Most people hire a personal trainer to achieve a goal, not to play. Clients expect to experience change, so failure to achieve change is seen as a failure in service. One way to bridge the gap between goal achievement and fun is to marry the concepts of exercise and play. As trainers, we can foster an environment where clients experience physical, mental and emotional transformation while enjoying an atmosphere that allows them to become lost in the moment. Think of it as “challenge play.”

Creating a Challenge Play Environment

Highly motivating challenge play offers a competitive environment—typically some kind of game. Motivation is generally good in clients if they can measure their success, if they feel they are pushing their bodies to new limits and if they experience novelty within their exercise progressions. Some clients, however, may not enjoy competitiveness and may find challenge play scary, risky and daunting. For these clients, other forms of play would be preferable.

Examples of Challenge Play Games

Let’s look at six categories of games you can use to create challenge play: time trial play, 3D play, mass play, distance play, partner challenge play and group challenge play. The following examples give details on each model and may spark some connections to help you discern which styles could fit specific clients.

Time Trial Play

Definition. A challenge that asks how many of X you can do in Y amount of time.
Physical benefits. Improves speed, agility, quickness, power, anaerobic conditioning.
Considerations. The faster and more capably clients can perform a given exercise, the shorter the time under tension should be—to avoid excessive soft-tissue irritation. For example, clients who can move quickly through a speed ladder send a high level of stress into the plantar fascia. Keep the time under tension to under 20 seconds for advanced clients. Avoid injury with proper exercise progression.
Examples. CrossFit®, obstacle courses, 40-yard sprints, relay races.

3D Play

Definition. A challenge for players who enjoy exploring what the body can accomplish in 3D space.
Physical benefits. Improves coordination, rhythm and timing, various energy systems, connective tissue health, ability to react.
Considerations. Always allow the client to start with at least 5 practice reps of the given movement, to ensure good form. Start with known movements and progress to lesser-known movements (e.g., progress from a front lunge to a diagonal cross-over lunge).
Examples. Coaches Call, Simon Says, Exercise Matrix.

Coaches Call With Dumbbells

Requirements. Light dumbbells (3–10 pounds).

Setup. Identify the space around the participant by using the image of a clock (12 is straight ahead, 3 is to the right, 6 is behind, 9 is to the left). Identify which foot you want the client to bound with.

Execution. The player bounds to the number you call out and then returns to the start position. When the client demonstrates good bounding ability, ask him to drive the opposite hand to knee height while bounding in a given direction. Always have the player bound back to the start position before you call out the next number. The player bounds with the same foot for 30–60 seconds before switching legs.


  • Add more coordination challenge by alternating legs with each bound vs. repeating with the same leg.
  • Vary how far the client must bound.
  • Ask the client to hold the bound on one leg for an added balance challenge.
  • Vary how high the dumbbells are driven.
  • Play with a partner or in a competitive group setting.

For more games, please see “Challenge Play: Connecting Fun and Exercise” in the online IDEA Library or in the March 2013 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.