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Recipe for a Winning Training Session

Here are all the ingredients you need to design a successful session for your clients.

Have you ever reached the end of a training session and asked yourself, “Is that all there is?” Do you sometimes feel that you are simply going through the motions with clients? Maybe something is lacking in the way you design your clients’ sessions.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were some formula we could use to keep our clients and ourselves engaged and excited about every session we offer? Happily, there is! If you and your colleagues are consistent in using this formula, chances are you will see a dramatic difference in the success and retention of your clients. In the end, they will be begging for more.

The One That Got Away

Every trainer has had to deal with clients who choose not to continue with their programs. Last time this happened to you, what did you attribute the loss to? In my personal experience and observations, here are some of the most common reasons why clients say they left their trainers:

  • poor assessment process, resulting in overzealous training and increased injury risk
  • failure of the trainer to lay out a thorough “training plan”
  • not being asked to review personal goals on a regular basis
  • feeling that the trainer mindlessly conducted sessions without asking for client feedback
  • not being given appropriate exercises
  • feeling that the trainer was talking more than listening
  • the trainer arriving late for sessions
  • a sense that the trainer was not prepared and kept repeating the same sessions each time

Many of these scenarios are the direct result of trainers feeling too “comfortable” with their clients. So next time you are faced with a termination, be sure to ask yourself if you have fallen prey to any of these pitfalls. One way to determine this is to honestly answer the questions listed in “How Do You Rate Yourself?” on page 37.

The FLLOPI Formula

Whether you are an independent trainer or you work for a fitness facility, using a consistent formula based on a sound protocol is a real boon when designing training sessions.

Sherri McMillan, MS, owner of Northwest Personal Training & Fitness Education in Vancouver, Washington, and Portland, Oregon, has implemented her own formula for staff to follow. “There are phases that we’ve developed that are absolutely vital in assessing and training clients effectively,” she says. “Understanding their goals, current health status, previous injuries, current medications and fitness level, along with a postural analysis—all play a crucial role in the development of successful personal training sessions.”

I’ve developed a similar protocol for training sessions, which I’ve dubbed the FLLOPI formula. It comprises six essential components:

Feedback (F)

Listen (L)

Learn (L)

Observe (O)

Plan (P)

Implement (I)

During each phase of the training process, you will see how the components of the FLLOPI formula come into play. Some phases may involve most of these components, whereas other phases will entail only one or two. In the sections below, the main components are shown in parentheses after the name of the training phase.

Consultations (Feedback, Listen & Learn)

Before you begin training any client, a consultation is a must. A consultation provides an opportunity to get to know your client and understand his needs. Without this information, you have no way of knowing whether your facility has what it takes to accommodate those needs. For example, if the client needs physical therapy instead of training, you’ll need to refer out if you don’t offer that service. To determine how you can help the client, you need to listen and learn about his previous medical/health history, experiences and limitations.

Client expectations also need to be understood up front. Often, unrealistic expectations are the reason that clients move on. If you understand a client’s expectations, you can either explain how you will meet them or help the client set more realistic expectations so there is no disappointment later.

For example, say Sue Smith comes to your facility and says she wants to “get in shape.” Obviously that’s a very generic statement, so you’ll need to learn exactly what she wants to do and—more important—whether she is willing to do what it takes to get those results. If you ask the right questions and listen carefully to the answers, you will learn what you need in order to help your client set practical goals.

See “Sample Questions for Clients” on page 38 for more details.

Assessments (Feedback, Learn & Observe)

Every successful training session is the result of a thorough client assessment. Understanding your client’s fitness level, limitations and imbalances will put you in a better position to create more effective training sessions. This is where feedback, learning and observation become crucial!

“Our clients must complete a detailed health/medical/physical activity questionnaire, followed by a series of specific assessments,” says Ken Baldwin, MEd, coordinator for Purdue University’s undergraduate degree program in personal training. “First, we use the health questionnaire to determine if a client can safely conduct an organized exercise program without a physician’s presence. Second, we perform a detailed posture and body alignment test to determine which specific exercise movements will be taught in a predetermined sequence to focus on correcting postural and musculoskeletal issues.”

Because a thorough assessment is the best window into your client’s abilities, limitations and ultimate success, don’t underestimate its value. Take the time to carefully review your current assessment process and make sure it is comprehensive enough to yield all the information you need to train the client successfully.

Program Design (Plan & Implement)

We all know trainers who wait to see how they feel each day before deciding on the content of their clients’ sessions. Other trainers simply regurgitate the program they use for themselves with no regard for the clients’ goals or limitations. This act of “phoning it in” is a real disservice to our clients.

The mark of a true professional is to focus on each client’s needs from the very start. The minute that a client inquires about your services should be the same minute that you start planning the best course of action for that person. Once a program has been designed, it is also essential to review the content of each session before the client arrives.

Something else may prevent trainers from designing an appropriate program: Sometimes, a client turns up expecting a trainer to kick his proverbial “butt.” Obviously, educated trainers know that the last thing we want is our clients walking out of the club with knuckles dragging on the floor. But some trainers still prescribe to that old “no pain, no gain” style of training.

Any time a client comes to me wanting a butt kicking, I try to steer that person somewhere else or offer some advice about appropriate training. My job is to analyze my client’s health and fitness level and implement a program that is practical, effective and instructive. Anything less is a disservice to the client and to my reputation as a professional trainer.

Training (Feedback, Listen, Learn & Observe)

After you have carefully reviewed the day’s training plan, you also need to get a sense of how the client is feeling once she arrives for the session. This observation is important because if the client is having a “low-energy” day, you need to take that into account during the session.

As we progress with the warm-up phase of the program and then move into the training phase, I constantly ask for client feedback as to what feels appropriate that day. That’s one reason I am a big proponent of the rating of perceived exertion. During each exercise, I ask my client to rate exertion using a scale of 1–10 (10 being highest). This helps ensure that the exercises and drills remain appropriate while still being challenging enough.

If you are not closely observing every move your client makes, you are not doing your job. (How many of you have witnessed trainers talking to someone else while their clients are clearly showing poor form?) Observing carefully, coupled with asking for continuous feedback, will speak volumes to the client; she will see that she is your sole focus and appreciate that you are dedicated to her success and safety.

Follow-up (Feedback, Listen & Learn)

Every time I start working with a new client, I call within 48 hours of our first training session. This personal attention demonstrates my concern and the fact that I am committed to the client’s success.

I ask all new clients how they are feeling, how they enjoyed their first session and if they have any questions. Additionally, I confirm their next appointment and try to motivate them to be active in between sessions.

By remembering to follow up with your clients, you will be able to determine the effectiveness of your training.

A Winning Formula

The most important factor when training clients is helping them to realize their goals. One way to ensure their success is to apply a tried-and-true, consistent formula from the beginning of any new training session. Try out the FLLOPI formula on your clients, and watch your sessions go from wanting to winning!

How Do You Rate Yourself?

When using the different components of the FLLOPI formula, be sure to first ask yourself these questions to help you identify any weaknesses in your existing training sessions.

  • Are you clear on exactly what goals your client has in mind? Are you clear on his past fitness experiences, both good and bad? Through active listening, are you able to discern what the client is willing to do, and whether that is congruent with his goals?
  • Do you perform a complete assessment to determine the extent or limit of the client’s abilities? Through your assessment and client feedback, can you learn whether your client can train safely and successfully with you, or whether she’d be better off under the care of a physician or physical therapist?
  • Do you carefully plan out your client’s training schedule in order to train in a manner that is incremental and safe? In other words, do you implement a program that matches the client’s unique abilities and progress?
  • Do you seek feedback from your client during and after each session so that you can monitor perceived exertion and the safety and effectiveness of the exercises?
  • Do you observe a client’s “body language” so you are better able to adjust or apply the appropriate exercises for that day?
  • Do you listen to what your client has to say?

    Sample Questions for Clients

The number-one reason clients drop out of an exercise program is that their expectations are unrealistic compared to the amount of work they are willing to do. To learn more about your clients’ training expectations, try asking these direct questions before designing a new session:

  • When was the last time you exercised? If it’s been a while, it will be more difficult for the client to make fitness a priority, and you may have a hard time reinstating the practice. This will tell you that you should start off slowly.
  • What were your best exercise experience and your worst exercise experience? Knowing a client’s likes and dislikes will help you design a session that is palatable and sustaining.
  • What type of time commitment are you willing to give to your exercise program? Obviously, clients know they should exercise daily, but the reality is they won’t. So if you can better understand what they’re willing to do, you can help them set more realistic goals.

Nicki Anderson

Nicki Anderson has owned and operated the award-winning Reality Fitness, Inc. since 1991. She is the health and fitness columnist for Suburban Chicago Newspapers and Naperville Magazine, and has authored numerous books, including Nicki AndersonÔÇÖs Single-Step Weight Loss Solution, 101 Tips to Motivate Your Clients and Increase Retention, and Eight Steps to Create a Successful Personal Training Program. Nicki is the 2009 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and she lectures all over the world teaching fitness professionals the value of solid business practices.

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