Update 3/10/20. You are a new personal trainer but you have no first-hand experience training anyone. You know the book stuff but not the hands-on stuff you need to design a safe exercise program. Since many certifications occur online these days I think a lot of people have this question. I'm not only an exercise physiologist, I also train personal trainers too. To help you become a better personal fitness trainer, here are some basic guidelines and tips so that when you have your first session ―with your very first client― that you don't get stressed or make any mistakes. If you have any questions leave them below and I will try to help you.
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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.
Who Will Be Your Client?
Women, over the age of 40 who are also novices are the people who mostly hire personal fitness trainers. Because these people will make up most of your clients, you need to be aware of their needs and fears about exercise. Some of these women will have health issues like high blood pressure, diabetes or injuries. You will need to know how to help them.
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.
If scheduling clients back-to-back, its best 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.
You're My First Client
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.
New Client Paperwork
The initial meeting is when trainers 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 documents new personal training clients fill out prior to starting exercise sessions.
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 look over the health history form and PARQ before you work with new clients.
Don't take the word of the salesperson that the new client is “OK. The salesperson may not qualified to understand the health history forms, or PARQ 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:
Some clients may not want to complete health forms on the day of the first personal training session. So, another option is to give them the documents 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.
Tip: Giving new clients the health documents 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 health forms and if anything doesn't make sense, ask the client followup questions at the first training session. Often, a face to face conversation leads to greater insights about why the client is seeking help from a personal trainer.
Should You Do Fitness Testing?
At the first training sessions, personal trainers may perform some fitness testing on the client. There are fitness tests for:
- muscle strength
- muscle endurance
- cardiovascular endurance
- body fat
These are sometimes called the 5 components of general fitness
I usually suggest waiting for the following week to do fitness testing because this will reduce the amount of muscle soreness they experience (DOMS).
Tip. since most of the people who hire personal trainers are beginners, everything they do, is likely to cause some DOMS. Fitness testing can cause muscle sorness.
Why Do Circuit Training
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. Advanced exercise programs like supersets, split routines or HIIT training are not needed.
How NOT To Train Beginners
When personal training sessions with novices, do not do advanced exercise programs like:
- chest day
- arm day
- leg day
- chest and back day
These exercise programs are TOO much for people just starting an exercise program. They can cause muscle soreness as well as rhabdomyolysis.
Want to know how serious rhabdomyolysis can be? Listen to this podcast episode and this podcast episode.
Avoid ballistic moments like those involving kettle balls or plyometrics too. These programs are often too aggressive and can increase injuries.
How To Design Exercise Programs Safely
For general health and fitness as well as beginners, train the big muscles first and then smaller muscles. For example its usually more logical to work legs, chest, and back before biceps and triceps. We are only as strong as our weakest link. For example, triceps are involved in bench pressing. So if you worked triceps before chest, then this would limit how well they performed the bench press exercise.
A general rule of strength training is when progressing clients who are just starting out,
- first, increase the number of reps they can do
- then sets they can do
- and then the amount of weight they can lift
For example, when a client can lift a weight 15-20 times for one set, add 1 extra set and try eventually do 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. Progressing clients this way will slowly increase the volume (amount) of exercise performed.
How Much To Increase Weights?
How much weight do you use to increase the load lifted? While this depends on the client, as a general rule
- upper body exercises: 2-5 pounds
- lower body exercises: 10-20 pounds
By following this procedure, you will be reducing the possibility of overstressing or injuring ligaments or tendons. Ligaments and tendons – have a poor blood supply- and do not get strong as quickly as muscles do. Overstressing ligaments and tenons too quickly increases the risk of overuse injuries.
This will also reduce the chances of rhabdomyolysis occurring.
Cardio First Or Strength First?
For “healthy” novices 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. That said if you do cardio first, it can serve as a warm-up and it's generally safest for people with health problems.
Tip. You can't train “sick” people the way you train “healthy” people. People with special health issues (diabetes, hypertension, etc.) need to be trained according to the exercise guidelines for those special health issues.
How Long Until Exercise Improvements Are Seen?
Remember, if you are dealing with a beginner, the first 8-12 weeks of strength improvements are due to 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 don't account for much of the strength improvements. Improvements in strength are occurring mostly because of adaptations 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 exercise.
What About Special Populations?
Special populations refer to anyone who has a special need with exercise. Examples of special populations include:
- People with diabetes
- People with HIV/AIDS
- Those with high blood pressure
- Paraplegics and quadriplegics
- People with developmental disabilities
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. You don't need to read a whole chapter to get the answers. They are all there for you.
What About Dietary Supplements?
When people ask you about supplements (and they will), I suggest you refrain from making specific recommendations. Personal trainers can give general information about nutrition and supplements (if you know about this stuff) but since most of us are not doctors or pharmacists or dietitians, giving specific recommendations means your working outside what your trained to do.
At least one person has died from dietary supplements that were recommended by a personal trainer.
See my SupplementClarity.com for more on supplements.
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 a 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.
I just got certified and was at a loss where to start. Everyone online just says ‘create a program’, but not how. And gyms aren’t taking on new PTs due to lower capacity or are closed entirely due to COVID, so in person training is impossible.
Your article refreshed a lot of what I studied and helped break it down into a practice application. Beginners/overweight women over 30 is my target niche and this will help so much. Plan to get your book too, for specialized training health issues.
If you have more tips, tricks and advice on beginner PTs please share. I will read them all!
Hi Amanda, I have written several things about personal training on my website. I have some podcasts too about it. Here’s a thought. Would you care to come on my podcast to discuss getting certified and how to make it better, to better prepare people for life in the real world? Just a thought. Let me know. I took a look a look at your website and one thing I noticed is your About page doesn’t have your bio. Provide a summary of who you are. Don’t ask people to email you for your bio. Also, add a picture too.
Let me know about the podcast.
Sorry about the bio. It’s the generic web page that ISSA provides for free when you get your CPT and I cannot change anything on there except my contact info. A bit disappointing to say the least.
If you think joining the podcast would be beneficial, I am all in. I do work a full-time job outside of fitness so I have to keep that in the back of my mind when I decide to participate in things. Plus 2 kids in virtual learning to police. Fun times.
I did progress today and registered for an LLC here in Maryland. So a step in the right direction.
Amanda, that’s great I will email you directly to discuss a time to do the podcast. I did not know ISSA gave graduates a website. That’s good to know.
I have to correct my earlier comment. I was eventually able to update my website. It was quite a process just finding out how, but I did it.
Glad to hear you could update your website 🙂
Joe provides an excellent class with wonderful knowledge. Please read as much information as you need to decide on a course and know that Joe provides an excellent environment.
Joe Cannon says
Thanks Kevin, that’s very nice of you to say 🙂
This article was very practical and helpful! Thank you so much!!!
Joe Cannon says
Hailey, you are VERY welcome 🙂