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Becoming a Master Personal Trainer and Coach

How to effectively teach the "how" and "why" of fitness and well-being.

Master—an artist of consummate skill.

Just a few weeks ago, a client was relaying a conversation she’d had with a friend about how I was “the best” trainer in the area. I thanked her and then thought to myself, “You have got to be kidding. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.” I was generously being viewed as a “master” at my craft. But underneath my confident exterior, I sometimes feel unworthy of the great faith clients put in my abilities as their coach and personal trainer. I wish I had all the answers, but I don’t. That conversation sparked an entire day of contemplating what a “master” is and how we in the fitness and wellness field can become masters at our profession.

When I think of a “master” in a particular field or skill, I think of someone who knows all the answers and possesses an uncanny ability to teach others. Someone whom you totally trust to do what needs to be done. A master is completely proficient and skilled in her trade and has a firm understanding of what she is gifted to do. She teaches her pupils not only how to do something but why.

To become a master personal trainer or coach, you must become an expert at what you teach. You must guide clients in understanding not only how they can succeed in their journey of personal health and fitness but also why what they are doing works. When you arm clients with the “why,” the “how” is not quite as intimidating.

Becoming a master is a lifelong process of growth and learning. The goal of a master is to pass on his knowledge to clients so that they eventually possess the wisdom and physical skill to go it alone. A master personal trainer and coach has five abilities: he knows how to educate, demonstrate, participate, innervate and graduate clients one after another. By creating an outline you can use as your guide, we will examine each of these abilities in the context of working with clients from day one to graduation day. The “how” represents actions and skills that you teach clients, and the “why” represents the understanding and concepts you want your clients to digest. The plan that has worked best for me is to assume my clients know nothing and help them build a firm foundation from day one.

A Master Educates:
Weeks 1–2

Your first step in becoming a master is to become an effective educator. Before you start your clients on a training program, teach them what they need to know to start on the journey of physical health and wellness. Educate them on where they are currently with their health and body weight and teach them about exercise and energy balance.

During weeks 1–2, focus on the following items with clients:

How: Action and Skills

  • Conduct an assessment.
  • Provide clients with an assessment report that shows their results.
  • Offer weekly sessions.
  • Request that they purchase a calorie book/guide.

Why: Understanding and Concepts

  • Review strength training benefits and discuss the clients’ needs based on the latest ACSM guidelines.
  • Review cardiovascular benefits and discuss the clients’ needs based on the latest ACSM guidelines.
  • Educate clients about the calories in protein, carbohydrate and fat.
  • Teach them about individual calorie needs versus calorie intake.

A Master Demonstrates: Weeks 3–5

The second step in becoming a master is to demonstrate to your clients what they need to do to be successful. Now that they have some understanding as to why they need to follow a plan, you can actually show them a plan. Most people learn by example. Model for your clients what they need to know or do.

During weeks 3–5, focus on the following items:

How: Action and Skills

  • Teach them their strength training program, demonstrating each exercise.
  • Talk them through their cardiovascular program, showing them the equipment and how it works. (You can also offer this information in weeks 1–2.)
  • Demonstrate portion sizes with a deck of cards, paper plate, real food, etc.
  • Show them the difference between volume and density of food (i.e., 200 calories of vegetables versus a 200-calorie candy bar).
  • Offer weekly sessions—coaching and personal training.

Why: Understanding and Concepts

  • Explain the difference between muscle and fat (i.e., muscle does not “turn into” fat).
  • Educate clients about the need to eat frequent, small meals to keep the blood sugar constant.
  • Teach the difference between dieting and having to face reality (no, you can’t eat anything you want and be trim).
  • Explain that the more they know, the more power they will have over their wellness.

A Master Participates: Weeks 6–12

The third step in becoming a master is to participate in what your clients are doing by observing, giving feedback, allowing mistakes so that they can make corrections and providing the input the clients need. You must be part of the process for them to learn from you. They need to know that you care and that you are committed to their success.

During weeks 6–12, focus on the following items:

How: Action and Skills

  • Teach new exercises when the old ones have been mastered.
  • Watch and critique form during every session.
  • Show clients how they can use a monthly exercise calendar to keep a log of their workout days (e.g., Monday—30 minutes cardio, strength training program).
  • Teach them to use a simple food diary.
  • Allow e-mails or phone calls between sessions for important questions.
  • Offer weekly sessions—coaching and/or personal training.

Why: Understanding and Concepts

  • Explain that visual reminders, such as an exercise calendar, can keep them on track and motivated.
  • Emphasize that accountability (i.e., to a trainer, coach or friend) is important to create lasting behavior change.
  • Let them know that awareness of what they are doing is half the battle in making lasting change.

A Master Innervates:
Weeks 13–26+

The fourth step in becoming a master is to infuse your clients with energy, desire, power and motivation—in other words, to innervate. If you spread your energy, power and confidence, your clients can catch the bug and learn to draw on that strength and motivation when necessary. Ultimately, build clients to the point where they become self-motivated.

During weeks 13–26+, focus on the following items:

How: Action and Skills

  • Reassess clients on a regular basis—every month, every 3 months or every 6 months.
  • Make sessions fun and purposeful.
  • Provide new training programs every 4–12 weeks.
  • Provide encouragement on a regular basis. Find out how much (personal notes, cards, etc.) is just right for each person.
  • Offer articles that support their efforts.
  • Offer monthly personal training and/or coaching sessions.

Why: Understanding and Concepts

  • Help clients appreciate that proof of continued progress is motivating.
  • Teach them that introducing a new training stimulus at regular intervals will promote continued improvements and help with adherence.
  • Let them know that exercise is the best anti-aging medicine there is. (Show them the research.)
  • Foster independence by reducing the number of sessions per month.
  • Build confidence by allowing them to work on their own.

A Master Graduates:
1 Year or Longer

“The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.” —John Ruskin

The final step in becoming a master is to bring clients to the day of graduation. They have reached a level of proficiency. It is not about completely letting go of your clients, but about leading them to a powerful place of understanding, application and mastery. They have learned all the basics and skills of health and wellness and have the ability and confidence both to adhere to these skills daily and to pass on the knowledge to others. Clients are now at the maintenance level and can return to you (the “master”) as needed for new programs, a brush-up on skills or advanced learning. Some clients will be ready to graduate in 1 year; others may take several years.

After clients have graduated, focus on the following items:

How: Action and Skills

  • Conduct reassessments quarterly
    to annually.
  • Review what clients have learned over the previous year (written and verbal form).
  • Review goals for maintenance over the following months (or until you see them next).
  • Offer monthly or quarterly personal training and coaching sessions.

Why: Understanding and Concepts

  • Explain that an annual review of goals and needs will keep them on track with their goals.
  • Emphasize that a degree of independence is important for long-term success.

A Lifelong Journey

I do not yet consider myself a master. What a high calling to rise to! I picture myself as a lifelong learner. However, I would like to look back on my life some day and see that I did do my job well and that others were bettered by their time spent with me. We all have so much to learn about the human body, the mind, behavior change and the body-mind-spirit connection. I know that I will never fully comprehend all there is to know about the arts of personal training and coaching, but I do understand that to become a master teacher you must narrow down the skills and concepts you most want your students to learn, and then make that teaching process repeatable.

To give the process meaning, teach clients the why behind what they are
doing. Outline your plans to educate, demonstrate, participate, innervate and graduate each of your personal training and coaching students. Patiently work toward becoming a master and leave behind graduates who live out your teachings every day. As Albert Einstein said, “Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.” Leave a legacy.

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