listen.
Even if we know that strength training does cause some amazing changes in the body...we must consider the clients psychology and needs. Even if we are certain that we can help them lose body fat, build quality muscle, and access greater mobility by training for strength...we must respect their desires up front.
Because let's face it, strength is one of the most important elements in personal fitness.
Why Strength Training Matters for the General Fitness Client
Very few modalities have the ability to impact every major system in the body at once like lifting heavy weights. You can run on the treadmill all you want, but you'll find it incredibly hard to stimulate testosterone release (some studies have shown high mileages to be anti-testosterone). You can do sets of 15 repetitions in your favorite "burn" class and work yourself to chemical fatigue - but you are still missing out the critical type II muscle fibers as well as your ATP/CP metabolism.
It doesn't have to be an everyday event, but everyone should lift heavy. The term heavy is relative, however, as one person's load threshold is going to vary from the next. Not to mention goals, needs, abilities and disabilities, medical clearances, and the psychological strength needed to muster high levels of physical strength.
Here are the 5 most prominent benefits of threshold and limit strength training:
1. Utilize Type II muscle fibers - Your muscles are made up of a variety of fiber types (Type I, Type IIA, Type IIB). These fibers are capable of producing different amounts of force as well as possessing different oxygenation and endurance capabilities. A lighter load moved for more repetitions is predominantly using the type I muscle fibers. This is fine and dandy, BUT we must apply the Size Principle to our training.
The size principle states that the body will recruit muscle fibers in order of smallest to strongest until the demand (weight you are lifting) is met and overcome. Thus, if you only work against resistances that activate your type I fibers, and MAYBE some of your type IIA fibers, then you are completely skipping the most powerful fibers in your body. The type II fibers are critical for your maximum force production, and due to the thickness of the spindles, are often most responsible for the appearance of a tone and taught muscle belly.
Don't want to look like you work out? Then skip this and don't listen to me.
Want to look like you take care of yourself and can kick ass at a moments notice?
2. Usage of the ATP/CP energy pathway - The human body has 3 major metabolic pathways. One is your cardiovascular pathway, a heavily oxygenated metabolism that uses fat as fuel and can power for you more minutes or miles on end.
Another is your glycolytic system. Think of it as that system that you use most of the time when you lift. Utilizing body sugar stored in your muscles, your liver, and in your blood - this system powers your contractions for no more than 2 minutes. It is capable of moving you, but isn't responsive enough to cause dramatic action.
That is where the ATP/CP system comes in. I can bore you with how it works (creatine donates a phosphate to the creation of more ATP), but I'd rather focus on why it matters. It is your burst system. It is how a sprinter wins a 100m race and it is how a powerlifter overcomes all laws of gravity with a bending bar.
If you aren't training heavy, or doing sprints and high fatigue intervals, then you aren't using this system. Skipping a metabolic pathway is limiting your body from burning more calories and operating as a more efficient and potent machine. Why would you do that?
3. Boost in Anabolic Hormones - Everyone needs a bit of testosterone in their body. Women typically have about 1/10th of the levels of most men, but these numbers aren't confirmed as much as they should be. Either way, training with heavier loads stimulates the body to produce testosterone as a response to the fight-or-flight stimulus racing through the system.
Higher levels of testosterone have shown to lead to lower body fat levels, better muscularity, improved sleep, increased sex drive, and even a decreased onset of depression. Again, the dose of which your testosterone will increase in response to limit strength training is determined by your age and gender, so fear not - you will not see the much discussed "bad effects".
4. Increased Bone Density - As we age it is important that we never become frail. From a purely survival aspect - being frail is a quick way to punch your ticket and end your journey here on Earth. All it takes is one bad fall to start a series of negative events with your health and wellness.
Strength training increases the amount of calcium found in bones as well as increases the size of the tendons, muscles, and bony processes for which they attach.
A stronger structure supports a better body. You don't want to look incredible, but fall apart every time you take a tumble. Even as a younger trainee you'll want to be better suited for the demands of sport and life by adding in resistance training at higher loads.
5. Psychological Strength - Pick up a maximum deadlift and you can convince yourself to do just about anything. Seriously.
Heavy lifting is hard, like really hard. You have so many form considerations, the burden of the load itself, and you really don't want to rip a gym clearing fart as you finish your next repetition. Yet, you find a way.
Training is so often a metaphor for life. In this case, heavy lifting symbolizes your ability to overcome seemingly immovable objects to get towards your goals. Start crushing threshold lifts and limit lifts in the gym and tell me it doesn't make you want to kick some ass in other avenues in your life. It absolutely does.
This method of training strengthens the mind as it strengthens the body. Why wouldn't you want this?
By now you should understand that everyone should lift heavy. Yet, as a coach you're also aware that having your client buy a belt, lifting shoes, a bag of chalk, 4 tubs of pre workout, and a box of lacrosse balls just to train with you might be a bit excessive.
Again, as coaches we are supposed to push our clients to do better, to do more, and to overcome obstacles; yet, we must do it in terms that are fair to their lives. We cannot force them down a path that they have no desire to go.
But that doesn't mean we ignore the benefits of limit and threshold strength training. To the contrary, you should initiate a system that allows for you to train a movement with significant load without making your client feel like a burly powerlifter.
3 for 1 Strength Method
So, years ago I was tired of wasting so much time with my clients in between sets of heavier work. Sure, I was doing some correctives or adding in a second move here and there, but I didn't really have a system.
Thus, I created the 3 for 1 Strength Method. This method works in 2 critical ways when addressing the client who wants to work hard, cover all the bases, and have fun. This general population client, or maybe it is you, needs the challenges of heavy lifts, but doesn't want the lifestyle and programs.
Firstly, 3 for 1 applies to training ONLY 1 DAY at threshold or limit strength for every 3 sessions trained. Thus, if your client sees you 3 days a week, then only 1 day each week will be dedicated to a heavy lift, or two.
Secondly, once you are programming the actual session - the 3 for 1 method states: Train 3 complimentary, core, or corrective movements for every 1 heavy lift in an effort to keep the session moving, boost overall fitness, and elevate the training status.
Thus, on deadlift day I may have a client pull for a set of 4 repetitions and then immediately do a set of shoulder presses to boost fitness and promote core extension. Then a plank and unloaded hinge pattern will follow in an effort to coach core tension and promote full hip extension and flexion (in absence of load).
Deadlift 5 x 4
Half Kneeling Shoulder Presses 5 x 10
Plank Hold (RKC) 5 x 20s
PVC Hinge and Thoracic Twist 5 x 10
This way my client can train heavy, but also focus on other things during an hour that they are paying a premium for. This way I ensure my client isn't frustrated by the power lifting method.
It is about giving them what they need, what they want, and redeeming the full value of your session. We must never impose our goals or mindsets on clients, rather we should listen to their wishes and work to make them come true.
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