fbpx Skip to content


Turn Your Gym Into a Playground

Clients and trainers will embrace changing “work-outs” into “play-outs.”

| Earn 1 CEC - Take Quiz

Personal training can be a demanding occupation. If you are anything like me, after a few years of sustained 40- to 50-hour weeks it’s easy to fall into a rut. When our passion loses its fun, adventurous aspects, it can become a job; one where all we want is to get through the day, hoping that clients don’t notice our lackluster attitude. But ask yourself this: “If I am stale, is it possible that my clients are, too?” Could our clients sometimes be in as big a rut as we are?

If our passion has turned into “work,” it is entirely possible that clients view their exercise time as a “work-out.” When clients work a full day, then come to the gym for a “work-out,” are they being set up for success? Is there a way to inject fun back into the training, for both trainer and client? If we can view things differently, it is easier to do things differently. Even though we must stay within each client’s realm of security, there are still ways to achieve a fresh and enjoyable response to change.


Research in many different fields of study provides some very powerful support for the need to continually modify and manipulate the movement demands placed on the body. Read on to review and apply some scientific rationales for “mixing things up.”

The Enjoyment Factor: Neuro-Social Science Research

Enjoyment as it pertains to this discussion is defined as “the using or partaking of something beneficial or pleasurable.” Most trainers probably encounter clients who say that the gym is boring and they are not getting their needs met. In short, these clients are bored and not having fun. In general, exercisers who go to the gym are “working out,” not “playing out.” If we can spruce up the activities a bit and find fresh, stimulating ways to engage our clients, we will make a dramatic impact on the industry, our clients and our businesses.

Confirming anecdotal observations, research also suggests that enjoyment of an activity increases the likelihood of participation. In a pair of recent reviews of physical activity and sedentary behavior, enjoyment was one of the biggest correlates to engagement in physical activity by adults, youth and children (Salmon et al. 2003; Sallis, Prochaska & Taylor 2000). Many trainers’ programming strategies focus on a specific method or protocol. Based on the research, perhaps we should be focusing instead on the program design that will produce the greatest enjoyment for clients—that will address their specific preferences and behaviors, yet still be delivered in a progressive (incremental, organized) manner.

When people enjoy an activity, it tends to “fly by.” With this in mind, a gauge of enjoyment may be the response a client has to the training session, such as, “We’re done already?” or “Wow, that went by quickly!” Contrary to what many people may think, enjoyment doesn’t necessarily mean a simple, easy stroll in the park.

A study conducted on how time passes during activities showed some very interesting results that can apply to our clients (Larson & von Eye 2010). The researchers found that activities went by faster when participants performed complex, novel and skill-requiring activities that engaged them. In this instance, a “complex activity” was defined as something that required the subjects to be engaged both mentally and physically (e.g., a compound exercise that involved lower and upper extremities). “Complex” did not imply attempting something beyond a subject’s ability. Researchers also found that unexpected or unknown activities were associated with accelerated perceptions of time (Larson & von Eye 2010).

When we are exposed to unknown activities, especially ones that fall within our capabilities, we have to figure out how to perform them. This is learning. When we learn, we progress, which gives us the ability to deal better with tasks, especially tasks that may not be exciting (Doyle 2009).

John J. Ratey, MD, author of the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, explains that exercise positively influences many aspects of the brain that can affect enjoyment and pleasure—aspects such as focus and attention, motivation, patience and mood. He also states that more intense and complex exercise stimulates what is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which acts like a wonder drug for the brain, greatly improving its function (Ratey 2008).

Other researchers have noted that learning—of the type that occurs when a client performs a new and/or more complex exercise that fits his preference—activates the reward centers of the brain (Doyle 2009; Laurent 2008). If we can stimulate the reward centers of our clients’ brains, we may be able to create a powerful association between ourselves as trainers, the “play-outs” we give clients and how they feel afterward.

The Movement Factor: Physiological Research
From a physiological standpoint, research tells us the importance of mechanical loading for the health of all our tissues. These include muscle, bone, fascia and the extracellular matrix (ECM), nervous and vascular tissue and, obviously, the brain, as discussed above. On a microscopic level, the presence of mechanical loading appears to be a vital component in initiating many important processes, including gene expression within a cell and protein synthesis within the ECM (Kjaer 2004). This is important for maintaining healthy connective tissue, which is vital for maintaining good movement and decreasing injury risk.

On a more systemic level, the application of mechanical loading and the manner in which the tissues are loaded determine the structural organization of the cells that make up that tissue (Myers 2008; Kjaer 2004). This process has been termed mechanotransduction and simply refers to the many ways by which cells convert mechanical stimulus into chemical activity. For example, the structural arrangement of the trabeculae within bone tissue will form in a pattern specific to the directions and amount of stress placed on the tissue. This is known as Wolff’s Law. The same premise for structural reformation holds true for soft tissue (muscle and fascia—myofascia) and is called Davis’s Law.

Therefore, mechanical loading creates a deformation, or mechanical manipulation, of the tissue. This deformation stretches the molecular bonds within the tissue and creates an electrical charge, known as a piezoelectric charge, through the tissue (Myers 2008). The charge acts as a signal to surrounding cells, communicating the need to make changes to the tissue in that area. This entire process is mechanotransduction. So, in essence, mechanical loading stimulates a change within the molecular make-up of the tissue, producing an electric signal that surrounding cells then interpret as a prompt to take action.

How is this relevant to your clients? These scientific principles can make a massive difference in your training programs. This is really just a case of the SAID (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) principle in action.

The Metabolic Playground

All of the aforementioned research has told us that we need to

  1. infuse enjoyment into our exercise programs;
  2. use new and stimulating exercises—both mentally and physically; and
  3. train with progressive intensities.

With these three factors combined, it’s easy to see how the playground concept comes into “play.” To organize and apply these three factors, you need to create a systemic process—and the “Metabolic Playground” is such a process. In short, the term “metabolic” refers to the demand placed on the body’s metabolism, or the intensity of training. We know there are three major energy systems and, though all three are used, we can focus on one more than the others during exercise. This is achieved primarily by exercise intensity and duration, and the work-to-rest ratio. The term “playground” refers to the sphere of unrestricted pleasurable activity.

The Metabolic Playground is a concept that offers us a different mindset about our exercise programs, which can now become “play-outs” with a purpose. Factors that determine the look and feel of the playground are the client, the desired outcome (goal), the preferences and abilities of the client (and trainer), and the trainer’s creativity. To help with program construction, creativity and delivery, there is a chart that provides a structural framework. This chart, designed by PTA Global and the Gray Institute, is shown in the sidebar “The Metabolic Playground.” In essence, the purpose of the chart and the Metabolic Playground concept is to get trainers to think outside the box.

The Metabolic Playground concept is based on five main categories, taken from the Gray Institute’s functional nomenclature: environment, beginning position, driver, triangulation and action. These categories provide an immediate and observable system for manipulating exercises so that trainers can advance the most basic ones or simplify the most complex ones so they’ll fit any client.

For example, take the seated shoulder press. By running this exercise through the Metabolic Playground system, you can create endless variations. You can change the environment by using a dumbbell or barbell, kettlebell, medicine ball, weight plate or even balloon. For the beginning position, you can opt for sitting on a stability ball, standing or lying prone. The third option is the driver. Instead of doing the press with both hands at the same time, your client can use alternating hands, reciprocating hands or one hand only. And if the client stands with one foot on a slide disc (a driver), you can have her slide that foot back and forth during the shoulder press. Triangulation involves moving in a different direction or plane of motion. You can instruct the client to rotate or press more laterally overhead (as if making a Y with the arms) and/or press more in front of the body instead of directly overhead. Finally, you can alter the action. For instance, you may choose to add another action in conjunction with the shoulder press (e.g., a lateral shuffle through a speed ladder during the press).

These are examples of taking a basic move and making it more complex. In the same manner, you can change the variables of the Metabolic Playground to make the move less complex, depending on the ability level of the participant.

Using this information, you can design programs for your clients that are enjoyable and varied, simply by using your creativity and the five categories to enhance or simplify any given exercise. Apply the playground principles and watch how quickly “work-outs” turn into “play-outs,” both for your clients and for you. Infuse inspiration!

The Metabolic Playground

This chart illustrates a variety of ways to implement and incorporate the five categories of the Metabolic Playground. The options are nearly unlimited.

Source: Adapted from and applied with the Gray Institute’s functional nomenclature and syntax (www.grayinstitute.com).

video webextras!

Here are some “Monday Morning Ready” examples of Metabolic Playground–style exercises. One major aspect of the Metabolic Playground is using the “same old equipment” but in a creative new way. For example:

  • Take a curl bar and place it on its end, moving it in all directions with different foot and hand actions.
  • Place a barbell in a T-bar pivot or in a corner and move it in all directions with different foot and hand actions.
  • Use the weight tree as a piece of equipment.
  • Use a set of steps, each with a different height, to provide a multilevel environment.

Another aspect of the Metabolic Playground concept is using new environments or new, nontraditional pieces of equipment. For example:

  • Use a balloon as a tool to enhance the playground aspect of the “play-out” and create a safe environment for all populations.
  • Use a balloon to enhance the intensity and complexity of a traditional exercise, such as a plank, while making it fun.

For more exciting ideas on how to create your own exercises, please refer to the DVD Creative Total-Body Exercises Your Client Will Love (see www.ideafit.com/fitness-products/creative-total-body-exercises-your-client-will-love“) and Creative Total-Body Exercises (see January 2010 IDEA Fitness Journal or www.ideafit.com/fitness-library/total-bodyexercises-1. When these exercises are linked and/or interjected into some traditional “work-outs,” you can begin to create a whole new environment—a playground—for clients to train in. Here are two examples of “play-outs” using these concepts:



Doyle, T. 2009. Exercise and the brain. http://learnercenteredteaching.wordpress.com/learner-centered-teaching-resources; retrieved June 3, 2010.
Kjaer, M. 2004. Role of extracellular matrix in adaptation of tendon and skeletal muscle to mechanical loading. Physiological Review, 84, 649–98.
Larson, E., & von Eye, A. 2010. Beyond flow: Temporality and participation in everyday activities. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 64 (1), 152–63.
Laurent, P.A. 2008. The emergence of saliency and novelty responses from reinforcement learning principles. Neural Networks, 21 (10), 1493–499.
Myers, T. 2008. Anatomy Trains (2nd ed.). Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.
Ratey, J. 2008. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York: Little Brown.
Sallis, J.F., Prochaska, J.J., & Taylor, W.C. 2000. A review of correlates of physical activity of children and adolescents. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 32 (5), 963–75.
Salmon, J. et al. 2003. Physical activity and sedentary behavior: A population-based study of barriers, enjoyment, and preference. Health Psychology, 22 (2), 178–88.

When you buy something using the retail links in our content, we may earn a small commission. IDEA Health and Fitness Association does not accept money for editorial reviews. Read more about our Terms & Conditions and our Privacy Policy.


Subscribe to our Newsletter

Stay up tp date with our latest news and products.