It occurred to me that there are probably more than a few certified personal trainers out there with no experience who haven't yet trained anybody. This actually make sense because we all have to start somewhere, right? As such, it's possible that some people may be stressing out over what to do during that that very first personal training session. So, what I'd like to do is give people some tips and things to think about so that when they do have that first session ―with their very first client― that they don't get stressed or make any mistakes. Feel free to leave any additional ideas at the end of this, just in case I missed anything.
Certified But Never Trained Someone
Ok, so you have your cert and maybe you are working in a gym but you still (or maybe you are self employed) have not officially “trained” someone yet. Maybe you are about to train your very first client. What do you do? Let me give you some tips to help you get through this first client with flying colors.
You're My First
The #1 thing I'd say is don't tell your first client that “you're my first” because I don't think anybody likes to hear that. If they do ask how long you have been training, you can be honest and tell them that they are “client #1” or if you don't feel comfortable, just say “oh for a while now” and move on.
Here is a basic outline of some things you should do and think about during that very first session.
The Paper Work
It's at the initial the meeting is when trainers traditionally have clients complete the forms ―waiver, health history questionnaire, PAR Q etc. This will help you get to know your client and their health issues.
This can also help tell you how you should train them. If you work at a gym, they will educate you about the types of forms that new personal training clients should be completing prior to training.
Sometimes you will be issuing this paperwork and other times it will be the salespeople who sign them up. It depends on the gym. Either way, you should see the health history form and PARQ before you train someone.
Don't take the word of the salesperson that the new client is “OK” because they may not qualified to understand the form or ask the appropriate follow up questions. Ask to see the health history form.
Remember bad stuff can happen in the gym. For more see:
While people usually fill out the health forms in front of the fitness trainer at the first session, this doesn't have to be the way it's done. For example, you could give them the forms to complete at home. They could then bring the forms to the first training session ―or drop them off sooner, for the trainer to review on their own.
Giving them the forms to take home with them, prevents people from asking “am I paying for this session?” as they spend most of their first session time filling out forms.
Review the forms and if anything doesn't make sense, ask the client about it when you see them personally. Usually, face to face conversation leads to greater insights about why the client is seeking help from a personal trainer.
What About Fitness Testing?
At the first meeting, trainers sometimes perform some fitness testing on the client ( muscle strength tests, body fat tests, muscle endurance tests, etc.)
While there is nothing wrong with this, I usually recommend waiting to the following week to do fitness testing because this will reduce the amount of muscle soreness they experience (DOMS). See this post for a review of DOMS.
Remember, since most of the people who hire trainers will be beginners, everything they do, is likely to cause some DOMS. I've known people who had difficulty walking for a week after fitness testing.
Since most clients will be beginners, it's safest to do a total body circuit program with them. Circuits will keep them moving, maximizing their time in the gym ―and maximizing the calories they use. Super sets are not needed for beginners because they are too aggressive.
There should be no chest day, leg day or any kind of split routine in beginners. Avoid ballistic moments like those involving kettle balls or plyometrics too. These programs are often too aggressive and can increase injuries.
Tip. See my Resources page for more on how to make exercise programs that are safe and effective.
How Long To See Improvements?
Remember, if you are dealing with a beginner, the first 8-12 weeks of strength improvements are due mostly neurological changes. This means most of the strength improvements they see are mostly due to how the nervous system is adapting to exercise.
The muscles are adapting too but they dont account for much of the strength improvements. Its mostly in the brain and nervous system. As such, there is no need to go heavy or do a lot of sets with beginners when it comes to strength training.
How To Progress Them
As a general rule of strength training, when progressing clients who are beginners, first increase the number of reps they can do, then sets they can do, and then the amount of weight they can lift.
In other words. First increase the reps. Then increase the sets. Then (and only then) increase the weight.
For example, when a client can lift a weight 15-20 times for one set, then build them up to 2 sets of 15-20 reps. When they can perform 3 sets of 15-20 -reps, then it would be appropriate to increase the weight. This will slowly increases the volume of exercise performed.
While some may think this is overly conservative, by following this procedure, they will be reducing the possibility of over stressing or injuring ligaments or tendons. Ligaments and tendons – because they have a poor blood supply- do not get strong as quickly as muscles do. As such, they are more likely to be injured.
Following my approach will also reduce the chances of rhabdomyolysis occurring.
Tip. For upper body exercises, increase weights by 2-5 pounds. For lower body exercises, increase weights by 10-20 pounds. Use these as general guidelines when increasing the weight your clients lift as you progress them.
For general health and fitness as well as beginners, train the big muscles first and then smaller muscles. For example its usually more appropriate to work legs, chest and back before biceps and triceps.
What About Special Populations?
In the world of fitness, “special populations” refers to anyone who has a health issue that needs to be considered when creating an exercise program. For example, people with heart disease, high blood pressure and people confined to wheelchairs are classified as special populations.
In my book, Personal Fitness Training Beyond The Basics I give you easy 1 page outlines on how to train a variety of people with special needs. This saves you from reading a whole chapter on different diseases and conditions.
As a general rule, always do cardio first as this will give people a nice warm up and it's generally safest for people with health problems. For “healthy” people who have no medical issues, it really doesn't matter if you do strength first or cardio first – as long as the client warms up first.
Here is the book that has all the guidelines. This book will make your job easier. Remember, most of the people who hire you will not be “healthy.” They will have some problem.
Tip. You can't train “sick” people the way you train “healthy” people. People with special health issues (diabetes, high blood pressure etc.) need to be trained according to the exercise guidelines for those special health issues.
Who Will Be Your Client?
Remember that women, over the age of 40, who are beginners, will make up most of your clients, so be aware of their needs and fears about exercise. This is also the group that I suggest you spend your time marketing to the most. If you don't know how to get clients, my fitness marketing book will easily show you how to do it whether you work in a gym or are self employed.
What About Supplements?
When people ask you about supplements (and they will), I recommend you refrain from specific recommendations. Personal trainers can give general information about nutrition and supplements (if they know about this stuff) but since most of us are not doctors or pharmacists or dietitians, giving specific recommendations means we are working outside the scope practice of personal trainers.
Remember, while I always feel you should have personal trainer insurance, even this might not protect you from lawsuits stemming from supplement recommendations.
At least one person has died from supplements that were recommended by a personal trainer.
See my SupplementClarity.com for more on supplements.
If scheduling clients back-to-back, its best to for the personal trainer to give him/herself about 10-15 minutes of time between clients. This gives the trainer to get the necessary paperwork, wash hands or do anything else needed to get ready for the second client.
Learning The Ropes
When you first work at a gym, ask the manager/owner if you can “shadow” their smartest personal trainer for a few weeks. This will give you an idea of what to do and not do and it will also give you confidence for when you train people alone.
Note. the smartest personal trainer is not always the person who makes the most money each pay period. Don't let the manager just start tossing clients at you either if you don't feel ready. Read this to see what happened to this new personal trainer on her first day on the job.
For more info, see my post, How to Find a Personal Training Mentor.
Is Interval Training Always Best?
Forget almost everything you've heard about interval training (HIIT) when it comes to beginners because it may be too hard for them to do. When in doubt, use “steady state exercise” with beginners.
An example of this is walking on the treadmill for 30 minutes at 3mph. They call it steady state because the intensity does not change. Build the exercise foundation first with steady state exercise before increasing the intensity with interval training.
How Hard Are They Exercising?
When it comes to cardio, use the Talk Test and/or the RPE Scale (Borg scale) to determine how hard people are exercising. I feel this is better than target heart rate which requires you to some math and doesn't work for everybody – like people who take certain medications.
For more insights, read the personal trainer interviews I do because I always ask those people about their first client, what they did and wished they could do if they did it all over again.